March 2, 2021
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Just what we need … a train pulled by unicorns and staffed by dodos

There used to be a children’s television programme about Billy Bean “who built a machine to see what it could do … he made it out of sticks and stones, and nuts and bolts and glue”.

Billy was full of incredible schemes, as crazy as his machine.

I wonder if Alister Jack was ever a fan. He’s a British Conservative MP who is Secretary of State for Scotland and he would like to see a rail tunnel built from Scotland to Northern Ireland.

Yes, Scotland … where the biggest political party wants to leave the United Kingdom. And Northern Ireland … where the second biggest political party also wants to leave the United Kingdom.

Yes, Northern Ireland … where politicians have been arguing for 20 years about the route of a road to Derry. And Scotland … where a university research team found that infrastructure projects cost seven times as much as similar schemes throughout Europe.

If I were a British taxpayer, I would be afraid, very afraid.

It wouldn’t worry Billy Bean, of course. But then sticks and stones and glue don’t cost very much, whereas Mr Jack’s wonderful scheme  would involve more than 40 km of tunnel, a means to link the British and Irish rail systems which run on different tracks, and a  route that avoids Beaufort’s Dyke. That’s a 300-metre deep trench that lies under the Irish Sea and is full of munitions dumped after World War Two.

Mr Jack’s tunnel  has been commended by Britain’s High Speed Rail Group (HSRG) to a committee now reviewing rail links across the UK.

If I were a British taxpayer that would make me even more afraid.

This HSRG  – under several names and across the lifetimes of several governments – has been trying to establish a high speed rail link between London and Birmingham. After decades of fruitless argument, preparation work on the project is finally underway. It was intended to be opened to passengers in 2026, but the launch date has now been put back to somewhere between 2028 and 2031.

In 2015 the British government budgeted £56bn for this project. A review last year put the cost at £106bn (about €120bn) making it possibly the most expensive rail link in the world.

Does that sound familiar?  If the British planners need a helping hand they should call in the folk behind our National Children’s Hospital, then they could really shatter all the spending records.

The railway review committee  has been told that the cost of a tunnel from Scotland would be in the region of €22bn.

So, €120bn to drive a straight railway from London to Birmingham but just €22bn to build a tunnel across the Irish Sea, equip it with a rail track, place infrastructure at either end – and, oh yes, avoid Beaufort’s Dyke en route?
If you believe that, then you probably believe there are little men who’ll help you pay for the project from pots of gold they keep at the end of rainbows.

Simon Hoare, another Tory MP, has his doubts about that.

“The trains could be pulled by an inexhaustible herd of unicorns overseen by stern, officious dodos,” tweeted Mr Haore, who is chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland Affairs select committee.” A PushmePullYou could be the senior guard and Puff the Magic Dragon the inspector.”

The tunnel is intended as a way of easing problems caused by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. A cheaper and more practical solution might be to give everyone a set of wings and let them fly across.

Or they could ask a giant to build a causeway, so we could walk over. There’s a precedent for that, I believe.

Alternatively, we could work on easing some of the restrictions that have arisen from the protocol. But where’s the challenge there? That’s not the way Billy Bean would have done it.

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