Shetland has not traditionally been a popular destination among train spotters. But all that could be about to change for the SIC has conjured up an innovative solution to the headache of how to connect disparate rural communities – an underground tube system spanning the length and breadth of the isles.
It is understood the idea – erroneously placed on the local authority’s website earlier this week before swiftly being removed – was first floated by bright-thinking transport officials in January. It has now developed into a key component of a £400,000 study into subsea tunnels recently approved by councillors.
The Shetland Times can exclusively reveal that the ambitious plans would see six separate tube lines built, including a north-south route stretching from Sumburgh to Norwick and an east-west line spanning Foula and Skerries (see map). If the so-called “Shetland Tube” project is to succeed in linking each of the community’s populated islands, at least eight subsea tunnels will be needed.
In a move likely to go some way towards healing divides within the Whalsay community, its underground line will stop at both North Voe and South Voe. As part of ongoing efforts to regenerate Fetlar, the island would get its own direct underground connection with Lerwick.
Indeed, the scheme appears to knit together a whole raft of existing council initiatives – just the sort of “joined-up thinking” which officials are being urged to foster under chief executive Alistair Buchan.
Building on the sterling work of the economic development unit’s Marvin Smith in modernising broadband provision, the tube system would enable the council to integrate power, phone and internet services into a single, easy-to-maintain network.
The underground also makes good sense from multiple engineering perspectives: the most expensive parts of tunnels to build are “access” and “egress” points, but replacing these with pedestrian access points could save up to 70 per cent of the construction cost.
In addition, a special underwater model of the pioneering Ditch Witch machine used to lay a fibre optic cable between Lerwick and Maywick will be used to help build the vast network of tunnels which the “Shetland Tube” would require.
With the activities of the average Shetlander causing 22 tonnes of carbon to be spewed into the atmosphere every year, the all-electric new railway system would dramatically slash the isles’ carbon footprint. Reclaimed rock would be commandeered for the Viking Energy windfarm, eliminating the need for any borrow pits.
A purpose-built commuter line would run between Lerwick and Sullom Voe, with ever-philanthropic oil and gas giants BP and Total understood to have generously pledged £500 apiece towards the construction cost.
Mr Buchan was much too busy working on his improvement plan to discuss the idea yesterday. But sources close to the local authority’s most senior official said Mr Buchan was “decidedly miffed” at having failed to persuade officials to examine a tunnel/rail link with his native Orkney.
A number of senior councillors – including convener Sandy Cluness – are thought to be so energised by the scheme that they are reconsidering plans to retire at next year’s election in order to oversee its implementation.
Controversially, National Trust-owned Fair Isle appears to have been excluded entirely from the plans – prompting outspoken South Mainland councillor Allison “Flea” Duncan to hit out at what he coined a “brazen example of pro-North Isles bias” within civic circles. Asked by a reporter whether the prospect of a door-to-door connection from his home to Mareel would be of any consolation, Mr Duncan spontaneously combusted.
Jim Brown, director of the planned film Between Weathers, said the underground link would eliminate the logistical challenges of shooting a movie in Fetlar. If it is completed in time, he may even incorporate a getaway train into a nail-biting closing sequence.
Report by Pilar Lofo with additional reporting by A N Agram