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July 25, 2023

Tunnelling between islands 

Mention the word ferry and thoughts immediately turn to CalMac’s ageing fleet, cancelled sailings and the damage that has been inflicted on island economies and, in the main, most of this ferry attention has focused on the Hebridean islands.  But ageing fleets also bedevil services in the Northern Isles too, with seven of the eleven ferries operating between Shetland’s islands more than 30 years old. And it is Shetland’s communities that are taking the lead and seeking a solution. With £100k already raised to assess the feasibility of digging tunnels between islands, this is clearly a serious proposition. 

Brian Donnelly, The Herald

Island communities have launched a crowdfunding campaign to pay for the first phase of exploration into the building of subsea tunnels to replace ferries.

People on Unst, the UK’s northernmost inhabited island and neighbouring Yell, separated by the Bluemull Sound, want the link to go to Shetland, which is currently a 20-minute ferry journey away.

However, reliability is an issue with seven of the 11 boats serving Shetland now over 30 years old.

A major campaign to explore the potential for subsea tunnels connecting Yell and Unst with the Shetland mainland has now been launched by the Yell and Unst Tunnel Action Groups

The groups, which have already secured more than £100,000 to kickstart the project, are looking to raise additional funds to commission geo-technical investigations as well as socio-economic and environmental impact work relating to the creation of the tunnels between Unst and Yell and between Yell and the Shetland mainland.

They are aiming to raise a further £50,000 by September 12, with almost £1,000 pledged in the first few hours of its launch.

The campaigners said: “Currently all traffic to and from Unst and Yell is significantly hindered by restrictions due to ferry timetabling and suspension. This is a significant burden for businesses in terms of cost and time.

“In addition, it limits mobility of labour, as well as impeding access to services, including emergency medical care, and social opportunities located off the islands.”

Graham Hughson, Yell Tunnel Action Group chairman, said: “This project seeks to lay the foundations for the tunnel infrastructure which, if successful, will breathe new life into the island communities, support economic and social development, and deliver a reliable, sustainable transport system for residents, businesses, and visitors.

“Our first challenge is to demonstrate if this scheme is technically and economically achievable, and we are very grateful to Unst Spaceport and North Yell Development Council, each of whom have committed £50,000 to the project.

“This financial support is a truly positive demonstration of how the islands’ business community view the potential connection of Unst and Yell to the Shetland mainland by subsea tunnels.”

He continued: “Today we are launching the campaign to add to this funding and take the critical first step in realising our vision for unrestricted travel to Yell and Unst.

“By creating this permanent infrastructure, we can help the islands achieve their true potential, fostering economic prosperity, improving the quality of life for islanders, and promoting a sustainable future.”

The groups view the continued reliance on ferry services as becoming increasingly unsustainable and believe that it is a serious financial commitment for businesses operating in the islands.

Unst and Yell tunnel action groups said they are very grateful to Unst Spaceport and North Yell Development Council, each of whom have committed £50,000 to the project. Left to right: Steven Henderson, YTAG; Andrew Nisbet, North Yell Development Council; Alec Priest, UTAG. (Image: YTAG, UTAG)

Alec Priest, Unst Tunnel Action Group chairman, said: “Space is often restricted for both commercial and passenger traffic at peak times, services are subject to suspension for weather, technical issues or crew availability, and running costs, maintenance, and replacement of vessels comes at an increasingly high price to the public purse.

“The proposed subsea tunnels will not only mitigate these challenges but also provide a reliable and efficient transport solution that ensures uninterrupted connectivity, irrespective of weather conditions.

“Additionally, this initiative will, in the long term, significantly reduce carbon emissions, promoting environmental sustainability and preserving the natural beauty of the islands.

“We are appealing to the generosity and foresight of individuals, organisations, and businesses to donate towards the initial phase of geo-technical, socio-economic and environmental investigations.”