The government is looking into a possible link between Scotland and Northern Ireland – nicknamed ‘Boris Bridge’. It turns out there are plenty of similarly outlandish infrastructure projects being discussed around the world
Imagine it. You wake up in Dumfries and Galloway, pop on your clothes, get in the car and drive half an hour to have breakfast – in Northern Ireland.
This scenario may just become a reality, if the Government decides to go ahead with the ambitious ‘Celtic Crossing’ (or ‘Boris Bridge’) project that is under consideration.
A reality check. The idea of an Irish Sea bridge has been around for some time, and has always been shelved due to the logistical hurdles – namely, a 300-metre-deep trench loaded with unexploded Second World War munitions, bang in the middle of the proposed crossing; the busy shipping traffic; the vast depth of the strait; and the extreme weather that whips up in the Irish Sea.
There have been plenty of other ambitious bridge proposals in the past, including one from Dover to Calais, a bridge connecting Africa with Asia, a crossing from Russia to Japan and – perhaps the most outlandish of them all – a vacuum tunnel connecting London to New York.
Here we take a look at some of the more unique bridges and tunnels that have been proposed, and dissect whether they could ever become a reality.
A bridge across the Channel?
The bridge connecting Scotland with Northern Ireland isn’t the first ambitious infrastructure project backed by the Prime Minister.
We all know about the doomed Garden Bridge, scrapped in August 2017. But just a few months later, in January 2018 the then-foreign secretary Boris Johnson said it was “ridiculous” that there was only a single railway connection between the United Kingdom and France.
“We are establishing a panel of experts to look at major projects together. Our economic success depends on good infrastructure and good connections. Should the Channel Tunnel be just a first step?” he asked.
Truth be told, this is nothing new. We have been talking about a possible bridge connecting the UK and France for over 100 years now. In a 1889 edition of the Spectator, an article mentions engineers who were discussing the possibility of a “huge iron bridge across the Channel”. A blueprint of the bridge was presented at the 1889 World Expo in Paris.
“A detailed plan to this end … was read on Tuesday before the Iron and Steel Institute, assembled this year in Paris. The success of the enormous spans used at the Forth Bridge, 130 ft. above high-water mark, have shown the project to be by no means impossible,” read the Spectator report.
“The scheme, if ever carried out, will cost, it is calculated, about £34,000,000, a fact in itself enough to condemn the proposal, when a system of steam ferry-boats could be managed at a tenth of that sum.”
More recently, under the Thatcher government, detailed plans were drawn up for a 21-mile toll bridge, suspended above the Channel at 219 feet. The project came with an estimated price tag of around £3 billion and was calculated to raise a possible £220 million in tolls each year (drivers would have been charged £5.60 and lorries £8 for the pleasure of driving across it).
Most engineers agree that the bridge could be built, in principle; however, there are concerns about the cost of the project, and the possible knock-on effect that the bridge would have on shipping lanes in the Channel.
How long would it take? The shortest distance across the Channel is from Dover to Cap Gris Nez – 20.7 miles, to be precise. Assuming a sustained driving speed of 70 mph (and no traffic) you would be able to complete this crossing in just under 18 minutes.
Will it happen? Don’t cancel your Eurostar ticket just yet.
A bridge from Africa to Asia?
After three decades of discussions, in 2016 Saudi Arabia’s King Salman announced that a bridge connecting Saudi Arabia to Egypt would be built over the Red Sea.
“I agreed with my brother, his Excellency President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to build a bridge connecting the two countries,” Salman proclaimed.
“This historic step to connect the two continents, Africa and Asia, is a qualitative transformation that will increase trade between the two continents to unprecedented levels.”
Details of where, exactly, the bridge would be built were not disclosed. At the closest point, Nabq in Egypt (just north of Shark el-Sheikh) is only 10 miles from Ras Alsheikh Hamid in Saudi Arabia.
A similar project crossing the Red Sea, from Djibouti to Yemen, has been proposed in the past. It was initially due for completion late 2020, but things have gone quiet in recent years (not a surprise given the volatile situation in Yemen).
How long would it take? It is a mere 10 miles between Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Driving at the national speed limit of Saudi Arabia (86 mph) you would be able to complete this crossing in just 7 minutes.
Will it happen? Quite possibly. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt are making the right sounds, but work is not yet underway.
A tunnel from London to New York?
Perhaps one of the more dreamy proposals is a tunnel running beneath the Atlantic (and indeed much of south of the UK), from London to New York.
Early suggestions date back to Michel Verne, the son of Jules Verne, who published a story named Un Express de l’avenir (An Express of the Future) in Strand Magazine in 1895. Another suggestion came in 1913, in a novel by German writer Bernhard Kellermann – this was the basis for the film Der Tunnel, which came out in 1933 with an English version in 1935.
Later, Robert H Goddard, the engineer credited with creating the first liquid-fuelled rocket, was issued two of his 214 patent requests for the idea. Arthur C Clarke, co-writer of 2001: A Space Odyssey, also mentioned the idea of intercontinental tunnels in his 1946 short story Rescue Party and in his novel The City and the Stars, published in 1956.
In April 2004, Popular Science released an investigation suggesting the idea of a transatlantic tunnel may not be as fanciful as previously thought, comparing the project with laying transatlantic pipes and cables along the seabed.
So how, exactly, would it work? In the Sixties, some began to theorise the idea of a vacuum tube, through which vehicles could travel at speeds of up to 5,000 mph. More recently, the MIT researcher Ernst Frankel and Frank Davidson developed the idea of a high-speed transatlantic tunnel. In theory, they said, with a perfect vacuum you could reach speeds of 1,200 mph.
The latest version of “vacuum travel”, Hyperloop, has been open-sourced by Elon Musk and SpaceX, encouraging others to develop the concept as a “fifth mode of transport”. At the moment, the top speed for a hyperloop train is predicted to reach around 760 mph.
How long would it take? The distance between London and New York is 3,466 miles, as the crow flies. Assuming a sustained driving speed limit of 70 mph for the entire journey, it would take 49 hours. You’d need a fair few underwater service stations to make that bearable. On a high-speed train travelling at 160 mph, it would take a more palatable 21 hours. On a hyperloop train, travelling at 760 mph, it would take 4.5 hours.
Will it happen? Not in our lifetime.
A tunnel from Europe to Africa?
A crossing from Europe to Africa? On this prospect, Telegraph Travel’s Chris Leadbeater writes: “It is one of those concepts that has always seemed theoretically possible, so short is the distance between A and B – and yet, equally, like a flight of fantasy from a Jules Verne novel, unrealistic beyond the realms of imagination.”
The first proposals for the tunnel emerged in 1979, and then in 2018, the Strait of Gibraltar tunnel, linking Spain with Morocco, was put back on the table. However, two years on there are no signs that the €8 billion tunnel will be made any time soon – financial and logistical complications mean that it remains, for now, the stuff of engineering fantasy.
How long would it take to cross? The tunnel would span 24 miles, so you would be looking at around 20–30 minutes to complete the crossing in a car and considerably faster by train.
Will it happen? Due to the various logistical and financial hurdles, it currently seems unlikely.
A bridge from Malaysia to Indonesia?
The Malacca Strait Bridge is a proposed crossing from Telok Gong in Malaysia to Rupat Island in Indonesia.
The idea has been put on, and then swiftly taken off, the table a number of times since it was first first proposed in 1996 by former Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. The economic crash thwarted that first attempt, but in 2006 a mega project plan was proposed once again – with the Exim Bank of China agreeing to finance 85 per cent of the total cost. Alas, soon after the plan was once again abandoned.
In 2013, the Malacca State Government revived the plan once again, but it hit another wall when the Indonesian president said a different bridge – connecting Sumatra to Java – was his priority.
Now, after years on pause, there is no plan of action from either Malaysian or Indonesian officials.
How long would it take to cross? The bridge would be 30 miles long, meaning that if you drive at the Malaysian speed limit of 68 mph it would take 26 minutes. If you drive at the Indonesia speed limit of 62 mph, it would take you 29 minutes.
Will it happen? The project has been proposed, and fallen through, a number of times now. Interpret that as you will.
A bridge from Russia to Japan
Back in 2017, it was reported that Russia and Japan were in “serious discussions” on a link between the two countries.
The proposed 28-mile bridge would connect Cape Crillon on the Russian island of Sakhalin to Cape Soya, on the far northern tip of Hokkaido island in Japan.
“We are seriously offering Japanese partners [the chance] to consider the construction of a mixed road and railway passage from Hokkaido to [the] southern part of Sakhalin,” said Russia’s then First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. “At the same time, we are close to starting our part of the job, which is extending the railway to the Pacific shore and the construction of [a] passage of the same complexity from [the Russian] mainland to Sakhalin.”
Excitingly for Britons, this would in theory allow for rail travel all the way from London to Tokyo. Pondering on this prospect, Chris Leadbeater writes: “It would be an odyssey requiring patience and fortitude, rolling along the tracks of eastern Europe, almost certainly via Germany and Poland – and probably via Belarus (though you might also go via Lithuania and Latvia) – to pick up the Trans-Siberian at the Yaroslavsky terminus in Moscow.
“It would continue across the torso of European Russia, via cities with vaguely familiar names like Nizhny Novgorod, Kirov and Perm. It would pass through the Urals, and delve into Asian Russia, pausing in Yekaterinburg, where the last tsar and his family were executed in July 1918. It would spear through Siberia, via Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk. It would wave goodbye to the rail-line down into Mongolia just beyond Ulan Ude, and to the junction with the line to Beijing at Tarskaya. And it would trundle into Vladivostok, where the Pacific breaks on the dockside, six-and-a-half days and 5,772 miles after leaving the Russian capital – where an onward adventure in search of Sakhalin, Hokkaido and Honshu would begin.”
Another possible tunnel, first mooted back in the 1890s, would span the Bering Sea from Siberia to Alaska. Tsar Nicholas II even accepted a proposal for this in 1907, but it never came to fruition due to the outbreak of the First World War. Every decade or so the idea re-emerges, before slipping back into the sea.
How long would it take? The crossing from Russia to Japan would be around 28 miles. You could drive it in 24 minutes. On a high-speed train travelling at 160 mph, you would be in Japan 10 minutes after leaving Russia.
Will it happen? It is not under construction, but Putin has repeatedly suggested his intention to build the bridge.