Norway is looking into building underwater bridges

Like this. Image: Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA).

Cool summer breezes drifting over the clear-blue water; snow-covered picture-perfect scenes in winter. It’s hard to imagine how life amongst Norway’s fjords could be anything other than perfect.

But, being us, we’re going to find something to complain about, and it’s probably going to be do to with transport.

The central artery of Norway’s western region, connecting the towns of Kristiansand in the south and Trondheim in the north, is Highway E39. It’s 1,100km long, which is about twice the length of the A1, but it takes a phenomenal 21 hours on average to slog along its full length.

That’s because it crosses seven major fjords, some as big as 5km wide and 1km deep, as well as several other smaller fjords, channels, or inlets. These can only be crossed by ferries, if the seas are kind, or helicopter, if they’re not. When you think about such vast obstructions, 21 hours suddenly doesn’t seem quite so incomprehensible.

You see the problem? 

The solution? “Underwater bridges”, sitting under 30 to 100 feet of water, with vertical tethers attached to the seabed, or to floating pontoons on the water surface. They’re technically known as submerged floating tunnels (SFT), and if employed along the E39 route they could cut travel times from 21 hours to 11 hours. For a route along which one-third of Norwegians live, that’s not to be belittled.

It sounds a deranged, futuristic idea, but it’s not really new at all. In 1865, an MP by the name of Sir Edward James Reed suggested the idea in Parliament as a means of crossing the English Channel. He was a naval architect and author alongside being an MP, and served as Chief Constructor of the Royal Navy from 1863 to 1870.

As a sign of the times, the idea failed to curry much favour in the Commons: MPs were worried it could be used as a method of invasion from the Continent, and his idea of a cross-channel submerged floating tunnel never got much further than fantasy.

The concept has since cropped up in various other guises, none of which is yet to get beyond the blueprint stage. In the 1980s, it was suggested as an option for a crossing of the Messina Strait between mainland Italy and Sicily, and it’s cropped up in Norway as a suggestion for projects including Vallavik, Høgsfjord, and Storfjorden.

The difference is that this time it might actually happen.

A cutaway of how the SFT would look. Image: Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA).

Arianna Minoretti, from the Norwegian Public Road Administration (NPRA) who are managing the project, says that each fjord has unique “characteristics”, and each will need its own solution. But she particularly likes the SFT option – or “hidden” bridge, as she calls it – and says it is particularly attractive as the technology and resources to construct such a tunnel have only just become feasible.

The SFTs also have the advantage of being, as the name implies, submerged, thereby not impacting on the beautiful landscape of the fjords in the same way as a regular bridge inevitably would.

For a lucky few who spend their time nipping across the fjords of Norway’s west, relief may be in sight. But what about the rest of us who don’t have the good fortune to live in such idyllic, if geographically drastic, climes?

A paper published in 2007 by a Norwegian academic and a group of engineering consultants looked into the possibility that such tunnels could be “extended perhaps by a factor of 100 or more” into imaginatively named “Very Long Tunnels” (VLT).

The primary purpose of such Very Long Tunnels? “To serve the developments in long distance travel in MAGLEV”, the super-fast train system by which trains float above the tracks using magnetic levitation (hence, Maglev).

The vision is that eventually such VLTs could be the conduit of a Trans-Ocean Tunnel (TOT) connecting either side of the Atlantic Ocean. One of the most obvious routes would be between London (or the British Isles more generally) and the eastern seaboard of the United States to New York.

One small step for Norway, then, and one giant leap for the future of intercontinental transport.

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.