Boris Johnson wants a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland. But he’s not the first to suggest it

The bridge would stretch between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side. Image: Google Maps.

It wouldn’t be a Boris Johnson political intervention if it didn’t involve a massive and ultimately highly unlikely bridge. As London mayor he sunk £46m of taxpayer money into the failed Garden Bridge. More recently, one of the few things he did in his two-year stint as foreign secretary was proposing a “Channel Bridge” to link England and France.

So, true to brand, his most recent spat with the Prime Minister over Brexit saw Boris Johnson suggest an “Irish Bridge”. But, classic Boris as it is, this idea of an Ireland-Great Britain link far predates his most recent attempts to grab the limelight.

In the late 19th century a British company applied for funding to survey the Scotland-Ulster link in the hopes of building a tunnel. The idea was then raised in parliament during World War One, as a means to ensure a link between the two islands in spite of the menace of German U-boats. The then prime minister, Henry Asquith, shot the idea down in a single sentence; describing it as “hardly practicable in the present circumstances”. I don’t get to say this often, but I’m with Asquith on this one. Huge spending on an infrastructure project of dubious value at a time of national crisis would hardly have gone down well. Boris, are you listening?

Yet even in peacetime this grand idea has always been scuppered by Beaufort's Dyke, a marine trench 50km long, 5km wide and around 250m deep. It had been a difficult challenge for engineers to overcome even before the MoD dumped over a million tonnes of unwanted munitions in it after World War Two. This military flytipping meant a 1995 attempt at building a pipeline caused unexploded bombs to start washing up on the Scottish coast – leading British Gas to wisely re-route. So any further underwater construction (which a bridge would require) would have to tread softly so they don’t, erm, blow it.

Despite the so-called “ticking timebomb in the sea”, the plan has been floated numerous times throughout the 20th century by politicians and engineers on both sides of the sea. As a unionist party, the DUP is particularly keen because it would strengthen ties with the mainland UK. It was in the party’s 2015 manifesto and highlighted when it looked like they might be kingmakers in a hung parliament.


Earlier this year Alan Dunlop, a professor of architecture at Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University, breathed scientific credibility to the project, citing how the technological advancements currently used in the Norwegian Coastal Highway could be applied to bridging the North Channel. His proposed bridge between Scotland’s Portpatrick and Bangor or Larne on the Irish side could cost up to £20bn, which, while a fraction of the £120bn estimated for the Channel Bridge, is still not exactly pocket change.

And this takes us to the present day. With his blend of infrastructure populism and political wrangling for DUP support, Boris Johnson has put his name behind the project. At the same time he bangs the Brexit drum, which means the UK’s economic stability is far from secure. Maybe this was his plan all along; the old Lib Dem approach of promising the world because you will never be in a position to deliver anyway.

If that’s the case, then this is just another blip in the long history of proposals for an Irish Bridge.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.