How Victorian engineers almost built an underwater tunnel between Scotland and Ireland

Over a hundred years before the Channel Tunnel opened, providing an undersea railway link between France and the UK, a Victorian engineer dreamed up a daring plan to build a tunnel linking Scotland and Ireland. Those plans were forgotten...until now.

That's one of the coolest finds from the new book Mapping the Railways by British railway historians Daniel Spaven and Julian Holland. The pair discovered the plans, dating to 1890, by engineer Luke Livingston Macassey to build a railway tunnel beneath the North Channel, a relatively narrow stretch between the two British Isles just north of the Irish Sea. The roughly twenty mile long tunnel would have linked the Scottish town of Stranraer with the city of Belfast. You can see an image of of Macassey's plans below, sent to us by the book's publishers.

How Victorian engineers almost built an underwater tunnel between Scotland and IrelandS

The idea of building undersea rail tunnels goes back almost as far as railways themselves. The Channel Tunnel between France and Great Britain was first proposed way back in 1802, although it took 192 years for the idea to be realized. It's thought that Macassey was the first engineer to seriously put forward the idea for a similar tunnel linking Ireland with Great Britain.

To find out more about this fascinating but forgotten part of engineering history, we spoke with Mapping the Railways authors Daniel Spaven. He explained to us that this was just one small part of a very busy research schedule that went into making the book, so there's still a lot more for future historians to uncover about the proposed tunnel.

First, we asked Spaven about the general history of the plans, and whether they were ever seriously considered. Here's what he told us:

A number of people made proposals, and Macassey reviewed them – considering, but then dismissing, a solid causeway, a bridge and a ‘submerged bridge', concentrating instead on four tunnel options. This certainly looks to have been more than idle speculation, but the scheme would have depended on Government funding, at a time when the railways were in private ownership.

According to Macassey's prospectus, he saw the tunnel as an ideal mixture of speed and comfort, rather astutely observing that there is "one thing in which time has made no change in the public mind, and that is the dread of sea sickness… They would undergo the fatigue of a hundred miles trip by rail rather than risk the horrors of twenty miles in a rough sea." But he concluded that there simply weren't enough potential travelers to justify the millions of pounds needed to pay for such a project, and the fact that he admitted as much in the prospectus itself pretty much ended any chance that such a tunnel would be built.

But there's still the question of whether the plans themselves could have worked. Here's what Spaven told us:

I'm not an engineer, so am not in a position to comment authoritatively about feasibility. However, at anything up to 31 miles in length the tunnel would have been a vastly greater project than the biggest underwater railway tunnel actually delivered by the Victorians in Britain – the four miles of the Severn Tunnel (which is open to this day, carrying trains from London and Bristol to Cardiff and Swansea).

As for who Luke Livingston Macassey actually was, Spaven told us that he was in his time a well-respected engineer, with his most lasting contribution being a water supply system that brought water down to Belfast from the outlying Mountains of Mourne. According to Macassey's entry in the Dictionary of Ulster Biography, the clean water greatly reduced the incidence of deadly cholera outbreaks in the city, and it remains a cornerstone of Belfast's water supply to this day.

Of course, the undersea tunnel still hasn't happened, for a variety of economic and political reasons - such a tunnel seemed far more feasible back in the 1890s, when Ireland was still a part of the larger British Empire. The fact that Britain and Ireland use slightly different railway gauges also makes connecting the two systems inordinately tricky, though there are places in Europe that manage to deal with that particular challenge.

For more on this and other forgotten but awesome parts of Britain's rail history, do check out The Times Mapping the Railway by David Spaven and Julian Holland, published by Collins.

Top image of steam engines by P.A. King on Flickr.