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Unions fight for Norway's Stad Tunnel project

5 May 2021

Andrew Draper reports on a campaign by Norwegian unions, which has successfully pressured the government into providing critical infrastructure to prevent disasters at sea

Norway’s maritime trade unions have given a big collective push to continue work on the 1.7km Stad Tunnel which, when completed, will provide safe passage and allow shipping to bypass an area of sea (Stadhavet) that is the most dangerous stretch along the Norwegian coast. Severe weather and rough seas are a regular feature.

The tunnel is claimed to be the first of its kind in the world for ships up to 16,000 tonnes.

It was near Stad that the drifting Dutch vessel Eemslift Hendrika was rescued in early April in heavy seas and towed to safety in Ålesund. Waves up to 15 metres and strong winds threatened the vessel, which had suffered engine failure, was listing and had shed cargo. The Coastal Authority feared it would capsize and spill oil.

The unions said it was time the government acted on the tunnel. They demanded action in the face of foot-dragging by the centre-right government of Erna Solberg and a request that funding be allocated in the 2021 state budget to get the project going. Hans Sande, director of the Norwegian Naval Officers' Association, told the Telegraph there is a broad coalition of support for the mountain tunnel, including all the maritime unions, businesses and local politicians.

'We're supporting the project, but it’s not that we have any deciding influence on the matter,' he said. 'The whole maritime industry has been supporting it.'

Mr Sande added that tourism would benefit and safety for seafarers be enhanced. 'I think it’s a unique project… And as for tourism, it's also something that can attract tourists to Norway and will have benefits to it. From our point of view though it's the safety of seafarers that's important.'

The Kråkenes lighthouse, just south of Stad, is the meteorological weather station on the most stormy days, which can last 45-106 days per year. The combination of sea currents and subsea topography creates particularly complex and unpredictable navigational conditions. Very high waves come from different directions at the same time and can create critical situations – and heavy waves can continue for days once the wind has died down.

A ship tunnel has been discussed for over 100 years and the first plans were drawn up in the1870s. The unions say Stad has always been regarded as problematic and even the Vikings would drag their vessels over land to avoid that particular bit of sea. And they were ace sailors.

The government has left the industry somewhat exasperated with repeated reports and studies. Last June, the unions sent an open letter to the government stating: 'The Norwegian Coastal Administration’s report, which was a response to quality assurance 2 and the increased construction costs that were presented there, has been known for a year. Many of the largest and most reputable companies in the country were used to prepare the report. Many measures were outlined to save on costs. The report documents that the tunnel can be built within the framework used in the National Transport Plan. We’re reacting to a lack of confidence in the work that has been done. We’re also reacting to the time for ordering new quality assurance, which to all intents and purposes must be carried out by the same company that presented quality assurance 2.'

Mr Sande said the Maritime Forum cluster, which represents shipowners, yards, suppliers and all maritime unions, has thrown its weight behind the tunnel project.

The government had not planned to include funding for the tunnel in its 2021 budget, but following the intervention of the unions, it changed its mind.

They argued that as the Storting (parliament) had decided to start construction in the current parliamentary term, start-up funds had to be allocated to the state budget for 2021.

'The construction of the Stad Ship Tunnel has broad political support locally, regionally and in the Storting. The business community is united behind the demand to secure the most difficult and dangerous stretch of sea along the coast. The Stad Ship Tunnel is seen as one of the most important measures to get more goods from road to sea.

'The Stad Ship Tunnel is the only major public investment project in maritime transport. More than 20 studies have been carried out. The project has been quality assured far more than comparable projects, in terms of technical implementation, costs and utility value.'

They went on to say that the time for action was overdue. The Storting would have to take responsibility for this if the government did not follow up on the Storting’s earlier decision about the National Transport Plan.

Negotiations followed between the government and the opposition Progress Party, and resulted in NOK 75m being allocated to phase one work in this year’s state budget.

The Norwegian Coastal Authority has now received the go-ahead to begin work from the government. Initially, that means appropriating properties on land near the proposed tunnel, setting up a project organisation and preparing a competitive tender before actual construction work can being next year.

  • The transport ministry presented detailed plans to the Storting, which passed legislation on 11 May to enable the tunnel to be built. The Coastal Authority said in a statement that the project had long been ready, and that it was ‘proud and a bit humble’ that it was now allowed to build the world’s first ship tunnel.

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