I’VE got a guilty secret. I’m a bit of a train anorak. It’s not fashionable. Admitting that you like trains is, in the eyes of some, rather like admitting that you’re middle aged, you live with your mother, and the only meaningful relationships you’ve ever had are with your cat and with an inflatable toy you bought on the internet. Men, and it’s usually men, who are able to glance at a passing train and confidently identify it as a Class 334 Electric Multiple Unit are seen as somehow less masculine than a Jeremy Clarkson clone who coos over a motor car and is able to discern the year of manufacture of a German sports car by the shape of its headlights.

Given my love of all things public transport related, it was fascinating to read in the press this week that there is a proposal to build a combined road and rail link across the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland, connecting Portpatrick in Galloway with Whitehead at the head of Belfast Lough. A fixed link between Scotland and Ireland would be a huge boost to the economies of both countries, opening up trade and putting the otherwise neglected far South West of Scotland in the centre of a major route. It would almost be worth the huge expense and the massive engineering challenges of constructing it just to call it the Sheuch Crossing.

It’s a beautiful fantasy, but back in the real world it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever see a bridge connecting Scotland and Ireland, and will never be able to catch a train from Glasgow Central or Edinburgh Waverley that offers a direct service to Dublin. It’s not just that the construction of a bridge has been described as challenging. That’s challenging in the same way that it would be challenging to build a bridge across the Firth of Clyde using nothing but papier maché made from old copies of Scottish Unionist newspapers. It could be done. It’s just not going to be easy, even though it would possibly be the first instance of something positive for Scotland coming out of the Unionist press.

One of the major difficulties is the geology. The North Channel might not be quite as wide as the English Channel, but it’s considerably deeper. Facing the Rhins of Galloway between Scotland and Ireland runs Beaufort’s Dyke, a sea trench which reaches more than 250 metres in depth. It’s the immense depth of the Channel that makes a tunnel impractical, and makes even a bridge exceptionally difficult.

There are additional problems. There would have to be massive investment in infrastructure to upgrade the road and rail connections, especially on the Scottish side. The main roads leading to Stranraer are narrow, twisting, and unsuited for the amount of traffic that they currently have, never mind the increased traffic that would be generated by a fixed link. The single rail line from Ayr to Stranraer would have to be upgraded and electrified, and the rail link from Stranraer to Dumfries reinstated. Additionally there’s the problem that Irish trains, uniquely in Europe, run on a broad gauge track which is incompatible with the standard gauge used in Britain and most of mainland Europe.

The biggest problem however, isn’t the lack of infrastructure. It’s not even the geology. It’s the bombs and the chemical weapons. It’s the legacy of Scotland being used for generations as a rubbish tip for the poisonous and lethal waste products of British militarism.

It’s estimated that the Beaufort’s Dyke contains over a million tonnes of munitions, dumped there by the War Office and its successor the Ministry of Defence between the end of WW1 and the mid 1970s. As well as conventional weaponry like artillery shells, the Dyke was also used as a dumping ground for incendiary bombs containing phosphorus which ignite on contact with air, as well as chemical weapons, including mustard gas, tear gas, phosgene, and the nerve agents tabun and sarin. And that’s just the stuff they’ll admit to.

The dumping zone extends off the coast of the Rhins of Galloway, along the full length of the peninsula. According to a report in the New Scientist magazine in 1995 (https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14820042-200-danger-from-the-deep/), the sailors responsible for carrying out the dumping were not always too careful about ensuring that they were depositing the weaponry in the deepest part of the Channel. Munitions litter the sea floor. Some of it was dumped just a few hundred metres offshore. Some of it ended up in unauthorised dumping sites to the north or south of Beaufort’s Dyke, and some was even dumped in the shallow waters of the Solway Firth.

During the 1990s, British Gas dug a narrow trench 60 cm wide across the North Channel in order to build a gas pipeline connecting Scotland and Ireland. Although British Gas denied responsibility, according to the Scottish Office’s Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen the works involved disturbed the weapons scattered on the sea floor, and an estimated 4500 WW2 incendiary bombs were washed up on Scottish shores. For decades the MoD denied the existence of the weapon dumps. Even after the incendiary bombs were being washed up all along the coast as far as Saltcoats and Gigha, Islay and Arran, and all points in between, the MoD continued to deny any involvement. It was only after a meeting of Scottish MPs with the then Defence Secretary that the MoD owned up. Digging a trench 60 cm wide dislodged thousands of bombs, one of which injured a child near Campbeltown, the amount of work needed to construct the foundations for a bridge could potentially dislodge many more and release chemical agents and toxic waste into the waters of the Channel.

There are other dumps of old bombs, radioactive waste from the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, and banned chemical weapons, around Scotland’s coasts.

One of Scotland’s major roles in the UK is as a dumping ground for waste and as a host for nuclear weapons. The cost of cleaning up the seabed and removing Britain’s military waste is likely to run into untold millions of pounds. The MoD claims that there is “no evidence” that the waste is harmful as long as it is left undisturbed. But there’s only no evidence because no one has looked for it.

Britain’s toxic legacy is preventing Scotland developing to its full potential. So instead of a bridge we should invest in some cutting edge technology to link Scotland and Ireland. We could call it a “floating motorised short bridge” and have lots of them connecting the Scottish and Irish coasts at frequent and regular intervals. Or, if you want to be boring about it, call it “better ferry services”.