For decades, governments in Spain and Morocco have sought to bridge the 14 km sea crossing separating both countries. So near, but also, so far.
According to a press conference held by a Spanish planning group in Algeciras in May, a plan to build an underwater tunnel crossing the Strait of Gibraltar was taking shape.
Rafael García-Monge Fernández, president of the Spanish Society for Fixed Communication through the Strait of Gibraltar (SECEGSA), said that while previous feasibility studies had cast doubts on the project, a new assessment by the University of Zurich and Herrenknecht, the world’s largest tunnel construction company, argued otherwise.
The next step would be to build a tailor-made prototype tunnel borer, estimated to cost 32 million euros, according to local newspaper Diario de Cadiz.
The most financially practical solution, according to the new assessment, would be a 38 km tunnel connecting Punta Paloma in Spain with Malabata in Morocco. According to the proposal, 27 km of the tunnel would be under water with a maximum depth of 475 metres and a slope of 3 per cent. The tunnel would initially be designed only for use by trains.
The idea for a crossing was first proposed in October 1980, and both Spain and Morocco got to work. Each country created its own institution to focus on planning. Spain established the Sociedad Española de Estudios para la Comunicación Fija a través del Estrecho de Gibraltar (SECEGSA) and Morocco the Societe dÉtudes du Detroit de Gibraltar.
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But until now all the projects have been held up due to complications. In 1995, during a colloquium held in Seville, it was decided that a tunnel would be the best option. Two pilot projects were commenced and a 600-metre tunnel was built in Tarifa, Spain and a 216-metre tunnel was constructed in Malabata, Morocco.
However, the existence of two large gaps in the middle of the Strait postponed the project. The gaps had already been filled by soil movement, but the density of the material made it impossible to tunnel through, so a new route was needed.
The new study by Herrenknecht and the University of Zurich argues that it is possible to tunnel through the same route with eight new tunnel borers.
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While funds to complete the project have yet to be earmarked, SECEGSA hopes the project will boost the trans-European network of trade routes and increase tourism. SECEGSA points out on its website that travelling from Marrakech to Barcelona would take less than eight hours on high speed trains, compared to more than 14 hours by conventional trains.
However, the other side of that is not so promising: according to Ángeles Alastrué, SECEGSA’s CEO, at the moment it is impossible to set a budget for the project, when this happens Spain and Morocco will probably need to beckon other countries — and of course the EU — to foot the bill with, and it is unclear if the project’s deadline will be set for 2040, 2050 or 2060. (El Confidencial, in Spanish)
Besides, at its current proposed length, the 3 per cent exit angle of the tunnel is deemed too steep for a rail line to operate at high speed, which would be the main point of constructing it. A flatter curve at angle of 1.2 per cent — generally considered to be the maximum for technologically advanced train services — would solve this, but a longer tunnel would be needed.
And… needed? Given that the area is already well served by ferries and boats connecting Algeciras in Spain with Tangier Med, and that the latter port has been receiving lavish funding from the Moroccan government to reach its present cargo capacity of 8 million containers, an underwater train link may complement this flourishing harbour’s efforts, but also take work away from it or, worse, make it end up as a white elephant. (The Daily Telegraph)
Today, it still seems possible that one day an undersea tunnel could connect Spain and Morocco — although it may also be a completely doable plan only when seen on the drawing board.
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