Stad Ship Tunnel: Rough Weather Shortcut

Artist’s conception of high-speed passenger ferry in tunnel. Credit:

Canal tunnel through Stad! The front-page headline of the Friday, September 11, 1874, edition of Nordre Bergenhus Amtstidende was sensational. The newly established newspaper, just two years old and the first in the Norwegian county now named Sogn og Fjordane, may have been trying to attract readers. But the problem was real and the solution proven.

Stad is a peninsula jutting out to the northwest from the mainland on the west coast at latitude 62° 10’ N. It blocks an otherwise sheltered coastal shipping route. Moreover, it marks the dividing line between the North Sea to the south and the Norwegian Sea to the north. Accordingly, the ambient weather is fierce and the seas hazardous 90 to 110 days a year. Understandably, mariners sailing along the coast feared Stad, as around it currents were strong, waves fierce and shipwrecks frequent.

Canal tunnels had been built elsewhere to overcome terrain hindrances. In 1679, the 541-foot-long Malpas Tunnel, Europe’s first, had been built on the Canal du Midi in France. In 1847, a 640-foot-long canal tunnel was completed in Weilburg, about 70 km north of Frankfurt in Germany. In 1848, a longer 3,118-foot tunnel was completed on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal near Paw Paw, West Virginia. That said, the logistics and costs of building a still-longer tunnel through Stad were unknown. It seemed destined for the limbo of unrealizable ideas.

Interest in the tunnel resurfaced during World War II, when the occupying Germans considered building it so their vessels wouldn’t be exposed to Allied attack at sea when rounding Stad. But the war ended without the tunnel being built. It could have been built had the war been longer. But it most likely would not have been built, as ships in these waters had become more vulnerable to aerial bombing than to naval engagements in open sea. In the post-war years, there were neither funds nor incentive sufficient to support further promotion of the tunnel.

Locator map; red circle around isthmus location of tunnel.


Three decades later, in 1985, public and private sector organizations joined to found Lottlag (LL) Stads Skipstunnel (“Stad Ship Tunnel Partnership”) to promote the tunnel project. The location for it was chosen, slightly more than one mile through the isthmus linking Stad to the mainland, from Vanylvs Fjord west to Molde Fjord. (Confusingly there are two Molde Fjords; the other, larger one is further north on the coast, near the city of Molde.) The rationale of the tunnel was straightforward: It would improve safety at sea, as perilous voyages around Stad no longer would be necessary. As the sea is the backbone of transport along the west coast, public transport could be upgraded with improved regularity in cargo services and a new year-round high-speed passenger ferry service between the coastal cities of Stavanger and Trondheim. Various spinoff effects were envisioned, as improved transportation would boost the economies of communities along the coast.

The project was large — the current version is budgeted at NOK 1.7 billion ($300 million) — so governmental funding would be necessary. Initially, the Government decided not to fund the project but to support other initiatives to mitigate the maritime hazards around Stad, including relocating coastal fairways farther out at sea and improving wind and wave forecasts to mariners. These two incentives remain the basis of today’s maritime safety measures, now augmented with newer safety systems including all ships over 300 gross register ton (GRT) now carrying Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS) gear and increasingly satellite-based Automatic Identification System (AIS) ship tracking equipment.

By 2002, the tunnel was on the national agenda, as an item in the National Transport Plan (NTP), a ten-year plan revised every fourth year and valid from the year of a Parliamentary election. In turn, that brought in the Concept Research Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, the Ministry of Finance’s watchdog on major public investment projects, charged with ensuring that public funds are not wasted.

The NTP processing triggered several studies by private organizations and government agencies. The conclusions of the studies varied, particularly in their assessments of the socio-economic benefit of the tunnel. There was no consensus sufficiently convincing to warrant funding of the project. Moreover, with time, the envisioned tunnel had grown. The initial proposal of 1985 called for a tunnel for ships up to the size of a 600-GRT trawler. By 2001, ship size had increased to 5,000 GRT, the size of a naval frigate, and by 2007 to 16,000 GRT, the size of a Hurtigruten (“Express Route”) coastal passenger ship. The Norwegian Coastal Administration suggested that two of the sizes be considered further, a “small tunnel” for 600-GRT ships and a “large tunnel” for 16,000-GRT ships. So the next NTP called for further evaluations.

The decision-making remains a tug-of-war between local administration and the national government. It has been going on for 28 years and has resulted in myriad, expensive studies. Over these years, safety at sea has been dramatically improved, so safety arguably now is a lesser issue in the rationale for building the tunnel. That said, should the Parliamentary decision favor the Stad tunnel, 140 years will have passed from its first proposal to the decision to build. Though long in human terms, in the world of tunnels, it’s not unusual. The Anglo-French treaty of 1986 included the decision to build the Channel Tunnel first proposed 233 years earlier.

Further reading: There are many publications on the Stad Ship Tunnel in Norwegian and a brief entry on it in the English Wikipedia. The Concept Research Programme leader, Prof. Knut Samset, has written a reference textbook in English on the principal goal of the Program to more thoroughly understand the crucial phases of major projects: Early Project Appraisal, Making the Initial Choices, Basingstoke, UK, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, 286 pages hardcover, ISBN 978-0-230-27324-5. The Stad Ship Tunnel is discussed in Chapter 19 on Strategy Analysis.

Stad Ship Tunnel was first published online on January 26, 2013 by The Foreigner. Reproduced by kind permission.

M. Michael Brady used to be Mountain Gazette’s Dateline: Europe correspondent. He lives outside Oslo, Norway, where he works as a translator.