Simon Calder: The Man Who Thumbs All Day

The benefits of bridge-building
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The Independent Travel

Oil at $70 a barrel is bad news for almost everyone in the travel industry. Yet the fact that the price of fuel is approaching that of bottled water is very good news for the producing countries. And though you may be furious at paying £1 a litre for petrol and and a £30 fuel surcharge for each long-haul flight, earnings from oil can make travel easier.

Look at Norway: communities that were once divided by mountain ranges or stormy seas are now linked by incredibly elegant and expensive tunnels and bridges, paid for by the nation's hydrocarbon wealth. Since the worldwide oil windfall is growing by the day, some of the planet's strategic missing links could soon take shape.

In Orkney, a feasibility study has just been launched into linking some of the islands with Orkney's mainland; there is also talk of a nine-mile link with mainland Scotland. That is probably a tunnel too far - as is a prospective connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet the distance between the Kintyre Peninsula and the Antrim coast is relatively short, and the benefits in rejuvenating life in more marginal parts of the UK are huge.

THE BRIDGE between mainland Italy and its largest island looks as though it is going ahead. If the suspension bridge over the Strait of Messina is finally built, you may be able to travel by train from any station in mainland Britain to ogni stazione Siciliana - each Sicilian station - without resorting to a ferry. The journey, via Paris and Rome, will be about 10 times longer, and more fun, than the three-hour flight on Air Malta or Ryanair.

What some travellers crave is a Marrakesh Express from Europe that departs from London via a tunnel to North Africa.

You can already travel by train to Algeciras in southern Spain. All that is needed to seal the link to Morocco's most magical city, then all oases to Timbuktu, is a connection below the Straits of Gibraltar. In theory, this project could be realised in a decade or so. Plans are already in place for a 24-mile tunnel from Punta Palomas, west of Gibraltar, to a point near Tangier.

Economically and politically, though, the tunnel is probably much further away. Billions of euros would need to be pumped into such a venture; it could not possibly pay for itself. Currently, the short stretch of sea between Spain and Morocco is crossed by ferries and flights, but these carry far less traffic than crosses the English Channel.

The tunnel would certainly boost trade and generate a lot of extra journeys. Its regional benefits, though, would not extend far beyond the northern half of Morocco and perhaps coastal Algeria.

THE CHANNEL Tunnel links western Europe's biggest and richest city, London, with the runner-up, Paris, and the rest of the Continent. Even so, it has been a financial disaster for the investors who backed it. Many of those investors are Japanese, who have their own white elephant of a tunnel: the link from Honshu, the main island, to the northern outpost of Hokkaido. This rail tunnel is even longer than the Channel Tunnel and has proved even less successful financially.

Yet it does no harm to dream. More far-fetched possibilities for fixed links include a tunnel through the seismically active terrain between the North Island and South Island of New Zealand, and a bridge between mainland Tanzania and the luscious isle of Zanzibar.

THE PLANET'S biggest missing link is between the two greatest continents, Asia and North America. Homo sapiens crossed the Bering Strait from Russia to Alaska when an ice bridge linked Siberia and North America.

The idea of a fixed link was first mooted in the 19th century by none other than Joseph Strauss, designer of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. A couple of convenient islands would reduce the need for tunnelling or bridge-building. Obstacles include everything from environmental worries to the difference in gauge between Russian and American railways. Oh, and the small detail of winter temperatures of minus 50C. Less Marrakesh Express - more dire straits.

COMINGS AND GOINGS

If you've met some happy people on their yachts at the Med's resorts, they're probably the bosses of holiday firms and airlines, who have enjoyed their most profitable August for years. One exception is Sir Rod Eddington, former boss of British Airways, who again found himself at Heathrow dealing with a shutdown in operations.

But Eddington was cheered to the rafters at a dinner this week, with rival broadcasters joining forces to create a farewell video. ITN's Mark Austin interviewed the BBC's Jeff Randall, followed by Channel 4's cricket team - who proceeded to tease the Australian mercilessly about his nation's performance on the pitch. Meanwhile, another airline chief was being taken prisoner. Monarch Scheduled's HQ is in Luton, but many of its operations are based in Three Bridges, just south of Gatwick. The airline's managing director, Tim Jeans, travels between them on Thameslink.

On Tuesday, the train was late. By the time it reached Gatwick, a cunning plan had been hatched: to omit the remaining stops to Brighton. But the passengers were kept in the dark. "We went through Three Bridges at around 80mph," says Jeans. Brighton is worth a visit at almost any time, but possibly not when you have an airline to run.

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