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The £100m money pit: Communities isolated by A83 Rest and Be Thankful closures call for an urgent replacement for Scotland’s road to nowhere

© Andrew CawleyLocals are frustrated about continuing problems on the Rest and Be Thankful road in Argyll
Locals are frustrated about continuing problems on the Rest and Be Thankful road in Argyll

Communities isolated by Scotland’s worst road have demanded a new route is approved urgently before another winter of closures and chaos as the cost of patch-up repairs climbs to £100 million.

Figures obtained by The Sunday Post reveal more than £96m has been spent on shoring up the A83 Rest and Be Thankful road, which is regularly closed by landslides, in the last 15 years.

Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth is expected to announce the government’s response within months but businesses and residents who depend on the lifeline route, and face repeated delays and lengthy diversions when it is closed, are calling for urgency, action and an entirely new road.

Almost two years after the Scottish Government revealed five options through Glen Croe are being considered, community leaders say the so-called Green Route must be given the go-ahead as a matter of urgency.

Farmer Duncan Macalister said: “For years we have been promised all kinds of fixes but, despite all the words, nothing has happened.”

Macalister runs milk lorries from Tarbert to Lockerbie every day and said the closures and detours at the Rest and Be Thankful have been costly and frustrating for business.

He said: “We have 27 farmers who feed into the milk transportation system and the delays, closures and detours play havoc with our driver rotas and add significantly to our costs. Sadly, this has become the new normal for us. “So far it hasn’t resulted in milk shortages but that day will come. “The time for talking is over. The Rest and Be Thankful is our Queensferry Crossing and the situation needs to be urgently resolved once and for all.

“There is an existing forestry road that could be upgraded and utilised as an alternative route but for some reason this has been proposed but has never gone ahead.”

Traffic queued up on the A83 Rest and Be Thankful road as more roadworks and repairs are carried out © Andrew Cawley
Traffic is queued up on the A83 Rest and Be Thankful road as more roadworks and repairs are carried out

While the government continues to study options, Argyll and Bute councillor Donald Kelly said everyone affected by the debilitating road closures wants the same thing. He said: “The Glen Croe road option is what everyone wants.

“Everybody is 110% behind that option, the action group, community councils, Argyll and Bute Council, it’s the preferred solution, what we need now is for them to just get on and deliver it.

“The road would run on the other side of Glen Croe, above the Old Military Road. It was put forward as an option in 2012 and it was the preferred option of the task force. It would have cost £65 million but the government wanted to go for the cheaper option of mitigation – £100 million has been spent on mitigation measures but if they had gone for the Glen Croe option back in 2012 it would have cost £65 million and we would have had our new road.” He said the impact of the road disruption was huge, adversely affecting businesses and families in the area.

He said: “If you could quantify the actual cost to the Argyll community, and the lost revenue, it would be immense.

“We are being treated like second-class citizens because we live in a rural location.”

The options

A map of the affected area detailing potential new routes for the A83 at the Rest and Be ThankfulBased on colours used in the map in the official guidance, there is the so-called Brown Route, which closely follows the existing road but with a new debris shelter and viaduct; the Yellow Route, with a viaduct to carry the road above the worst-hit area; the Purple Route, with a new road along the valley floor and a tunnel; and the Pink Route, involving a longer new road and longer tunnel to bypass the most landslip-prone area.

Pink is the most expensive and slowest to complete. The Green Route, which moves the road to the other side of the valley and uses a bridge to cross Croe Water, is seen as the quickest option and has widespread support among affected communities.

Almost 50 landslides have hit the road since 2007 and Neil Greig, the Scotland-based policy and research director of the IAM RoadSmart motoring group, said the running repairs are no solution. He added: “We can see no end to the money pit that the Rest and Be Thankful has become until the Scottish Government gives the green light to a completely new route on the other side of Glen Croe.

“The hillside above the current A83 is clearly so unstable that even the biggest engineering solutions cannot guarantee to keep everyone using the road safe 365 days a year.

“Transport Scotland launched a consultation on alternative routes a few years ago and, despite some frankly weird suggestions such as bridges across the Firth of Clyde, a favoured route is now being developed which has widespread support from the local council and affected businesses. What is needed now is a clear plan to fast-track the new route and get it built before Argyll is cut off yet again for weeks on end.”

Road maintenance firm Bear Scotland has said that since 2007, 47 landslides ranging in severity from very minor slips with no impact on the road to far more significant events, involving tons of debris, have been recorded.

This includes the two incidents in 2020, where a combined total of 16,000 tonnes of material was estimated to have been displaced from the hillside.

In October, the A83 was hit by heavy rainfall which triggered several closures and led to the introduction of convoy systems on the road.

Following the 2020 landslides, officials put what they call a bespoke operational strategy in place which involves tracking the road’s traffic arrangements, measuring rainwater runoff and assessing hillsides.

Daily observations are carried out on the road. Transport Scotland paid more than £5.8 million – amounting to around £8,000 a day – to maintain and manage the A83 in 2021 and 2022 alone.

A roadsign on the A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful © Andrew Cawley
The A83 at the Rest and Be Thankful

Bob Chicken, a former owner of Tarbert’s Columba Hotel, said the chaos was hitting the tourism industry.

Chicken, 72, who also ran a hospitality consultancy, said: “The impact on tourism is substantial because, in this area, the money is made by people taking short breaks and if someone is having a short break and something happens on the Rest and Be Thankful they either don’t get here at all, or they get here late.

“The A83 isn’t just a road, it’s a road for the economy and if things don’t turn up, customers and hospitality businesses have less choice.

“There has been no solution and now the A83 is creating more problems for us, to add to all the other things that are going on in the rest of the economy.”

Constant delays and disruption on the A83 send the wrong message to prospective visitors to the area, according to Andrew Spence, chief executive of BID4OBAN, which aims to improve Oban as a tourism destination.

Spence said: “It is having a negative impact, especially when people are having to use the Old Military Road, and there are signs up saying the Rest and Be Thankful is closed, it’s like saying that parts of Argyll are closed.

“There is just a lack of confidence about using that road, people are having to take detours to find alternative ways to get here and there are extra fuel costs. “This, combined with the current ferry crisis we have had on the West coast, has just compounded the situation.”

‘If the road closes, we are empty’: Firms reveal the cost of A83 Rest and Be Thankful closures and chaos

Jackie Baillie MSP, whose Dumbarton constituency covers the road, said: “The Scottish Government continue to spend millions on temporary solutions that will not fix the long-term problem with this road.

“The Rest and Be Thankful is either closed or operating with restrictions every time it rains. This has had a huge impact on the local economy and is contributing to the depopulation of the area.

“This road is a key piece of infrastructure for the local area and it is absolutely shocking that the problems have not yet been resolved despite myriad solutions being suggested by the local community.

“This shouldn’t be difficult. We have sent people to the moon so surely we can fix this road.”

The A83 © Andrew Cawley
The A83

Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron, said: “One of the reasons I’ve spent years pressing the Scottish Government to find a permanent solution is because the SNP’s chaotic and short-term approach is hugely expensive and ineffective, as these revelations show.

“This stretch of the A83 is not only beautiful and iconic, but a vital route that connects Argyll with the Central Belt and on which local residents and businesses depend.”

Transport Scotland, who claim only £16m of the £100m spent on the A83 in recent years was spent on the stretch affected by landslides, accepts there is a need for action, adding: “The Transport Minister very much recognises the need for pace and urgency for local communities in securing a long-term solution to the A83.

“We are committed to a long-term solution to landslip risks at the A83 Rest and Be Thankful and recognise the importance of this iconic route to all communities and businesses of Argyll and Bute, including the islands.

“Potential route designs are being progressed and these range from traditional roads and localised structural protection to full tunnel options. We expect to announce a preferred route option for a long-term solution by spring 2023.”

It said work was also under way on medium-term measures, with proposals on this by the end of this year.

Additional reporting: Moira Kerr

This story was edited on 8 December to update Transport Scotland’s comment.