TENS of thousands of pounds have been spent rescuing foolish motorists who attempt to beat the tide on Holy Island causeway.
Official figures reveal that more than £42,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent in dramatic air sea rescues in the last three years.
The RNLI inshore lifeboat at Seahouses also notched up thousands of pounds to ferry people to safety over the same period.
According to a Freedom of Information request to the Ministry of Defence, the RAF only used the Sea King Mk3 helicopter on four occasions to rescue 10 people from their abandoned cars, but the cost was astronomical.
In 2008 there were two rescues lasting nearly two hours, running up a total bill of £20,715.
A year later the RAF helicopter was up again for 45 minutes, which cost £9,321. On this occasion two tourists in their 60s were rescued when their car became trapped by rising tide water. And last year another rescue took place lasting an hour which cost £12,429.
Finally, earlier this month a middle- aged couple were winched to safety when they tried to cross the causeway 90 minutes after the tide deadline. The bill for this operation has not yet been revealed.
A spokesman for the MoD said: “The taxpayer meets those costs, but those rescued don’t have to pay anything.”
The Sea King Mk3 was first brought into service in 1979. It uses about a 1,000lbs of aviation fuel an hour which can increase as it hovers over tricky rescue sites.
The cost of £12,429 an hour includes four crew members, fuel and ongoing regular maintenance to keep the helicopter prepared for action.
The RAF said the bill dropped to about £4,000 an hour during operations, if some costs such as maintenance aren’t included, but that would still mean a £16,000 bill to help stranded motorists.
The head of highways and neighbourhood services at Northumberland County Council Andy Rutherford said: “We recognise the risk to people’s lives and the cost of launching rescues at Holy Island causeway.”
The council said it was treating the matter of rescuing stranded motorists with the highest importance.
The Journal has also learned that the RNLI inshore lifeboat has been used in 20 rescues at the causeway in the last four years.
Ian Clayton, operations manager at RNLI at Seahouses, pointed out that each operation cost £1,200 which can be broken down in terms of equipment, fuel, crew costs, training and maintenance.
“All our income is donated by members of the public and the cost of the causeway rescues would have helped us to buy more equipment.”
In fact the rescues, on RNLI figures, amounted to £24,000 which would have helped pay towards a new inshore lifeboat or the array of equipment needed by the rescue teams.
Mr Clayton said: “We need to change or repair the equipment on a regular basis and this would have helped. But we don’t get any money from the government, just through the generosity of the public.”
Page 3 - £5,000 could buy a solution to the rising tide of Holy Island problems >>
£5,000 could buy a solution to the rising tide of Holy Island problems
A POSSIBLE solution to the problem of motorists crossing a Northumberland causeway while it is under water has been put forward.
Staff at Alnwick Computerware and Ecovision have come up with a design for a sign and barrier, which they believe would end the situation whereby emergency services are having to rescue those who have flouted safe crossing times.
There have been 15 occasions this year when motorists have tried to drive across the causeway when the tide is coming in, getting stuck in the rising water.
The incidents continue despite safe crossing times published and warning signs at either end of the causeway.
There has been widespread debate about how to stop the incidents, including barriers, smart signs or fines.
Now, Alnwick Computerware and Ecovision have come up with the design for a sign and barrier which they believe could be a solution, and would cost around £5,000.
An LED sign or traffic light matching the safe crossing times would tell motorists when it is not safe to cross. Also, a sensor could detect when the water level is rising and bring a barrier down.
The equipment would be powered by renewable energy and resistant to the effects of salt from sea water.
The idea has been put to the emergency services, which have given a positive response.
The company’s plans to table the suggestion at a public meeting organised later this month to discuss the issue of causeway rescues.
Ecovision director Gareth Carter said: “Yes, like railway crossings, some idiots will drive round the barrier but I’m yet to hear this as a reason for removing barriers from railway crossings?”
Alnwick Computerware and Ecovision operate a webcam near the causeway.
It sends images of the crossing to a website every 20 to 30 minutes, and emergency services have used it in the past to assess what resources to send to a rescue.
The partners are working on improving the equipment to provide almost a live feed with images uploaded every 30 seconds.
Andy Rutherford, head of highways and neighbourhood services, said: “We are treating the meeting on August 23 with the highest importance and we will be looking at what measures can be put in place to safeguard lives, vehicles and property.
“Our aim is to prevent these incidents from happening in the future.”
Ian Clayton, lifeboat operations manager at Seahouses, last night claimed a barrier would be “resisted” by the community on Holy Island as it would block access for emergency vehicles.
He raised the questions of people driving round a barrier and the effect of salt air on the equipment.
Mr Clayton claimed the RNLI would find it difficult to fund such a barrier as he argued “people give us money to save lives at sea” and some may not feel the barrier would be a good use of charity funds. He claimed it was the county council’s responsibility to fund any measures as highways authority.