Campaigners describe Queensbury Tunnel developments as “beyond ridiculous”
Campaigners have expressed their exasperation after contractors started to infill part of a disused railway tunnel which the Government and local councils want to see reborn as part of an active travel route.
The 1.4-mile long Queensbury Tunnel, between Bradford and Halifax, has been at the centre of a longstanding battle to prevent its custodian, Highways England, abandoning the Victorian structure due to safety concerns.
Last month, the Department for Transport committed £1 million to developing a business case for a Bradford-Halifax Greenway, passing through the tunnel. Announcing the funding on 14 July, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the money would “enable us to see just how the Queensbury Tunnel - an iconic element of the region’s landscape - could be redeveloped as a green transport link.”
He went on to state that the greenway would help “to improve connectivity in an environmentally friendly way while being a source of pleasure for generations of cyclists and walkers to come.”
But, the day before Shapps’ announcement, the campaigners say, Highways England began work to create a concrete plug below a ventilation shaft - blocking the tunnel - despite still not having planning permission for its abandonment scheme.
Almost 7,000 people have so far submitted objections.
Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Coordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, says: “This shaft is in the best condition of the seven sunk during the tunnel’s construction in the 1870s. It benefits from reinforced concrete frames which - although partly degraded - transfer much of the load from the shaft’s lining into the surrounding rock.
“The brickwork is in good condition and there’s no sign of the tunnel lining below the shaft showing any meaningful signs of distress. So there’s no evidence to suggest any need for short-term support or strengthening.
“This is just the latest example of Highways England attempting to circumvent planning regulations to make progress with an abandonment scheme it cannot justify but is determined to impose.”
Highways England has received half of the £1 million business case funding to look at the engineering requirements and costs of making the tunnel safe for any future reuse. It’s understood that the latest works are costing more than the £575,000 spent on strengthening at three other shafts earlier in the year. More than £4 million has already been spent on preparatory works for abandonment.
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The situation is beyond ridiculous. Highways England has been given a huge amount of money to undertake a study into the tunnel’s repurposing for active travel and, at the same time, is unnecessarily spending an even greater sum filling part of it in, making the job of reopening more difficult and costly.
“It’s an embarrassing example of disjointed government. At a political level, the DfT is showing increasing commitment to walking and cycling, and the Secretary of State clearly recognises the value of a greenway connecting two large population centres via the tunnel. And yet a tiny number of officials within the Department and a body acting on its behalf are hell-bent on thwarting a positive outcome for Queensbury Tunnel which would see it deliver social, economic and tourism benefits for generations to come.
“No prejudicial work should be carried out until the business case has been completed and evaluated, and planning permission granted. Prematurely infilling the tunnel below the shaft is another irresponsible act of vandalism on Highway England’s part.”
The Society has urged Bradford Council to take immediate enforcement action to halt the current project. When one of the tunnel’s other shafts was infilled under emergency powers last October, the Council’s legal team subsequently told Highways England that, in its view, the work required planning permission.
In July, the Government announced its ‘bold vision for cycling and walking’ - a £2 billion investment to pay for thousands of miles of protected bike lanes and transform the role active travel can play in our transport system.
A Highways England spokesperson said: “We are continuing our work at Queensbury Tunnel, maintaining the safety of local communities and our workforce. This work benefits any future plans to reopen the tunnel by keeping it safe now, and supports the Department for Transport and West Yorkshire Combined Authority as they look at options for the future use of the structure.
“The tunnel needs strengthening to prevent further collapse, and for the safety of residents living close to the top of Shaft 3 and our workforce. Preventing an uncontrolled collapse is the best option for keeping the tunnel viable for future use.
“The work we are undertaking is separate to the planning application that is with Bradford Council.”
Highways England also said that the Department for Transport announced a £1 million funding on July 14 to develop a business case for a Queensbury Tunnel ‘greenway’ scheme.
Highways England said that the West Yorkshire Combined Authority will use £500,000 to develop options for how the tunnel could be part of a new green transport link between Bradford and Halifax, in a bid to boost connectivity while delivering economic and leisure benefits, and that they are working with the local authority and the combined authority on next steps
Highways England will receive the remaining £500,000 of the funding to look further at the engineering requirements and costs associated with making sure the tunnel is safe for any future construction.
Work is currently taking place to fill a short section of the tunnel under Shaft 3. Highways England says this is a high-risk area where flooding has occurred.
Highways England says their plans were communicated to Bradford Council before the Secretary of State for Transport’s announcement on 14 July
Highways England also says that the planning application submitted in 2019 to close the tunnel is still with Bradford Council.