Campaigners fighting to save Queensbury Tunnel from closure say the 10 men who died during its construction would "turn in their graves" if the structure is abandoned.
This Sunday (October 14 ) marks the 140th anniversary of Queensbury Tunnel being opened by the Great Northern Railway in West Yorkshire, an event which saw it become the 11th longest tunnel on the country’s rail network.
Its construction presented enormous challenges to engineer John Fraser and contractors Benton & Woodiwiss, taking more than four years to complete - double the period specified in the contract - mostly as a result of water inundating the workings.
Around 250,000 tons of rock were excavated and removed by 600 men, assisted by explosives, hand tools, 14 horses, a collection of steam engines and their great strength of character. Six million bricks were manufactured, brought to site and laid to form the tunnel’s lining.
Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The works attracted a lot of attention through the mid-1870s. At the end of their shifts, local mill workers would gather at the shafts to watch the goings-on.
"Several months before it was finished, a newspaper reporter walked through the tunnel and announced that ‘The pyramids of Egypt sink into insignificance compared with such a work’.
“But its opening went largely unnoticed. The Bradford & Thornton Railway saw its first passenger traffic on the same day - grabbing all the attention - whereas the line through Queensbury Tunnel was initially only used by goods trains.
"However, when the Thornton to Keighley extension was completed in 1884, the tunnel became part of a strategically useful north-south route, avoiding the congestion around Leeds and Bradford. Then it really started to pay its way.”
Highways England, which manages Queensbury Tunnel for the Department for Transport, is now proposing a £3.6 million abandonment scheme.
If planning permission is granted, it will see some sections of the tunnel infilled and its entrances permanently sealed.
An alternative vision, put forward by campaigners, is for the money to be invested in a repair programme, allowing the tunnel to become part of an ambitious cycle network connecting Halifax to Bradford and Keighley, echoing its original role.
An engineering study commissioned by Bradford Council will soon be completed, helping stakeholders to understand the financial and practical viability of its rebirth.
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “We’ve moved on since the 1950s. Only this week, scientists have set out the disastrous consequences our actions are having on the planet. We have to change our ways before it’s too late. That means a better diet, more exercise and less reliance on fossil fuels.
“Queensbury Tunnel is an asset with the potential to make a positive social and economic difference for the people who live in this part of Yorkshire. It could inspire, transform and become a beacon for sustainable transport.
“We need to spend money wisely on infrastructure, not flush it down the drain. The ten men who lost their lives during the construction of Queensbury Tunnel will turn in their graves if we allow their endeavours to be destroyed by a public body which seems culturally incapable of seeing value in the magnificent structures they look after.”
The Society intends to erect a cross in memorial to the ten men close to the tunnel’s northern entrance.