For the past five years, the 1.4-mile long Queensbury Tunnel has been the focus of a campaign to re-open it as part of a cycle network linking Bradford and Keighley to Halifax, but Highways England’s Historical Railway Estate (HRE), which manages the tunnel for the Department for Transport (DfT), wants to permanently close it because of what they say is a threat to public safety.
Campaigners say the abandonment scheme - which is expected to involve infilling around 15 per cent of the tunnel - requires planning permission and was originally costed at £2.7 million in February 2016. This rose to £7 million based on plans submitted to Bradford Council last May, but the specification was then changed to use cheaper materials, reducing that figure to £3.6 million.
For workforce safety reasons, preparatory works to strengthen parts of the tunnel’s lining are currently underway, but it was intended that these would be restricted to sections at both ends. However, over the past four months, the southern half of the tunnel has been inundated by an estimated 6.6 million gallons of water. Campaigners say Highways England failed to pay two annual rent payments of £50 for land on which a pumping station is sited, resulting in the equipment being switched-off by the landowner.
To complete the strengthening works, campaigners say the contractor has installed a new pump and is now faced with the task of establishing a safe access route through a 300-metre long section near the tunnel’s midpoint which was previously designated as an exclusion zone due to the severe defects within it. Together with the dewatering operation, campaigners say this work will add more than £400,000 to the bill.
Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “HRE has lost control of this project, largely through its own failings. The public will receive no benefit from abandonment, but the financial burden placed on its shoulders is becoming heavier. Perversely, £1 million is currently being spent improving the tunnel’s condition before a further £3 million is wasted on a partial infilling scheme. It’s becoming an implausible farce.”
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “Shortly, we expect HRE to ask Bradford Council for permission to progress abandonment. Most of the tunnel beneath Queensbury would be left to collapse. HRE hopes that the tunnel is so deep that the 440 dwellings within its zone of influence would not be affected by any collapse, but how can we have confidence in their assessment of the complex risks when they prove persistently incapable to doing the basics competently?”
For the cycle path proposal to go ahead, the tunnel’s ownership would have to be transferred to Bradford Council, for which it would receive a £3 million dowry, according to campaigners. Funding is currently being sought for a feasibility study into the issues associated with the tunnel’s reopening, whilst the Council’s Executive Committee is expected to consider the Victorian structure’s future at a meeting in February.
But a spokesperson for Highways England has disputed the £4m figure, saying it is actually £3.6m, and says the £7m figure is also incorrect.
A Highways England’s spokesman said: “The safety of the community and our contractors is paramount and the Department for Transport, the owners of the tunnel, agree that safety work to reduce the risk to the community around Queensbury Tunnel should be undertaken as soon as possible. We’re working with Bradford Council on the preparation of the planning application for Phase 2 of our safety work. It’s not expected that a final decision on the application will now be reached until spring 2019.”
“Phase one of the proposed work has started and involves partial strengthening of the most vulnerable areas of the tunnel which will also provide a safe working area throughout the tunnel for any future work undertaken.
“Delivery of phase one has been made more difficult by the recent diversion of water from Strines Beck into the already flooded southern portal. This has directly increased the water levels within the tunnel and the safety risks to our contactors and potentially to the integrity of the tunnel.
“Our earlier decision to discharge water from the northern section of the tunnel into the existing tunnel drainage system has allowed our contractors to reduce the impact of this additional inflow of water.
“We understand Bradford Council is considering a potential transfer of the tunnel so it could be re-opened and used as a local sustainable transport corridor. Any such transfer could be quickly achieved. Works undertaken during phase one of the safety works are not prejudicial to any plans to reopen the tunnel.”