Costs over Queensbury Tunnel closure reach more than £5 million, say campaigners
Exactly two years after contractors began work on the abandonment of Queensbury Tunnel, preparatory works have not yet been completed and costs have almost tripled, say campaigners.
Queensbury Tunnel, between Bradford and Halifax, has been surrounded by controversy since its custodian, Highways England, confirmed plans to partially infill it in 2016 when the outlay was estimated at £2.7 million.
Campaigners want to see the 1.4-mile long Victorian structure repaired to form part of a greenway connecting two of Yorkshire’s biggest population centres.
Campaigners say an initial phase of strengthening works, costed at £545K, was due to start at the southern end of the tunnel in September 2018, but had to be replanned after a pumping station there - which kept the structure dewatered - was switched off due to Highways England failing to pay the £50 annual rent.
The Queensbury Tunnel Society say temporary pumping equipment was deployed at the north end and, by September 2019, contractor AMCO-Giffen had strengthened the tunnel below three shafts and through a 300-metre long section which had previously been regarded as too dangerous to enter. However, the Society says, the workforce was then forced to withdraw after six days of torrential rain caused the floodwater to return to its original level.
Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The tunnel has suffered from high levels of water ingress since the time of its construction, so the loss of the pumping station proved calamitous from a planning and logistical perspective. Highways England has effectively lost control of this project, as evidenced by the lack of progress and increasing sums being spent. According to the contract, abandonment was due to be completed by 31st October 2019 and yet they’re still struggling to finish the preparatory works.
“Whilst it was not a party to the lease on the pumping station, Highways England was obliged to pay the £50 rent every year under the terms of a Protocol Agreement with the Department for Transport, which sets out its duties in relation to Queensbury Tunnel and 3,200 other disused structures. It’s told a lot of half-truths in an effort to conceal that reality.
“The past two years have shown just how crucial the pumping station is for the effective management of the tunnel, yet Highways England has still not entered into dialogue with the landowner about recommissioning it. The taxpayer has paid a considerable price for that.”
Campaigners say more than £5 million has been committed to the preparatory works, with a further £2.7 million allocated for expenditure on the tunnel over the remainder of this financial year. Highways England’s engineering consultant, Jacobs, has also been paid £236K for technical studies, campaigners say, and the development of a planning application for the abandonment scheme which has so far attracted more than 7,150 objections.
Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “It’s been an extraordinary couple of years during which the climate around the tunnel has changed noticeably. Even the Department for Transport, which owns it, is beginning to recognise the structure’s value as an asset for future transport provision.
“If the Government is seriously committed to getting more of us walking and cycling in a post-Covid world, segregated infrastructure will have to be constructed. We cannot continue to kill 100 cyclists on our roads every year; bikes and motor vehicles do not mix.
“There is a way forward for the tunnel which benefits everyone. Instead of pursuing a wasteful and unnecessary abandonment scheme - which is exposing the contractor’s workforce to increasingly high levels of risk - why doesn’t Highways England become a positive partner in the effort to build a case for its rehabilitation? Doing so would make more likely the prospect of the company being discharged of all responsibility for it.
“Queensbury Tunnel doesn’t have to be a burden around the taxpayer’s neck; it could pay a return on our investment through social, economic and tourism benefits.”
The Scoeity also saod that in July, the Government announced a £1 million funding package to develop a business case for a greenway connecting Bradford District to Calderdale, half of which has been given to Highways England to consider the engineering requirements and costs associated with making Queensbury Tunnel safe for any future repurposing.
“That’s a huge amount of money”, said Norah McWilliam. “We’re obviously keen that it’s spent wisely so the greatest possible value and insight are derived from it.”
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.”
Highways England added that on 14 July the Department for Transport announced a £1 million funding to develop a business case for a Queensbury Tunnel ‘greenway’ scheme, and that 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.
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.
Highways England said work is currently taking place to fill a short section of the tunnel under shaft 3, which is a high-risk area where flooding has occurred. It needs strengthening to prevent further collapse, and for the safety of residents living close to the top of shaft 3 and our workforce.
Highways England said their plans were communicated to Bradford Council before the Secretary of State for Transport’s announcement on 14 July. The planning application submitted in 2019 to close the tunnel is still with Bradford Council.