Contractors leave tunnel after three years of “abject failure”

Workers are completing the removal of equipment from a disused railway tunnel in West Yorkshire, three years after arriving to deliver a 12-week project.

National Highways (NH) manages Queensbury Tunnel near Bradford on the Department for Transport’s behalf. Campaigners want to see the Victorian structure brought back into use as part of an ambitious active travel route between the city and Calderdale – two of the county’s biggest conurbations – but the state-owned roads company is pursuing a multi-million pound abandonment scheme which involves filling in 14% of the 1.4-mile long structure.

In September 2018, contractor AMCO-Giffen intended to start a £545K programme of preparatory works that was expected to last three months. However the project had to be replanned after NH failed to pay £50 rent to the landowner at the south end of the tunnel, resulting in a pumping station being switched off and the structure flooding with an estimated 37 million litres of groundwater.

National Highways has since committed £7.83 million to the tunnel works. In October 2019, the company used aggregate to infill a ventilation shaft under Permitted Development powers that only applied to temporary works in place for a maximum of six months. The material has still not been removed. This summer, divers installed a support structure below another shaft at a cost of £2.8 million.

The landowner twice offered to negotiate a new arrangement under which pumping could have been resumed, but National Highways refused to enter into dialogue with him.

The third anniversary of AMCO-Giffen’s arrival at the tunnel passed on 1 October.

“No improvement has been delivered in the tunnel’s condition”, asserts Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Coordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society. “Four shafts that were showing no signs of collapsing have been prevented from collapsing and there are now two blockages within the tunnel that create a 340-yard long section which can no longer be accessed for inspection purposes.

“The root cause of the additional expense, difficulty and delay was the failure of National Highways’ team to fully acquaint themselves with the terms of the lease agreed between the landowner and the Department for Transport. NH was responsible for paying the £50 rent on the pumping station, but didn’t understand that it had to do so proactively, without receiving a demand. That failure has cost the taxpayer around £7 million, funding works that would have been unnecessary if the tunnel had remained dewatered.”

The future of the Victorian structure remains uncertain despite the contractor’s departure. National Highways’ planning application for its partial infilling has still not been determined by Bradford Council, two years after submission. More than 7,700 people have so far objected. Cycling charity Sustrans has been commissioned to produce an updated study on the feasibility and benefits of constructing an active travel network connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley, the findings of which are expected within weeks.

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “We’re about to see whether the Government’s levelling-up agenda and professed ambition for an active travel revolution are real or hot air. Routes connecting three large population centres via the tunnel would create a viable alternative to the car for weekday commuting and a tourist attraction at the weekends. It’s a unique offer; the environmental and economic benefits would be our gift for future generations.

“The alternative involves the continued deterioration of an outstanding Victorian feat and the investment of yet more public funds in National Highways’ abandonment scheme. The total bill would exceed £10 million. In the current climate, how can anyone countenance that kind of investment in an unwarranted act of destruction?

“We have an opportunity to deliver something positive from the wreckage of three years of abject failure. We mustn’t allow it to slip through our fingers.”

Photo credit: Queensbury Tunnel

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