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Tunnel works resume despite lockdown

Whilst many construction sites have closed to comply with social distancing rules, Highways England has just begun a new programme of works in a disused West Yorkshire railway tunnel which has been at the centre of longstanding controversy over its future.

In May last year, the company submitted a planning application to infill parts of Queensbury Tunnel due to perceived safety concerns. Meanwhile its owner, the Department for Transport, is cooperating with Bradford Council on plans to reopening the structure as the centrepiece of a greenway connecting the city with Halifax. As a result, the Council has not yet determined the planning application which, so far, has attracted more than 6,400 objections.

Preparatory works for the infilling scheme started in October 2018 but the contractor, AMCO-Giffen, demobilised the site last October after a period of persistent heavy rain caused serious flooding in the tunnel. By that stage, the £550K cost had risen to more than £3.4 million. Work has been suspended for the past six months, but on Tuesday (14th April) the contractor returned and has since had staff working in the tunnel around the clock.

Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “According to Highways England’s own engineer, the tunnel’s shafts are ‘safe’ and several hundred metres of its most vulnerable sections were strengthened with steel reinforcement mesh last year. So there is nothing about the tunnel’s current condition to justify any intervention at this time.

“The precise nature of the planned works has not yet been confirmed, but there’s really nothing left to do that’s not part of the main abandonment scheme. In the absence of a clear statement to the contrary from Highways England, we therefore have to presume they are intending to undertake works for which they have sought - but not yet received - planning permission.”

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “It’s irresponsible of Highways England to begin a phase of non-essential works during the coronavirus lockdown, requiring its contractor to manage the additional requirements of social distancing within the confined space of the tunnel, the site cabins and in vans travelling to and from site.

“These works are unwelcome, unnecessary, premature and no doubt place another significant cost burden on the taxpayer’s shoulders. Highways England recently assured us that they would not undertake any works which might be prejudicial to the tunnel’s reopening until a decision over its future had been reached. This week’s events suggest bad faith; all activity in the tunnel should be halted immediately.”

The Society has written to Highways England, asking for details about the planned works, their cost and why they are deemed so urgent that they could not be deferred until discussions over the tunnel’s future are concluded and the coronavirus lockdown eased.

Last month, Grant Shapps MP, the Secretary of State for Transport, told Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus newspaper that he had “specifically prevented” the tunnel being infilled and instead instructed DfT officials to find a way of bringing it back into use, working with local leaders.

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To link to a video on the Bradford-Halifax Greenway or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/LzfdJna0Tno
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LzfdJna0Tno?rel=0" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen></iframe>

To view the abandonment plans, or object/comment on them:
http://tiny.cc/TunnelPlans

A collection of high-resolution photos for Media use is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/media/imagery.shtml

More general information on the campaign is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/

Media enquiries:
media@queensburytunnel.org.uk

Click the icon to download this release as a PDF

Issued 16th April 2020

Tunnel camera prompts claim of waste

Campaigners have condemned Highways England for spending almost five thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money every week on a CCTV camera in a disused railway tunnel.

The Victorian structure, which extends for 1.4 miles beneath Queensbury in West Yorkshire, has been at the centre of a longstanding battle over its future. Campaigners believe it should be restored for public use as part of a greenway connecting Bradford and Halifax, a view supported by the councils at both ends. However Highways England, who manage the tunnel for the Department for Transport, is seeking planning permission to fill parts of it in due to perceived safety concerns. The project is likely to cost around £7 million.

Contractor AMCO-Giffen spent much of last year undertaking preparatory works inside the tunnel but withdrew most of its equipment in early October after six days of persistent heavy rain caused floodwater to reach the tunnel’s midpoint. Since then, works have been suspended. But Highways England is continuing to fund the operation of a generator, lighting and CCTV camera system to record anyone attempting to enter the tunnel. Locals have reported clouds of blue smoke coming from the generator’s exhaust and the smell of burning fuel in the air.

The entrance is protected by 3-metre high steel gates, anti-vandal grease and razor wire. Despite this, two urban explorers were able to get into the tunnel during a two-week period last September when it was left unlocked and unattended for between half-an-hour and 90 minutes most evenings.

According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the weekly cost of the CCTV operation is £4,704, meaning that the bill since the site was stood down is approaching £100,000.

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said “It’s become very clear that Highways England couldn’t care less about how much public money it wastes.

“Last year, about £1.2 million was squandered on pumping floodwater out of the tunnel, but today its level is exactly the same as when they started. Now they’re frittering away tens of thousands of pounds monitoring people supposedly trying to get into a tunnel which has better security than many prisons. If they kept the gates locked, that would be sufficient.

“At what point will Highways England be called to account for this misuse of taxpayers’ money and the unnecessary air pollution they’re causing?”

Meanwhile the planning application for the tunnel’s partial infilling has had to be re-advertised after changes were made to the proposed scheme following controversial works at one of its ventilation shafts last October, carried out under emergency powers. So far, more than 6,300 people have lodged objections to the plans.

It’s now likely that Bradford Council won’t determine the application until May, by which time a decision is expected on a £23 million funding bid for the Bradford-Halifax Greenway - incorporating Queensbury Tunnel - which the West Yorkshire Combined Authority submitted to the government’s Transforming Cities Fund in November.

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To link to a video on the Bradford-Halifax Greenway or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/LzfdJna0Tno
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LzfdJna0Tno?rel=0" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen></iframe>

To view the abandonment plans, or object/comment on them:
http://tiny.cc/TunnelPlans

A collection of high-resolution photos for Media use is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/media/imagery.shtml

More general information on the campaign is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/

Media enquiries:
media@queensburytunnel.org.uk

Click the icon to download this release as a PDF

Issued 26th February 2020

“Unprecedented” opposition to tunnel abandonment

Campaigners hoping to reopen a disused West Yorkshire railway tunnel as a cycle route have thanked supporters after 6,000 objections were lodged against plans to abandon the structure.

Queensbury Tunnel, connecting Bradford District and Calderdale, is managed on the Department for Transport’s behalf by Highways England who propose to partially infill it due to perceived safety concerns. The work, which involves leaving 88% of the tunnel to collapse, would permanently prevent access for inspection purposes. A planning application for the scheme - which is now expected to cost the taxpayer around £7 million - was published last June.
The Queensbury Tunnel Society believes that the money would be better invested in repairs, restoring the tunnel to a condition suitable for its use as part of a Bradford-Halifax Greenway. In 2018, consultants acting for Bradford Council developed a remediation plan costed at £6.9 million.

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Society, said: “There is a ridiculous conflict between the stated aims of the DfT and Highways England who want to encourage more walking and cycling through investment in new active travel routes, but remain intent on the unwarranted destruction of a 1.4-mile long tunnel which could play a crucial, centrepiece role in a strategic link between two large urban centres. As we move towards more sustainable forms of transport, the value of the tunnel as an asset will increase.

“No sound engineering evidence has been provided by Highways England to justify its abandonment scheme, the design of which is driven by budgetary constraints. We’re very grateful to the 6,000 people who have objected to the plans, citing the technical shortcomings and misfit with both local and national planning policies.

“It’s been an unprecedented response and we call on the council to reject Highways England’s application.”

Supported by other stakeholders, Bradford Council has formally endorsed the greenway proposal and worked with the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to develop a £23 million bid to fund construction and long-term maintenance. A decision is expected in the spring. A study by Sustrans suggested that the route would generate £37.6 million in social, economic and tourism benefits over 30 years, returning £2.31 for every £1 spent on it.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP recently told Channel 4 News that “I’m really keen on seeing that very environmentally-friendly tunnel reopened if we can get there” and agreed to visit Queensbury to see it as soon as possible. In November, officials from the Department for Transport met counterparts in Bradford Council to discuss funding options for the tunnel and issues around feasibility.

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To link to a video on the Bradford-Halifax Greenway or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/LzfdJna0Tno
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LzfdJna0Tno?rel=0" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen></iframe>

To view the abandonment plans, or object/comment on them:
http://tiny.cc/TunnelPlans

A collection of high-resolution photos for Media use is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/media/imagery.shtml

More general information on the campaign is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/

Media enquiries:
media@queensburytunnel.org.uk

Click the icon to download this release as a PDF

Issued 22nd January 2020

Request for tunnel abandonment delay turned down

Highways England has rejected Bradford Council’s request to pause plans for the abandonment of a disused railway tunnel whilst a bid to fund its repair as part of a cycle path scheme is considered by the Department for Transport.

In November, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority included Queensbury Tunnel in its submission to the Transforming Cities Fund for major transport infrastructure investment around the Leeds City Region. WYCA described the structure’s centrepiece role in a proposed Bradford-Halifax Greenway as a “significant opportunity”, providing a viable alternative for the 14,000 people who commute daily between the two districts, mostly by car. A study has suggested that the route would offer high value-for-money, returning £2.31 for every £1 invested in it.

Highways England, who manage Queensbury Tunnel on the Department for Transport’s behalf, have applied for planning permission to abandon it due to perceived safety concerns. However the proposal has met unprecedented opposition, with more than 5,200 objections lodged. Costs have escalated over the past year and are likely to exceed £6.5 million; in 2018, consultants working for Bradford Council costed the tunnel’s repair at £6.9 million.

Following submission of the Transforming Cities bid, planners asked Highways England for consent to push back the determination date for their planning application until 5th May 2020, by which time a decision on funding should have been reached. But Highways England replied that they were “not minded to agree to your extension request and ask that the Council now determine the application.”

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “As the TCF application makes clear, the Bradford-Halifax Greenway is an ambitious proposal which would improve connectivity for communities along that corridor, boost the local economy through tourism and fit with our obligation to address health and air quality issues. It also offers certainty for those living above the tunnel who are faced with the prospect of 88% of it being left to collapse if abandonment goes ahead.

“Rejecting the extension request is another inexplicable act by Highways England. If the funding bid is successful, they could be relieved of all responsibility for the tunnel, something the Department for Transport - as its owner - is keen to achieve. So why are they unwilling to create a little breathing space for decision-making? This attitude amounts to a bloody-minded refusal to look for a positive outcome.”

Meanwhile, more details have emerged about the controversial infilling of one of the tunnel’s ventilation shafts in October 2019. The work relied on powers set out in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 which were only applicable in an emergency threatening “serious damage to human welfare”.

Material obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that a manager from AMCO-Giffen, the abandonment works contractor, emailed Highways England on 3rd October to describe the condition of a refuge in the tunnel’s sidewall, close to the base of No.2 Shaft. He listed a collection of defects including collapsed brickwork, cracking, bulging and mortar loss, all of which had been recorded in photographs of the refuge from 2016 and 2017.

However, based only on a text description, an engineer from Jacobs - who provide professional services to Highways England - concluded that “significant deterioration” had occurred. The potential impact of the refuge’s condition on the shaft was not assessed and, in any case, it did not form part of the shaft’s main support structure.

To help “defend the decision to infill Shaft 2”, the same AMCO-Giffen manager subsequently sent Highways England three brief extracts from an AECOM report about the tunnel, produced for Bradford Council in 2018. The extracts describe the development of minor defects at various locations through the 1.4-mile long tunnel which has seen no substantive maintenance for more than 60 years.

Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Co-ordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The situation at No.2 Shaft had been known about for seven years and although some deterioration had occurred, it was gradual and didn’t come close to threatening ‘serious damage to human welfare’. If they were so worried about it, why hadn’t they implemented the repair designed by Jacobs in 2012?

“The fact that they are scratching around for bits of evidence to justify their actions indicates the shaky grounds on which the decision was made. In an emergency, the evidence should be strong, abundant and unequivocal. This is yet another example of the abandonment team’s inability to assess and communicate risk in a reasonable, proportionate manner. The infilling of the shaft was entirely unwarranted.”

Bradford Council’s planning team have told Jacobs that they “do not accept that the recent works to Shaft 2 do not require planning permission” and that “the Council’s Legal Team will be writing to you separately on this matter”.

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To link to a video on the Bradford-Halifax Greenway or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/LzfdJna0Tno
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/LzfdJna0Tno?rel=0" frameborder="0" allow="autoplay; encrypted-media" allowfullscreen></iframe>

To view the abandonment plans, or object/comment on them:
http://tiny.cc/TunnelPlans

A collection of high-resolution photos for Media use is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/media/imagery.shtml

More general information on the campaign is available from:
www.queensburytunnel.org.uk/

Media enquiries:
media@queensburytunnel.org.uk

Click the icon to download this release as a PDF

Issued 3rd January 2020

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Tunnel works resume despite lockdown

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Wednesday 27 May 2020