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Minister blames landowner for tunnel difficulties

A Minister has criticised a landowner for not pumping water out of a flooded Victorian tunnel despite the Department for Transport twice rejecting his offers to do so.

The bizarre intervention came as campaigners await the findings of two Government-funded studies - due at the end of March - into technical options for repairing Queensbury Tunnel in West Yorkshire and the feasibility of developing a Bradford-Halifax Greenway incorporating the 1.4-mile long passageway. Highways England, who manage the Historical Railways Estate of 3,200 disused railway structures on the DfT’s behalf, intends to partially infill the tunnel due to perceived safety concerns. It secured the right to install pumping equipment on land at the Halifax end in March 2015, enabling the removal of groundwater which collects inside the tunnel due to the original drainage system having failed.

Acting for the leaseholder, the Secretary of State for Transport, Highways England was obliged to provide the landowner with annual progress reports on works in the tunnel and pay £50 per year in rent; however it never fulfilled either of those requirements so the lease was forfeited in December 2017.

The landowner - who supports the campaign to reopen the tunnel - turned off the equipment in September 2018 when contractors made clear their intention to begin £545K of preparatory works for the tunnel’s abandonment without any formal agreement in place to ensure the continued operation of the pumps. By January 2021, the total sum committed to the works - which are still only 70% complete - had risen to £7.53 million.

In a letter to Shipley MP Philip Davies on 23rd March, Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Minister for Roads, Buses and Places, claimed that “it is entirely within [the landowner’s] gift to completely de-water the tunnel and do so without conditions. This would allow inspections and works to be completed over the full length of the tunnel which would in turn inform the current studies and support the landowner’s professed desire to see the tunnel reopened.”

Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Coordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “Baroness Vere seems to be ignorant of the facts. The landowner has no right to unilaterally activate equipment that he does not own, is not located on his property and is powered by electricity he does not pay for. He would require specific written authorisation from Highways England.

“Furthermore, restarting the pumps would result in the rapid drawdown of water through the tunnel lining, with the potential to impact on its condition. We assume that Highways England - as a responsible asset manager - would wish to have input into the rate at which the water was removed.

“As Baroness Vere makes clear in her letter, ‘Highways England would need to be able to undertake…works without the threat of the pump being turned off at any moment’, so legal arrangements would have to be agreed before any dewatering begins, to safeguard both parties.”

In August 2020, the landowner offered to facilitate the tunnel’s dewatering so that strengthening could be installed at a shaft which Highways England insists is close to collapse. No evidence has been provided to support this claim which was first made almost a year ago. The offer was rejected although the landowner was never formally notified.

A further £1.96 million was committed to the shaft strengthening work in January 2021, resulting in the landowner making a new offer to the Secretary of State for Transport on 11th March. Baroness Vere rejected this in her letter.

Landowner David Sunderland said: “Twice now I’ve offered to restart the pumps but they’ve supposedly rejected both offers, although they’ve never bothered to inform me or let me know why. Now this Minister is criticising me for not restarting the pumps which I can’t do without permission and won’t do without a legal agreement in place.

“The only real condition I’ve mentioned is that the works must not prejudice the tunnel’s reopening - so no infilling and no abandonment works. I’ve offered talks but they’ve ignored that. This Minister says she wants to see inspections and repairs. That’s fine - they just need to ask, but they never have.

“All I want is a clear written commitment from Highways England and the DfT that they wouldn’t use dewatering as a chance to destroy the community’s hopes for the tunnel once and for all. It’s an outstanding feat of engineering and must be used for public benefit; that’s what ten men died building it for.

“They blame everyone but themselves for this shambles. The truth is that if Highways England had paid the £50 rent, the tunnel would still be dewatered and the preparatory works would have been completed two years ago. Their failure has cost us - as taxpayers - £7 million.

“Why doesn’t this Minister criticise that?”

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To link to a video on the tunnel's abandonment or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/azIBmmzECgs
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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 25th March 2021

Tunnel abandonment budget now exceeds repair cost

More public money has been committed to the partial infilling of a West Yorkshire railway tunnel than it would cost to repair it as part of a proposed cycle path, according to campaigners.

Queensbury Tunnel extends for 1.4 miles under a ridge between Bradford and Halifax. In September 2018, when Highways England began a project to abandon the structure, preparatory works were costed at £545K and programmed to take four months. But the Government-owned roads company had twice failed to pay the £50 annual rent on a pumping station that had been installed to keep the tunnel dewatered, resulting in the landowner turning it off.

As a result, two-and-a-half years later, the preparatory works are still only 70% complete and £7.53 million has so far been committed to them through contract variations. The main abandonment scheme could add a further £3 million to the bill.

Highways England’s destructive plan for the tunnel has been the focus of considerable opposition, with more than 7,300 objectors to the planning application. These people want the structure saved for reuse as part of an ambitious active travel route, the Bradford-Halifax Greenway, proposed by a local campaign group and supported by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, together with Bradford and Calderdale councils. Ministers have also expressed enthusiasm for the idea as it aligns with the Government’s ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ agendas.

Engineering consultants costed the tunnel’s repair at £6.9 million in 2018, whilst a Sustrans study found that a greenway passing through the historic passageway would return £37.6 million in social, economic and tourism benefits over 30 years.

No substantive works have taken place in the tunnel since mid-September, but documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Highways England then approved the payment of £263,857 to its contractor, AMCO-Giffen, to cover ‘running costs’ and a round-the-clock security presence in the weeks through to Christmas, equating to more than £3K per day. Lone workers were stationed in a van at the tunnel entrance which is protected by 10-feet high steel gates, anti-vandal paint and razor wire.

Then, in January, Highways England issued a contract variation valued at almost £2 million for the installation of a concrete plug below a ventilation shaft located 500 metres into the floodwater which currently reaches the tunnel’s midpoint. The company claims the plug is urgently needed to prevent the shaft collapsing, but has provided no evidence to suggest there is any risk of such an event. Engineers commissioned by Bradford Council voiced no concerns about the shaft’s support structure when they carried out a comprehensive study into the tunnel’s condition two years ago.

“There’s been a scandalous waste of public money here,” says Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Coordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society. “We’ve now reached a point where the tunnel’s abandonment could cost £10 million as a result of Highways England’s failure to pay the rent on the pumping station. Nobody has been held accountable for the huge burden placed on the taxpayer.

“The money could have paid for the tunnel’s repair, transforming this outstanding feat of Victorian engineering into an asset that could be a source of delight and adventure, delivering benefits for generations to come. Instead they’ve turned it into a money pit.”

Highways England correctly states that it was not a party to any legal arrangement with the landowner over the pumping station. However, under Clause 5.4 of its Protocol Agreement with the Department for Transport covering management of the Historical Railways Estate - of which Queensbury Tunnel is a part - the company is responsible for “meeting from existing funding all costs associated with the property”, including the £50 annual rent which was specified in a lease held by the Secretary of State for Transport.

Last year, the landowner agreed to the pumping station being restarted so that strengthening work could be undertaken at the shaft, but this was rejected by Highways England because of his insistence on safeguards to ensure no abandonment works took place whilst the tunnel was dewatered. He has now written to the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, renewing the offer.

“Both Highways England and the DfT profess their commitment to walking and cycling,” says Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society. “But that requires greater provision of safe infrastructure.

“The tunnel offers a unique opportunity to create both a strategic commuter link between two of West Yorkshire’s biggest population centres and a leisure route joining the fabulous countryside west of Bradford to attractions in Calderdale. It would draw tourists to the region, boosting our local economy and connecting people with green space. We’ve seen during lockdown just how valuable that is for our wellbeing.”

Studies into the feasibility of delivering the Bradford-Halifax Greenway and technical options for the tunnel’s repair are due to be completed by the end of this month.

--ENDS--

To link to a video on the tunnel's abandonment or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/azIBmmzECgs
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/azIBmmzECgs?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 15th March 2021

Campaigners welcome tunnel protection

A group hoping to reopen a disused West Yorkshire railway tunnel for walking and cycling has welcomed provisions to safeguard the Victorian structure.

Queensbury Tunnel, linking Bradford to Calderdale, has been at the centre of a longstanding dispute between Highways England, who intend to partially infill it due to perceived safety concerns, and sustainable transport campaigners who believe the tunnel should be repaired to form a key connector in the proposed Bradford-Halifax Greenway. The infilling works are expected to cost around £8 million but more than 7,300 people have so far objected to the planning application.

The West Yorkshire Combined Authority and two councils at either end of the 1.4-mile long underground passageway have expressed their support for the greenway scheme. Last year, a study by Bradford Council found that the route would deliver £5.60 in social and economic benefits for every £1 invested in it, representing high value for money.

The Council’s draft Local Plan, which is currently out for consultation, includes a commitment to expand and improve the district’s network of off-road cycle routes, both for commuting and leisure purposes. An extended Great Northern Railway Trail - running from Queensbury to Keighley - is identified on the policies map, together with Queensbury Tunnel and approach paths.

The chapter on Queensbury states that “The Local Plan will protect the Queensbury Tunnel which runs under the settlement as part of a wider connection with the Great Northern [Railway] Trail which provides a longer walking and cycling route connecting settlements including Cullingworth and Thornton.”

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “We’re obviously delighted that the Council is acting to ensure that this unique engineering asset is safeguarded against the destructive intentions of its current custodians.

“The public’s appetite for walking and cycling was demonstrated strikingly through the first lockdown when so many of us took advantage of the green space and clean air that came with so many vehicles being off the road. We have to encourage more people to step outside on foot and bike by creating more safe routes for them to explore.”

In January, the West Yorkshire Combined Authority published outline proposals for the development of a mass transit scheme linking major population centres across the county by 2040. Queensbury Tunnel was identified as a possible route for the Bradford-Halifax leg, but WYCA made clear that “the initial priority is that it is retained and becomes a walking and cycling route.”

Dr McWilliam continued: “It’s very clear that Highways England and the Department for Transport have not recognised the strategic value of Queensbury Tunnel for future transport use and have managed it blindly as a liability for many years.

“As we build a better future for our children and grandchildren after the pandemic, we have an obligation to invest wisely and ensure that maximum benefit is derived from our existing infrastructure. Queensbury Tunnel presents opportunities to help with improvements to our health, our wellbeing, the environment, the local economy and connectivity between communities. These opportunities cannot be lost to ignorance, a wasteful culture and lack of ambition.”

Government-funded studies into the feasibility of a Bradford-Halifax Greenway and technical options for repairing the tunnel are due to be completed by the end of this month.

--ENDS--

To link to a video on the tunnel's abandonment or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/azIBmmzECgs
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/azIBmmzECgs?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 8th March 2021

Confidence lacking over tunnel study findings

Campaigners have expressed their astonishment that a £500,000 study into the viability of repairing an old railway tunnel for use as a cycle path is being undertaken without engineers carrying out any inspections.

Queensbury Tunnel in West Yorkshire has been at the centre of a longstanding battle between Highways England, who manage the Victorian structure on the Department for Transport’s behalf, and a group hoping to repurpose it as part of a new foot and cycle path. The alternative is abandonment - expected to cost £8 million - which would involve around 12% of the tunnel being infilled and the rest left to collapse.

In July, the Government committed £1 million to two studies: the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, working with Bradford and Calderdale councils, is developing the business case for an active travel route connecting Bradford and Halifax via the tunnel, whilst Highways England is conducting a technical study into repair options for the structure and their associated costs.

Floodwater has accumulated through the southern half of the 1.4-mile long tunnel since Highways England twice failed to pay the £50 annual rent on a pumping station it built at the Halifax end, resulting in the equipment being switched off. Since then the company has consistently suggested that the water will be causing the masonry lining to deteriorate, jeopardising prospects for reopening.

Graeme Bickerdike, Engineering Coordinator for the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “The technical study offers the best opportunity to get current insight into the tunnel’s condition - based on evidence, rather than speculation. The landowner has made it clear that he would enter into positive dialogue so the pumps could be restarted and the tunnel dewatered. Unfortunately his offer was ignored.

“So we’re now faced with the farcical situation of consultants carrying out a desktop study from old reports, rather than entering the tunnel to conduct proper investigations. There’s a need to record the location and extent of any defects in order to design and price a suitable programme of remediation works, and there’s money in the budget to do that.

“The Government promised a study that would offer a definitive view of what’s required, helping to ‘build a consensus around the findings’. But how can anyone have confidence in the results of expensive guesswork and conjecture?”

The new study is being conducted by Jacobs, the company acting as agent for Highways England’s abandonment scheme, with input from AMCO-Giffen, the works contractor. Jacobs estimated repair at £35.4 million in 2016 as part of a report into the tunnel’s future management, but the Department for Transport’s own review found that this figure was “simply too high to be credible” and had been contrived to make the case for abandonment.

A 2018 study by AECOM, commissioned by Bradford Council, costed repair at £6.9 million.

Norah McWilliam, leader of the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “Not unreasonably, we assumed the new study would be conducted by independent engineers with tunnelling expertise, such as AECOM, which is what’s needed given the unique circumstances and prevailing conflict.

“To appoint the company driving the abandonment scheme - with its track record of exaggeration and inflation - immediately calls into question the trustworthiness of the study. £500,000 is a huge sum and we must derive maximum value from it.

“Jacobs’ 2016 costing was eventually discredited thanks in part to the DfT, but it put the reopening campaign back two years and shattered stakeholder confidence. We’ve worked hard to rebuild it and there is now solid support for the tunnel’s reuse as part of a Bradford-Halifax Greenway.

“One clear message from lockdown is the public’s enthusiasm for walking and cycling if safe, high-quality infrastructure is available. We have the opportunity to build a better future after the pandemic.”

The findings of the two studies are expected by the end of March, after which the Department for Transport will consider the case for funding the greenway scheme from its active travel budgets.

--ENDS--

To link to a video on the tunnel's abandonment or embed it on your webpage:
(Link) https://youtu.be/azIBmmzECgs
(Embed) <iframe width="560" height="315" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/azIBmmzECgs?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 14th January 2021

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