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Study reveals navvies’ tunnel sacrifice

As the Historical Railway Estate (HRE) prepares to spend around £3 million of public money abandoning Queensbury Tunnel, the Society campaigning to save it has published a study of the ten men known to have lost their lives during its construction 140 years ago.

At 2,501 yards (2,287 metres) in length, Queensbury Tunnel was one of the most challenging projects ever undertaken by the Great Northern Railway. Engineered by John Fraser in the 1870s, it formed part of a strategically important north-south route, bypassing the congested lines around Leeds and Bradford. It was anticipated that work would take two years, however contractors Benton & Woodiwiss had to cope with huge volumes of water entering the workings. Consequently two of the seven construction shafts had to be abandoned. Work was eventually completed in July 1878 and, when it opened three months later, the tunnel became the 11th longest on Britain’s railway network.

Around 600 navvies played a part in building Queensbury Tunnel, whilst a further 100 laboured in the cuttings at either end. From a health and safety perspective, they endured conditions unimaginable in the 21st century. Of the ten men confirmed to have been killed, three died as a result of explosions, two were crushed, one fell down a shaft, one was struck by a falling skip, one drowned, one was hit on the head by a collapsing roof support and one was run over. The death rate therefore was about one worker in 70, although many others sustained injuries that could easily have proved fatal.

At 44, the oldest to die was John Swire, a profoundly deaf man who had only returned to work on the morning of his death after being hurt in another accident. His right leg was severed below the knee when wagons ran over it. The youngest casualty was 25-year-old Frederick Goulding who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time - standing between a wagon and a roof support when a large rock smashed into the wagon, causing Goulding to get crushed.

But perhaps the most tragic misadventure befell a farm labourer called Captain Pickles. On 15th May 1877, he married Edna Oddy at Bradford Parish Church. Days later, in a probable attempt to give his wife a better life, the 30-year-old secured work as a platelayer on the new railway, a job that attracted a higher rate of pay. However on 17th June, barely a month after the happiest day of his life, he was hit on the head by a half-ton timber in Queensbury Tunnel which had been dislodged by a trolley striking it. His injuries were so severe that death was instantaneous.

Norah McWilliam, who leads the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “It’s easy just to see Queensbury Tunnel as a black hole in the ground but, beyond its physical form, it has a compelling story to tell and many men made appalling sacrifices to drive it through the hill. As well as those killed, others suffered injuries that would change their lives forever.

“Of course none of this is a reason to save the tunnel at any price; but, in our view, it does impose a moral obligation to robustly examine all possible options before deciding to destroy it. We owe those men a huge debt because they gave their lives in pursuit of the great social revolution brought by the railways in the 19th century. We shouldn’t allow our engineering heritage to be swept aside simply because that’s the easy option, particularly when the tunnel still has the potential to serve a useful purpose for generations to come.”

The Queensbury Tunnel Society is campaigning for the structure to be repaired so that it can serve as the centrepiece of a future cycle path network connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. However designers working for the Historical Railways Estate are already making progress with an abandonment scheme ahead of physical works starting in 2018. According to HRE, the cost of repair would be £35.4 million, but a specialist engineering team acting for the Society last year put forward a “proportionate and pragmatic” remediation programme costed at £2.8 million.

The Society would like anyone who shares its vision for the tunnel - and the associated development of a local cycle path network - to sign its ePetition on ( The report on the ten fatal accident victims can be downloaded from the Reports section of the Society’s website (


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Issued 20th March 2017

Tunnelling study casts doubt over repair cost

It would be cheaper to drive a new Queensbury Tunnel than repair the existing one at the price put forward by the body that looks after it. That’s one of several surprising findings contained in a study of tunnelling costs published by the Queensbury Tunnel Society (QTS) which is campaigning for the historic structure to be restored so that it can eventually become the centrepiece of a cycle path network connecting Bradford, Halifax and Keighley.

However the future of the disused railway tunnel is currently under threat because of abandonment plans being progressed by Highways England’s Historical Railways Estate (HRE) which examines and maintains it on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT). Last year Jacobs, HRE’s consulting engineers, produced a report on future asset management options for the tunnel which put the cost of abandonment at about £3 million, compared with £35.4 million for repair. Unsurprisingly Robert Goodwill, then Minister of State at the DfT, ruled out repair as too expensive.

Subsequently, a review of Jacobs’ report by specialist tunnel engineers found a number of basic and substantive errors, as a result of which the Society asked the Department for Transport to prevent any further abandonment work being carried out until a full and robust examination of options for the tunnel has been undertaken. The DfT has not responded to that request; neither has it made any comment on the “pragmatic and proportionate” remediation scheme - costed at £2.81 million - put forward by the same specialist tunnel engineers.

Norah McWilliam, who leads the Queensbury Tunnel Society, said: “Having ruled out repair on the basis of a deficient report with questionable costings, the Department for Transport now seems to have pulled the shutters down, refusing to even acknowledge a robust repair plan developed by a specialist engineering team which demonstrates that the tunnel could be made safe for public use at a price comparable with abandonment. Our new study provides clear insight into just how inflated that initial costing was. Why did HRE not recognise that? They have serious questions to answer about Jacobs’ report, the process that resulted in it being accepted and their subsequent use of it.”

The new study has found that, in 2009, another report by Jacobs’ put the cost of repairing Queensbury Tunnel’s lining at just £1.2 million. The firm’s latest figure of £35.4 million therefore represents an increase of 2,850% in seven years and a cost per linear metre of £15,470; that is 24% or 29% more than HS2 expects to spend constructing its new bores (£11,000 or £12,500 per metre, depending on the type of machine used) despite 89% of Queensbury Tunnel being in ‘fair’ condition. Using unit costs developed for three tunnelling projects in Scotland, the study also estimates that a new Queensbury Tunnel could be constructed for an upper-bound figure of £25.6 million, almost £10 million less than Jacobs’ repair cost.

Graeme Bickerdike, who co-ordinated the study on QTS’ behalf, said “Right from the outset, everyone we’ve spoken to about HRE’s £35.4 million repair figure - engineers, consultants, contractors, mining specialists - have all regarded it as being ‘off the scale’. The work we’ve just completed has crystallised that view. A secondary, spray concrete lining could be installed from one end of Queensbury Tunnel to the other (2,501 yards/2,287 metres) for less than £10 million; an entirely new tunnel could be driven for about £25 million. How then can Jacobs and HRE seriously believe that it would cost more than £35 million to repair the existing tunnel which, for the most part, is in fair condition?”

HRE’s designers are already making progress with the abandonment scheme although physical works are not expected to start until next year. Meanwhile the Society has reiterated its view that all such activity should be halted because the basis upon which the abandonment decision was made - the report produced by Jacobs - was substantially flawed.

The Society would like anyone who shares its vision for the tunnel - and the associated development of a local cycle path network - to sign its ePetition on



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Issued 6th February 2017


Study reveals navvies' tunnel sacrifice

Tuesday 27 June 2017