Campaigners welcome Transport Secretary's intervention in row over transformation of Victorian railway tunnel

Campaigners have welcomed Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ intervention in a row over reopening a disused Victorian railway tunnel.

Mr Shapps said public safety has to come first but he wants a “viable solution” for the Queensbury Tunnel and will visit “as soon as possible” .

Camapigners have been fighting for six years to reopen the 1.4-mile long tunnel, which closed in May 1956, as the longest underground cycle/walkway in England.

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Mr Shapps' response came after Highways England was accused of being “bloody-minded” after turning down a request to pause plans to seal the tunnel.

No 2 shaft in the Queensbury Tunnel

Bradford Council had asked the agency if they could hold off on their plans while they wait for a decision from the Department of Transport on funding repairs, so it can become a highway linking west Bradford with north Halifax.

Last year West Yorkshire Combined Authority asked for £23m to turn the tunnel into a “high quality” cycling route in a bid to the Government’s Transforming Cities Fund (TCF), saying it would provide a travel option for some of the 14,000 people who commute between the two districts daily.

Highways England, which manages the tunnel on the Department for Transport’s behalf, has applied for planning permission to abandon it due to safety concerns.

However their plans have sparked huge opposition, with more than 5,200 objections submitted.

Cyclists and campaigners at a rally in 2019 calling for the tunnel between Halifax and Bradford to be turned into a cycleway path

Planners asked the agency for consent to push back the date when the plans will be heard until May. But the Agency said 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: “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.”

Ms McWilliam said Mr Shapps' offer to visit was "certainly encouraging", adding that it was "time Yorkshire stood up to get a slice of the pie."

They want to replicate and even outshine the success of similar tunnel projects including the 12-mile Bath Two Tunnels Circuit and the Monsal Trail in the Derbyshire Peak District.

Ms McWilliam sent a letter on Sunday to Mr Shapps saying the tunnel has "unique national value in its potential to be the longest underground cycle/walkway in England."

She also asked him "respectfully to instruct Highways England to agree with Bradford Planning Office’s recent request".

In a statement on Friday Mr Shapps said: “We are committed to trying to find a viable way forward for this project which is why I ordered my officials to meet with the local authority prior to Christmas.

“Of course maintaining public safety must come first, but I want all parties to work towards finding a viable solution. I will arrange to come and visit Queensbury Tunnel as soon as possible and ensure those discussions are progressing quickly.”

The tunnel's history

Queensbury Tunnel was built by the Great Northern Railway between 1874 and 1878 as part of the Halifax, Thornton & Keighley Railway.

Work was initially expected to take two years but was delayed significantly by two of the seven construction shafts having to be abandoned due to water ingress. At least ten navvies lost their lives during the work.

The tunnel, which is 2,501 yards (2,287 metres) long, opened to freight traffic in October 1878 and passenger trains in December 1879.

The line between Holmfield and Queensbury, which included the tunnel, was officially closed on 28th May 1956. Track lifting took place in 1963.

Queensbury Tunnel would be the longest in the UK to host a shared path if the proposal to reopen it for such a purpose is successful.

Currently Combe Down Tunnel in Bath holds that position at 1,829 yards (1,672 metres).

The longest in Europe is the 2,931-yard (2,680 metres) Uitzi Tunnel on the Plazaola Greenway in northern Spain.

However plans are being developed to restore Rhondda Tunnel in South Wales for cycle path use; this has a length of 3,443 yards (3,148 metres).