Glance at a map of the West Riding’s rail network at its height and you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer complexity of lines.

Rather than share, rival rail companies wriggled their own lines along tight valleys to serve towns, villages and their many mills. This gave Shipley and Keighley the Midland Railway’s main line from London to Carlisle. Yet each town also had a Great Northern Railway branch. Nearby Bradford had a Midland spur into Forster Square while the Great Northern shared Exchange station with the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway.

Aside from its line from Leeds to Bradford, little remains today of the GN network. The branch through Idle to Shipley closed in 196x although the station building remains, marooned in a Shipley scrapyard. 

Closed too are its lines from Bradford to Halifax and Keighley which were once anchored by Queensbury’s triangular station. This trio of lines came with impressive structures. There’s the 1,057 yard Clayton tunnel on the Bradford arm. Hewenden Viaduct’s 17 arches and the reputably grim 1,533 yards of Lees Moor Tunnel sit on the Keighley arm. The line to Halifax features Queensbury Tunnel.

The latter has courted controversy. Highways England has a project to infil its portals. There’s also a plan to reopen Queensbury Tunnel to become part of a Bradford-Halifax greenway. (Parts of the line towards Keighley have already been converted.) To add extra complication, its southern portal and approach cutting are full of water.

When I was talking with Graeme Bickerdike (RAIL 922) about Highways England, we also spoke about Queensbury Tunnel. He’s keen to see it reopen and has closely followed its story. 

After a resigned ‘where to start?’ comment, he explained the saga: “Highways England has a long-held desire to do something that would enable it to walk away from [the tunnel] and what it came up with was this scheme whereby it would infill 100 metres at either end of the tunnel, pour a load of aggregate down the seven ventilation shafts then walk away and allow the rest of it to collapse below the village. 

“Fortunately, [the tunnel] is very deep [under Queensbury] so the likelihood of any collapse migrating to the surface is thought to be very slight. That’s basically the plan. Its original cost for that was £2.7 million. It issued a contract for the work at £3.2m. At about the same time as the plans emerged, a campaign group put forward the idea of creating a greenway between Bradford and Halifax via the tunnel, saying that if you’re going to spend millions on the tunnel why don’t you get it brought back into use so that it delivers some benefit.

“The councils at either end, Bradford and Calderdale, eventually said they supported the idea. A study was commissioned from AECOM and came back with a cost of repair of £6.9m. Bradford Council conducted a study that found that the cost benefit would be something like £5.60 for every one pound invested, a very high benefit.

“Then Highways England failed to pay the £50 annual rent on a pumping station at the south end of the tunnel which resulted in a pumping station that it had built in 2016 being shut down in 2018 as a result of which the tunnel flooded to half its length, 3/4 of a mile. 

“Its abandonment scheme was immediately put into complete disarray. It couldn’t do it because it couldn’t dewater [the tunnel]. So the cost of abandonment which was £2.7m and became £3.2m is now estimated at about £7m. But [Highways England] has no means of doing it because it can’t get the water out of the tunnel. 

“So, through an act of extraordinary incompetence, failing to pay a £50 annual rent, it’s made abandonment three times more costly than it would have been and almost undeliverable.”

Fortunately for the campaigners, the pumps sit on land owned by a supporter so they could be switched on to drain the water and make way for the proposed Queensbury greenway. To add strength to their case, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps offered £1m to study how to reopen Queensbury Tunnel with half that money for a feasibility study of the greenway. Graeme reckons the reports are due in March.

Meanwhile the HRE Group’s campaign continues to prevent Highways England using emergency powers to demolish or infill structures around England, Scotland and Wales. After Highways England gave me a statement for RAIL 922 that said that around 200 bridges had failed their most recent structural assessment, I asked a few more questions.

The assessment in question is called BD21. It checks bridges for their capacity to carry loads. The top classification is 40 tonnes which supports the heaviest lorries. Lower BD21 classifications can support 26 tonnes, 18t or 7.5t. Highways England told me that it had classed the bridges as failures because they could not meet the 40-tonne test.

No matter that the bridges were never designed for 40 tonnes or that they are on minor roads or tracks that aren’t suitable for the heaviest lorries. Highways England is labelling as failures bridges that might be perfectly fit for their loads and is lining them up for infilling. Worse, as I understand the situation, the bridges in question aren’t subject to BD21 but an older assessment method called BE4 designed for 24 tonne loads. 

Highways England also told me that it is talking with local authorities about the future uses of these various bridges and tunnels that it inherited from the British Railways Board. This runs counter to the impression given by letters from its contractor, Jacobs, to local authorities that simply said the work was being done to prevent an emergency. HE said: “While it’s common for Historic Railways Estate or our consultant to write to local authorities, the letters are just one part of the communication process.”

Highways England is planning its infill and demolition schemes under permitted development power using legal powers that allow it to do work to prevent emergencies. However, I noted in RAIL 922 that these powers require the structure in question to be returned to its original state. This is difficult after demolition or with an arch full of concrete. 

Highways England countered that the regulations also allow it to agree in writing with local authorities a variation to that original state. This means that Highways England has acknowledged that it can’t just demolish or infill old railway bridges and tunnels without talking to local authorities. In Queensbury Tunnel’s case, the local authority has other plans for HE’s bridges and tunnels. (I should note that Highways England has applied for planning permission to infill Queensbury Tunnel rather than using permitted development powers.)

As Highways England said of its decision to class 200 structures as failures: “We approach the local authority to ask it how it intends to manage the assessment failure, as local highway authorities are responsible for managing BD21 assessment failures, applying weight restrictions, closing the roads, or restricting traffic. We have discussions with local authorities to see if they intend to take action, and if they had any use for the structures. This determines whether we need to carry outwork for the public’s safety.”

I’m still far from impressed with Highways England’s attempts to push through its demolition and infill plans under the guise of emergency work. I believe HE is on dodgy ground to use the bridges’ inability to carry loads they will never see to claim it’s preventing an emergency.

But the responses printed here from Highways England clearly show it acknowledging a need to talk to local authorities before it implements its plans. HE acknowledges that it needs local authority agreement to demolish or infill structures even when using emergency powers. 

This might be an easier process than applying for planning permission. It might mean that councillors don’t have a formal say in the process but they will be able to quiz their officials about HE’s proposals and they should be able to influence the outcome.

The result might be demolition or infill. That might be the right answer for a particular structure. But if that’s done, it must be with a local authority’s knowledge rather than something that’s forced upon it.

For complete balance, I’ll leave the final word to Highways England. It told me: “We enjoy a strong working relationship with councils, allowing for an open dialogue about local authority responsibilities, potential future use or transfer of ownership of bridges. We continue to work closely with many councils, and cycle and equestrian groups, for the re-use of structures.”

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine on January 27 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.