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UK Queensbury Tunnel, Queensbury - December 2016

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History

 

Queensbury Tunnel is one of the longest (2501 yards/1.4 miles) and deepest railway tunnels in England. It was part of the GNR line serving the northern industrial towns of Bradford, Halifax and Keighley. 

 

A railway connecting Halifax with Keighley was proposed in 1873; however, the local topography imposed many constraints, especially in the Queensbury area. As a result, several tunnels and viaducts were required to complete the line. A well-known prolific engineer named John Fraser, who was responsible for the construction of several other lines across Yorkshire, was appointed as head engineer for the project. 

 

Work on the Queensbury Tunnel began in May 1874. To begin with, cuttings were made into the hillsides at Holmfield and Queensbury through sandstone and millstone grit, and four observatories were subsequently erected to offer views over the construction of four of the major shafts. Eight shafts were originally planned, but the design was later revised to include only seven (the spacing between each was extended). Despite a good start, the first few months proved challenging due to a large influx of water. Although there was regular pumping provision during periods of heavy rainfall work had to be abandoned because the water would often still flood shafts five and six. In an effort to drain some of the water, additional shafts were dug into the hillside. Eventually, this seemed to speed up the progress of the tunnel. As progress of the tunnel continued, and it started to look much more ‘tunnel-like’, five of the original vertical shafts were reinforced and retained for ventilation purposes.

 

Throughout the project several types of drilling machines were tried, but in the end only one was successful: Major Beaumont’s machine that was suited to excavating harder materials. Beaumont’s drill comprised a frame on which four drills were mounted, with compressed air harnessed as the motive power. It is reported that the use of the machine increased the rate of progress significantly.

 

In terms of disasters during the construction period of the Queensbury Tunnel, the first casualties occurred on 10th October 1874, when Richard Sutcliffe suffered a fatal compound fracture when a rope used to haul a cage up shaft number one snapped. The cage plummeted to the bottom of the pit and landed on top of Sutcliffe. Two other miners were also struck, but miraculously they both survived. The next disaster occurred on 7th December 1875 at 3.40am, when six miners returned to their working face after having retreated to fire shots. They were all under the impression that all the blasts had been successful. However, it was quickly discovered that one shot had misfired, so Henry Jones and John Gough were sent to withdraw it. After getting it position to make the withdrawal it exploded, killing them both instantly. A third miner was also injured, suffering head injuries and a broken arm, but he was sent immediately to Halifax Infirmary after being attended to by the works inspector. Several other incidents involving rock collapses also claimed a number of unfortunate miners, and this resulted in the construction project being known as ‘the slaughtering lines’ by local newspapers. 

 

The tunnel was finally completed in July 1878, and the Great Northern Railway company held a special dinner for the 300 men involved in its construction. The first train passed through the tunnel in later September as part of a preliminary inspection. Major General Hutchinson conducted the inspection and concluded that it was unfit for passenger traffic due to the incomplete nature of its works. As a result, it remained as a freight only line until December 1879, when Hutchinson revisited the line and re-inspected the tunnel. 

 

Nevertheless, soon after becoming part of a passenger line, significant defects were spotted in the sidewalls of the tunnel. This was partly due to poor workmanship, but also to the mining of coal from a seam adjacent to the tunnel. Although repairs were made, additional problems with excessive water build up intensified. A number of pumps were installed in an effort to control this problem. In the winter, though, new threats began to transpire as a result of the water problems, as large icicles would form on the ceiling of the tunnel. During the winter months the first train would be responsible for their removal. In the end, to counter this problem, engines would sometimes be left inside the tunnel overnight to generate heat and prevent the formation of ice. By 1933, the damaged caused by continuing seepage through the brickwork had resulted in the severe deterioration of parts of the structure. The Works Committee decided to employ G. A. Pillett & Son to fulfil the strengthening project. It took seven months to complete at a cost of £2,637. 

 

By May 1955, the line’s passenger service was withdrawn. Freight trains continued to use the tunnel for another year, but in 1956 they too were stopped from using the line. The tunnel remained abandoned for a number of years, until it was revisited in 1963 to remove the tracks. Soon after their removal a seismological station was established inside the tunnel by two Cambridge University scientists. During the 1970s the scientists used an array of strain meters and seismometers to compare the effect of elastic inhomogeneities on surface waves from earthquakes and tidal strains. All of the recording equipment was housed in an onsite hut which was also sometimes used by the university’s geophysics department to sleep in. Accessing the hut involved driving a van through tunnel which had to dodge the rubble that had been tipped down the overhead shafts when they were capped. By the end of the 1970s the station was moved to another site at Bingley owing to growing safety concerns over the deteriorating condition of the tunnel. 

 

For many years after the university vacated the structure, the tunnel’s northern entrance remained bricked up, with maintenance access available through steel-plated gates. The wall was removed in 2012, however, and replaced with a palisade fence. Most of the time the southernmost portal is completely flooded, with the water level reaching the roof of the portal, owing to poor drainage provision. A number of pumps have been installed, though, and they are used to drain the water when access is required for maintenance. For a while annual inspections ceased due to low levels of oxygen, concerns about ground movement, the effects of vegetation and water, and considerable bulging and missing brickwork in certain sections of the tunnel. However, the tunnel has once again been drained and there are rumours of a major works programme being undertaken over the next four years. 


Our Version of Events


Next on our journey to Liverpool for New Years, we wanted to check out Queensbury Tunnel. Fortunately, it was only around the corner from our previous explore, so it didn’t take long to get there. Finding the actual location didn’t prove to be too difficult either. The only bit of bother we really had was the last bit of driving down a rough poorly tarmacked track in a Ferrari F12 berlinette and a Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport. The side skirts really weren’t very practical. However, we eventually made it to the bottom where we were able to park up. Certain that the cars would be perfectly safe just at the side of the track, we hopped out and began to fetch the gear from the boot. It’s amazing what you can fit inside a Ferrari if you make use of all the nooks and crannies. Bit by bit the items began to gather on the floor by the side of the car: a rope ladder, carabiners, slings, tripods, camera bags, the bevvy box, sandwiches for all eight of us, a picnic blanket, a lampshade, the emergency toaster, several boxes of Jaffa Cakes and eight cheese scones. 

 

Several minutes later and we were heading down the small footpath towards the entrance of the tunnel. It was muddy as fuck the entire way, and somehow got even more muddy right next to the entrance itself. After reaching the northern portal, though, we were halted in our tracks by a greater obstacle. The world’s best security perimeter stood in our way. A large black gate loomed over us, slick with fresh anti-climb paint. Not just a slight splodge either, this thing was greased up better than a Girl’s Gone Wild wrestling contender. A large coil of razor wire lay across the top, which has been wrapped around what looked like ordinary barbed wire. That wasn’t all either. Behind this beast of a fence, there was the original palisade fence, also thickly coated in the black stuff. However, as there was no sign to tell us to ‘fuck off’, we were unsure whether we were allowed to venture beyond this mere obstacle. As there was no signage, we guessed that it must be acceptable to proceed onwards – with caution of course. 

 

Next, then, we decided to climb to the top of the portal to find a couple of decent sized trees. After wrapping a couple of slings around them, we clipped a home-made Blue Peter inspired rope ladder onto the anchors. We carefully lowered the ladder over the side of the portal and it slotted just nicely behind the second palisade fence. Champion. One by one we proceeded to descend the ladder, taking care not to lose our footing on the rungs. One little slip up and we’d look like failed POW escapees impaled on top of a Nazi-inspired barricade. Going over the ledge was the hardest part of the whole endeavour, since one of the crucial rungs was pressed up tightly against the top of the portal. Having said that, perhaps the most difficult part was getting the egg and cress sarnies over.

 

Once inside, the situation looked grim. Our chances of climbing back out didn’t look good. The ladder was now well and truly lubricated with mud and anti-climb paint. Our only option was to carry on into the depths of the tunnel. We were hoping that the pumps at the other end would still be working, meaning we could walk out rather than climb over the barricade. We set off, walking in the direction of the tiniest smidge of light in the distance. A couple of shots were taken here and there, but it suddenly dawned on us that we were in a former railway tunnel and there are hardly ever any remarkable changes in the features. It just kept going, and the light at the end of the tunnel never seemed to get any bigger. The one behind us definitely got smaller though, to the point that it too was the same size as the one ahead of us. How does that work?

 

Structurally, then, the tunnel is absolutely fucked. There are many important bits missing (bricks and things), where there should be important bits, and several big collapsed sections. There’s some evidence that scaff has been erected to perhaps begin reinforcement work, but that’s not going too well by the looks of things since the tunnel is now resting on much of this scaffolding. We noticed that there’s a bit of a leakage problem too, because we had to walk under three or four cascading waterfalls. Bad crack when you’re trying to keep the scotch eggs dry. 

 

After walking for what felt like an eternity, we finally noticed that the light at the end of the tunnel was slowly getting larger. One point four miles underground certainly feels like a considerable amount of distance. Thankfully, the portal wasn’t flooded, though, and the pumps were still doing the business, so we were able to climb the two palisade fences to escape. These haven’t been greased up yet either, so the risk of losing a testicle from slipping is slightly reduced. 

 

Explored with Ford Mayhem, Rizla Rider and Soul. 

 

Queensbury Tunnel Back in the Day

 

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Queensbury Tunnel Today

 

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