Graeme Bickerdike Reports…
Hyperbole will flourish in the springtime as the nation commemorates the 50th anniversary of a butcher wielding his knife; the deeds of a mad axeman.
Brought in from ICI to stem the railway’s haemorrhaging losses, Richard Beeching’s initial proposals emerged in March 1963, accelerating the contraction of the network seen through the 1950s. Appendix 2 of his report listed five-and-a-half pages of line closure recommendations, representing about 6,000 route miles, although a fair proportion was ultimately reprieved thanks to vociferous campaigning.
Known euphemistically as a “reshaping of British Railways”, analysis of Beeching’s broader impact can wait for another time. What’s beyond question though is that it has proved good news…for cyclists.
Since completion of the Bristol and Bath Railway Path in 1986, many other forgotten trackbeds have resumed a transport role, connecting communities just as their railways once did. The National Cycle Network (NCN), now extending over 13,000 miles, continues to reach new places, often by railway.
Amongst its highlights are some iconic viaducts – Conisbrough, Glen Ogle, Derriton – and a collection of around two dozen tunnels. Wishful thinkers hoping to reverse the Beeching cuts might bemoan such development; pragmatists though will recognise it as safeguarding alignments against more substantial encroachment.
Making the connection
Almost lost amongst the Appendix 2 entries was Bradford Exchange-Batley-Wakefield, encompassing a heavily-engineered section of line built by the Great Northern Railway in the 1870s.
Now, 48 years after the last train ran over it, part of the route is returning to public service as a Greenway, accommodating both feet and bikes. This will connect two West Yorkshire towns – Ossett and Dewsbury – via the 179-yard Earlsheaton Tunnel, penetrating a hill that highways have to climb over.
“There is some awkward topography there”, affirms Lynnette Evans, Kirklees Council’s Cycling Officer. “The road alternative on the A638 Wakefield Road is not at all cycle-friendly. The disused railway provides a level route and passes many residential areas so it will give people an opportunity to make their journeys more sustainably.
It’s a new green space, helping to improve health and quality-of-life. And we’re also hoping for an economic boost to both town centres by regenerating what was a derelict and overgrown corridor between them.”
It doesn’t come cheap of course. The work is costing around £1.3 million, one-third of which has been secured from the DfT’s Local Sustainable Transport Fund. Additional support is coming via sustainable transport charity Sustrans which won lottery backing in 2007 for its Connect2 scheme, to bridge dozens of strategically unhelpful gaps in the National Cycle Network.
Sustrans has been heavily involved in the Earlsheaton project, completing a feasibility study prior to the route’s development and undertaking one of the earlier construction phases, although the latest works have been carried out by in-house contract teams from the two local authorities involved, Wakefield and Kirklees.
Turn back time
Quite what John Fraser would make of it is difficult to gauge. As the Great Northern’s engineer, it was his enterprising vision that drove the railway from Ossett to Dewsbury in the first place.
Tragedy inevitably visited the tunnel during its construction. A French miner, James Smythe (presumably not his real name), joined the workforce on the evening of Tuesday 17th December 1872. Shortly after his return from supper, heavy snowfall caused a landslide 20 yards from the eastern entrance.
This triggered a collapse of the tunnel’s timber centring, entombing Smythe beneath the debris. His cries grew weaker over the half-hour that followed until silence prevailed. It was Friday before his body was exhumed.
Another rock fall claimed a navvy the following spring. But on Tuesday 6th May 1873, a ceremonial keystone was inserted into the arch, following which a dinner was laid on at Dewsbury’s Man & Saddle Hotel. Goods traffic started to use the tunnel a year later.
No significant toll had been inflicted on the structure by redundancy, imposed in February 1965. Bought by Dewsbury Corporation nine years later, it now falls under the maintenance regime of Kirklees Council.
An inspection in March 2010 found the tunnel to be in good order compared with others of a similar vintage. Freeze-thaw action had caused localised spalling of the masonry sidewalls, comprising a rubble fill behind ashlared sandstone blocks.
Loose brickwork and bulging was apparent to the south spandrel face of the east portal. Doing it no favours was a sapling which had taken root above the string course, pushing the parapet upwards. Water ingress afflicted both ends of the tunnel – particularly the section immediately beyond the east portal – but the rest was predominantly dry.
Addressing these defects would form much of the works programme. Another major element involved taking the path over Preston Street, which the railway formerly crossed via an underbridge 40 yards beyond the west portal. Its deck was salvaged following closure; this has subsequently benefited the adjacent works as the structure offered very restricted headroom – certainly too low for lorries to pass beneath. Like-for-like replacement was therefore not an option.
Light and shade
The tunnel’s boggy eastern approach cutting had been cleared as part of a previous phase. Through here a 2.5m path had been laid comprising a recycled sub-base sitting on a starter layer of 100-125mm stone; above these are a Terram 2000 geotextile and a 60mm surface course. This effectively acted as the access road for all the tunnel works.
Bats proved a significant constraint, restricting interior activity to the period from April to October. They also influenced the lighting. Surveys found evidence of common pipistrelles using cracks in the south sidewall, both as a summer night roost and for hibernation.
As a result, the initial plan was not to illuminate the tunnel, however Police concerns over anti-social behaviour caused this to be reviewed. Although relatively short, the structure incorporates a curve of 22 chains in radius, meaning that one end is not quite visible from the other.
Finding the right solution proved an interesting technical challenge. The compromise was to install lighting but reduce its intensity at dusk to just 20%, and create a dark corridor along the south sidewall and at the crown along which the bats could navigate.
Specialist contractor Philips WRTL helped to develop the design which was evolved through on-site trials. The starting point was to mitigate disruption to existing roosts while providing sufficient light to ensure users would feel secure.
Installed are nine directional units each incorporating 30 LEDs. The original intention was to fix these at the haunches of the arch, with the path running directly below them to maximise sight lines. However they are now supported on 4m-high posts, positioned 2m from the wall; the path is aligned down the centre of the tunnel. While expectations might be for consistent spacing, the posts have been located to avoid known bat roosts.
Steven Hanley, Principal Engineer – Transportation, has overseen the project on behalf of Kirklees Council. “While the lighting design concept is fairly straightforward, we had to work hard to find the right balance: getting the tunnel open, getting the right levels, getting the right design.
We had to allay people’s fears and at the same time meet legal requirements in terms of not disturbing any bat roosts. So we had a couple of night-time visits and made some adjustments to make it fit for purpose. All parties got involved. As a result we’ve received approval from the bat specialists and West Yorkshire Police. It also meets British Standard lighting levels, so we’ve ended up with a good solution.”
Inspections revealed that the tunnel’s original p-way drainage – running along its centreline on a falling gradient of 1:59 to the west – had deteriorated and partly collapsed. As a first step to dealing with the water ingress, this was removed and a new drain buried at the foot of the north sidewall.
At both portals, breakers were used to loosen the accumulated debris behind the parapets before being removed by a vacuum excavator. This allowed a concrete saddle to be poured at the west end, with a filter drain inserted.
On top of the east portal, the work exposed an extensive brick-built collection system that discharged water from the cutting face into the railway drain. This was cleared and repaired.
Whilst the result has been to reduce the intensity of the penetration, broken pipework within the cutting face will need investigation and reinstatement in order to improve things further. Overcoming the associated access difficulties will demand specialist involvement.
Spot brickwork and masonry repairs followed over a period of three weeks. Scaffolds facilitated this work at the portals, allowing a number of bat boxes to be built into the parapet. Within the tunnel, portable platforms provided access to the sidewalls, for which a local source of reclaimed stone was found that closely matched the required dimensions.
Several design options were put forward to take the path across Preston Street. However maintaining access to the nearby business and residential properties proved a constraining factor. Although a footbridge was initially preferred, this would have required considerable approach ramps – starting within the tunnel – in order to obtain the necessary clearances; it would also have proved visually intrusive.
The chosen solution involves an at-grade crossing, with the road realigned horizontally to provide sufficient visibility around the hillside and an existing bridge abutment, and vertically to minimise the path’s descent from trackbed level.
The two intersect at the crest of the road’s new vertical curve; the path falling at a maximum gradient of 1:20 as is preferred for NCN routes. Considerable earthworks had to be formed in order to accommodate this arrangement as the land dropped steeply away on Preston Street’s west side whilst the former railway, having crossed the bridge, was carried on a 6m-high embankment.
Traffic was switched onto the new alignment during the course of one November weekend, allowing backfilling operations to take place above the old road and for the connecting path to be laid from the tunnel mouth. Still serving as a retaining wall, the abutment was reshaped and tidied up.
January will see an official opening for the new section of path. The Council’s attention will then turn to a 600m missing link between the site of Earlsheaton’s former station and the local authority boundary, beyond which the Greenway has already been laid by Wakefield Council.
The approaches to the tunnel will improve aesthetically when the scattered grass and wild flower seed disguise the bare verges, but users have already been enjoying the Greenway in numbers, welcoming the local connectivity it brings.
The second phase of Beeching’s railway reorganisation, published in February 1965, proposed a focussing of investment on around 3,000 miles of major trunk lines. Representing less than half the network, this underpinned his view that there was still too much duplication of routes. He returned to ICI four months later, the government having rejected his vision.
Fifty years on, Beeching’s legacy can still stoke the fire of many rail enthusiasts. Even his most ardent supporters could not argue that his surgery was unequivocally successful, but perhaps we will come to reflect more positively on it as discarded infrastructure is increasingly rehabilitated to play a positive social role.