Full separation of modes is the gold standard for bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. The Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels can therefore be considered platinum standard because there are wide, separate tunnels for those on foot and those cycling.
The 275-meter twin-tube tunnel is buried 12 meters beneath the River Tyne between Jarrow and Howdon, near Newcastle in the northeast of England. It was opened in 1951, sixteen years before the Tyne Tunnel for motor vehicles. At its peak, soon after opening, 20,000 users rode or walked through the tunnels each day.
Closed for refurbishment since 2013, the works are nearing completion and the tunnels are due to re-open in May. I know this because yesterday I was with journalists granted early access to the tunnels and allowed to ride on what is arguably Britain’s best cycleway. [UPDATE – the re-opening was put back, and is now scheduled for Wednesday, August 7.]
At 3.7 meters wide the cyclists’ part of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels is almost a meter wider than the world-class cycleway along the Thames Embankment in London.
Built as Tyneside’s contribution to the post-war Festival of Britain staged between May and September 1951, the tunnels linked shipyards on both sides of the Tyne. The shipyards are long gone, and the tunnels will likely never again cater to 20,000 users a day, but cyclists and pedestrians cannot use the motorist-only Tyne Tunnel and there’s no bridge nearby so the route – like always, set to be open for 24 hours a day – is a critical one for those without motor vehicles but wishing to cross the river at this point.
Unlike the Tyne Tunnel for motorists, access to the cyclist and pedestrian tunnels has always been free. The nearby Shields ferry is not free.
The Tyne Pedestrian and Cycle Tunnels were built at the location of a second ferry over the Tyne, which went out of business soon after the tunnels opened.
During restoration works – which were beset by contractor collapses and budget over-runs – pedestrians and cyclists were transported under the Tyne thanks to a free shuttle.
Originally supposed to be completed in two years, the restoration has taken five, partly because the first contractor, GB Building Solutions, fell into administration in 2015. The electrical sub-contractor Vaughn Engineering ceased trading last year thanks to its association with failed construction giant Carillion.
The discovery of more asbestos than expected also pushed back the completion date. The fire-retardant material – now known to pose a cancer risk to those exposed to it – was found in abundance on the site, including packed behind the four wooden-tread escalators.
These are still the longest wooden escalators in the world. One each side of the crossing has been removed (carrying a bicycle on the steep escalators was always a risky undertaking). Tunnel users will, instead, use an inclined glass lift running in parallel to the remaining wooden escalators, which have been taken out of service. This glass box on wheels – which will be able to accommodate six cyclists and their bicycles – was installed by Italian firm Maspero Elivatori.
Originally budgeted at £6.9 million, the final cost of restoring the Grade II listed tunnels will be £16 million, confirmed Alastair Swan, principal engineer for the tunnel’s owner, the North East Combined Authority (NECA).
The Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist tunnels were officially opened 68 years ago, on 24 July, 1951. The scheme was given the go ahead by Durham and Northumberland County Councils in 1938, although plans for tunnels had been much discussed since the 1920s. In the early 1900s there were plans for a railway tunnel beneath the Tyne, with guaranteed passage for bicycles.
The 1938 plan for the tunnel was shelved in the run-up to the Second World War but resurrected in 1946 when the U.K. parliament passed the Tyne Tunnel Act. There were originally plans to build the motor-vehicle tunnel soon after the cyclist and pedestrian tunnels but Minister of Transport John Boyd-Carpenter put these on hold “until the country’s economic situation has improved,” reported the Sunderland Daily Echo in July 1951.
Construction on the tunnels started in 1947, a year before the U.K government introduced the Special Roads Bill. This law would lead to the creation of Britain’s motorway network, starting in 1958. But the bill also promised “special roads for cyclists.”
Britain already had a 400+ mile network of Dutch-style cycleways, constructed between 1934 and 1941 – including many in the northeast of England – but they were already falling out of use by the time the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist tunnels were built.
In 1948, the modal share for cycling in Britain was 25%, or roughly the same as Dutch levels today, but cycling then went into a steep decline, bottoming out at 1% modal share by 1970. In a little over 22 years, cycling went from a mainstream form of transport to an ignored, denigrated one.
Following the closure of the river’s world-famous shipyards in the 1980s usage of the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels fell steeply: just 157 people used them per week in 1989.
The passage of time – and the water pressure of the Tyne above – meant the little-used tunnels were looking the worse for wear in 2008 when the decision was made to close them for restoration. Heritage permission for the closure was granted in 2011, with the works starting in 2013.
Many of the tunnel’s distinctive cream and green tiles have been replaced with replicas. 3,630 paving flagstones have been lifted and relaid, with 1,978 new ones replacing those cracked by years of use. Wall panels in the tunnel entrance buildings have been replaced with “Wareite” replicas supplied by the original manufacturer, Formica, the American company which has its U.K. base in North Shields, two miles north of Howdon.
“We retained the original fabric wherever we could,” said Swan, one of fifty who have been working on the site since the tunnels were closed.
There are other cycle and pedestrian tunnels in the U.K. – including under the Clyde in Glasgow and the Thames at Greenwich – but the Tyneside tunnels are of a much higher standard. Riding through the cyclists’ tunnel is a delight – there’s no wind, and from the Jarrow side there’s a curved descent.
It’s likely the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels were modelled on a similar tunnel system in Rotterdam in The Netherlands, built between 1937 and 1942. This connects the two banks of the River Nieuwe Maas and includes separate tunnels for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.
The Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels will be reopened to the public after an official ribbon-cutting ceremony at the end of May.