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Queensway Road Tunnel
Liverpool to Birkenhead under the River Mersey, Merseyside, UK
Queensway Road Tunnel
associated engineer
Sir Basil Mott
Mott Hay & Anderson
date  16th December 1925 - 18th July 1934
era  Modern  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  SJ332898
ICE reference number  HEW 1747
photo  © El Pollock and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
When Queensway Road Tunnel opened, it was the largest subaqueous road tunnel in the world. It is believed to be the only one carrying four lanes of traffic in a single tube, and it remains operational. The tunnel’s portals and ventilation towers are Grade II listed, and the tunnel has been upgraded to comply with modern fire safety requirements. It takes road traffic under the River Mersey at Liverpool, UK.
Rail travellers had been able to pass under the River Mersey in a tunnel since 1886, but pedestrians and road traffic had to use the ferry service. By the 1920s, concerns over long queues of vehicles at the ferry terminals gave rise to a tolled-road tunnel scheme. Royal assent for the Mersey Tunnel Act was granted on 7th August 1925.
The single-bore Queensway Road Tunnel (or Birkenhead Tunnel), from west Liverpool to east Birkenhead, was designed by Sir Basil Mott (1859-1938) and consultant Mott, Hay & Anderson. Its construction was supervised by Mott and by John Alexander Brodie (1858-1934), the City Engineer of Liverpool. The project’s main contractor was Edmund Nuttall.
Construction began on 16th December 1925. The project would use a workforce of 1,700 men (and result in 17 fatalities). Shafts 6.5m in diameter and 57.9m deep were sunk on either side of the Mersey. Then two pilot tunnels, 4.6m wide and 3.65m high, one above the other, were driven from each side. On 3rd April 1928, the pilot tunnels met under the river. They were less than 25mm out of line.
Most of the tunnel passes through Middle Bunter Sandstone at a ruling gradient of 1 in 30, with short sections at 1 in 20. The average thickness of the rock layer between tunnel roof and river bed is 6.1m. Excavation was carried out using pneumatic hammers and 66.7 tonnes of gelignite, and was completed during 1931.
The main tunnel is 3.24km long in total and carries four lanes of traffic. The central portion, beneath the river, is 1.6km long. It is circular in cross-section with an internal diameter of 13.4m, and an external diameter of 14m. The tunnel lining consists of iron rings, made from sections bolted together through inner flanges and caulked with lead wire. Grout was injected between the lining and the rock for watertightness.
The roadway in the tunnel is 11m wide. Its reinforced concrete deck is supported on two vertical walls, 305mm thick and 6.4m apart, dividing the under-road area into three large 'ducts'. The biggest central duct was designed to carry a tramway, though the idea was never implemented, and the outer ducts are for ventilation.
Two branches — one 501.4m and the other 475.8m long — join the main tunnel to New Quay (SJ339905) on the Liverpool side, and to Rendell Street (SJ320894) in Birkenhead. The branch tunnels are 8.1m in diameter and carry two lanes of traffic, each 2.7m wide.
The main tunnel’s Liverpool entrance was excavated behind a hydraulic tunnelling shield running on rollers. The remainder of the land tunnels were built using the cut and cover technique. Large junction chambers with 1.5m thick reinforced concrete walls and steel joist and concrete roofs were constructed where the branches meet the main line.
The interior of the tunnels is finished with a layer of gunite (sprayed concrete render) over the lining, followed by bitumen emulsion, paint and black glass sheeting to a height of 1.9m above the roadway.
The challenge of ventilating such a long tunnel was solved using full-scale trials and the selection of an upward semi-transverse system. Six huge buildings with square towers up to 64m high, three on each side of the river, were constructed to house the necessary machinery and ventilation fans up to 8.5m in diameter in casings up to 15.2m wide. Fresh air is forced into the tunnel via a system of large concrete ducts, and foul air is extracted. The ventilation building at Georges Dock (SJ340902) also houses the tunnel control centre.
Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse (1887-1963) designed the Art Deco tunnel entrance portals, toll booths and ventilation building façades. The buildings are faced in white Portland stone. The carved Egyptian style decorations on the portals are by sculptor Edmund Charles Thompson (1898-1961).
In June 1933, Rowse’s design for two identical decorative lighting columns was approved. Placed near the two main portals, they would illuminate the entrances and act as tunnel monuments. Each 18.3m high tapering column stands on a white ashlar base and is topped by a bowl with lantern above. Columns are of reinforced concrete clad with black granite and the bowl is of gilded bronze and glass.
The Queensway Road Tunnel was opened by King George V on 18th July 1934. It cost some £8m to construct and contains 274,300 tonnes of concrete, 83,300 tonnes of cast iron and 939km of electric cables. Much of the 1,219,000 tonnes of rock, clay and gravel excavated during the project was later used to build Otterspool Promenade to the south east.
In 1965, the Rendell Street branch was closed. Between March 1967 and July 1969, access to the tunnel was streamlined to accommodate the increasing traffic flows by building new flyovers and moving the toll plaza to the west side of the river. The Birkenhead column monument was moved south, from the King’s Square portal (SJ326887) to an island (SJ326884) between lanes of the A41, and the Liverpool column monument on the roundabout (SJ347907) to the east of the entrance portal was dismantled.
The measures were not enough on their own to cope with increased road usage. A second road tunnel was being constructed almost concurrently (1966-71) some 1.5km downstream (north) to relieve congestion. Known as the Kingsway Road Tunnel, or Wallasey Tunnel, it has two running tunnels each carrying lanes of traffic.
In October 1980, the Old Haymarket portal (SJ346907) in Liverpool and the King’s Square portal (SJ326887) in Birkenhead were Grade II listed. In March 1982, the New Quay entrance also received Grade II listing. The relocated tunnel monument at Birkenhead was Grade II listed in August 1992.
In 2004, in response to the devastating fire in the Mont Blanc Tunnel, France (1999), seven emergency fireproof refuges were constructed in the Queensway Tunnel. Each can accommodate 140 people. The ventilated chambers are set 200m apart, in the central duct beneath the road deck. Tunnelled access is via ramps from the roadway, with fire doors at each end of the ramps and to the chambers. An escape walkway below the deck is connected by new tunnels to existing shafts on the river banks. To reduce the potential for fire, lorries are banned from the tunnel, and the only permitted vehicles over 3.5 tonnes are buses and emergency vehicles.
On Sunday 19th July 2009, to celebrate 75 years of operation, members of the public were allowed to walk through the tunnel and take a free return ferry journey. About 15,000 people took part, including two from the original workforce.
Architect (portals, toll booths, ventilation towers): Herbert James Rowse
Contractor: Edmund Nuttall, Sons & Co Ltd
Birkenhead land tunnels: Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons
Liverpool land tunnels: Edmund Nuttall, Sons & Co Ltd
Column monuments: Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH North

Queensway Road Tunnel