Birkenhead Tunnel

A few weeks ago I drove to Liverpool under the River Mersey by way of the Queensway Tunnel from Birkenhead on the Wirral.  The area around the Liverpool entrance/exit has a lot of historic significance.

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Construction of the first Mersey Road Tunnel started in 1925, to a design by consulting engineer Sir Basil Mott.  The tunnel connects Birkenhead with Liverpool City Centre.  A much later Kingsway tunnel built in the 1970s connects Liverpool with Wallasey further up the Wirral peninsula.  The nearest bridge crossing is much further down the River Mersey connecting Widnes with Runcorn.

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There had been a railway tunnel under the Mersey from 1886, however during the 1920s there were concerns about the long queues of cars and lorries at the Mersey Ferry terminal so a Bill was placed before parliament to construct a road tunnel.  Sir Basil Mott supervised the construction in association with John Brodie, the City Engineer for Liverpool and the main contractor Edmund Nuttall.  In 1928 the two pilot tunnels met to within less than one inch of each other.

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More than 1.2 million tons of rock, gravel, and clay were excavated; some of it used to build Otterspool Promenade and to fill in Storeton Quarry near Bebington in Wirral.  There were 1,700 men who worked on the tunnel during the nine years of its construction with 17 killed during the work.

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When it was built it was the longest underwater tunnel in the world, a title it held for 24 years. The tunnel cost a total of £8 million, was opened on 18 July 1934 by King George V; the opening ceremony was watched by some 200,000 people.

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The tunnel entrances, toll booths and ventilation building exteriors were designed by Liverpool architect Herbert James Rowse, with decoration is by Edmund Thompson.  These buildings are ornate by today’s standards and they are Grade II listed buildings. The entrances are in clean white stone and the lighting and public realm  structures are in a distinctive gold and green livery.  Statues of the King and Queen Mary stand over each side of the tunnel entrance surveying the many thousands of road vehicles that use the tunnel each day.

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The road tunnels are owned and operated by Merseytravel, the local passenger transport service and the tunnels have their own police force, the Mersey Tunnels Police.  By the 1960s, traffic volume had increased that a second tunnel was required and in 1971 the Kingsway Tunnel opened to relieve congestion.

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The tunnel has two branches leading off the main tunnel to the dock areas on both sides of the river. The Birkenhead branch tunnel (known as the Rendel Street branch) carried 2 way traffic, single lane each way controlled by traffic lights inside the tunnel.  This branch mainly served Birkenhead docks and was also used by people travelling to the Wirral resort of New Brighton. The branch was closed in 1965.   It has been used as a film set on a few occasions such as for the film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 and Fast & Furious 6.

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The Liverpool branch tunnel remains in use today as an exit only. It emerges opposite the Liver Building, next to the Atlantic Tower Hotel and Church of Our Lady and Saint Nicholas.  Originally, it carried two-way traffic and the junction inside the tunnel was also controlled by traffic lights, but this arrangement was discontinued to reduce the delays brought on by increasing traffic levels.  When driving through the tunnel, it appears as semi-circular. It is however circular, the area below the roadway known as Central Avenue was originally planned to house an electric tram route, but it was instead used to house a gas pipe, which was later abandoned. It is still used as the main ventilation fresh air supply duct and it also carries services such as electric cables, and pipes.

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In April 2004 seven emergency refuges below the road deck were built, each capable of holding 180 people, as part of a £9 million project to bring the tunnel into line with the highest European safety standards.  Each refuge is 21 metres (69 ft) long and 3 metres (9.8 ft) wide, accessible from the main tunnel walls. The refuges have a supply of bottled water, a toilet, and a video link to the Mersey Tunnels Police control room. All seven refuges are linked by a walkway below the road surface, with exits at the Liverpool and Birkenhead ends.  In 2012 the interior of the tunnel was refurbished, with 5999 white ceramic panels replacing the old plastic corrugated wall cladding to improve lighting and to give the Tunnel a 21st Century look.

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The tunnel is operated as a toll tunnel with the current one way charge being £1.70. The average daily traffic through the tunnel is around 35,000 vehicles, which equates to just under 12.8 million each year.

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The Birkenhead tunnel remains one of only four ways of getting from Wirral across to Liverpool.  The tunnels are so iconic on Merseyside that a play ‘Brick Up The Mersey Tunnels’ has had a number of successful runs at the Royal Court and at The Empire Theatre in Liverpool.  The play is a comedy about how a group of working class Liverpudlians who get so fed up with people from Wirral looking down their nose at them despite coming to the city every day to work that they decide to teach them a lesson by cutting off their access by bricking up the tunnels.

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The tunnel was still running smoothly when I left having taken a few photographs.

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