Birkenhead Tunnel Flyovers

Some may say an article and photo assignment about urban flyovers is a peculiar subject.  As a regular commuter to Birkenhead I have always viewed the town centre flyovers which feed traffic into the Queensway road tunnel taking people under the River Mersey to Liverpool as a particular ugly form of 1960’s concrete brutalism architecture.  They have cut up Birkenhead town centre and do not show the town’s best side even on a sunny day as I took the photos contained in this article.  Most commuters will probably be too pre-occupied with their journeys to take any real notice of the road network around them.  If you explore on foot you discover a number of forgotten streets deep below the speeding commuter traffic.  Whilst making a definitive physical statement and defining the town they have an important purpose in keeping Liverpool bound traffic moving as I have found out.

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The Birkenhead to Liverpool tunnel was opened in the 1930s.  Over the years the cross-river road usage was increasing to such a level that it was causing chronic traffic jams at each end.  The original 1930s Birkenhead terminus only had a small number of toll booths and there was congestion with the surrounding roads, and by the 1960s this was causing traffic problems across the town.

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Whilst a brand new tunnel was being built from Wallasey to the north of Wirral to relieve the Queensway tunnel, the planners drew up a scheme to demolish huge areas of Birkenhead and to build a series of large flyovers in the town centre to serve the tunnel.

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The original tunnel had bottlenecks along its route with two junctions inside which had their own traffic signals.  There were also toll booths at each entrance.  As part of the upgrading the junctions inside the tunnel were remodelled. The Liverpool spur became exit-only, allowing traffic from Birkenhead to opt for the Dock exit or the Haymarket exit. The Birkenhead spur to the docks which came out onto Rendel Street was closed.  Apparently its traffic signals were unreliable and caused long delays.

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Brian Colquhoun and Partners, one of the engineering companies involved in the construction of the original tunnel were appointed to review the arrangements and develop a plan to solve the traffic chaos.  They reported back in August 1966 with their proposals.  All tolls would be collected at the Birkenhead end of the tunnel rather than at both ends.  Traffic entering and exiting the tunnel would be segregated and the local road network in Birkenhead town centre would be re-engineered to allow free movement from the major radial routes to the tunnel mouth stopping only for the toll.  To alleviate rush hour congestion towards Liverpool, marshalling areas would be created where traffic queues would be managed and controlled and congestion would not spill onto the surrounding streets.

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The plan involved clearing a large area of central Birkenhead including more than 170 homes, 90 shops, 23 factories and 14 pubs.  They were replaced with vast open areas of tarmac and two kilometres of new elevated and tunnelled roads. The construction works lasted over two years including the complete renovation of several railway tunnels underneath, with the computer controlled queuing system with the scheme opening to traffic in July 1969.

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Like many cities in the 1960’s embracing the ‘white heat of technology’, to quote former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, they were too enthusiastic in demolishing old buildings and replacing them with modern concrete constructions.  As I set out in my earlier article on Birkenhead Priory, St Mary’s church the town’s first parish church lost its congregation in the clearances of housing required for the construction of the tunnel. (https://briansimpsons.wordpress.com/2015/10/31/birkenhead-priory/)

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The new road layout used huge lengths of elevated roadway to allow all traffic entering or exiting the tunnel to get to and from each of the three major approaches to the tunnel without causing congestion with other local traffic.

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The main elevated flyover now dwarfs a piece of more historic Birkenhead: King Edward VII Memorial Clock Tower situated in the roundabout on Clifton Crescent opposite the now empty Central Hotel which lends an even more care worn feel to this area of town.

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The clock tower is a Grade II listed building is a memorial to the reign of King Edward VII and was designed by Edmund Kirby and was erected by public subscriptions in 1911.  It was originally situated in Argyle Street, near Birkenhead Central Station but it was in the way when the area was redeveloped to improve road links to the Birkenhead Tunnel.  This meant that in about 1929 it was moved 50 metres to its present location in Clifton Crescent. The Central Hotel was built in 1938, and the flyover was added from 1966, so the Clock Tower has seen many changes to its surroundings since it was first built.  The clocks are maintained and in working order, so it has not been completely forgotten.

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The network of flyovers continues to move traffic around the town and into the tunnel as it was designed to back in the 1960s.  However some of the high level flyovers didn’t survive entirely unscathed.  Whilst the Borough Road flyover has been the main subject of my photos this month; the flyover which used to rise above Conway Street has been demolished.

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In the early 1990s, Wirral Council set up the ‘City Lands’ regeneration scheme under the then government’s City Challenge Fund.  The plan saw major regeneration work across Birkenhead’s town centre and a key project was to remove what was seen as a major barrier which cut the main town centre into two and was far too close to the main shopping precinct.  It was demolished and replaced with two roundabouts, and with it went the long, thin elevated road running diagonally north-westwards across the tunnel’s plaza complex. There’s now just a little stub to show where the flyover used to start. There is now no direct way from the tunnel to the main shopping area, and traffic wanting to do this now has to go around the road system instead.

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At the Liverpool end the toll booths were removed and plans were developed for a Liverpool Inner Motorway system with the tunnel connecting to this as an integrated transport system.  But it was never fully realised and the Churchill Way flyover in Liverpool was the only tangible development which rises close to the tunnel exit in the city centre.

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The flyovers were an expression of modern urban Britain in the 1960s and we still use them today.  Many of us take them for granted.  Walking around the town centre you get a different angle on them from speeding along them in our insulated vehicles.

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Thanks to Chris Marshall’s article ‘Flyovers and flashing lights’ about the Queensway tunnel on his website http://www.cbrd.co.uk  which is dedicated to the study of the entire road network of mainland Britain.

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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.