Tyne Tunnels to reopen soon after revamp delayed by asbestos fibres find

A £16 million project to revamp historic tunnels under the River Tyne was delayed when specialists detected tiny asbestos fibres that could have come from shipyard workers’ overalls decades earlier.

Now given the all-clear after a painstaking and costly clean-up, the Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels are to reopen later in the spring or early summer, six years after they were closed.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

The major project was needed to preserve what has been described as an important piece of post-war industrial heritage, and is finally coming to an end after a series of snags and hold-ups.

Given the recent popularity of cycling, it is hoped that reopening the route between Howdon in North Tyneside and Jarrow on the south side of the river – could encourage many more riders to use the historic link heading into Northumberland or County Durham.

When they opened in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, the 900ft (274m) separate, cream and green-tiled tunnels were the first in the UK to be purpose-built for both modes of transport.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

They were free to use for the 20,000 who rode or strode through them every day in an era when most of the workers employed at shipyards on both sides of the Tyne would not have had cars.

When the tunnels opened, the wooden escalators which took people from the surface down to the tunnels and back up again were the longest in the world.

At the mid-point of the river, the old boundary between County Durham and Northumberland is marked in tiles on the walls.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

By the mid-2000s, the tunnels were showing signs of their age, with water coming through the tiles, the escalators frequently breaking down and the dingy lighting putting people off using the routes.

User numbers had drastically declined after the nearby Tyne Tunnel opened to vehicles – but not pedestrians or cyclists – in 1967.

The pedestrian and cycle tunnels were given Grade II-listed status and a £6.5 million budget was agreed for the revamp, with work starting in May 2013.

That involved replacing two of the four wooden escalators with Italian-built glass lifts and replacing thousands of tiles, while still preserving the original 1950s look.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

But the project was to slip both in time and budget after two of the key firms in the project had to pull out.

And there was an eight-month shut-down when asbestos fibres, of a different type from that used in the construction of the tunnels, were detected.

They could have lain undetected in nooks and crannies of the tunnels for decades until they were discovered in the renovation process.

Project manager Stuart Turnbull said: “We think it was the legacy from the old shipyard workers and it could have come from their clothes.

“We had to bring in a specialist firm who spent seven to eight months removing it with small vacuums, on their hands and knees, so that it was then safe for our workers.”

That added £1 million to the budget, in what was already a complex project.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

The project boss stressed that only small samples were found, and the tunnels have now been given the all-clear.

Asbestos was used extensively in shipbuilding and the deadly fibres have been linked to causing fatal diseases among workers, as well as their families, from their work clothes when they brought them home to be washed.

Of the job itself, Mr Turnbull added: “It has been a big challenge.

“It’s unique mixing tunnelling, mechanical, structural and electrical engineering in a heritage project.

“We are really pleased we are coming towards the end of long journey.”

The work should be completed by June, and reopen to the public with shiny, clean tiles, better CCTV and bright, modern lighting along its length, with updated rotunda receptions at each side.

Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels
Tyne Pedestrian and Cyclist Tunnels

Spokesman Richard Simpson said the tunnels, which will be open 24 hours a day, will be linked to national cycling routes and become an attraction in themselves.

He said: “They are part of Tyneside’s industrial heritage.

“There’s a lot of reasons the tunnels can look forward to a bright future.”

There are tunnels which can be used by cyclists and pedestrians under the River Thames at Greenwich and Woolwich, as well as a dual-purpose tunnel under the Clyde in Glasgow.