Forgotten Relics' blog: Vented Spleen

Forgotten Relics’ blog: Vented Spleen

Despite having a working class heart, I am acutely middle class. It pains me at times, but, like millions of others, it’s a badge I’m forced to wear. As a result, I ought to be a proponent of skiing; I have though always regarded it as suicide on planks. People die skiing, suffer brain damage and paralysis skiing, break their backs and limbs skiing. Why would anyone throw themselves down a mountainside on a surface that provides little friction? But of course that’s their right – despite the clear dangers, skiing has not been banned. That’s because the middle classes have defined it as socially appropriate and, thankfully, we’re the self-appointed arbiters of what goes on the list.

Officialdom does not welcome urban explorers.
© Pierre-Henry Muller

People with no money also enjoy adventures. Skiing is expensive; so too is scuba diving and backpacking across the Himalayas. There is then, in a financial sense, a need for cheap thrills. Exploring old railway tunnels delivers on many levels; this though is NOT generally a middle-class pastime and has therefore NOT been classified as acceptable. Indeed officialdom condemns it as antisocial, despite the associated risk levels often being fractional compared with skiing. It should also be recognised that if the world was populated by folk whose worst misdemeanour was to occasionally spend an hour mooching around old tunnels, this would – despite all the anoraks – be an idyllic planet on which to live.

When today’s middle classes were children – particularly those brought up around industry – there was an expectation that we’d get into scrapes; in fact it was tacitly encouraged. That’s how we learned about life, the assessment of risk and its management. Times were very different then, but if we want the young to exist beyond their iPhones and games consoles, something has to engage them in the real world.

If you travel to Europe or the States, you’ll find most disused tunnels open for exploration. And not just the safer ones. In 1950s Spain, work progressed on a bold rail connection between Santander and Dosante, incorporating 32 tunnels. The longest, stretching for almost seven kilometres, was completed in 1959, but then the money ran out and the line itself never opened. Despite several collapses – one of which blocks the passage to all but the most daring – people can and do visit the tunnel, climbing over the debris heap and on to the other end. You might regard this as reckless, but is it any more so than skiing? Ranulph Fiennes goes out of his way to stare peril in the face and he’s honoured as a national treasure.

The biggest collapse in Engana Tunnel.
© Cronoser

In the UK, the Historical Railways Estate (HRE) acts as guardian to more than a hundred old tunnels on behalf of the Department for Transport (DfT). Many of these are almost entirely benign: Bridgnorth, Old Lane, Crigglestone, Pudsey Greenside. And yet Fort Knox-style security measures are now imposed to thwart unauthorised access. In risk terms, this approach is demonstrably disproportionate, often presenting more of a threat to the public than the tunnels themselves do. It would be fascinating to gauge the legal position in the event of an impalement.

Pictures showing a 2016 incursion into Queensbury Tunnel – which, to be fair, is a long way from benign – shows a means of access which was commendably inventive but potentially deadly. These are however the lengths to which explorers now go as a consequence of HRE’s security policy. In itself, this creates corporate risk. Of course, the Estate’s management will assert that those involved should not have been trying to get in. That’s undeniably true, but they did try, because human beings are inherently adventurous and inquisitive. That’s a reality that has to be accepted. And surely it’s preferable for them to access a disused tunnel than one that still has a railway running through it.

Amongst the many things that have diminished Britain’s greatness over recent years is the blight of risk aversion. It stifles progress and prevents good things from happening. It also erodes personal freedom, something many Britons sacrificed everything for. Trouble is, it’s not the only thing that’s been eroded: so too has the obligation to accept responsibility for your own actions when exercising that freedom.

In 2008, a woman received £15,000 compensation in an out-of-court settlement – and had more than £37,000 of legal fees paid – after she fell into the moat at Carlisle Castle, sustaining pelvic and hip injuries. The accident happened in the early hours of the morning whilst she was trespassing. The Victoria & Albert Museum paid out £400 to a man who scalded his thumb when he put it in hot soup! The fact that our legal system upholds such absurd claims tarnishes it greatly, but it serves to explain the greased-up steel sheeting that disfigures many tunnel entrances, even Listed ones.

The west portal of Abernant Tunnel.
© MidlandExplorerBoy

The Historical Railways Estate has an annual budget of around £8 million and with that it inspects and maintains more than 3,000 redundant structures. That’s no mean feat and we should commend them for it. It is though public money and, having provided some of it myself, I expect the sharpest possible focus on delivering maximum benefit for that investment.

Despite all those structures being remarkable in their own way – given the era and method of construction – most have nothing more than aesthetic merit today. But that’s not true for all of them. Over the past three decades, some iconic disused tunnels and viaducts have found new roles on our expanding cycle path network. That has to be a good thing – they were built to fulfil a transport function, not degenerate into oblivion.

Before the establishment of HRE in 2013, its role was fulfilled by BRB (Residuary). It generally took a pragmatic, forward-looking approach to the reuse of its structures. Hewenden and Thornton viaducts now form part of the Great Northern Railway Trail because Sustrans was able to agree a lease of their decks and parapets. When Ingleton Viaduct was refurbished in the early Noughties, BRB(R) proactively suggested installing a cycle path across it. The idea was rejected by locals, but when – last year – a community broadband project wanted to lay a cable over it, HRE’s response was to quote £4,500 for a consultant’s report.

Ingleton Viaduct now carries a cable for a community broadband project.

Today, any repurposing of an HRE structure for the public’s benefit has to involve a transfer of its ownership to another statutory body. So Bradford Council would have to accept Queensbury Tunnel if its proposed cycle path was ever to go ahead, whilst Rhondda Tunnel needs to be taken on by the Welsh Assembly or Rhondda Cynon Taf Council. Both are big asks for bodies that are cash-strapped. And are these two councils appropriate custodians for long railway tunnels, given that neither has any similar structures or, presumably, the requisite engineering expertise? Clearly, with 120 other disused tunnels on its books, HRE remains their logical home. Nobody is suggesting it should finance repair or conversion work, but there’s no practical reason why it couldn’t act as landlord.

Except it’s not in HRE’s remit to do good things for the public. It reminded the DfT of this when it asked the Cycling Minister to judge the viability of its £35 million repair costing for Queensbury Tunnel. The protocol under which HRE operates specifies that its key roles are simply “to reduce the liabilities for the Secretary of State in terms of individual structure safety” and “to actively cooperate with the Department in their endeavours to transfer the Heritage Estate (in whole or in part) to local authorities and other third parties.” That’s it; no mention of making constructive use of these assets whilst ever the DfT is lumbered with them. Is that good enough for our £8 million investment?

Given that the rest of the public sector is now similarly risk averse, every one of HRE’s major structures is now condemned to perpetual decay by default, whether or not they have the potential to fulfil a valuable function. That’s not an appropriate fate for works of great ambition and endeavour. Bodies like HRE should have a clearly defined obligation to see beyond their silos and do what’s best for society.

Some will regard this outpouring as an attack on the Historical Railways Estate. Fundamentally it isn’t; they do a thankless job in challenging times. This is about the middle-class hypocrisy over the often-revelatory pastime of urban exploration, the prevailing legal malaise which penalises guiltless parties for the transgressions of others, our shortsightedness when it comes to the residual value of our engineering heritage, and the investment of taxpayers’ money in decline and abandonment in the face of constructive alternatives. It’s all a sad indictment of today’s skewed priorities; we could start to realign them by correcting HRE’s remit.

Added September 2017