The Ring Road tunnels opened again today after six weeks of closure and the city’s petrol powered traffic can once again circulate at will – at least until 10pm when the curfew sounds.
Earlier in the year, friend-of-the-festival Roxie Collins suggested an excellent walk: a night-time pedestrian stroll through the tunnels. If approved, it would be a rare opportunity to walk in the usually exclusive domain of the motor car. Roxie is a fan of car parks and car spaces in general and her tour for the festival year visited the city’s landmark car parks and subways. Going by the quick take up of tickets, many others were too. I thought I’d try to arrange it, thinking how long it might be before another opportunity to do this (safely) came around. The earliest Still Walking festival featured a walk led by Joe Holyoak, talking about the Inner Ring Road from a planner’s perspective – a walk that stopped short of entering the tunnels themselves. This would be an elegant way to complete that missing section. Indeed the festival has a recurring obsession with the ring road: in March this year, Glen Stoker accompanied a dozen people around the Middle Ring Road. And in 2017, the festival will feature an epic trek around the outer ring road…
My email efforts to contact the BCC tunnels boss or head of tourism at Amey led nowhere unfortunately, even though I pitched the benefits of having a public access event to offset the inconvenience of tunnel closure. However, a week later an email arrived from a colleague: Amey were now advertising a guided walk by Construction Manager Kevan Lambe. Anyone was welcome so long as they had full PPE ie., hard hats, hi-viz and work boots. I signed up immediately and scrambled some kit together.
Two weeks later I was sitting in a container office near Spaghetti Junction, receiving the H&S training, evacuation procedure, general tunnel tips and tricks and most interestingly for me a slide show of Queensway history (also called Tunnel Vision) and tunnel facts and figures. During Kevan’s presentation, the assembled group learnt that the concept of the Ring Road dates back to 1944, while the country was still at war. There are times when you have to respect that kind of commitment to the Forward motto. Likewise the 1971 launch date, which came six years ahead of schedule. And everyone knows the Queen’s blunder in naming the jewelled carriageway…
Some intriguing details emerged before we set off to explore: when the tunnels closed last year, people tended to stay on longer in the city after work, shopping or heading to restaurants and bars having left the car at home. Businesses reported an increased turnover, which was maintained even after the tunnels reopened. Kevan also detailed the various work being carried out in the tunnels: new LED lighting that varies in intensity throughout the day, actually becoming dimmer at night to minimise the contrast from driving from darkness into an illuminated environment. Ventillation and fireproofing is improved and there is now support for emergency services radio communications. Video cameras automatically detect incidents or collisions and email the relevant personnel and switch on an in-tunnel voice alarm / public PA system. Leaks have been fixed.
The feeling of walking in the tunnels is very much that you shouldn’t be there. Not from a permission perspective but rather that walking in the spaces I’ve previously watched thousands of cars zipping through just plain feels dangerous. When driving through previously, I’ve noticed doors on the left hand wall leading somewhere… on this walk we entered such a door, ascended a spiral staircase into a cavernous plant room, with vents opening up to the carriageways below. All along the tunnel, on cherry pickers and magic carpets men work through the night on overhead gantries and fixtures. An occasional beeping means such a platform is descending and we need to watch out. Former access gates from the surface have been sealed off, being infiltrated by the curious while the tunnels are closed. Bags of fireproofing powder lie in piles, waiting to be sprayed onto the surfaces. We’re in there for around an hour, with a full commentary on every aspect – details usually missed completely by motorists as they whizz beneath the city in a matter of minutes.
The final pix courtesy of Andrew Kulman – follow his Twitter stream of 60s /70s Brumicana @AndrewKulman