Shedding light on the Queensway Tunnel

The Queensway Tunnel carries traffic underneath the River Mersey, connecting Liverpool and Birkenhead, but how long has it been there and what’s its history?

Tunnel vision

In 1886, the first tunnel go to under the Mersey was built, but this was a railway only structure. Road traffic between Birkenhead and Liverpool used the Mersey Ferry. By the early 1920s though, this was becoming increasingly impractical and there were often sizable queues of lorries and cars waiting at the ferry terminal.

A committee was formed to solve the traffic congestion issue. At first, it proposed the building of a bridge across the Mersey. It would have been a large suspension bridge built at sufficient height to clear shipping and span more than 900 metres. When the bridge plans were costed, it was released that a tunnel would cost less. The committee then renamed itself the Mersey Tunnel Joint Committee and supervised the construction of the tunnel, which began in 1925 and took nine years to complete. The consulting engineer of the project was Sir Basil Mott who oversaw the construction with John Brodie, Liverpool’s City Engineer

Building the tunnel

Over 1.2m tons of gravel, clay and rock were excavated to make the tunnels. Some of this material was also used to construct Liverpool’s Otterspool Promenade.


The construction of the tunnel involved both excavation and explosives. There was a human cost to the construction of the tunnel too, with 17 workers losing their lives during the building process.

By 1928, pilot tunnels driven from both ends of the tunnel met with an accuracy of about one inch, which was a testament to the precision of the surveyors’ measurements. Once the pilot tunnels had met, they were enlarged.

The full dimension of the underwater runnels is 13.4 metres. To prevent collapse, cast iron segments line the tunnel, fused together with grout to make the tunnel watertight.

When the Queensway Tunnel was opened by King George V in 1934, it was the world’s longest road tunnel. It kept this title until 1948, then lost it to the Vielha Tunnel in Northern Spain.

Early on in the construction, it was realised that the design had not taken into account how much ventilation was required in the tunnels. This issue was solved by constructing six ventilation buildings that house huge fans forcing fresh air into the tunnel and stale air out. Herbert James Rowse designed the ventilation buildings in a streamlined art deco style. He also designed the toll booths, which feature decorations by Edmund Thompson and are now protected as Grade II listed buildings

The tunnel cost £8m to build, which at the time was the most expensive and ambitious public engineering project in Britain.

The opening ceremony

Before the tunnel was officially opened, 80,000 people paid 6d each for charity to walk through the traffic-free tunnel. One walker was quoted as saying:

“What a thrill! It seemed quite a long walk at the time and we returned from Woodside on the ferry, which was absolutely fantastic.”

More than 200,000 people turned out for the opening ceremony, at which pupils from local schools dressed as brightly coloured flowers and walked in procession to the Old Haymarket, where they witnessed King George V and Queen Mary officially open the tunnel. Addressing the crowd, the King said:

“I thank all those who have achieved this miracle. I praise the imagination that foresaw, the minds that planned, the skill that fashioned, the will that drove, and the strong arms that endeavoured in the bringing of this work to completion.

“May those who use it ever keep grateful thoughts of the many who struggled for long months against mud and darkness.”

After the speech, the King and Queen travelled in the Royal car along the tunnel to Birkenhead, where further crowds awaited their arrival. The Royals were greeted in Birkenhead by the town’s oldest resident, 102-year-old Sammual Gillingham.

During the next few days after the opening, the tunnel became a tourist attraction, with crowds standing at each entrance just to watch the traffic flow in and out of the tunnel.

By the 1960s, the volume of traffic was too much for the tunnel, and 1971 saw the Kingsway Tunnel was opened to ease traffic congestion.

The present day tunnel

The Queensway Tunnel is just over two miles long and is a single tunnel that carries four lanes, with two going from Birkenhead to Liverpool and the other two going the other way. Each lane has a signal depicting a green arrow or red cross. This is so that the number of lanes in each direction can be changed, but it is rare for there to be more than the standard two lanes in each direction. This is different to the Kingsway tunnel, which has more lanes going in one direction at peak times.

There are two branches leading from the main tunnel. The Birkenhead branch remains but was closed to traffic in 1965. This branch was used by people travelling to Birkenhead docks and New Brighton, but the Kingsway now caters to these areas.

The Liverpool branch is still used and leads traffic to opposite the Liver Building. It used to carry traffic in both directions but now only carries traffic towards Liverpool.

In 1981, it was decided that the amber florescent lighting that was fixed to the tunnel walls was inefficient and the lighting was replaced. There have been other changes to the structure since then too; in 2004, seven emergency refuges were built that could hold 180 each. This was part of an £9m refurbishment program to improve safety standards to conform to European regulations.

In 2012, ceramic steel cladding replaced the older plastic cladding and this gives the tunnel its modern look.

There is a cost to travel along the tunnel, which is currently £1.70 per journey for a passenger car, and more for large vehicles. About 35,000 vehicles travel through the tunnel each day and about 12.8 million people go through the tunnel each year.

The tunnel is in operation every day for 24 hours, but is occasionally closed during the night for essential maintenance.

Posted by Mark
April 13, 2017

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