Select Committee on Mersey Tunnels Bill Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Question 60-79)

Mrs Charles George and Miss Joanna Clayton

Thursday 30 January 2003

  60. The next matter to mention to the Committee about the history is that the local economy seems to have survived these toll increases well. Indeed, business creation rates in the Wirral are higher than in Liverpool city or St Helens and about the average for the Merseyside region. There is a document dealing with that, it is C26, I do not take the Committee to it now, Mr Bates will tell the Committee about that. There is no evidence that higher transport costs as a result of the toll are discouraging businesses from establishing in the Wirral. Indeed, in some ways, as Mr Bates will explain, the tunnels seem to operate to the benefit of the Wirral economy by reducing the inclination to travel to Liverpool city centre and therefore retaining more retail spending in the Wirral than would otherwise be the case. That is a matter which Mr Bates will expand on and there is a document, C16, which I do not take the Committee to at this stage, which deals with that matter.

61. So the position before the Committee is one which is a lot more healthy than ten years ago, but this relatively rosy picture for tunnel finances in the Wirral has been helped by the uncharacteristically low inflation rates of the mid and late 1990s and the early years of this century and by the relatively modest demands of tunnel refurbishment in the 1990s, whereas, as is now apparent from the bottom two rows of exhibit B7, refurbishment costs are now soaring. If I just take the Committee back to B7, we looked at how not much money was being spent and then in B7 you will see that there are now quite large sums being spent each year and you will see in 2000 and 2001 it was £5.9 million and in 2001 to 2002 it was £7 million.

62. That takes me to why these large sums of money are being spent and the answer is tunnel safety and safety expenditure. First of all, one has to keep the matter in context, fewer incidents actually happen in tunnels than on open roads largely because the weather does not have any impact on driving conditions in the tunnel, speed limits are relatively low, lighting is fairly steady and there is a very low number of junctions in tunnels, but, of course, tunnels need constant maintenance and periodical upgrading to cater for the demands imposed by greater traffic volumes and there are also rising safety expectations. The Mersey tunnels are in no sense unique as tunnels but they do endlessly have to re­visit the question of escape routes, the position of the Fire Brigade for reaching the scene of a fire, the problems of fumes in tunnels which could hinder escape and rescue as well as fire fighting.

   63. There have been three recent developments of which the Committee may or may not be aware. The first was that in the year 2000 an institution known as ADAC, which is the German equivalent of our Automobile Association, commissioned an examination of 25 tunnels in eight European countries to examine the standard of safety for drivers in the tunnels. The Committee have the document, it is A42, page 294, and among the 25 tunnels examined were the two Mersey tunnels. The more modern Kingsway Tunnel just achieved the good grade, scoring 81 per cent in a scoring evaluation and the older Queensway Tunnel only just achieved an acceptable grade at 71 per cent, that is page 301. This was not a discreditable performance in any way but it meant that the Queensway Tunnel was fifteenth equal out of 25 and those carrying out the exercise drew attention to the absence of an automatic fire alarm system, the absence of lay-bys and emergency lanes, difficulty in reaching the emergency walkways, the absence of soundproof enclosures for emergency phones and inadequacies in the existing system for smoke extraction in the event of fire and some of these criticisms they also made in respect of the Kingsway Tunnel. That was, so to speak, the first warning. Then there came Eurotest 2002 which is when a consortium of motoring organisations carried out in a pan­European tunnel testing programme this time looking at 30 tunnels and the Committee has that document in the bundle at A43, page 316. Again, the Kingsway Tunnel was ranked good, this time it scored 82.3 per cent, Queensway was again just acceptable at 70.4 per cent, ranking this time 21 out of 30, but this time a longer list of what were termed "weaknesses" was identified in the case of both tunnels, and the Committee will find the list for the Queensway Tunnel at page 324 and the list for the Kingsway Tunnel at page 323. This report underlined the need for safety improvements and it has led to a re­prioritisation of expenditure aimed at reducing risk, as a result of which a further £8 million has been committed to the five­year tunnel refurbishment programme for 2002 to 2007, including an additional £8.4 million on safety work, and the Committee will find the details of all that in the bundle at B9, the whole of the budget has been readjusted so as to make available this additional £8 million on safety matters. A replacement of the fire main in the Queensway Tunnel has been commissioned, additional cross­tube escape passageways have been provided in the Kingsway Tunnel, work is now underway on devising improved new escape ways in the Queensway Tunnel, making use of the space in the large invert under the carriageways.

64. If I could just take the Committee to two illustrations which show the sort of thing which is being done. The first is to ask the Committee to go to A44 and that is a document which looks like this (indicating). What the Committee is seeing, as is clear from the diagram at the bottom, is you are in the Kingsway Tunnel, you have the two tunnels and what has been created in the last year is a series of new passageways linking the two tunnels and one sees in the central picture a view of the new passageway. These are very expensive engineering operations which are being carried out solely in the interests of safety. They are important but they are expensive and they have to be paid for and they are the explanation of the soaring tunnel costs which are envisaged in the next few years.

65. MR FIELD: It will would be helpful, at least for me, if you could go into some detail as to who commissioned this tunnel test that is set out in A44.

   66. MR GEORGE: The report, which is the origin of it, is the Eurotest 2002 which is not an official report, it was a report by a series of motoring organisations and it is the equivalent of the AA in all the European countries. The works have been commissioned by the PTA, it is Merseytravel itself which has decided that, in the light of that report and of course its own investigations and reports from its own staff, that the sort of things being identified were matters which were deserving of attention, which led to the re­scheduling of their budget and indeed the addition of additional items to the budget and the carrying out, for example, of those cross­passageways which are literally just being completed at the present time. That was a decision of the PTA to carry out those works to accord with what the reports in 2000 and 2002 had put forward.

67. MR FIELD: Was the report made via various PTAs European­wide who sponsored such a report being made? Who was funding it?

68. MR GEORGE: I do not believe that the 2002 report was itself publicly funded, I think it was privately funded by the organisations themselves. The document the Committee has is in the bundle at A43, page 316. That sets out conveniently what the organisations are and it does not itself refer to the report being funded by public agencies but by the tunnel owners. So far as I am aware it was not a governmentally financed report, nor one funded by the tunnel operators themselves, it is really a users' report coming from the motoring organisations.

   69. MR FIELD: And this would have been in the aftermath of the Mont Blanc disaster?

70. MR GEORGE: Absolutely.

   71. MR FIELD: It does seem as though there is clearly room for improvement in the Mersey Tunnel, the Kingsway has a European ranking of seven, the Queensway 21, which obviously are somewhat above a number of other UK tunnels and rank well compared to a number of the European tunnels that were similarly tested through this process. I can see the point that Mersey Tunnel are leading to is that there are vital works that need to be carried out and that is one of the reasons why I am curious to know who funded this report that is central to Merseytravel's case, that expensive monies need to be spent on infrastructure.

72. MR GEORGE: In no sense is it funded by the PTA and it has arisen simply coincidently from the Bill. When the Bill was first being thought about it was known that there would be a rising commitment on refurbishment but it was not anticipated that the rise would be as great as actually has occurred as a result of the focus on these matters from these reports. That is the position, they have simply stimulated a capital expenditure which was already beginning and I suspect that the Committee would have been faced by this Bill even if there had not been this increased expenditure, but actually whilst the Bill has been being devised and coming forward this matter has come forward and shows that the position for the Mersey Tunnel's finances is going to be more acute over the next five years than it would otherwise have been. What is at present planned is to be able to deal with these weaknesses which have been identified over the next five years. That does not mean to say there may not be then a further tranche of measures, but within five years one will have dealt with most of these points. There are some points which have been identified which are simply unresolvable, you cannot do it with old tunnels and these will be the tests for those. They point out weaknesses but that does not mean that all the weaknesses can be remedied. Sometimes you can have weaknesses which you simply cannot remedy.

73. MR FIELD: Thank you.

74. MR GEORGE: The other diagram I was going to take the Committee to is A50, which the Committee may particularly wish to bear in mind when it is seeing the film of the Queensway Tunnel. I confess, I had not myself appreciated until I visited the Queensway Tunnel what a substantial invert it has, that is the area under the carriageway of the tunnel. I am told originally there was thought of running a tram underneath this tunnel in the 1930s, but various of the then tram operators and bus companies opposed the Bill and therefore it never happened. You have got this substantial area underneath the carriageway which you can see on the left­hand side where there is the reference to Central Avenue. What is planned is to use these as escape ways so that one can have an elaborate construction of exit doors, passageways which take you gradually down and they will allow people to escape in what is at present, frankly, a very uninviting and freezing cold environment in the invert under the tunnel. That will all have to be looked to and attended to so that one can get people out.This is one of the matters which is still being investigated with a view to doing. I think everyone would agree that it is highly desirable it should be done, albeit that the chance of a major fire is small but even a small risk would lead to very serious consequences and these are the sort of matters which are going to be - and are being - budgeted for.

75. Now, as recently as two weeks ago, on 14 January 2003, the Policy and Resources Committee of the PTA approved additional capital and renewal projects including the next feasibility development phase for those planned escape ways which we have just been looking at on A50. They approved also expenditure on finishing touches to the existing cross passages in the Kingsway Tunnel to bring them up to the standard of the new ones because now you have put in new ones they look obviously much better than the old ones so the aim now is to bring the old ones up to the same standard as the new. In addition the various signing is to be improved and the next phase of CCTV work again has been authorised as well as a programme of lift refurbishment and expenditure on the Kingsway standby generator.

76. I think all that matters for the Committee to know is that there is a mass of projects which could be regarded as capital projects but the attempt is to fund them out of income, they are very major items of safety expenditure.

77. If the Committee are extremely conscientious or those who assist them are very conscientious, they may through their postbag in the last week have received a proposed Directive called Communication 2002/769 from the European Commission which is a directive on minimum safety requirements for tunnels in the Trans-European Road Network. I saw that first at the beginning of this week and it is a very recent document dated 30 December 2002 emanating from Brussels.

78. Now this sets out a whole series of further safety standards which are to be required of tunnel operators in the light of precisely those tunnel disasters to which the Hon. Member Mr Field referred. Initially these are confined to tunnels in the Trans-European network and most tunnels do not fall within the Trans-European network. The proposed Directive will not directly affect the Mersey Tunnels but it has two consequences. First of all, this is plainly the way matters are moving and therefore the next stage will presumably be some form of Directive that all tunnels carrying such volume of traffic or of certain lengths should similarly upgrade themselves. Secondly, I think perfectly properly, Merseytravel will be looking to this new Directive as a benchmark, the sort of standards to which they should be aspiring and as a lawyer the sort of standards where if there is an accident, if something goes wrong and there is a public inquiry people are going to say "Well, look, there is the directive, that sets forward the standards, why is it you are so different?" For us simply to say "We are not part of the Trans-European network" will not necessarily give us a common law defence.

79. This is another very clear indication that those who are charged with this tunnel, it is a statutory responsibility, are going to have to spend more money year by year on engineering works. We do not shirk from that, I will not say we positively welcome it but plainly it is something which is desirable, plainly it is something the public would expect it is right the Committee know about it.

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