Wednesday 31 May 2017

Tunnel Bore

For a city built on rock at the edge of a river, Liverpool is surprisingly porous.  There are tunnels and passages threaded throughout.  The Mersey Tunnels, of course; two for road traffic, one for rail.  There are bore holes and subways; there's even the remains of a pneumatic tube system, used to ferry messages from office to office before telephones became common.

The tunnels that catch my imagination, though, are the Victoria and Wapping Tunnels.  Running from Edge Hill to the city centre, these two (well, technically three: a cutting separates one of them into the Waterloo and Victoria Tunnels) abandoned routes under the city are magnets for transport enthusiasts, historians, urban explorers and ambitious architects.

I'd always wanted to trace their paths under the city, so, on an idle weekday a few weeks ago when the weather wasn't too bad, I set off along the Strand to walk to what was once Park Lane Goods Station.  From 1830 to 1972 this was the head of a freight line, plugging the city centre into the national railway system.

Now it's a mess of businesses that gravitate towards big patches of open land in city centres.  A surface car park, a car hire place, a builder's merchant.  At the back, some Portakabins acting as site offices for the nearby development projects, with health and safety notices and hard hat area signs.  I followed the footpath right to the end of the street.

There it is: the tunnel portal.  If I'd got some bolt cutters and some spelunking gear, I could've walked straight to Edge Hill station - not much over a mile in a straight line.  As it was, I turned round and headed back down the road, past a lad from the builder's yard on his fag break, and turned into Blundell Street.  The McDonald's there was filled with hi-vis jacketed builders, their fluorescent bodies shining through the windows.

It was a reminder that this part of town was changing rapidly.  For decades it's just been a sea of empty warehouses and industrial units and abandoned, rotting shells, but now it's the Baltic Triangle: Liverpool's hottest new address.  The City Centre has spread southwards, and those warehouses first filled with artists and club nights, and then they became tech industries and startups, and now they're becoming apartment buildings.  The gaps in the landscape, there since the Luftwaffe did their own bit of town planning in the forties, are starting to be filled with steel and brick and glass.

It's a bit of Liverpool I've never really gone into.  For a long time there was no reason to head down here and now, as it becomes the place to be, I don't feel at home here.  I don't have an asymmetric haircut and skinny jeans.  I don't listen to the newest music.  I did once have a coffee in the Baltic Social and, while it was a wonderful space and everyone was very nice, I did feel like the chaperone at a teenage party.  And that was at lunchtime; goodness only knows what it's like in the evening.  It also means I'm far too self-conscious to venture into Sonic Yootha, a club night in Kitchen Street which sounds like just my kind of thing.  I mean, it's named after Mildred Roper.  Yootha is wasted on the young.

Across St James Street and into the network of cul-de-sacs that were built by the Council in the 1980s, and which now seem incredibly out of place.  In a few years these will be a enclave of desirable homes in the city - a garden and a driveway five minutes walk from Liverpool 1! - but now they're a clunking bit of suburbia that somehow got dislodged and floated inside the inner ring road.  I dodged the man on a child's bike, circling round and round, waiting for a rendezvous that I very much doubt was legal, and went into Great George Square.

It's odd that a building as huge and dominant as the Anglican Cathedral can sneak up on you, but there it was, suddenly looming over me.  Good cities always surprise you.  Liverpool does it better than most.

Good cities also have oddities in the corners, curiosities in plain sight.  The Wapping Tunnel was built in an age of steam trains and all that billowing smoke had to go somewhere.  The engineers built four brick shafts to ventilate the route, and three of them are still there.  And they're huge.

I'm willing to be that most of the local residents don't even notice that.  A four storey brick tower poking out of some waste ground and it just becomes part of the landscape.  I headed back into the square, following the path of the tunnel as it passed under Chinatown.

If you're the kind of person who loves railways - and if you're reading this blog, you probably are - this is the most frustrating part of the Wapping Tunnel's route.  Beneath Great George Street, in the shadow of the cathedral, right at the tip of Chinatown, the Wapping Tunnel and the Northern Line cross over.  Two underground railway lines intersecting without a station; that's the kind of thing that gets a certain kind of railway fan frustrated and angry.  I'm one of them.  But I'll come back to that later.

I crossed by the Chinese Arch, where a man was explaining its history to a group of enthusiastic primary school kids, and disappeared into the Georgian back streets.  Given that I was only a few minutes walk from the centre of the city, they were oddly silent, and I walked down the centre of the road without being troubled by any traffic.

The Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts crowned the top of the street at its junction with Hope Street.  I could hear a full-throated choral performance echoing from inside; the windows on the corner were filled with racks of spangly costumes.

Across the road and I found another of those ventilation shafts, neatly fenced off behind a nursery school.  I wonder if the well-off merchants who lived in these streets when the tunnel was built were consulted about its construction?  Was there a planning procedure in the early 19th century?  Or was it just, "we need to build this.  Shut up."

This is another bit of the city I don't really know.  In general, if there isn't a railway station close by, I don't know anything about that part of town.  I was chatting to a friend the other day, and he mentioned he'd been to a market in Old Swan; I genuinely couldn't tell you whereabouts in Liverpool that is.  On the other hand, I could probably find Cressington or Old Roan with my eyes closed.

I do know that whenever I end up north of Hope Street I'm enchanted by it.  What's not to like?  Quiet streets of pretty Georgian houses, discreet mews, trees and cobbles.  It's a wonderful part of the city centre that feels like a secret.  Perhaps not for much longer; again, there were the cranes and scaffolding of new developments, luxury apartments, exclusive town houses, as the recolonisation of the inner city continued.

I ducked down Bedford Street, coming out by what had used to be Myrtle Parade.  That had been a low, concrete 1970s precinct full of takeaways.  Now it's been replaced by a block of redbrick student housing, with the inevitable Tesco Metro at its base.  You know how in London, you're never more than six feet from a rat?  In Liverpool, you're never more than six feet from a Tesco Metro.

There used to be a ventilation shaft for the Wapping Tunnel here, too, on Chatham Place, but that was demolished some time ago.  Now it's just a lot of student flats.

Behind the acres of university accommodation, however, there's a spot of green open space.  Crown Street Park is a bit of open land that could be anywhere.  Some grass, a couple of playgrounds, some paths.

For the railway fan, it's a far more important site.  It's basically a place of pilgrimage.  Firstly, there's the Wapping ventilation shaft.  Perhaps the biggest of the lot, or maybe it just looks that way because it's surrounded by open land.  Once again I was taken by how completely incongruous it is, and yet everyone accepted it.  You know how in Doctor Who, they explain that people just ignore the Tardis - that it's just there, and people look round it?  It's like that.  Metres of tall brick towering over the landscape, and people just walked their dogs, like it was completely acceptable.

More importantly, Crown Street was the site of the world's first intercity station.  Stephenson's Rocket took off from here in 1830 and changed everything.  The station lasted for six years, but it was too far from the city centre.  There's a high ridge of rock that encircles Liverpool - most obvious at Everton Brow - and so Crown Street was the easiest place to site the station.  Passengers were forced to transfer to carriages for the final part of the journey.

Everyone realised this was a bad idea almost immediately, and so they dug the series of cuttings and tunnels that are still in use today to get the railway to Lime Street.  Crown Street only lasted six years; the site was converted into a goods station, which lasted 140 years before closing in 1972 and becoming the park.  It's a bland stretch of grass, oddly shaped, with uneven contours; it seems to be a park because that was the simplest way of dealing with a messy spot.  There is a single piece of railway line still here though, a stretch of track that juts into a cutting to allow trains to reverse at Edge Hill if necessary.

Edge Hill was Crown Street's replacement, a sop to the district now that the important people were going elsewhere, at the head of the rail works.  I came here in 2009 and it hasn't really changed.  It hasn't really changed in 180 years, let's be honest.  The same bricks, the same low slung, discreet buildings, constructed before a railway aesthetic had developed.  No-one knew what a railway station should look like back then.

I had a wander down to the platform level.  This is where the lines split in three.  To the south, there's the Wapping Tunnel.  In the centre, the routes to Lime Street, the path recently closed by a collapsed wall.  To the north, the entrance to the Victoria Tunnel.

It's a sad station, Edge Hill.  Too close to the city for commuting, too far out for a decent journey.  Most trains passing through miss it entirely.  But it's huge, spreading across four wide platforms, line after line stretching away.  It's empty and mostly silent.

I walked around for a while, snapping photos, the only one about.  Then I walked back up the cobbled street to Tunnel Road, to return to town via the Victoria and Waterloo Tunnels.

This is another bit of town that's being transformed.  Huge swathes of terraced streets between Wavertree Road and Edge Lane were demolished, replaced with smaller, tidier town houses and apartments.  It's been a clunky, badly executed change though, slow to catch on, meaning that homes have been surrounded by empty space and building sites for years.  On the south side of the road was the first of the Victoria Tunnel's ventilation shafts.  Smaller and much less impressive than the Wapping Tunnels, its little conical cap turning it into a turret in search of a castle.

I cut down the side of Taskers, one of my favourite local chains.  Their branch at Speke is a true treasure trove.  On the one hand, it's a DIY store, with cement and floor tiles and chainsaws.  On the other, it's home to some of the most ghastly home furnishings you have ever seen.  It's aisle after aisle of bejewelled, glitzy tat, and it's utterly marvelous.  Sequinned lizards?  Portraits of Marilyn Monroe with a tattoo painted on her arm?  Mirrors with frames that Louis XIV would have thought a bit over the top?  All these can be yours!  It's the epicentre of a very Scouse brand of bling, and it is to be cherished.

Round the back of an industrial unit, tucked away in the yard, I found the next ventilation shaft.

I walked down the hill back into town.  This was the slightly less glamorous approach to the city centre, thronged with disheveled council houses and abandoned pubs.  The cuttings to Lime Street broke up the landscape, creating holes over and over that fragmented the streetscape.

On Smithdown Lane, near the police station and behind some more student homes, I found a quiet mews with this plaque:

I'd quite like to be called a "pioneer of tunnels".  All I need is some unemployed men and an eccentric mind.  Joseph Williamson set the men to work building a network of tunnels under his home, a network that is still being uncovered today.  No-one is entirely sure why.  Most think it was a job creation scheme, but there's also a strong argument that Joseph Williamson was just a bit odd.  It's a strange, curious place I've never actually got round to visiting, so I looked forward to checking it out - except:

Story of my life.

Instead I continued to the back of what was once Archbishop Blanch School.  They moved to a new site a few years ago, leaving a massive plot of land right on the edge of the city centre just begging to be redeveloped.  The school buildings were demolished leaving the two Victoria ventilation shafts exposed, listed structures and unmoveable:

This is going to be a new district of offices and technical buildings, supporting the university and the new hospital over the road.  The Royal College of Physicians are going to open a new northern outpost here, there's an international college about to start construction, plus a series of specialty medical buildings.  It's all very impressive.  To support it, Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has suggested there should be a new railway station which has caused both excitement and confusion.

As is obvious, the Victoria Tunnel runs right under the site, making it perfect for an underground station.  It's also obvious that the tunnel hasn't been used for nearly fifty years, is single track, and is partially flooded, so it would be expensive to build.  Perhaps he meant a new station on the Lime Street route?  That also passes close by, with a cutting behind the University's vet school:

But that would mean opening out the route into Lime Street, which is incredibly expensive, and sticking a new station right in the way of all the fast trains into and out of Liverpool.  It doesn't seem to make sense either way.

The tunnels were planned for Merseyrail use once before.  Back in the Seventies, when the Link and the Loop were under construction to bring underground rail to Liverpool, a third phase was planned.  The trains that currently form the City Line would be sent into the Victoria Tunnel after Edge Hill, then into a new bit of tunnel to a University station under the Student Union, then into the Wapping Tunnel to get it to Liverpool Central from the south.  I've turned to highly expensive CGI to show how this would have happened:

True artistry, I'm sure you'll agree.

It didn't happen, because the Link and Loop overran and no-one in the 1970s had any money.  There were header tunnels built to the south of Central, ready to accept the new trains if the route was ever built, but nothing ever happened.  In a way, it was lucky, because Central is already hopelessly under capacity, its island platform handling 15 million people a year; stick the Huyton services in there too and things would get dangerous.

It all leads to hope, though, and hope is a dangerous and powerful drug for a railway fan.  Tunneling under a city is an incredibly expensive and difficult task.  Liverpool has two railway tunnels just sitting there, waiting, unused, and it leads to imagination and fantasy.  Do a quick google search and you'll find loads of ideas for "extending Merseyrail", maps and diagrams and even full on plans of stations.  And it's lovely in a way - it's great that people care and have imagination.  I fully admit to letting my mind wander now and then, imagining new metro lines beneath the city.  It all comes from love.

It can go too far.  Someone told me about the term crayonista, a person who draws lines on a map and says "let's just do that!"  The Victoria and Wapping tunnels encourage those extreme crayonista tendencies, because people think you can just build a metro on the cheap because there's a tunnel there already.  You can't.  The most expensive part of a metro is the station, for a start - building and fitting out a deep underground hole for access to that tunnel.  As I walked the routes I went through some wonderful, untouched spots of the city.  Would it be great if there were underground stations to give them access to the wider transport network?  Absolutely.  Would the cost of building them be in any way justified by passenger numbers?  I doubt it.  But there are furious debates and angry justifications all over the place as people shout at one another about how much better it would be for everyone if there were metro stations on every corner.  Railfans want more railways, and they get very passionate about their ideas.

Sometimes I wonder if the tunnels should just be filled in.  Just take away that hope.  It'd cut down on a lot of internet arguing.

(For the record: my fantasy would be a short tunnel from Speke via the airport to South Parkway, then above ground along the City Line to the Wapping Tunnel, building new stations at Bedford Street for the university, Chinatown for interchange with the Northern Line, and a terminus at the King's Dock.  It's a brilliant plan, and would totally work, and anyone who argues is wrong.  Also this line would be called the Scott Line).

South, past the new Royal Liverpool Hospital, which I still can't decide if I like or not.  Is it bold or clunky?  Is it impressive or a mess?  I can't decide.  It's certainly different to the old, grey shell of the 1970s hospital, but I'm not sure if different actually means "better".

Pembroke Place has now been almost completely colonised by the University, with teaching buildings on one side and the dental school on the other.  At its foot, however, it opens out into a brief square outside the venerable Liverpool institution that is TJ Hughes.

I have to confess, I've never actually been inside TJ Hughes.  It's just a little bit too far out of the city centre for me.  If only there was a railway station here... NO.  STOP.

Down a side street to another cleared site, ready for development, and the last of the ventilation shafts.  It used to be at the back of the National Express coach station, but they relocated to Liverpool 1 a couple of years ago and the building was levelled ready for a block of - yes - student flats.

I headed down Islington, the huge swathe of dual carriageway that sweeps you up from the tunnels towards Edge Lane.  The pavement narrowed, then narrowed a bit more, and soon I was on a barely there strip of pavement with trucks and cars speeding past.  I was happy to slip beneath the concrete overpass, into a strange netherworld of empty ground and parking spaces at the back of the World Museum.  It felt like a space that should be used for something, but I'm not sure what.

A series of traffic lights shepherded me in a right angle so that I could reach the other side of the road.  Slightly set back from the road, with a patch of green around it, there's a brick wall.  This is actually the edge of a cutting, the point where the Victoria Tunnel meets the Wapping Tunnel: a void leading underground.

The water fountain is of course broken and unused.  Now it's a handy bin for antisocial arseholes.

I stepped away from the swirl of traffic on the Scotland Road and into another quiet estate of 1980s houses.  The clunk between city and suburbia is even more pronounced here; playgrounds and bungalows right next to masses of apartments and office blocks, with more to come.  I wondered how comfortable it was to relax in your back garden on a sunny summer Saturday when you're aware that eight floors of residents can all see you spread out on the lounger.

I crossed the mad whirl of traffic that is Leeds Street and wandered up Pall Mall.  The building site was empty and silent, its construction halted by rumours about financing and dodgy deals.  The Waterloo Tunnel broke cover here, rising out of the ground then under Great Howard Street to the Waterloo Goods Station.

Great Howard Street crosses the line on a bridge.  Even though there aren't any trains using it any more - and probably never will be - that bridge is being rebuilt right now, closing off the bottom of a busy route into the city.  Like I said: block up the tunnels.

The goods station closed in 1972, and is now a Costco and a Toys R Us, their enormous flat bulks slotting neatly into what was once a massive space for railways.  It wasn't the end of the line though.  The trains continued across Waterloo Road and on to the Prince's Dock.

In the days of trans-Atlantic passenger ships, the Victoria and Waterloo tunnels gave a convenient route for boat trains.  They'd cross the road and then pull into Riverside station, on the Prince's Dock, right next to the departure point for the ships.  It was a huge transport interchange that was killed by aeroplanes.

And now there's nothing left.  The dock is a quiet, sedate strip of land by the river, surrounded by apartments and hotels, a canal route marked out through its centre.  There's nothing left of the old Riverside station, which was only demolished in the 1990s.  It boggles my mind to think that if I'd arrived in the city a couple of years earlier I could've seen the rusting hulk of an abandoned station here.

Liverpool is a beautiful, wonderful city.  I've lived in this part of the world for over 21 years now, more than half my life, and it still delights and surprises me.  I loved wandering round bits of it I'd never seen before, tracing the routes of a couple of tunnels most people don't even know are there.  Will they ever see trains again?  I doubt it.  But it's always thrilling to know that there's a secret world beneath your feet.