Members received a presentation from the Project Secretary and the Chair of the Rhondda Tunnel Society; the presentation detailed the following three main themes:
· Project costs;
· Creating a ‘must visit’ attraction;
· Plans to move the project at Blaengwynfi forward.
It was noted that a technical subcommittee had been established, and was made up of retired Senior Engineers; the subcommittee had produced detailed plans for the tunnel, which had been endorsed by the Associate Director of Arup in Cardiff.
The Committee was informed that the physical work of the project will take 18 months; and the project costs included the following:
· Visitor Centres at both ends of the tunnel;
· Micro-hydro schemes at both ends of the tunnel; the Society was working with Natural Resources Wales (NRW) to develop these. It was added that the Micro-hydro schemes will provide green power, and will also provide the opportunity to put in place remote working facilities in the Visitor Centres.
The Project Secretary of the Society confirmed that the project cost had been validated by Corderoy, Quantity Surveyors; and the estimate given for the overall project was £13.111million.
Members were informed that South Wales had two abandoned long railway tunnels, one situated between Abernant and Merthyr, and the other in Rhondda, Blaengwynfi; Rhondda Cynon Taf (RCT) Council had a portal in both tunnels. It was stated that the Abernant-Merthyr tunnel was an active travel route between Merthyr and Aberdare, and the Rhondda tunnel was more of a visitor attraction and would be the longest tunnel in Europe. In regards to the Abernant-Merthyr tunnel, it was noted that it had continued with public funding but has received little public support; however Merthyr Council continues to lobby hard for support. The Project Secretary explained that the Rhondda tunnel had received huge public support, however, has received very little public funding in the last few years; strong support from Neath Port Talbot (NPT) Council could help balance this.
The following points were highlighted in regards to the current situation:
· Both tunnels were owned by the Westminster Department for Transport (DfT);
· The DfT confirmed they will transfer the tunnels to Welsh Government with a small sum; £60k for the Rhondda tunnel, however Welsh Government wanted several million pounds for it;
· Chris Bryant, Member of Parliament (MP), was going to be approaching DfT on behalf of the Welsh Government for funds;
· RCT Council were in the process of recruiting a consultant to work on writing an application through the Heritage Lottery Fund for £5million specifically for the Rhonnda tunnel.
A video was played to the Committee, which showed Chris Bryant MP in Westminster, inviting Grant Shapps MP to visit the Rhondda tunnel.
It was stated that the middle of the Rhondda tunnel was dry and mild all year, and it had 526 alcoves which provided many opportunities; the tunnel offered a huge exhibition space, and one idea was to use the alcoves for interactive displays of Welsh history. It was added that some displayed could be sponsored, and there was a lot of interest from the National Library of Wales; those working on the project had many different ideas, and welcomed further ideas to be presented. Another suggestion highlighted was to use the bare walls for sound and light displays.
The Committee were presented with plans for the proposed display section of the Rhondda tunnel; there were plans to put a removable barrier down the middle, to widen the tunnel out to its full width (4.3 meters) and to allocate a side for pedestrians to walk down with alcove displays, and the other side for cyclists to use.
Members were informed of the plans to extend the tunnel slightly, which will make the tunnel over two miles long; it would take an hour to walk from one end to the other. It was noted that developing such a long tunnel would be a challenge and needed to be considered carefully, however it would be special for South Wales; this was why there was a lot of emphasis on the facilities/displays in the tunnel, as these elements will make it more than Europe’s longest walking/cycling tunnel.
The presentation included pictures of the Rhondda tunnel site in Blaengwynfi from the 1970s and how it looked today; displaying how much the site had changed. It was mentioned that a deep hole was needed to access the tunnel portal, and from this there will be lots of spoil to be moved; the current plan was to excavate the approach cutting. Members were informed that a company called hyperTunnel had approached the Society with a new tunnelling technology to create an extension to the tunnel. The Project Secretary explained what the company would do to create much less disruption and spoil, and less change at Blaengwynfi; there was also plans to look into a “Cut and Cover” alternative which was more conventional.
Images were shared displaying the current plans and thoughts for the access point of the Rhondda tunnel; the extension would bring the tunnel portal to the surface, which would prevent the hillside from being disrupted.
A brief summary of the hyperTunnel technique was provided to Members; along with the detailed plans drawn up by the technical subcommittee. The detailed plans highlighted the amount of spoil that would need to be removed and deposited if the tunnel was excavated, and also if the tunnel was extended.
A discussion took place in regards to the ownership of the tunnel; a map was displayed, which highlighted the areas of land that NPT Council owned. It was explained that the majority of the tunnel, including the site for the proposed extension, was within NPT land; therefore, the future planning application will be presented at a meeting of the NPT Council Planning Committee.
The following points were highlighted in the summary of the presentation:
· The Rhondda Tunnel Society had been campaigning since 2015;
· There had been huge political support, however endless reports and delays;
· The Society wanted to raise the funds for a Blaengwynfi extension, independently of public funding;
· The air shaft could be opened for abseiling to bring in visitors before the main tunnel opened, which would start to bring in benefits while the rest of the tunnel was being developed;
· Tentative offers of some funding had already been received;
· Discussions had taken place with RCT Council regarding providing the “match funding”, which was essential for most bids;
· The Society was still waiting for a full costing proposal from hyperTunnel. However, some estimates had been considered with regards to how much money it would cost to implement the “Cut and Cover” alternative;
· A letter had been received from the Railway Heritage Trust, who awarded a grant of £100,000 towards the reopening of the Blaengwynfi portal of the Rhondda tunnel. They had also offered further monies next year, although this needed to be confirmed in the budget they were negotiating with National Highways.
Members stated that it was refreshing to see the ambition and commitment to a project; however, mentioned that a lot of the progress will be determined by how much money the UK Government will be willing to commit. It was noted that going forward, it would be vital to keep an eye on the various funding streams and financial opportunities that could become available in the near future; Members were willing to help by lobbying local MPs.
The Local Members in attendance at the meeting provided their support for the project and commended the work that had been completed so far; Members also highlighted the importance of this type of project to the Afan Valley.
Members were informed of the various phases of work that were proposed; although it was noted that some of this would depend on the funding package between Westminster and Welsh Government. One of the first phases that was highlighted was to submit a planning application to open the portal at Blaengwynfi, in order to gain access to the tunnel; and then converting the air shaft into the abseiling element. It was stated that this will start the project, and the momentum was anticipated to be carried forward after this; there were various jobs that could be completed at a fairly low cost, while funds were gathered to complete the rest of the work.
It was queried whether the Society would need the ownership transferred from DfT before the development work can start; the work relating to the extension was situated entirely within NPT land, therefore the ownership would not need to be transferred to start this element of the work.
A discussion took place in regards to the link between the infrastructure and tourism of the project. It was confirmed that on the Rhondda side, there was a bus turning circle in Blaencwm which would be of use; there was also a 20 minute bus service down the valley, which was within 400 meters of the portal in the Rhondda. In terms of future plans, it was noted that the Society was looking to include a traffic free cycle route to Treherbert station, and a shuttle bus for those who only wanted to walk one way through the tunnel; the shuttle bus would then take those individuals back to the start. It was added that the Society would also like to develop a hire bike route, which will spread the benefits right throughout the valley. The Project Secretary confirmed that the Society would work with NPT Council as much as possible, especially during the pre-planning stage, to discuss these elements.
Members thanked the Project Secretary and the Chair of the Rhondda Tunnel Society for their presentation and the work that had been put in so far to take the project forward.