Wyre Heal

A Local History of the Wirral Peninsula

Chapter 14

The Mersey Tunnels


The need for a crossing over or under the River Mersey has long been recognised.  The various ferries across the river were prone to disruption due to bad weather.  Also, whilst most of the time the ferries were fine for foot passengers, it was difficult for large loads to be accommodated.  Even the introduction of “Luggage Boats”… ferryboats specifically designed or converted to carry large loads and vehicles, did not have the capacity to fulfil the needs of the area.


In 1890, the Mersey Railway was formed.  The company planned to burrow a tunnel beneath the River Mersey and operate steam passenger trains between Birkenhead and Liverpool.


River Mersey Railway Tunnel


Although parliamentary permission to build a standard two-track railway between Liverpool and the Wirral under the River Mersey was obtained in 1871, it was some nine years later before the funds were available.  Within 12 months of starting, the original contractors got into financial difficulties and the work was taken over by Major Samuel Isaac.  Although he had little engineering experience, he was known for his ability to solve difficult problems and, in return for a large stake in the company, he agreed to meet all costs until the he could recover them from the profits from the line's use.


A drilling machine invented by Colonel Beaumont of the Royal Engineers was used to bore a pilot hole through the rock under the river and the main tunnel was excavated manually with explosives and picks and shovels.


The original line ran from Green Lane in Birkenhead to James Street in Liverpool.  It was opened by the Prince of Wales (later to become Edward VII) in 1886.  In 1888 a branch line to Birkenhead Park was built and eventually linked up with the West Kirby and New Brighton Railway lines at Bidston Station from where trains could be boarded for Chester.  By 1891, the Green Lane line had been extended several miles to Rock Ferry, which was the terminus for many years, but in the 1980’s, the line was gradually extended as far as Ellesmere Port, which is currently the most southerly point on the Merseyrail Electric Railway.


By 1890, the tunnel was carrying over 10 million passengers a year but there was still competition from the combined services of the surface electric trams and the ferry from Woodside, which many people thought to be considerably healthier than breathing the steam and smoke-laden fumes on the underground railway. To combat this, in 1903, the Mersey Railway became the first steam railway in the world to change over entirely to electric power.


Apart from the replacement of rolling stock, over the years nothing changed on the Mersey Railway until, in the 1970’s, a plan was formulated to build a loop line beneath the streets of Liverpool.  The plan included the building of a totally new station at Moorfields close to the old Exchange Station opposite the end of Pall Mall.  The existing stations were either rebuilt or heavily modified to accommodate the new route and even the original stations were virtually replaced as the new line was on a different level to the old one.


The 1980’s saw, as well as the building of the new Liverpool Loop, the railway was absorbed (along with the ferries, road tunnels and buses) into Merseytravel… a municipal company formed when public transport was going through a troubled period.  The Mersey Railway had it’s own branch of the company… Merseyrail.


River Mersey Road Tunnels


Queensway :- The Birkenhead Tunnel


Even though the railway tunnels beneath the Mersey had taken some of the load from the ferries, in the early 1920's, the leader of the Liverpool City Council, Sir Archibald Salvidge, was concerned about the ever-increasing queues of cars and lorries waiting for a boat at Liverpool Ferry and formed a committee to look into possible alternative ways of crossing the River Mersey.


Along with the tunnel the possibility of a bridge options was considered, but it was decided that a tunnel offered several advantages - particularly cost advantages in that, compared with a bridge, it would be only half the cost to build and annual maintenance should be much less.


Although Wallasey and Bootle had been included in the original committee, Liverpool and Birkenhead eventually decided to undertake the project alone. During the week before Christmas 1925, work began on the pilot tunnel at the Liverpool end and, in March the following year, from Birkenhead.


On 3 April 1928, Salvidge and Miss Margaret Beavan, the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, went underground and broke through the last thin wall of rock. On the other side, was the outstretched hand of Alderman Naylor, the Mayor of Birkenhead. After taking suitable measurements, the engineers proudly announced that two tunnels had met in the middle to within an inch. [25 mm].


The tunnel was opened to the public by King George V on 18th July 1934 and, in honour of Queen Mary, who was also at the opening ceremony, it was named Queensway.


Apart from the redecorating of the inside of the tunnel, the closure of the Birkenhead Dock Entrance, increased ventilation and the replacement of the original toll booths, the tunnel remains the same as it was when it was opened.


Kingsway :- The Wallasey Tunnel


By 1958, the amount of traffic using the Queensway Tunnel was giving cause for concern and, as the result of a study; it was decided to build a second tunnel linking Liverpool with Wallasey. Initially, the plan was for a single tube with just two lanes but by the time the money was available, in 1968, over 60,000 vehicles a day were using the existing tunnel and it was decided that the new tunnel should consist of two tubes - one for each direction - with two lanes in each.


A special boring machine, known as The Magna Mole, with a 35-foot diameter bit was used. It was the biggest machine of its kind in the world and had already bored out five tunnels in Pakistan. Working in the wet conditions under the River Mersey, the engineers met with many problems but the Wallasey Tunnel was finally opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 24th June 1971 and was named Kingsway.


As with the Queensway Tunnel, little has changes since opening. The toll booths have been replaced, extra ventilation fans have been added plus CCTV cameras and speed sensors have been installed. Both the Queensway and Kingsway Tunnels were absorbed into Merseytravel during the 1980’s.In 2002, health and safety legislation required that three cross-tunnels be constructed to act as emergency exits to supplement the existing connection with the adjacent tube should circumstances require evacuation of one of the tunnels.

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Updated - 24-09-09