Full steam ahead for old railway tunnels as cycle paths?

Tregarth tunnel Image copyright Gwynedd Council
Image caption Tregarth tunnel is the first in Wales to reopen for public use

Three years after a study earmarked five disused Welsh railway tunnels for reopening as cycling and walking routes, one is now in use and work is under way to open two much larger projects by 2021. What has happened to make the dream of many move closer to reality?

Tregarth tunnel in Bethesda reopened in May last year, after four months of work and at a cost of £430,000.

Known locally as Tynal Tywyll - Dark Tunnel, in English - it now forms part of a north Wales coast to Snowdonia path.

It's made it possible to travel on foot or by bike between the villages of Tregarth and Bethesda without following the main road, making the journey safer and easier.

The journey to work from Dyffryn Ogwen to the Bangor area is also more convenient for cyclists and pedestrians, according to Gwynedd council.

"After closing the railway almost 60 years ago, the tunnel and viaduct and their special construction had been closed off to the public," said deputy council leader Dafydd Meurig.

"But this important project has breathed new life into an important local construction which has completed the Lon Las Ogwen route between Bangor and Bethesda."

The completion appears, on the face of it, to have been fairly simple.

The project was funded by the local authority and the Welsh Government. Reopening the 275m-long (900ft) tunnel was, the council says, "straightforward in engineering terms".

This has not been the case, however, for the longest and most widely-publicised project - the 3,148m-long Rhondda Tunnel - as Steve Mackey has discovered.

Image copyright Four by 3
Image caption The Rhondda Tunnel runs between Blaenycwm in the Rhondda valley and Blaengwynfi in the Afan valley

But after a sticky start, he admits the project is now "going so fast I can't keep up with it".

Mr Mackey set up the Rhondda Tunnel Society in 2014 with the aim of sitting the tunnel's long-lost commemorative stone as near as possible to the Blaenycwm entrance.

But the venture has snowballed - the society boasts more than 700 paying members worldwide and more than 4,000 Facebook followers - and is now not only looking at opening the Rhondda Tunnel but also the second longest (2,283m) of the five, Abernant Tunnel between Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

"We received a £250,000 grant from the Welsh Government [in August 2018] to help us along with the project which is now technically Rhondda and Abernant as well - they want us to open the tunnels together," Mr Mackey said.

"We're not experts but we've been through it all with the Rhondda Tunnel so that's why they want us on board to help.

"We're hoping to get them both up and running within three years."

Image caption Steve Mackey said he played in the Rhondda Tunnel as a child, before it was filled in
Image copyright Sustrans
Image caption Abernant Tunnel is 150 years old but could be "opened really easily" according to Sustrans

But the grant received is a long way off the total estimated cost.

Mr Mackey visited the Abernant Tunnel for the first time in December but did not want to estimate the cost of reopening at this early stage, adding: "It will probably be around £7.5m for the Rhondda Tunnel alone."

He added that while the projects were given the backing of the local authorities in July, "I wouldn't expect the council to pay for the whole thing".

"We are in talks with the Heritage Lottery Fund and we've already had fantastic backing from Pen y Cymoedd Wind Farm - £93,000 to spend on the detailed examination."

The assessment carried out in May showed 95% of the Rhondda Tunnel was in as good a condition as when it first opened.

But there is still work to be done and Gwyn Smith, from Sustrans, is cautiously optimistic.

Image caption Sustrans highlighted five tunnels to be looked at as a priority and five others which are possibilities

It was his study that earmarked the tunnels for conversion.

"What's nice at the moment is Rhondda Cynon Taf council is helping to lead the project with Rhondda Tunnel Society," he said.

He said Sustrans, along with Merthyr Tydfil and Neath Port Talbot councils, also had "some interest".

He added that while the Rhondda Tunnel has "the community behind it", quite a lot of work has also been done on Abernant.

Image copyright Steve Mackey
Image caption The initial aim of the Rhondda Tunnel Society was siting the commemorative stone as close as possible to the Blaenycwm entrance

"Surveys are being completed on that tunnel, so we've got more information about the condition of it now," he said.

"The interesting reaction from a lot of the people is they were amazed what good condition it was in. It's 150 years old. but they could see how well built it was.

"Abernant can be opened really easily... it's not buried like the Rhondda Tunnel."

Both ends of the Rhondda Tunnel were covered over and landscaped after years of disuse.

So what are the next steps?

Image copyright Four by 3
Image caption This portal is currently the only way to enter the Rhondda Tunnel

"One of the things we have to do is monitor the air quality [at Abernant] over the next 12 months. Each end is open so we can do that," Mr Smith said.

"The Rhondda Tunnel is buried, so it's not possible to do that yet. One thing that needs to be looked at is how to uncover each end."

Merthyr council said a business plan was being developed looking at how Abernant could be managed, how to involve the community, and what the impact could be on the area's regeneration, including tourism potential and sustainable commuting opportunities between Merthyr Tydfil and Aberdare.

Councillor Geraint Thomas said it was one of a range of projects being considered by 10 local authorities in the region.

Image copyright Four by 3
Image caption Sustrans has already received queries about staging events through the Rhondda Tunnel

Neath Port Talbot council sees the potential of re-opening the Rhondda Tunnel to encourage walking and cycling, and Councillor Annette Wingrave said it was "an example of how the rich industrial heritage of valleys communities can be a driver for tourism in the area".

The Active Travel Act, which became law in 2013, was aimed at increasing the numbers of people walking and cycling to work, but a report in May showed it had had no effect.

The report was followed by an announcement of the first significant funding from the Welsh Government towards achieving that goal.

Image copyright Sustrans
Image caption Gwyn Smith said there was "growing optimism" the Usk Tunnel could be reopened
Image copyright Sustrans
Image caption But there are currently no plans to reopen the Pennar Tunnel

Of the two remaining projects, the Usk Tunnel now features in Monmouthshire council's Integrated Network Map (INM) to improve cycling and walking routes.

But a council spokesman stressed that "nothing has been decided yet on priorities for scheme development in 2019-20".

The Pennar Tunnel, between Pontllanfraith and Newbridge, had not been included in Caerphilly county borough's equivalent plan.

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