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7.28 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) on securing the debate and on the forceful way in which he made his points on behalf of his constituents. I shall gloss over some of his earlier comments about Saltash being the gateway to England. Of course, it is a fine old settlement, as we know, but—if I may tease him gently—his constituents move over the river into Devonport, my constituency, to find employment, as well as to do their shopping. He is right that Saltash is a fine town, and I am sure that he is very proud to represent it.

I shall start with some historical information to explain what lies behind the works that are being undertaken in the tunnel. Such was the Government's concern following the European tunnel disasters that the Prime Minister required that all United Kingdom tunnels should be assessed to ensure that fire, or a similar serious accident, would not lead to such loss of life and disruption. There were clearly lessons to be learned from the disasters. They included the need for modern and robust environmental control, television monitoring and smoke and firefighting methods. A review of fan and water control also took place.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Saltash tunnel is a single-bore, three-lane tunnel situated on the A38 trunk road below Saltash in Cornwall. It is approximately 410 m long and includes a 346 m bored tunnel section with an unreinforced concrete permanent lining. The Highways Agency is responsible for operating the A38 trunk road and the tunnel, maintaining them in good condition and carrying out any improvements.

Mott, Hay and Anderson—now Mott MacDonald—designed the tunnel and Balfour Beatty Construction Ltd. built it. It was opened to traffic in 1987. Its length exceeded 400 m, and Saltash was clearly a tunnel to be taken seriously. It is the only single-bore tunnel on the trunk road network and it also operates a tidal flow traffic management system. That permits two lanes for the morning Plymouth-bound traffic—all the people who leave Cornwall and come into Devon—and one lane against that flow for the out-bound traffic. That is switched after the morning peak flow for the rest of the day and during the night.

The tidal flow system operates in tandem with the newly widened Tamar bridge, which Cornwall county council and Plymouth city council own and manage jointly. The electronics and signs create additional maintenance problems in the confines of the single bore. Modern, state-of-the-art monitoring equipment is included in the current works to replace the 15-year-old, out-of-date systems that have become unreliable and expensive to maintain.

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The Highways Agency is aware of the cracks in the tunnel walls. As the hon. Gentleman said, seepage of water through the concrete lining has caused unsightly staining, emphasised the cracking and led to public concern about the structural adequacy of the tunnel.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): As the Minister knows, I use the tunnel regularly. Sometimes I have the misfortune to have to leave Cornwall and cross the border into his constituency in England. I hope that he will assure us that, although the tunnel will look much better cosmetically, there will be no further deterioration in the tunnel's structural integrity, which we will not be able to see because of the new lining. That is critical.

Mr. Jamieson: The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted my comments. The tunnel was constructed to last more than 100 years and the structure is intact and in good condition.

When the tunnel was designed, knowledge and technology was not as good as it is today. There was little experience of building such a tunnel. At the time, it was leading edge technology. It was built to the specifications of the Department of Transport, and although it was known that it would crack, neither the designers nor the Department anticipated the number of cracks that appeared and the amount of water that poured through. However, that is history.

The hon. Gentleman made specific points about the designers not taking note of local experience. I cannot comment on that because it happened more than 20 years ago. If voices had been heard, perhaps the tunnel would have been designed differently. However, if it had been designed to be totally watertight, the cost could have been so enormous that it prohibited construction. It was built to a budget and to serve a purpose.

No one doubts that the tunnel provides a useful bypass of the old Saltash town centre. When holiday traffic drove through in July, August and September, it clogged up that side of Plymouth and, of course, Saltash. The tunnel has been a valuable asset to the road network.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the technology at the time. It was perceived to be adequate, but the tunnel has subsequently leaked. However, the problem is cosmetic, not structural, and we now have to solve it. The tunnel is not falling apart.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether penalties should be imposed because of the cracks. The difficulty with that is that the tunnel was designed to specifications set out by the then Department of Transport, and it would be very difficult to show at law who was responsible. That is probably why it was decided not to take any further action at that time. He also mentioned a secret report. He has seen two very comprehensive reports on the tunnel, and I have to say to him that if I wanted to know anything about the state of the tunnel, I would refer to those reports. There is another report—which is largely an opinion—but I do not think that it would be helpful in the present situation. If it came into the public domain, it would certainly not help his constituents. I have seen it, and it would not take us any further forward in solving the problem that we now face.

Some 340 m of the total 410 m of permanent tunnel lining is made from unreinforced concrete, and shrinkage cracks began to appear shortly after

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completion. Attempts to seal the cracks at that time were unsuccessful, and further cracks developed. Before proceeding with a refurbishment contract, the Highways Agency sought a second opinion on the tunnel's structural integrity. That resulted in the report from the Dr. G. Sauer Company, an international firm of tunnelling consultants, which was commissioned by the Highways Agency in June 1998 to assess the structural adequacy of the tunnel in its cracked state. A two-volume assessment report was submitted in March 2000—this is the report that the hon. Gentleman has seen, and I have to assure him that it will tell him everything that he needs to know—which concluded that the concrete lining should be structurally adequate for the design life of the tunnel. As I said, it was designed to have a life of nearly 100 years, and there is no question but that its integrity is good.

The report also confirmed that the leakage was a cosmetic problem, and identified appropriate refurbishments—some of which were necessary purely because of the age of the tunnel, and the normal wear and tear—and modernisation. In the assessment report is a statement, to which the hon. Gentleman has referred in previous correspondence, indicating that a separate report existed. That is the one that he calls the "secret" report. I can assure him that that confidential report will not take us any further forward.

In accordance with the Prime Minister's directive following the European tunnel disasters, and having accepted that the reports from the Dr. G. Sauer Company confirmed the structural integrity of the tunnel, the Highways Agency's work has concentrated on modernisation. It is important that we now look at the way forward. We could look back, and we could perhaps apportion blame, but I am not sure that that would be terribly helpful in the circumstances. The hon. Gentleman needs to know whether the tunnel is going to be fit for the purpose for which it was designed, and whether it will get holidaymakers and people travelling to work to and from their destinations. He also needs to know whether, as the gateway to Cornwall, it is going to look good. That is important in terms of people's perception of Cornwall—and of Devon, for that matter.

With a view to reducing the energy costs of lighting and the costs of cleaning, a specification for a high-standard lining has been produced. That will have the added advantage of covering up the unsightly staining while permitting easy access for the general and principal inspections that the agency carries out on all its structures from time to time. The maintenance service building at the western portal has been extended to cater for current health and safety requirements. The new lighting and ventilation fans will be positioned with a view to easier and cheaper maintenance. Drainage, both behind the tunnel walls and in the carriageway, will be upgraded.

Given the increased traffic volumes since construction, the current speed limit of 30 mph, introduced for the refurbishment contract, will be maintained to regularise traffic speed for the whole tidal flow section across the Tamar bridge and the Saltash tunnel. The potential for a speed-related accident in the

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confines of a tidal flow single-bore tunnel is very great. Speed camera coverage over the length of the tunnel requires special cameras at precise locations. We have new speed cameras using what is called the "specs" system—they look like a pair of spectacles—which will be installed as an additional safety measure. To enable the smooth passage of trunk road traffic along the county roads during the night-time closures of the tunnel that will enable the refurbishment to be carried out, diversion arrangements were put in place in advance of the main contract. They involved capacity improvements at some junctions, traffic light installation, traffic monitoring equipment and electronic signing. They cost about £1.8 million, an investment in the hon. Gentleman's constituency that I am sure he does not oppose.

Those diversion routes will be used whenever future cleaning and other maintenance works are required in the tunnel, as has been the case since its construction. The improvements should also help to cater for the increased traffic that has been a feature since 1987, and for all the people who are going to view the Eden project and the other fine things that Cornwall has to offer nowadays besides a bucket-and-spade holiday. We all welcome the increased traffic that we have already seen and will see again in the summer.

Current maintenance costs run to about £500,000 a year. The new main contractor will carry them until the refurbishment is complete. The total cost of the refurbishment is expected to be about £8 million. Skanska was awarded a contract to refurbish the tunnel following an Official Journal advertisement and competitive tender. Both Skanska and the engineering consultants Symonds, designers for the refurbishment, won the contracts following a quality and price tender assessment. Sadly, since the awarding of the contract the specialist lining contractor has gone out of business, and delays were incurred during the search for a suitable alternative specialist. Tubosider of Italy, the specialist firm used for the Mont Blanc tunnel cladding, has now been retained by Skanska.

The implications of the delay, and the need for a smooth traffic flow through the tunnel during the holiday season, have been discussed with Skanska, Symonds and the Highways Agency. As a result of the delay, the works will not be finished until September.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, with which I am familiar. It is important to his constituency, to Cornwall more generally, and to Devon. Now, however, we must look forward. We have made a substantial investment in the Saltash tunnel, as we have all along the route. He must welcome the new bypass at Dobwalls that we have announced. Indeed, his constituency is gaining many new features thanks to the Government's work in running a successful economy and investing in the infrastructure that we need so much.

I hope that once the works are finished and we have surmounted the problems associated with the original design, we shall have a tunnel fit for the 21st century.

Question put and agreed to.

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