Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Tunnel vision

Travel through the Alps in Switzerland or Austria and you get used to long road tunnels cutting through the spectacular mountain scenery.

One country not famed for such tunnels is the UK as we hardly have the kind of ‘big’ scenery to warrant them. But don’t despair - a new 1.1 mile long tunnel has just opened south west of the M25 on the A3 road linking London to Portsmouth.

This is the latest development on a stretch of the A3 that has seen a number of major improvements over the years to alleviate bottlenecks.

The first came in the 1980s when a dual carriage way was hacked between the chalk downland adjacent to Butser Hill, part of the South Downs way a few miles south of Petersfield.

In the late 1990s came the long awaited Petersfield by-pass relieving time-consuming and an often bumper to bumper trek through this pleasant Hampshire market town.

The Lighthouse Keeper and his family first started travelling up and down the A3 between the M25 and Portsmouth in 1990 after moving to the south coast from the Fens of Lincolnshire.

Like many a commuter or holiday-maker travelling to this part of the south coast we were often caught in long delays as traffic snaked towards Hindhead and round the Devil’s Punch Bowl beauty spot.

Our latest foray to Portsmouth at the weekend hit the jackpot as far as road travel was concerned, the new £371 million Hindhead Tunnel having just been officially opened after a four-and-a-half year construction project.

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond MP (pictured) described the new tunnel as "a cutting-edge road scheme that has surpassed expectations" when he cut the ribbon the previous Wednesday before dashing out of the way to let the traffic stream through.

Construction began on the twin-bore tunnel in January 2007. It is one of the longest in England and is part of a four mile bypass of the Surrey village of Hindhead.

Seven safe crossing points have been built over or under the new road, most of them specifically for pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders.

The tunnel, which will be used by an estimated 30,000 vehicles a day, runs under the bowl which is a large hollow of dry, sandy heath, to the east of Hindhead.

As the ground conditions in the area are predominantly sandstone, the twin tunnel bores had to be constructed using a sprayed concrete lining to prevent them caving in.

Traffic safety features include the UK's first radar-based incident detection system and 100 percent CCTV coverage.

The project has already won awards for its innovation and its safety record, and it’s nice to note that it has also been delivered within budget and on schedule.

In the final phase of the project work will soon begin on returning the old A3 to nature, reuniting the Devil's Punchbowl with Hindhead Common for the first time in almost 200 years.

Hammond’s press statement issued for the opening described traffic as being held up at the Hindhead crossroads "for years".

For those of us who sat in the queues it always seemed like years at the time though was probably closer to 20 or 30 minutes. But even that will be a great saving on those journeys to and from the south coast.

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