A GROUP fighting to save a historic railway tunnel says its campaign is at a "critical" stage after a so-called 'screening opinion' request to infill it was lodged with Bradford Council.

The Queensbury Tunnel Society (QTS) wants to see the tunnel transformed into a cycle path and has fought tooth and nail to halt the plans of Highways England Historical Railways Estate (HRE) - which acts as the custodian of the disused railway on behalf of the Department for Transport - to abandon the 1.4-mile long structure.

The society says this would involve infilling it with concrete in a project which would cost around £3million. But for the society’s cycle path proposal to go ahead, Bradford Council would have to take on its ownership.

QTS says this work would render the tunnel "permanently beyond use" and rule out any future development of a cycle network connecting Halifax with Bradford and Keighley.

While HRE says it is "fully open" to transferring the tunnel's ownership, it says that if a transfer opportunity cannot be found then work to close the tunnel must begin in September and the screening request is part of the planning process to allow this to happen.

Norah McWilliam, leader of QTS, said the group wants to delay any action by HRE until Bradford Council has completed its own study.

She said: "It's at an absolutely critical stage. We have got to make sure this is stopped."

She added: "They just seem to be ploughing ahead.There's no reason why they can't delay any activity and let Bradford do a full investigation."

A Bradford Council spokesperson confirmed it had received a request for a screening opinion for the infilling of the shafts and portals at the tunnel.

They added: "The purpose of the 'screening opinion' request is to determine whether an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) would be needed for a planning application. This is a technical assessment applying regulations and guidance set down by the Government, it is information for Highways England and does not grant planning permission for work to be carried out.

"This screening opinion request will be considered as a completely separate matter to the investigations we are undertaking to assess the works necessary to restore the tunnel and convert it to a cycleway.

"We are continuing to engage with the HRE to make the case that all options for the tunnel should be fully explored before any final decision is made.

"However, as the tunnel as an asset is owned by the HRE we cannot stop them submitting a screening opinion request or subsequently a planning application to close the tunnel should they wish to do so.

"Nonetheless we will continue to engage with the HRE, and the Queensbury Tunnel Society, in working to identify the potential for the tunnel to be restored and brought back into use as a cycleway so that any final decision can be made with the full knowledge of the facts and the funding needed to either close the tunnel or restore it."

A Highways England spokesperson said: “We remain fully open to the idea of transferring ownership of Queensbury Tunnel to another public body. We would also look to offer the new owner the estimated £3 million funding we would need to spend on closing the tunnel.

“We have been working closely with Bradford Council for some time regarding the future of the tunnel. In December 2016 we agreed to provide the Council with funds in order to carry out a feasibility study.

“If a transfer opportunity to another public body cannot be found, for safety reasons we must begin work on closing the tunnel in September. We have now begun the necessary planning process to allow this to happen.”