TRANSFORMING a disused railway tunnel into a cycling route would bring “national and international” attention to the district, say campaigners.

One of the key figures behind ambitious efforts to save Queensbury Tunnel gave an impassioned speech on the merits of the ambitious scheme at a meeting of Bradford Council’s executive.

The Victorian tunnel has been unused for decades, and Highways England’s Historical Railways Estate – which maintains the structure on behalf of the Department for Transport – says it is unsafe. Estate bosses plan to permanently close it by sealing both entrances and backfilling its ventilation shafts.

But campaigners want to turn the historic structure into the UK’s largest underground cycleway – which would form part of a route from Keighley, through Bradford and to Halifax.

Over 10,600 people have signed a petition supporting the initiative.

A report to the executive said that if the council was to take on the tunnel, it would cost £6.9 million to make the structure safe.

And the bill for making it safe, then converting it into a cycling attraction and providing a maintenance budget for 30 years, would be £23 million.

Richard Gelder, highways services manager, told members that the tunnel project was a “highly attractive proposition, although there are significant financial concerns for the council becoming actively involved”.

He said that according to a study by the sustainable transport charity Sustrans, taking into account the tourism benefits, the tunnel would be “good value for money”.

Members heard that the big issue would be finding funding for the project.

Council leader, Councillor Susan Hinchcliffe, said: “This has really captured the imagination – if we can pull this off it would be a wonderful provision for our district, and for Calderdale.”

Norah McWilliam, one of the key figures in the Queensbury Tunnel campaign, told the meeting: “We appreciate that the council’s current financial shortfall is problematic, and we understand the council’s caution in taking ownership of the tunnel.

“We are encouraged by the indications of the council’s mindset in relation to the structure.

“The project offers something transformational for future generations. It can be a traffic-free route to Calderdale.

“It will raise the district’s profile, both nationally and internationally. It would be great for sporting events and help Bradford become a capital for cycling.”

She said Highways England says the tunnel is unsafe, and collapse could harm the properties built there.

But Mrs McWilliam said the current ‘abandonment’ plan – to block up both sides of the tunnel – would not totally eliminate the risks.

She said that any planning application submitted to close the tunnel would be met with a barrage of objections from residents, cycling groups and local schools.

Cllr Hinchcliffe said the council would do what it could to make the project happen.

Councillor John Pennington, leader of the Conservatives on Bradford Council, said: “This would be a huge attraction for our district and our county.”

Councillor Alex Ross Shaw, executive member for regeneration, planning and transport, said: “It will link Calderdale and Bradford and the areas in between.

“This would be the jewel in the crown of the cycling links in the area.

“The scheme has cross-party support and the Queensbury Tunnel group has done a great job spending years raising the profile of the project.”

The executive will urge Highways England to “delay their abandonment works to allow the council and its partners time to explore further potential sources of funding for the scheme through development of an advocacy document.”

Bradford Council will work with Sustrans, the Queensbury Tunnel Society and Calderdale Council in developing the document, before submitting a bid to the Transforming Cities fund.

As part of works to make the structure safe, contractor AMCO-Giffen has installed lighting and a temporary roadway for about 120 metres at the tunnel’s northern end.

More than 100 cyclists from across the district gathered at the tunnel and took part in a ride to show solidarity with the campaigners.

They were joined by Bradford and Calderdale councillors.

Mrs McWilliam said: “It was an inspiring event.

“For so many to turn out on a biting weekday afternoon was really humbling. Great commitment and so many smiling faces!

“More and more people are buying into our vision – seeing the tunnel as a transformative asset, not a liability that must be destroyed.

“Providing safe, high-quality infrastructure is vital if we are to deliver the much-needed culture shift away from our reliance on cars to more sustainable forms of transport, particularly for local journeys.”

Councillor Dot Foster, who leads on cycling issues for Calderdale Council, said: “One of the biggest barriers to cycling is having to mix with traffic on the roads; the tunnel would be traffic-free – which is perfect – and it avoids having to climb over Queensbury hill.

“Crucially, it also opens-up opportunities for communities along the route in terms of education, employment and leisure. This project works on so many levels which is why there’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for it.”

Councillor Ross-Shaw praised the turnout at the event.

“You could see from the huge turnout how many people are passionate about restoring the tunnel and we’ll continue to make the case to government to support us with feasibility funding and more time to assess how this great asset could be restored for future generations,” he added.

Opened in 1878, the 1.4-mile-long Queensbury Tunnel was the engineering centrepiece of a railway linking Halifax to Bradford and Keighley.

The tunnel was used by freight and passenger trains for almost 80 years.

It was closed in 1956, due to structural damage caused by ground water.

Bradford Council has worked with its counterparts in Calderdale and the West Yorkshire Combined Authority to identify potential sources of funding for the reopening scheme, but none have so far been found.

Whilst the council is supporting the project, due to cash constraints it can’t take ownership unless additional funding is made available.

Steve Hartley, strategic director of place, said: “The Queensbury Tunnel Society has done great work highlighting the potential for the tunnel as part of a wider cycleway, but it needs funding.”