Tunnel to be narrowed to widen towpath on high-speed cycle route

January 2017 - Peter Underwood reports on a plan to prioritise towpath users at the expense of boaters.

It seems that Canal & River Trust Managers are about to collaborate with a local council to narrow a canal tunnel from two-way to one-way working – all so they can widen a towpath used by high speed commuting cyclists.

Midlands Waterways Manager Ian Lane met with the local Waterway Partnership's enterprise manager, as well as Birmingham big-wigs and businessmen, to discuss a proposal to widen the one hundred metres of towpath through Edgbaston tunnel on the Worcester and Birmingham canal to 'accommodate the increase in towpath usage over recent years'.
The towpath in question links Birmingham University campus with the city centre and has long had a reputation for high-speed commuting cyclists with little time for pedestrians who refuse even to slow down when passing through the Edgbaston Tunnel.

Ian Lane says in an email to those unable to attend the meeting: “This has been a long term ambition of Birmingham City Council who are looking to fund these works on the back of the Cycle Revolution. This would obviously mean the tunnel would go from two way traffic to single lane.”

Without providing details, he goes on to say: “We have done lots of studies over the recent months to see if this does make sense and our studies strongly show that it is the right thing to do and something the Trust would now support.”

He insists in the email to the chair of the Birmingham Canals Navigation Society, David Struckett and C&RT Navigation Group member Sue Cawson, amongst others, “We would not do anything without talking to you guys first. This was the first time we have presented it before the wider audience gets involved as you along with the other invitees are the experts and key users who would identify potential issues.”

Ian Lane describes the meeting as 'really positive' and concludes that the 'general consensus was that, whilst we appreciate the feeling towards the reduction in the canal width may be a fear in some areas, given the facts and increase in footfall, this does make sense and there is no real showstopper as to why this should not progress'.

All of which makes the narrowing of a canal to make more room on the towpath for cyclists seem as if it is a done deal.

However, Sue Cawson is not a fan of the council's plans: She has responded to Ian Lane saying: “I don't believe it is the right decision to widen the towpath, I have boated this section during the early morning commute, it is an extremely busy stretch of towpath.

“Unfortunately most of the issues are caused by the cyclists and their extremely aggressive behaviour, I am not convinced that widening the towpath would improve the situation in fact it could make it worse.

“When I was last boating through the tunnel the cyclists had total disregard for walkers and all other users.

“The lighting isn't that great through the tunnel either and often many lights have failed, so surely the obvious thing would be to make cyclists dismount and walk their bikes through, the tunnel isn't long and on many bridges with issues cyclists are requested to walk.”

The Floater asked West Midlands C&RT to confirm it was indeed considering narrowing the canal in the tunnel and asked whether it planned to consult boaters.
This is the response.

The Canal & River Trust has started to consult regarding the proposal to widen the towpath through Edgbaston tunnel. The continued increase in pedestrian usage along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal has seen the tunnel become a bottleneck for towpath users. This increase use is largely down to new users from new developments in Selly Oak, the new Queen Elizabeth hospital and Birmingham University. This is an issue we are becoming increasingly aware of and the idea to widen the towpath through the tunnel has been a long term ambition of Birmingham City Council, brought to our attention many years ago. However, whilst we have never taken it further, given the above and the willingness of the City Council to fund it we feel it is now the right time to consult with waterway users. The towpath has already seen significant investment either side of the tunnel and the lighting through has also recently been upgraded.

What we must stress is that whilst this would be funded by Birmingham City Council as part of the Birmingham Cycle Revolution project, it is not driven by cycling. It is driven by the growth in footfall along the towpath, whether this is walking, running or cycling and the congestion that the narrow towpath through the tunnel now causes. We will obviously review the area to tackle any issues with our Share the Space campaign and review the need for further warning signs.

At the time of the City Council’s enquiry we only had anecdotal evidence of the issue, However we have now undertaken some initial surveys to give us a greater, more accurate insight to volumes. This was done in the form of time lapse cameras stationed at each end of the tunnel during the holiday season along with our cycle counters on the towpath. From this we can see that the average daily movements are : 25 Boats, 300 cyclists and 600 pedestrians which is significant. We anticipate undertaking more in depth studies should the project proceed.

So it is clear that there is a huge use of the towpath, and whilst we support the idea in principal, we are committed to fully understanding what the potential issues are from our customers and local communities hence the consultation. We are also conscious of the heritage value of this location so our solution would need to take that into consideration.

Our initial consultation has centred on the businesses customers on whom it would have the most impact along with representatives from the various boating societies and groups. These local representatives have been asked to disseminate this to the wider audience and we are happy to take feedback from anyone else who wishes to comment.

We are also commencing consultations with Birmingham University, the QE hospital, and local councillors.

There is no fixed timescale for the project yet but we have asked the above for their initial feedback by the end of January. Anyone wishing to comment is more than welcome to do so via enquiries.westmidlands@canalrivertrust.org.uk. This feedback is greatly appreciated and we will of course keep people updated."

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