I took a trip out on the borrowed bike yesterday afternoon – through the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, up through the Isle of Dogs and up the canal to Hackney. I found riding along the towpath a bit nerve-wracking, but the mutual respect shown by both cyclists and pedestrians there makes it all work nicely. A ride around Victoria Park, a quick break at London Fields, then a speedy trip back along the canal and through the Docklands to the foot tunnel to get home in good time for Charlton’s match against Bristol Rovers.
Fat chance of that. At ten past six in the evening, right in the middle of the rush hour, the Greenwich Foot Tunnel had been closed. No explanation, no apology notice – the contractors looked like they’d locked up and buggered off.
In the place of any notice, there was just a constant stream of cyclists pulling up, together with the odd pedestrian, and discovering the bad news for themselves.
It’s not the first time I’ve been caught out by the foot tunnel being closed – I got caught out one afternoon about six weeks ago. From chatting to some of the fuming cyclists being forced to turn around and ride back up the Isle of Dogs, it seems like a regular occurrence.
I can’t help thinking no tunnel would be better than a tunnel you can’t rely on. The stairs inside the tunnel have been closed for refurbishment for some months, with the lifts – which themselves are due to be replaced – providing the only means of access. So if one of the lifts goes down, the shutters go up. Why the lifts – which themselves are only 18 years old – couldn’t have been replaced first hasn’t been explained, although this approach has gone wrong at the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, closed until March 2011 thanks to “structural weaknesses” in the stairs.
A cyclist I talked to told me he found Thames Clippers often unwilling to take his bike on their boats, despite the service being touted as a replacement for the tunnel when closed. (Thames Clippers’ recent cutbacks have not helped this situation either – the tunnel closes at 9pm on weeknights, 49 minutes before the last north-south boat and after the last south-north boat.) Before he headed off to find a pier, he claimed one of the lift attendants was in the habit of arbitrarily closing the tunnel if he fancied knocking off early.
Obviously this is completely unsubstantiated, but with no sign of any life at the tunnel’s north portal in Island Gardens, we could only wonder what the hell was going on down there.
We were the lucky ones, though.
Just before I set off on my six-mile detour to the Woolwich Ferry, a white sub-contractors’ van pulled up, and a man walked out. As he approached the tunnel entrance, I told him it was closed.
This gentleman wasn’t best pleased. He was due to man the lifts for the evening, having paid a babysitter and driven a long distance to do the job. Nobody had called to tell him not to bother coming in – and this had happened a couple of days before as well.
It’s the 21st century, and Greenwich Council could use contemporary technology to inform people about tunnel closures – such as e-mailing or texting people, or using its excellent Twitter feed. But if it, or contractors Dean & Dyball, can’t even be bothered to tell its own staff about problems in the foot tunnel, then something has seriously gone wrong under the Thames.