Greenwich Foot Tunnel
The tunnel lifts have been broken for months

The lifts at Greenwich Foot Tunnel could be closed for five months – with Greenwich Council admitting that its lifts may need replacing after just nine years in service.

Tunnel users have been forced to use the stairs for months after a series of breakdowns on both sides of the Thames – with the north lift, on the Isle of Dogs, having been out of action since May. A major issue is sourcing parts for the lifts, which were only installed in 2012, with equipment now having to be specially-made in Germany.

The tunnel – which is owned by both Greenwich and Tower Hamlets councils, but operated by Greenwich – was given new lifts in the run-up to the London Olympics, but the £11.5 million refurbishment project ran years late and over-budget and resulted in the firing of the original contractors. When the lifts did open, they were plagued by technical failures.

Until the late 2000s, the tunnel lifts were operated by attendants, but the models installed in 2012 were user-operated. However, the glass doors were frequently broken and often refused to close – a problem which took months to fix. The cabinet member in charge of that refurbishment, Denise Hyland, later went on to be council leader and is now the borough’s ceremonial mayor.

Nearly a decade on, that botched project has come back to haunt the council – with the possibility that it may have to admit defeat and replace the lifts.

The Woolwich Foot Tunnel was also refurbished at the same time – and closed for 15 months after structural problems were found with the steps – although while its lifts, which were not given glass doors, have suffered from problems, they have not been to the same extent as the Greenwich tunnel.

The two tunnels were built in the 1900s to help workers get to and from London’s docks. In more recent years the Greenwich tunnel has become an important link to Canary Wharf while both tunnels are part of long-distance walking routes around London. About 1.2 million people use the Greenwich tunnel each year, evenly split between walkers and cyclists.

Greenwich Foot Tunnel
Users at the Greenwich end have been greeted with this notice about problems with the lifts – giving no end date for the closure

A council statement issued on Friday said: “The Royal Borough of Greenwich is advising people who use the Greenwich foot tunnel that the current repairs needed to lifts on both sides of the river could take up to five months to complete. Until repairs are made, the lifts cannot be operated, but access to the tunnel via the stairs will remain open 24 hours per day.

“The time needed for the repairs is due to the unique historic nature of the lifts, which require detailed conservation plans to be approved and bespoke parts to be made in order to get them running again.

“Repairs would be the first phase of a plan exploring replacement of the existing lifts as even after the current issue is resolved, they remain vulnerable to further unpredictable faults. However, this initial phase would seek to increase the reliability of the service and keep it open.

“The council apologises for the inconvenience the closure has for people living and working in the borough and for those visiting the historic maritime town. Officers are working hard to develop a proposal that will ensure equal access and a better lift service for all tunnel users.”

Greenwich foot tunnel
The Greenwich tunnel links Cutty Sark Gardens and Island Gardens

In March a pressure group set up in the wake of the refurbishment fiasco – the Friends of the Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels – closed down with its founders frustrated that they had not been able to find solutions to the continuing problems with the tunnels. Earlier this month, users of Reddit were so annoyed at the poor state of the Greenwich tunnel that they even explored cleaning it themselves.

Historically, the two tunnels were run by London’s elected government, but after the Greater London Council was abolished in 1986 they passed to the boroughs, and were not handed to Transport for London when it was created 21 years ago.

But the latest problems with the Greenwich Foot Tunnel may well be keenly watched at City Hall, stung by years of bad publicity over the closure of Hammersmith Bridge, another river crossing outside its control.

Asked by the Green Party assembly member Sian Berry in June if TfL was prepared to invest in helping to fix the lifts, mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Transport for London regularly liaises with the boroughs on use of funding allocations – not least in the context of the latest temporary funding settlement from Government. It would be for the borough to consider allocation of funds for improvements to the tunnel and, were that the case, TfL would be happy to discuss the options with them.”

In the same month, Andrew Wood, a Tower Hamlets councillor, posted on Twitter that the problems with the tunnels included obsolete equipment, including the doors.

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