Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Newbold Tunnel

'Is it me', is starting to become something of a common refrain of mine. Mainly because whenever I discover something wrong with the Inland Waterways. I report through the usual channels. Everyone knows that the trust is strapped for cash and generally speaking, I don't expect anything to change any time soon.Sometimes  one year later, I end up sending another reminder about issues that I have reported in the past.

On our current canal cruise we have found issues that we raised several months ago, are still the same as we retrace our steps back to our new home mooring. But its no more than what we have come to expect. Changes and repairs will eventually be made but the priority of the issue overrides the allocation within the budget. 

I always send an email to in the hope that the items will get put on a list of 'someone's things to do.' Most of the time we get an acknowledgement within a day or two. These are sometimes followed up by an email from a regional office. So I'm happy that my input is in the system somewhere.  Where possible, I always send a suggestion about how things might be improved. Or I will emphasise issues such as safety or pollution risks. Such as two reports about plastic containers filled with discarded engine oil, that might make is way into the canal via the local vandals.

What does rankle me, is when I see money spent on (what seems to me as a lay boater) some 'blue sky' project that could have been better spent elsewhere. I beat the drum in the hope that someone will notice. I know I'm not alone with these thoughts, but that I am a bit more vocal than most about trying to bring about change.

Surprisingly, this time the more usual scenario has in a way been reversed. Let me give you the case in question. A good few years ago we spent some time cruising the North Oxford, Ashby and Coventry Canals. The waterway was a new to us at the time. And as you do, we spent some time researching points of interest that we could stop and make visits to.  Bosworth field the battleground and others were pencilled in for a visit. One thing that we were looking forward to seeing, was the then famous, now becoming infamous, 'Illuminated Newbold Tunnel'.  We timed our arrival and passed through just before dusk. Forgetting that it would be dark in the tunnel anyway, no matter the time of day. The coloured lighting was as good as it had been described. My memory is that most if not all of the lights were working.

Over the intervening years, we have told a few people about it and suggested that it would be worth a visit. I had expected that the lighting systems would be maintained.  This for me, was what I would regard as a 'real' visitor attraction to the canals.  Unusually Newbold can't be compared to other tunnels which are usually rated on their length or time of passage only. Almost uniquely there is a public footpath that passes through the tunnel. It's certainly unique for the lighting display. This year we passed through once again and Newbold Tunnel was a huge disappointment. Only a single coloured light was found to be working. 

As we arrived, there was at the tunnel entrance a family group, armed with cameras. Who had made an effort and walked a good distance along the towpath to enjoy the spectacle.  They asked where the switch for the lighting was located.  They were disappointed when we said that the lights no longer worked. We made up for their disapointment by giving them a lift through the tunnel by boat, by way of recompense.

As you can imagine, I made a mental note and sent an email off advising the trust about the issue. Electrical power is obviously still available, as it was still supplying the single light. So there are no serious equipment faults. So I suspect that we are looking at replacement of consumables such as bulbs or fuses rather than faulty equipment, so this could well be a fast fix.

I did a bit of background research. The lighting of Newbold Tunnel was part of a £200,000 improvement project. This included towpath widening and tunnel towpath repairs. Mooring improvements, drainage improvements and the installation of motorcycle barriers. The actual lighting installation cost circa £40,000 and was funded by Rugby Borough Council. The council also pick up the electricity bill and it would seem that BW's role [and now the trust] in this arrangement was to just to maintain the lighting systems. The grand ceremonial to switch on the lights was performed by the Mayor of Rugby and was timed to coincide with the Diwali Festival. 

Also known as the "festival of lights" Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn every year. We have joined in on our many trips to India, ending up covered head to foot in a rainbow of poster paint powder. The festival spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. Which in a way also signifies my hopes for the future with the trust. But I digress.

The tunnel lighting system could also undergo some refurbishment, with the inclusion of an inexpensive  PIR movement detector sensor that turns on the lights when a boat or visiting family enters the tunnel, this would give a more dramatic effect. With modern LED lighting, with the amazing operational lifetime of LED devices, measured in tens of years rather than hundreds of hours. The lighting's operational life could be extended by decades. My thought were - here was a project that the Trust could bring back to life, something that captured imagination when it was conceived and implemented. Which unfortunately has endured a slow lingering death one bulb at a time.

So you can imagine my disappointment when I received a polite email from the Trust that said.

I have gained information regarding the lighting at Newbold Tunnel and have been told that unfortunately they will not be replaced. They were put in as an artistic feature in the past but unfortunately Canal & River Trust no longer have funding to maintain them. I am sorry I could not give you a more positive response at this time.

 Kind Regards Lou
It seems that the real reason for the installation has been lost upon the trust. As has the commitment made to maintain the equipment. It was not another 'art installation' like poetry on a lock gate - which kicked of the 'Alternative Canal Laureate' series of poems.  It was actually a festival enjoyed by billions of people around the world. Here was a golden opportunity to celebrate, a public event with good PR by the shed load. Why the trust could even get a celebrity to 'turn on the lights'. A sort of Blackpool event for the inland waterways. No doubt I expect that someone in the trust would put a damper on that idea, saying that we are damned if we do and damned if we don't.  The one-time quango has still not metamorphosed into a smart charitable trust yet. 
The reality is - the trust has still not gotten to grips with understanding the boaters perspective.  Boaters want locks that are not heavy to work, they want paddles that are in good condition. Boaters actually want what the trust should be presenting as its 'public face' to the the general public. Each time a member of the public talks to a boater - they get the boaters perspective. We explain that a lock is a wonderful 200 year old device. Using what was a wonder of the age, but now a 200 year old technology.  But now with a regime built upon the 'modern' maintenance practice of fix it only when it fails.  We tell them of the old lengths-men and lock keepers with aeons of skill and knowledge that have now been replaced by 'cheap-as-chips' and 'enthusiastic amateur' volunteers.  As always, I remind them that the trust is - who we have to work with - as there is no other alternative.  
Therein lies the problem, there is no competition to challenge current thinking and initiate ideas. It will remain so for the foreseeable future. That's why the trust has so many critical friends. Both sides want the same result - for the trust to prosper but both sides seem to have entrenched perspectives.

I did a straw poll of several popular public media sites on Facebook. Where its fair to acknowledge that the Trust is regarded with some scepticism. However, the clear and unequivocal consensus with the odd exception was that it would have been money well spent to upgrade and bring back the lighting display.

One comment was that 'At some point on the grounds of 'elf n safety' someone within the trust would authorise the ripping out and isolating of the electrical supply. Which would possibly cost more than the repair and refurbishments.

Another comment was 'It does annoy me when CRT/Councils get funding (European or lottery) to do a project and then forget they have to maintain it.'

A further comment was 'The tunnel should be lit, but now is mostly not due to lack of maintenance. So if someone hurt themselves ie a member of the public, would they not have a claim? If it should be lit but isn't then they have a duty of care to maintain it. It's different from other ordinary tunnels in that they are never lit so duty of care doesn't apply in the same way. Then a noteworthy and unusual existing attraction for drawing the public to the canals will be lost forever.'

Another comment was that some individuals would be happy to contribute to a 'fix it fund'. Which is something of a seed change, from the dyed in the wool, opponents of the trusts maintenance management regime.

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