Hindhead Tunnel opens after decades of traffic problems

Paul Hoyland
Image caption Paul Hoyland has worked on the project for eight years

Billed as the civil engineering project to unite both commuters and environmentalists, the £371m Hindhead Tunnel has now been opened.

The project's engineers say it is the "longest under land" road tunnel in the UK, gently winding 1.25 miles (1.8km) through the Surrey soil.

Its construction followed decades of severe congestion on the A3, which links London and Portsmouth.

The dual carriageway narrowed to a single lane in the village of Hindhead, causing routine delays of up to half and hour.

The congested road also passed through the Devil's Punch Bowl, a natural heathland amphitheatre and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Trees planted

With the opening of the tunnel, it is hoped the Hindhead bottleneck will be a distant memory to commuters.

And to the joy of environmentalists - although not a group of residents who campaigned to keep it open - the old part of the A3 will be broken up and covered with top soil, allowing nature to reclaim it.

Engineers working on the project believe this, along with the planting of more than 200,000 trees, has resulted in a net benefit for the environment.

Paul Hoyland, who was the project director for eight years, said the £371m tunnel was finished on time and on budget.

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Media captionAn aerial view of the journey covered by the tunnel

"This is a result of a lot of hard work," he said. "I believe it is the longest road tunnel in the UK that goes under land and not water.

"Building the tunnel was the real challenge. It goes through some quite poor, sandy material at the southern end."

Mr Hoyland, who was also involved with building the Channel Tunnel, said the Hindhead Tunnel is one of the most technologically advanced in the world.

"The technology to dig the tunnel was relatively standard," he said.

"But the kit inside is right at the top end. This is the first time radar is being used to sense stopped vehicles, if the traffic slows down."

Other hi-tech devices include illuminated cats eyes, and a whole range of specialist sensors and traffic signs to keep the traffic flowing.

'Destructive' approach roads

And Paul Arnold, a senior project manager at the Highways Agency, said operators in the tunnel's control room have the capacity to interrupt radio broadcasts in cars with their own safety announcements.

Mr Arnold, who has been involved with the project for many years, said: "The project started life in 1983 when there was an idea to link up both ends of the dual carriageway.

"It took 10 years to decide a tunnel was the only option."

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Media captionIn May nearly 7,000 residents had the chance to walk through the tunnel

The project was still only given the official go-ahead in 2001 and work started in 2007.

Its interest to residents was highlighted in May when 17,000 people applied for one of 7,000 tickets for the chance to walk through the tunnel.

It is estimated that 30,000 vehicles a day will use the tunnel.

Mr Hoyland added: "If you live in Hindhead or travel on this stretch of the road it's going to be fantastic as the traffic is horrendous. This will totally alleviate that.

"They [tunnels] are not the right solution to every problem, but in the right place they are very environmentally friendly."

Dave Williams, mammal officer at the Surrey Wildlife Trust, said he welcomed letting the unused part of the A3 return to nature, but was disappointed by the length of the new approach roads to the tunnel.

"Nature is pretty quick and will begin growing almost immediately when the road is closed," he said.

"But the approach roads to the tunnel are destructive, even though the engineers have done their best to mitigate this."

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