Rotherhithe Tunnel is in “urgent” need of a £120m renovation, according to a senior Transport for London (Tfl) manager.
The tunnel, which was built in 1908, may be forced to close to all traffic for safety reasons if funding cannot be found for the upgrades. At the moment only vehicles less than two metres high and wide and weighing below two tonnes are allowed to drive through the tunnel.
Gareth Powell, managing director for surface transport at TfL, told the London Assembly’s transport committee on Monday (July 19) that the tunnel is the river crossing most in need of repair, followed by Vauxhall Bridge.
“The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built many years ago for a different type of purpose,” he said. “At the moment the systems within that tunnel are in urgent need of an upgrade. That is one of the reasons why there are restrictions around the type of vehicle that can enter and go through that tunnel at the moment. That’s in order that we can continue to operate the tunnel safely.”
He added that TfL has “a very advanced plan being developed” to make the changes, but that the transport agency needs long-term guarantees over funding to carry out the project – whose cost he estimated at £120m.
TfL has struggled with a massive loss of revenue in the Covid-19 pandemic, with income from public transport plummeting last year due to the lockdown. Its latest funding settlement with the government saw the agency receive £1.08bn through to December, provided it makes £300m worth of savings by 2022 and finds other revenue streams worth between £500m and £1b by 2023. TfL papers from June show that it plans to cut maintenance spending by 38 per cent to £201m.
In response to a question about how the agency would fund the Rotherhithe Tunnel upgrade, Mr Powell said that TfL’s financial situation is “very difficult”.
“We only have very short-term funding from government in order to maintain the essential services that TfL provides,” he added. “Those essential services are for public transport services but they also include the highways for which TfL has responsibility and indeed the structures for those highways like bridges. And at the moment we only have a very short-term funding horizon through to the beginning of December.”
Mr Powell added that having long-term funding in place means that TfL can plan proactive repairs, which would mean they can be done at times when they are less likely to be disruptive. Without a clear idea of where the money is going to come from, repairs have to be done reactively – which means they are less likely to be planned and more likely to cause unwelcome disruptions, he said.
“As you can imagine, when funding is tight, those issues can easily be deferred as they have been in the past. At present during the pandemic, TfL’s financial situation is suhc that we’re not able to do as much proactive maintenance as we would like to…
“What’s really needed is to have a long-term funding settlement that recognises the nature and the state and the importance of the assets in London’s transport system, and is enabled therefore to put sustainable funding so that planning can take place so that all of these interventions can be coordinated and so that they can take place at the right time for those assets, which will reduce the overall whole-life cost of maintaining and improving those assets.”
The Department for Transport said at the time of the funding deal that TfL must take steps to become financially sustainable.
A ministry spokesperson said in response to Mr Powell’s comments: “TfL are responsible for the maintenance of its assets, including Rotherhithe Tunnel and Vauxhall Bridge.
“This Government has repeatedly shown its commitment to transport in London throughout the pandemic, including with the most recent extraordinary funding agreement worth £1.08bn.
“These support packages are fair to taxpayers, ensuring action is taken to put TfL on the path to long-term financial sustainability.”