GREENWICH foot tunnel will be closed to all users for ten months during its refurbishment, council officials have said.
Shaun Collins, director of Thames Clippers, the major ferry operator serving Greenwich, told greenwich.co.uk: "We have been asked to tender for a replacement ferry service. We have been told unofficially by Geoff Horseman [Greenwich Council official] that the period of closure will be around ten months or possibly a year. That would be the closure of the whole tunnel, not just the lifts."
In a separate development Peter Brookes, deputy leader of the council, has said that when the tunnel finally reopens the lifts will be "automatic," raising concerns about security and job losses. Currently the lifts are not automatic and are staffed at all times when they are open, with four attendants on duty across the tunnel and its Woolwich sister.
Mr Brookes claimed the refurbishment and the change to automatic lifts would lead to "better security."
The two tunnels are used by around 1.5 million people a year. The Greenwich tunnel is an important tourist attraction and a vital link for cyclists, used by around 250 bikes an hour at peak times.
As greenwich.co.uk reported earlier this year, both tunnels are to be given a "substantial refurbishment" running from September 2009 to March 2011 and costing £11.5 million. But news of the closure has horrified local traders, who say a prolonged shutdown would be "disastrous" and could drive them out of business.
Many cyclists are also opposed and have promised to challenge the closure order. Anthony Austin, chair of Greenwich Cyclists, said: “There’s no point in closing the tunnel. It’s not clear they need to close the stairs when they are doing the lifts. We cyclists have come to use it as an absolutely essential link.”
Greenwich Council continued to insist today that no official decision has been taken on how long the tunnel will close. "We are still working out the period of closure," a council spokesman said.
However, minutes of a meeting about the refurbishment between the council and local cyclists' groups posted on greenwich.co.uk also suggest a substantial period of closure. The minutes were agreed by the council.
At this meeting, which took place on 12 May, Mike Freestone, the council's assistant director for transport and highways, confirmed that the lifts would be closed "for the whole [18-month] refurbishment period" although the tunnels themselves would "probably not be closed for so long."
Mr Horseman, the council official who spoke to Thames Clippers, was not present at the meeting but he is quoted by another of the participants as saying that the closure would last "six to nine months."
Mr Brookes, who was at the meeting, admitted that "whilst [the tunnel] is closed, there will be major disruptions." Mr Brooks rejected suggestions that the tunnel be closed only overnight for the works, saying: "If we choose contract work for nights, it may not be of value, we need to do things more economically." A "hope" was expressed that some of the closures could be phased.
The council says that the lifts will close in October or November and the tunnel will not close before next year.
When the tunnel closes, cyclists - who are banned at all times from the DLR - face an eight to ten-mile diversion to reach Canary Wharf from south London. At the meeting with cycle activists, Mr Brookes admitted that any proposed replacement ferry service would "not be frequent."
The DLR link will itself be closed on several weekend over the next eight months as part of the 3-car upgrade programme.
The council says the closure is intended to provide "state-of-the-art conditions" in the tunnels in the run-up to the Olympics. It has been widely condemned as unnecessary window-dressing.