Proposals for an ambitious program to transform the Rhondda Tunnel into the world’s longest digital art space were presented.
Architects Scott Brownrigg have unveiled ambitious plans to transform the Victorian railway tunnel – the longest disused railway tunnel in Wales – into a major visitor attraction.
The project would also include a hotel, a visitor center with art galleries, a café, an external performance space and a digital theatre. In addition, the tunnel would contain a 40 m high observation tower to allow visitors a view of the surrounding countryside.
The artistic transformation of the 132-year-old tunnel, which stretches more than 3 km between Blaencwm in the Rhondda Valley and Blaengwynfi in the Afan Valley, aims to “put Wales on the global tourism map”.
The project was conceived in collaboration with tourism consultants Stevens & Associates, acting on behalf of an undisclosed joint venture between a public authority and a private investor.
The tunnel, which opened in 1890 and linked the Rhondda and Afan valleys, had to be closed in 1970 as part of the Beeching closures of railway lines across Britain.
In 2014, local group Rhondda Tunnel Society began fundraising with the aim of reopening the historic tunnel as a cycling and walking route.
If successful — under two miles long at just 77 yards — the Rhondda Tunnel would be the second-longest bicycle tunnel in the world.
The project received a boost last December when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps agreed to transfer ownership of the tunnel from National Highways to the Welsh Government.
Gallery: Artistic impressions of the Rhondda tunnel project
Since then, the program has expanded significantly in scope and ambition. If a planning application, due later this year, is approved, it will become both a pedestrian and cycle path and a major visitor attraction, with new buildings being erected at both ends of the tunnel.
A hotel would be built at the eastern entrance, using digitally constructed wooden ribs which, according to Scott Brownrigg, “allude to the movement of a train as it disappears into the tunnel”.
The west entrance would see the construction of a visitor center with art galleries, a café, an outside performance space and a digital theater.
The building at this end was designed as a lump of coal, with ‘burnt’ black timber siding rising above the hillside on slender stilts.
The tunnel would also contain a 130-foot-tall observation tower rising from the top of a 60-foot ventilation shaft to offer visitors a view of the surrounding countryside.
The project was conceived in conjunction with digital art consultancy Lumen Art Projects, with installations telling stories from the tunnel’s past.
Scott Brownrigg said he expects the program to attract more than 40,000 overnight stays and 150,000 day trips each year.
However, there is a significant problem with the project – the Rhondda Tunnel Society says it has not been consulted on the plans.
In a statement prepared for Nation Cymru, a spokesman for RTS said that “the proposal for the Rhondda Tunnel Society came as a bit of a surprise.”
“We had some discussions with Professor Terry Stevens (of Stevens & Associates) up until March 2021. He is keen to develop a large arts based project in Wales and has been looking for a project to pin his ideas on. This proposal appears to be a continuation of those discussions.
“To the best of our knowledge, none of the people involved in this proposal have ever been inside the Rhondda Tunnel, although we have offered Terry the opportunity to visit him and that is the immediate problem we see in the proposal – he doesn’t seem to to be consistent with the reality of what could be provided within the confines of a single track railway tunnel.”
The spokesman also pointed out the enormous costs of such a project.
“The other problem is the cost. We have been told by the Welsh Government that our current estimate (approximately £17m taking into account recent inflation) exceeds their current budget without major contributions from elsewhere. This proposal would cost many times more.”
However, the RTS spokesman acknowledged that he understood the need for features that would transform the tunnel into a major visitor attraction.
“The tunnel takes well over an hour to walk from end to end, so the company recognizes the need to place a wide range of interesting features along its length if it is to achieve its goal of becoming a major tourist attraction .
“So this proposal is to be welcomed as a contribution to the possibilities of the tunnel; In fact, sections of the tunnel lend themselves to dramatic audiovisual or digital art exhibitions. The Society’s goal is to make a visit a memorable one for all who come, and an approach that puts the visitor experience first before reopening a closed transport link may be the best way to do so reach.”
We have reached out to Stevens & Associates for comment.
Find out more about the Rhondda Tunnel Society HERE
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