Photo: Craig HamiltonOn Friday evening, Birmingham city centre traffic ground to a halt after a car broke down in the city’s rather lengthy Queensway Tunnel. As you would expect, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth amongst the city’s motorists, with some of them taking to social media to declare it “insane”, “a bloody outrage”, and “the worst night of my life”, albeit with a lot more typos and exclamation marks.
Although traffic chaos can be frustrating, we should always try to put things like this into perspective. Wasn’t it the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu who once said “All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”? Or maybe it was the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica… I do get confused.
I know they weren’t specifically talking about Birmingham’s Queensway Tunnel, but Lao-Tzu and the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica did have a point. This is not the first time a broken down car in this subterranean short cut has caused traffic chaos in Birmingham city centre, and it will not be the last. In fact, when I was in my twenties , a similar thing happened to me.
By similar, I mean I was once in a broken down car in the Queensway Tunnel that caused traffic chaos in Birmingham city centre.
This was a Saturday afternoon in 1998 or thereabouts, and I wanted to pick up a computer desk from Argus. I didn’t have a computer at the time – in fact, the last computer I had was the 48K ZX Spectrum I got for my fourteenth birthday – but I really wanted something a bit more swanky and up to date and firmly believed that the act of having a computer desk would help me manifest a reasonable desktop with internet access. After all, a computer desk without a computer would make the spare bedroom look stupid, and nobody wants that.
I didn’t have a car, but my good friend Phil did – an old Rover Metro that had seen better days, even by Rover Metro standards. Phil’s a smart, good-natured guy who shares my love for the geekier end of the pop culture spectrum. Interestingly enough, he spent so much time listening to Black Sabbath in his teens that by the time he reached his twenties he looked like a young Ozzy Osbourne. It’s a recognised medical condition known as “ozzmosis”.
Anyway, Phil picked me up from my home, and we headed into Birmingham city centre (or ‘town’, as we like to say around here). We made our way southbound along the A38, descending and ascending the bijou Snow Hill Tunnel without incident before plunging into the significantly longer Queensway tunnel.
The Queensway tunnel is just over half a kilometre in length, forming a big subterranean curve between Great Charles Street and what used to be Snobs nightclub. According to the indispensable Road Tunnel Operator Association website, the tunnel carries over 42,000 vehicles per day. According to personal experience, it also tends to get really busy on Saturday afternoons.
We were past the tunnel’s halfway point when the engine stopped and the car suddenly decelerated. “What’s happening?” I asked Phil, with panic pushing my voice up the octave range.
“I don’t know,” replied Phil, looking very scared.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” I squealed.
“Don’t quote Star Wars at me,” growled Phil, hitting the hazard lights button and frantically turning the key in the ignition. “Not at a time like this.”
“I’m only trying to help, your worshipfulness.”
I’d hoped we would be able to limp out of the tunnel but that wasn’t meant to be. We’d just passed the end of the big curve, with the light at the end of the tunnel right ahead of us, when the car finally stopped. We hadn’t just broken down in Birmingham’s busiest tunnel, we’d broken down on a blind corner in a Birmingham’s busiest tunnel. This never happened to Lao Tzu or the Cylons from Battlestar Galactica.
As cars, buses, and Eddie Stobart trucks swerved out of the way and honked their horns aggressively at us I knew something had to be done. Younger readers may find this difficult to imagine, but Phil and I – like most people in those days – didn’t have mobile phones. Not even a Nokia. Back then this wasn’t all that uncommon, of course: it wasn’t until a Wednesday afternoon in late 2000 when everybody suddenly had a mobile phone.
“There’s a phone box next to Snobs,” I said, my voice now perilously close to a Bee Gees-like falsetto. “I’ll leg it there and call for help.”
“That’s crazy!” said Phil. “You’ll get yourself killed.”
“We’ll get ourselves killed sitting here!” I said.
“I’ve got RAC membership,” said Phil.
“That’s great,” I said. “I’ll call them.” I got out of the car and ran along the footpath-less tunnel, keeping as close to the wall as possible to avoid getting splattered. At one point my foot snagged on a random length of wire and I nearly tripped into the path of an oncoming vehicle. I think it was a Saab.
Eventually I made it out of the tunnel, legged it to the phone box, called the RAC, gave them Phil’s details and told them what had happened. The operator asked: “Do you have the member’s car registration number?”
Bollocks – I hadn’t thought of that.
I hung up and ran back down the Queensway tunnel (taking extra care to avoid tripping over any random lengths of wire), scribbled Phil’s registration number on the back of my hand, then ankled it back to the phone box, and called the RAC.
As I made my way back to the Queensway tunnel, sweating profusely and deeply knackered, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right: there were no vehicles coming out of the southbound lane.
Oh God, I thought, someone’s gone into the back of Phil’s car.
I ran as fast as I could, crossing a road that was – come to think of it – surprisingly traffic-free for a Saturday afternoon, and ran down the tunnel expecting to find a scene of utter devastation and fearing the worst for my dear friend.
Instead, I saw a police car parked alongside his Rover Metro, and two portly, middle-aged officers chatting to my pale and somewhat sheepish looking pal. It turned that a public-spirited person who actually had a mobile phone in 1998 drove by, witnessed our plight, and – after swerving out of the way – called the emergency services. The police sealed off the Queensway tunnel, making Birmingham city centre traffic ground to a halt.
“All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again”
The policemen were lovely chaps and the three of us pushed Phil’s car out of the Queensway tunnel. There was an awkward moment when one of the officer’s walkie-talkies fell out of its belt holster and shattered on the tarmac. For a moment I feared we’d be taken to Steelhouse Lane Police Station and cavity-searched out of spite, but that was just paranoia fuelled by the fact I’d just almost got deep-sixed by a Saab.
We pushed the car to a nearby street, parking it up outside a pub. “We need to phone the RAC,” said Phil. “Tell them where we are.”
“There’ll be a phone in here,” I said.
As we stumbled into the pub, a group of middle-aged white men stood at the bar and gave us a funny look. It was like that scene from An American Werewolf in London, where the two American hitchhikers get a frosty reception at a pub in the Yorkshire Dales. I don’t blame them, of course – Phil and I were pale, sweaty, and visibly shaking due to our recent near-death experience in the Queensway tunnel. I’d have probably given us a funny look, too.
The locals in this pub didn’t look like their movie counterparts, however. They looked more like Freddie Mercury. Really, seriously, and in the most literal sense imaginable: they all had moustaches, one wore a Live Aid muscle vest, while another sported his trademark yellow leather jacket. They might have been on their way to a convention, or maybe an audition for a tribute band. It might even have been a stag do. Whatever it was, Phil and I were in no fit shape to process it calmly or logically.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” said Phil.
And it wasn’t until many years later that the punchline finally crossed my mind: “Maybe that’s why they call it Queensway…”