Retro: Tunnel Vision

Woodhead Tunnel - Prefabricated track being lowered into position
Woodhead Tunnel - Prefabricated track being lowered into position
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It’s been in and out of the news for almost 170 years.

The Woodhead Tunnel which formed a key part of the railway link from Sheffield to Manchester until 1981 is back in the headlines as today’s Government looks at improving communications between the two cities.

The Woodhead Tunnel is really three parallel trans-Pennine three-mile long railway tunnels on the Woodhead Line, a former major rail link from Manchester to Sheffield. The western portals of the tunnels are at Woodhead in Derbyshire and the eastern portals are at Dunford Bridge, near Penistone.

‘Woodhead 1’ was one of the world’s longest railway tunnels when it opened in 1845.

‘Woodhead 2’ was completed in 1853 and ‘Woodhead 3’ opened almost exactly 100 years later in 1953.

Passenger services ended in 1970 and the last train passed through in 1981.

Back in 1946 the Sheffield Telegraph speculated on the future of the tunnel when work on the re-lining of the tunnels was due to begin.

The Telegraph report of August 29 of that year said:

“The twin Woodhead Tunnels, one of which was opened on December 22, 1845, and the other on February 2, 1852, are in the news.

“Because of casement relining, which will take six months, the LNER (London and North Eastern Railway )is to close each in turn, using one track for traffic in both directions.

“Express passenger trains remain almost unchanged but a number of freight trains will be diverted, and some local passenger trains cancelled.

“Over 100 years ago travellers from Manchester to Sheffield were conveyed by railway from Manchester(London Road) to Woodhead, a distance of 19.5 miles and from Woodhead stagecoaches took them the remaining 22 miles over the back of the Pennines to Sheffield.”

The report went on to say: “Despite the new line there still remained the distance between Woodhead and Dunford Bridge, about 3.75 miles, to be traversed by coach.

“That distance is now the Woodhead Tunnel of the LNER, a three-mile 22-yard excavation under the Pennine Range that brought near-disaster to the pioneers that visualised it.

“In September 1837 there was an effort on behalf of the shareholders to extricate themselves from their engagements.

“Catastrophe was averted and in 1838 the directors announced that, the whole capital having been subscribed, they had instructed Mr Charles Vignoles, the engineer, to stake out the line and prepare to lay the tracks.

“Thus came the Woodhead Tunnel, opened on December 22 1845, seven years after the ground had been broken at a cost of over £200,000.”

Consider that cost compared to the £6billion being considered for road improvements on the Woodhead Pass today.

The tunnels are currently owned by National Grid plc who initially used Woodhead 1 and 2 to carry power cables and in 2008 started to install new cables in Woodhead 3.

The use of Woodhead 3 for power cables was controversial as it would make it very much more difficult to restart rail services on the line, and it was resisted by a sizeable campaign.

A government study is to look at the feasibility of tunnelling under the A628 Woodhead Pass, in a scheme which would reportedly cost £6bn.

Other improvements for the A628 cross-Pennine route include adding overtaking lanes to allow faster vehicles to overtake lorries.

Upgrades are also planned for the A57 between Sheffield and Manchester.

Deputy Prime Minister and Sheffield MP Nick Clegg said the tunnel would have a “major, transformational effect” on the area.

“We are looking at the feasibility of this much-discussed but never properly researched option of building a tunnel through the Pennines from Manchester to Sheffield,” he said.

“It’s not going to be something that happens overnight and at the moment all I’m saying is we’re going to commission work into the viability of it.”

The DfT said upgrading routes between Manchester and Sheffield represented the first increase in Trans-Pennine links since 1971.

But the Campaign for Better Transport described the plans as a “waste of money”, claiming that building new roads would increase congestion. Sian Berry, from the group, suggested improving public transport links between Sheffield and Manchester, including re-opening the Woodhead Tunnel railway line, which closed in 1981.

She said: “There’s a disused railway line, the Woodhead Tunnel, and we think that should be reopened as a working, frequent railway.

“We don’t think you should be drilling a big road tunnel through the Peak District. We think traffic should be kept on the roads which should be run more efficiently.”