Decision on tunnel between Sheffield and Manchester expected in months

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They are two of Britain’s biggest cities – but you would never guess from their transport links.

The Pennines have always formed a major barrier for those who want to get between Sheffield and Manchester, with travellers having to use slow and windy routes whether by road or rail. But there are hopes that could improve.

In the next few months, experts are hoping to hear whether proposals to transform the road links between the cities may be moved forward, while work to boost the railway links are already in the pipeline.

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Those in charge of transport know something needs to be done.

An aerial view of the A628 Woodhead PassAn aerial view of the A628 Woodhead Pass
An aerial view of the A628 Woodhead Pass
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Trans-Pennine tunnel plan between Sheffield and Manchester 'should be dropped'

The Snake Pass, a 200-year-old route, which is currently closed for repairs, and the Woodhead Pass, are congested single carriageway roads, which are frequently closed by the weather.

Peter Molyneux, Transport for the North’s major roads director knows improvements are needed.

Woodhead Pass tunnel

The Snake Pass will be closed for two weeks for roadworks.The Snake Pass will be closed for two weeks for roadworks.
The Snake Pass will be closed for two weeks for roadworks.

In the next few months, he is hoping to hear whether ministers would be prepared to support a plan which would finally see a road tunnel between the cities.

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Plans first drawn up in 2015 have been downscaled, but a tunnel as part of the A628 Woodhead Pass still remains the hope. The current proposals are to build a tunnel, around five or six miles long, through the highest section of the route. It would be a single bore, single carriageway tunnel.

The scheme would also look to create more passing places on the route.

Mottram bypass

Work is already in the pipeline on a Mottram bypass, which is expected to speed up the journey from the end of the M67 to both passes.

Mr Molyneux said improvements to the East to West route would benefit the whole county, and that was an important factor. But the environmentally sensitive issue of creating roads in the Peak District had always been an issue in improving the links.

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He said the tunnel plan would also take into account changes in technology like the end of internal combustion engines, and moves towards driverless cars.

He said: “I think we’re probably talking about 2035 before there’s a tunnel, even if that gets the go ahead.

“In terms of the cost, we’re talking about billions, not millions.

“The A628 shuts 60 to 70 times a year because of bad weather. The idea of a tunnel under the highest point would be to create a more reliable journey.

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“I’m still hopeful of a solution being found, whether it’s this solution or another solution that meets environmental requirements.”

Hope Valley line railway improvements

It is not just road transport that has felt to be lacking over the years. Rail links have also been seen as too slow.

Northern Powerhouse Rail Director Tim Wood believes that will improve over the coming years, with work to improve the Hope Valley line already approved, which would put in extra places for trains to pass, so fast trains are not held up by slower ones

He said under the proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which aims to improve links between northern cities, there would be four fast trains an hour, which would reduce the journey times to Manchester by up to 22 minutes. Journey times to Liverpool would be just over an hour

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It would also see longer and more modern trains on the line, and ideally, a move to electric-powered trains.

Mr Wood said: “The work on the Hope Valley line is going to get the line ready for three trains an hour. That’s ongoing with Network Rail.

“We’re waiting for the publication of the Government’s Integrated Rail plan to see what happened next.

“That the Government said at the Conservative Conference that they will build Northern Powerhouse Rail is encouraging and a real tick in a box.”

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The Hope Valley Capacity Upgrade Scheme, which will add a second platform and track at Dore and Totley station, extend the Dore South curve and build a new passing loop for freight at Bamford is underway.

The Scheme is due to be completed by the end of 2023. It was expected to mean improved reliability and a third fast train between Sheffield and Manchester, although a South Yorkshire Metropolitan Combined Authority spokesman (SYMCA) said due to congestion at both the Sheffield and Manchester ends of the line at present, and the lack of investment in infrastructure at these end stations, there is no guarantee that the third fast train will be delivered out of this scheme alone.

SYMCA is campaigning for Government to recognise the importance of improving service levels for rail links between Sheffield and Manchester and that the capacity to achieve this should be a key component of any future investment.

The spokesman added: “The Government needs to show in its Integrated Rail Plan that it is providing a high performance service between Sheffield and Manchester, with modern rolling stock and significantly more seats, in order to provide much better connections between two of the UK’s largest city regions. These proposals can be delivered in a phased manner to achieve benefits earlier and be integrated with wider plans for HS2, NPR and classic network services, including freight.

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“It is vital that the third fast train per hour is planned for as part of the Government’s forthcoming plan.”

Peter Kennan, Co-Chair of the Transport & Environment Board, South Yorkshire Local Enterprise Partnership, says both the railway and road links needed to be improved – not just one or the other.

Faster journeys to Manchester and Liverpool

He said: “Manchester is 40 miles away from Sheffield and yet the road and rail connections between these two great northern cities is poor. Trains are often packed, roads are congested and in bad weather the connection can be shut off altogether.

“There needs to be significant improvement to both road and rail connections across the Pennines, it can’t be a choice between them. Better journey times, better resilience is what our businesses need.”

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Residents told of their view of the transport links across the Pennines.

Sheffield Wednesday fan Neil Creaghan said: “On the odd occasion I do travel to football matches via Manchester and toward Preston and that sort of thing. It’s pretty poor, its not a good reliable service.

"The road crossing is even worse – going over the Woodhead, going over the Snake Pass. In winter if they’re open you’re lucky. In the summer there is far too much lorry traffic. Basically its a nightmare.”

He said a bypass on the other side would help.

Alan Ody, of Harthill, used to work in Manchester.

He said of its transport links with Sheffield: “I think they’re dire because the roads are between two of the biggest cities in the UK, and they need a better road link. I understand there’s a national park between them but somehow they need to invest in a better road link, maybe a tunnel.”

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He said his experience of the road had usually been queuing traffic and single carriageway where he felt it could do with a motorway.

But Carol Keightley, from Ecclesfield, said she took the train from Sheffield to Manchester in September for a charity run and found the service excellent. She said: “It was on time, the train people were very professional and it felt very safe at both train stations either end. I found it really efficient.”

Local journalism holds the powerful to account and gives people a voice. Please take out a digital subscription or buy a paper. Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor