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The western portals of the Woodhead Tunnels in 2004, from the former Woodhead Station.
The Woodhead Tunnels are three trans-Pennine railway tunnels which formerly carried a major rail link (usually known as the Woodhead Route) from Manchestermarker to Sheffieldmarker in northern Englandmarker. The western portals are at Woodhead in Derbyshiremarker and the eastern portals are at Dunford Bridgemarker, near Penistonemarker, South Yorkshiremarker. The tunnels are known as Woodhead 1, Woodhead 2 and Woodhead 3 and are currently owned by National Grid plc.


Woodhead 1 & 2

The first of the earlier twin tunnels (Woodhead 1 & 2) were completed by the Sheffield, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Manchester Railway in 1845, engineered by Charles Vignoles and Joseph Locke.

At the time of its completion in 1845, Woodhead 1 was one of the world's longest railway tunnels at a length of 3 miles 13 yards (4,840 m); it was the first of several trans-Pennine tunnels including the Standedgemarker and Totley tunnels, which are only slightly longer.

Vignoles began work as soon as the line obtained its Act of Incorporation in Parliament in 1837. First the line was marked over the ridge and a series of vertical shafts were bored. From the bases of these, a horizontal driftway was driven along the line of the first bore. Although sufficient land had been purchased for two tunnels, only one would be built initially.

It was driven through mostly millstone grit, interspersed in places by patches of argillaceous shale and softer sandstone on gradient of 1 in 201, rising toward the east. Wires were suspended down each shaft from which the centre line was determined by means of a theodolite. The accuracy was such that the driftways met with less than three inches of error.

When Vignoles resigned because of differences with the directors, Locke took over as a consultant and reported that the amount of water being encountered required the purchase of more powerful pumps. Although the number of people employed reached 1,500 at one time, generally there were around 400 since there was limited space to work. Some 157 tons of gunpowder were used and over 8 million tons of water were pumped out. Once completed it had cost £200,000 and 26 lives had been lost.

The second bore was completed by the later Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway in 1852. Although more care was taken over the safety of the workers, an outbreak of cholera in 1849 resulted in 28 deaths.

The twin tunnels saw heavy use by steam trains (250 trains a day each way) and this traffic had a huge effect on the economy of the route well in to the 1950s.

They had a reputation for having a very poor operating environment with high maintenance needs, since such heavy usage had never been envisaged by their original constructors.

The tunnels were known to train crews as the "hell holes" as they were a very narrow bore and became claustrophobic and sooty as trains passed through and were too narrow and very unsuitable for electrification and were closed in 1953 when Woodhead 3 was completed.

Since 1963 the north tunnel has been used by National Grid plc to carry the trans-Pennine 400 kV electricity link below ground under the Peak District National Parkmarker. A narrow gauge railway runs into the tunnel to service this link.

The south tunnel is in worse condition, has suffered from collapses and is not currently suitable for cabling or transport.

In January 2008 work started to move the electrical cable from the north tunnel to Woodhead 3.

Woodhead 3

The first two tunnels were replaced by Woodhead 3 which was bored purposely for the electrification of the route and was completed in 1953. The tunnel was opened by the then transport minister Alan Lennox-Boyd on 3 June 1954. It was designed by Sir William Halcrow & Partners, in 1954.

This was electrified at 1,500V DC in a project known as the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification.

In the 1960s it was proposed that this tunnel should be used as part of a Manchester to Sheffield motorway, but in end only a short section of the M67 motorway was built.

Passenger services ceased in 1970 and the last train was on 17 July 1981.

In 2007, National Grid plc, the present owners of the tunnels, proposed to relocate electricity cables from the Victorian to the 1953 tunnel some time in 2008. This has sparked controversy as it would mean that it would not be possible to use the newer tunnel for railway traffic in future and there are now various groups advocating keeping it open.

Location of portals

Woodhead entrance 0
Air vent 1 1.13 miles
Air vent 2 2.35 miles
Dunford Bridge entrance 3 miles

Proposals to re-open the tunnel for rail traffic

In 1999 Central Trains proposed using the Woodhead tunnel as part of an ambitious scheme to connect Liverpool to London.

In 2002 the Trans-Pennine Rail Group, a broadly based group of County Councils, Unitary Authorities, Passenger Transport Executives (PTE) and the Peak District National Park Authority provided evidence to a transport select committee identified interest from bidders for the Transpennine rail franchise in reopening the Woodhead route (in 2007 the Trans-Pennine Rail Group was wound up as its work was now being done by the Northern Way and the North West Rail Campaign).

In 2003 the Greater Manchester Branch of the Institute of Logistics and Transport presented evidence to a Parliamentary Select committee mentioning Arriva's interest in opening the Woodhead Line and Tunnel as part of their bid for the Trans-Pennine rail franchise

In 2006, a group calling itself 'Translink' proposed reopening the tunnel and the route for rail freight. This proposal is favoured by some groups opposing the construction of the Longdendale Bypass, a controversial £180m bypass for Mottram in Longdendalemarker, Hollingworthmarker and Tintwistlemarker (which is officially known as the 'A57/A628 Mottram-in-Longdendale, Hollingworth & Tintwistle Bypass').

Current situation

One of the Victorian tunnels, the south tunnel, is in a poor condition and is unused. The north tunnel carries electrical cables for the National Grid that are coming to the end of their operational life and National Grid plc is preparing to install electricity cables in Woodhead 3, which would make it unavailable for rail traffic. The other two older tunnels are not suitable for rail traffic due to their poor state of repair.

In July 2007 the Peak District National Park formally expressed concern at the plans to place cables in Woodhead 3, observing that it could not then be used for rail traffic. In September 2007 the Government Office for the East Midlands replied indicating that in their view it was unlikely that the route would be used for rail traffic and declined to intervene. On the 4th December 57 MPs signed an early day motion in the commons brought by Manchester Blackley MPmarker Graham Stringer expressing concern at laying cables in a viable tunnel for rail traffic. On 18 December a written answer in the Commons stated that laying cables in the tunnel would not preclude opening the route to rail traffic. On the 25th the Department for Transport 'clarified' this, saying that that only the older Victorian tunnels, which were in poor condition, would be available. In December 2007 the Campaign for Better Transport began campaigning to keep the Woodhead Tunnel available for rail traffic and encouraging people to write to their MP. On 8 January the Northern Way, a collaboration between the three Northern Regional Development Agencies: Yorkshire Forward, Northwest Regional Development Agency and One NorthEast, called for the government to ensure the potential reuse of Woodhead Tunnels for rail use in the future. The Northern Way had previously published that economic benefit could be as much as £10 billion nationally with £3.5 billion of this in the North.

On 15 January 2008 one hundred protesters gathered at the end of the Woodhead tunnel to protest at plans to use it for electricity cables. On 24 January 2008 preparatory work started.

See also



  • Bain, Simon (1986) Railroaded! (Battle for Woodhead Pass), London, Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-13909-4
  • Dow, G., (1959) Great Central, Volume One: The Progenitors (1813-1863) , Shepperton: Ian Allan Ltd.

External links


Current proposals

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