There’s an irony in Woodhead’s tunnels carrying electricity under the Pennines. Where once they thrived on carrying its raw material, coal, now they carry the finished product.
Woodhead the line is long dead. Its final revenue earning freight trains ran in 1981 and timetabled passenger services ceased in January 1970. Yet Woodhead the idea lives on. Indeed, it’s never really died. It continues on a mix of nostalgia and a sense that its tunnels are wasted.
They lie between Manchester and Sheffield and form part of what was the ‘MSW’ with the final letter of the abbreviation standing for Wath, which was once a key staging point for Yorkshire coal. The route was a pioneer as Britain’s first electrified main line. Promotional posters exemplified British Rail’s pride in banishing polluting steam in favour of clean electric traction.
BR cannot claim credit for the switch. It was the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) that first suggested electrification because the route carried so much freight. Work started in the late 1930s but the Second World War intervened, suspending work until 1946. The LNER was nationalised into BR in 1948 which was now planning a new tunnel under Woodhead to replace the decaying pair of single-line bores of the original railway. This new tunnel would be 3 miles 66 yards long. It took over four years to build before being officially opened in June 1954. Overhead electric wires carried 1,500V DC to power trains. Today this tunnel carries National Grid electricity at much higher voltage. Having carried such cables for many years, the old bores now lie disused.
MSW electrification was more expensive than first thought. What had been £9 million (including the new tunnel) became £12m and so BR ditched the electric link from Fairfield to Trafford Park in Manchester (a rash move with hindsight). By January 1955, wiring was finally complete. That October BR authorised Crewe-Manchester electrification as pilot 25kV AC project. This was to be, and remains, the standard making the MSW obsolete almost from the start.
Nevertheless, BR kept its fleet of DC locomotives busy. Manchester-Sheffield passenger services could run throughout with them, leaving from the eastern platforms at Piccadilly and running to Sheffield Victoria. Trains heading beyond Victoria needed their electrics swapped for diesel locomotives, as did freight at Wath, Tinsley or Rotherwood. This was one of the line’s natural inefficiencies and swaps would also take place at Mottram on the west side of the line.
Passengers were treated to journeys of 59 minutes for the 41 miles between the MSW’s two great cities when electrification arrived. Today, fast TransPennine Express services take 52 minutes with a stop at Stockport on their 37-mile route via the Hope Valley. Capacity over the Hope Valley route should increase soon when TPE receives new stock that will allow it to double the usual length of trains to six-cars. There is also scope for NR to improve the route. It has plans to double the single-track chord between Dore Station and Dore West Junctions, build a passing loop at Bamford, and resignal sections of the route currently controlled by absolute block regulations from manual signalboxes. This should all allow more trains with shorter journey times. No decision has yet come from the Department for Transport to allow the changes at Dore and Bamford.
NR reckons an improved Hope Valley route should satisfy demand between Manchester and Sheffield for the next 30 years. It should satisfy Sheffield City Region which complained back in 2011 of the slow links between its area and Manchester.
Reopening Woodhead remains challenging. There might be just 21 miles of missing track between the stop blocks at Hadfield and NR’s boundary with Stocksbridge steel plant but there are plenty of obstacles and costs. NR has just a single track remaining between Stocksbridge and Sheffield itself. This freight line would need upgrading and perhaps doubling to cope with passenger traffic. With Sheffield Victoria station demolished in the 1980s, there’s no station in the city centre serving the line. Trains to and from Manchester via Woodhead would need to reverse at Woodburn Junction and then use Nunnery Curve to reach today’s station. However, there’s probably space to build a single-platform station where Victoria once stood.
If 21 miles is tantalising, it’s only five miles from NR’s boundary to Penistone, through which trains still run between Sheffield and Huddersfield. The missing section runs through Thurgoland, including its tunnel. It was over this route that trains ran from Huddersfield until BR diverted them via Barnsley. It was a longer route but Barnsley housed more people than Thurgoland and trains today call at Meadowhall for its shopping centre. Meanwhile, NR’s freight route from its boundary at Deepcar runs along the Don Valley, managing to keep its distance from housing estates on either side. At best the route might justify a station at Deepcar for Stocksbridge and Wadsley Bridge (close to Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground).
Heading west from Penistone, the old line passes little habitation. Enthusiasts and railwaymen might know the name Dunford Bridge as the boundary between BR’s Eastern and London Midland Regions and as the eastern portal of Woodhead Tunnel but there’s nothing else at this remote place. The same can be said three miles west at Woodhead itself. There was once a station, just as there was at Dunford Bridge, but no-one living nearby to use it.
Housing comes beyond a quintet of reservoirs with Hadfield. It’s here that the MSW’s trackbed turns back into a railway. Electric trains run to and from Manchester, with a branch to Glossop. Of course, they’re AC electrics even if the wires that power them hang from structures designed for the original DC wires. Conversion took place in the 1980s, only a few years after Woodhead’s closure. Yet when BR was arguing for closure, it suggested that conversion costs would be so high as to be unaffordable.
These electric trains call at stations such as Broadbottom and Hattersley. Neither is surrounded by housing but Office of Rail and Road statistics record 159,000 and 79,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. Closer to Manchester and better placed for housing is Flowery Field on 222,000. What might Deepcar and Wadsley Bridge be achieving today were their line open to passengers?
These numbers might be enough to prevent closure but are they enough to justify opening? When West Yorkshire Metro welcomed the approval of a new station being built at Kirkstall Forge, it suggested the station would receive 400,000 passengers a year. It opened in June 2016 and ORR recorded 95,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. However, Kirkstall Forge sits on an electrified double-track line that already had a frequent service. Deepcar’s situation is different at the end of a single-track freight branch.
Even if you could justify returning passenger trains to the eastern stub of the MSW the central section is another leap forward. It would need to rely on through traffic. Trains such as those between Cleethorpes and Manchester that today run via Doncaster, Sheffield and the Hope Valley. They could run via Woodhead. Indeed, mileposts approaching Cleethorpes give the distance from Manchester via the MSW’s Pennine tunnel and Retford. But why divert a train from an open route with potential to be upgraded to one that needs to be reopened?
To reopen Woodhead would be to build a new railway through a national park. This would be expensive and time-consuming. It’s over four years since NR first took its Hope Valley plans to public consultation and yet government has still not said yes. Woodhead would be much more ambitious and take much longer.
Woodhead needs a tunnel. National Grid owns the current three. The newest now has electric cables within it. The older ones are closed and crumbling. Government ruled out buying them back from National Grid in 2013. Stephen Hammond was transport minister at the time. He told parliament: “If an additional rail route was ever required between Manchester and Sheffield, it is unlikely that even the modern tunnels would be suitable for reuse and, given advances in tunnelling technology even since 2008 as witnessed by Crossrail, the best solution is most likely to be the construction of a new tunnel.”
The dream of Woodhead may live on. I can’t see the railway reopening.
This article first appeared in RAIL 844 in January 2018.