Cutting from the west from Manchester and the jointly owned Cheshire Lines Committee (with the Great Northern and Midland), the line made its way west pas the company workshops at Gorton, over the mountainous terrain through Penistone and on to Sheffield with spurs leading the Doncaster. Most of this rugged route was known as the Woodhead line, taking up the portion between Manchester and Sheffield; this was one of the most difficult railway lines to traverse in Great Britain.
The line climbed steadily from both directions, leading up to the summit at Woodhead, but on the Manchester side of the grade and up towards the top was a tunnel that went on for 3 miles at a grade of 1 in 201. There were some others along the route, but these had a much shorter length, and the Woodhead Tunnel as it became known must certainly be recognized as one of the most dangerous and difficult places to work in the history of the world.
Completed in 1845, the tunnel was originally intended to be two tracks going through one bore, but in order to keep costs down only one tunnel was constructed, and once more capital was obtained a second bore was cut; it’s been stated that one could see daylight shine through from one end of the tunnel to the other, but after the first train went through, no daylight would shine through it for over 100 years.
The reason for this was that the tunnel was tight, most locomotives could barely fir through the bore with most engine’s chimneys being just inches away from the ceiling. Four ventilation shafts were provided along the tunnel’s length, but very quickly these proved be less than adequate, as the line very quickly was handling over 200 trains a day in both directions; smoke did not have enough time to disperse between trains, and very quickly conditions became deplorable.
As trains would come up to the entrance, passengers would usually alert each other that they were about to enter and windows would very quickly shut on all the coaches. The same luxury couldn’t be afforded to the crew of the engine, and the standard practice became to carry a clean bucket of water with facecloths, and as the train entered the tunnel the crew would put themselves on the floor of the cab and cover their faces with the cloths, in an attempt to get some better air; it wasn’t unknown as well for trains to stall on the grade, and the fireman having to jam his shovel against the tunnel wall in order to ascertain which direction they were travelling.
The first attempt to help alleviate the problem came in 1889, when bell signaling was installed in the 25 manholes that connected the two tunnel bores; this was in order to lessen the time a train would have to spend in the tunnels, so that if a train stalled the crew could get down, head for one of the manholes and push a button, alerting the signalmen at either side that the train in that section was stuck.
Even more radical was the idea to split the tunnel into two sections, when in 1899 a signal box was placed in the middle of a tunnel! It was meant to control the more difficult up line (leading up the grade to Sheffield), and was reached from the third ventilation shaft along the tunnel; this was certainly one of the worst jobs of the Victorian and Edwardian era, and it’s unsurprising there were few if any volunteers for the job. Astonishingly it managed to last a decade, not being abandoned until 1909, as no one wanted the job.
The tunnel needed constant repairs done to it; being so close to the ceiling, the blast of locomotive exhaust over time, as well as the constant buildup up of smoke and steam caused the tunnel lining to disintegrate rapidly. It was then decided that the best temporary solution to the tunnel’s problems would be to widen the ventilation shafts.
In 1912 attempts were made to expand the ventilation shafts using the company’s own workers, but this soon came to a grinding halt after a near accident almost resulted in the deaths of a gang of over 30 workers; after this an outside contractor was hired and in 1915, the now Great Central Railway announced the project completed.
The widening did indeed improve conditions, and no further work was ever carried out on the tunnel aside from regular repairs. In 1923 the Great Central Railway became part of the London and North Eastern Railway, and the Woodhead route now became a new company’s problem; indeed, the civil engineer stated there was still some issues with operating the tunnel, and that it would have been better to replace one of the vents entirely rather than widening it. It was even stated that after his own inspection of the tunnels, he found that the Great Central had overstated the efficiency of the widened vents by 20%!
Despite all the work done to ease the congestion inside the tunnel, it still proved to be a continual operating headache; by 1936 the timetable listed 99 up and 91 down trains each day, and eventually the maintenance crews became overwhelmed. A survey was commissioned by Balfour Beatty and Co. in 1945, and accompanied by the LNER’s chief engineer they inspected the tunnel between January and March. The survey stated that “in all parts of the tunnel, dry or wet, the lime mortar has decomposed completely in the inside ring of lining…in the crown the blast from the locomotive chimneys has blown it out to a depth of 3-4 inches and where water is percolating through more has washed out, the ring in places appearing to stand as a dry stone arch…individual stones have fallen out, and there is bulging of the vertical walls inward.”
It was recognized that the only fix by this point, after 100 years of continuous use was to construct an entirely new tunnel, this itself tying into an upgrade of the Woodhead route itself. One of the companies that went into the LNER, the North Eastern Railway, had experimented heavily with electric traction and used it successfully on some routes, and being one of the predominating forces in the new company continued to explore electric traction.
One of the lines proposed to use this system in the mid-1930s was the Woodhead route; as stated the line handled some of the LNER’s heaviest traffic and was an important route for mineral trains, coal predominating. On most sections, trains were banked, and most double headed; it wasn’t uncommon to see 2 Robinson 2-8-0s pulling a heavy freight train with another 2 acting as bankers! The proposal stated that by electrifying the route, it would be easier to move goods and at the same time improve the infrastructure; it was accepted hand over fist.
Nigel Gresley, the company’s chief mechanical engineer designed 2 types of locomotives for the scheme, one for freight (class EM1) and one for passenger (class EM2), with an example of the former being constructed for testing. At the same time overhead catenary began to be constructed and placed along the route, but by 1939 progress was halted completely by the war, and progress was only picked up again in 1947, when the prototype EM1 was sent for further trials on the Netherland State Railways. The engine did not return to Britain until 1952, by which point the LNER had been merged with British Railways, who had taken up the Woodhead scheme with vigor.
With the modernization of the route, so too to the tunnels; digging of a new tunnel began in 1950, and after 3 years of hard labor, the new Woodhead tunnel opened to traffic, a keystone at the top indicating the year of completion. At the time British Railways considered the Woodhead electrification the best jewel in their crown, but it was not to be.
With the increased of the motor car in the period, trains began to be heavily effected, primarily passenger services, and coupled with this was British Railways odd intolerance towards “duplicate lines”, routes which were essentially secondary and acted as alternates when traffic became heavy. By 1969 all passenger services had been run down and withdrawn, with the class EM2 electrics being sold to the Netherland State Railways, where they would continue to work until 1986.
The route itself ceased to exist earlier than this, all the class Em1 locomotives being taken out of service by 1981, with the section on the Manchester side surviving whilst the Sheffield half was axed altogether, including the new Woodhead tunnels. The modernized route had only managed to survive for 27 years.
Today, the tunnels are owned by National Grid, with all 3 being used for power cables that link Sheffield to Manchester, and whilst there have been repeated campaigns in recent years to keep the 1953 tunnel open for future re-opening of the eastern portion of the route, it appears increasingly unlikely that this will ever occur.