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Woodhead Tunnels
Woodhead to Dunford Bridge, Peak District, West Riding of Yorkshire, UK
associated engineer
Charles Blacker Vignoles
Joseph Locke
Sir William Halcrow & Partners
date  1st Oct 1838 - 22nd Dec 1845, 1847 - 2nd Feb 1852, 1949 - 1953
era  Victorian  |  category  Tunnel  |  reference  SK112999
ICE reference number  HEW 235
There are three Woodhead Tunnels passing through the Pennines in Yorkshire side by side, all now closed to trains. The two Victorian ones were part of the Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne & Manchester Railway. The later one was part of the first British mainline railway to be electrified — mainly in order to alleviate pollution in the 4.8km tunnel — and is now used for National Grid power cables.
Charles Vignoles was the original engineer, appointed by the railway to devise the best way to link the cities of Sheffield and Manchester. His solution was a tunnel through the backbone of England, beneath what is now the Peak District National Park. Lord Wharncliffe turned the first soil on 1st October 1838, though the design was not finalised until April 1839, two years after the enabling Act of Parliament was passed.
Vignoles assisted fundraising for the works by buying some of the issued shares himself, on the tenuous understanding that he would not have to pay the full price. It was an action that led to his downfall, and he resigned his post in October 1839, settling his debts with the railway in 1843 following a failed appeal in 1841.
Joseph Locke, an engineer revered as much Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson at the time, took over. Locke differed from other great railway engineers of the day in that he gave his contractors detailed work specifications, supervised progress and made careful cost estimates with contingencies included. Using this approach, he doubled Vignoles’ initial estimate of £98,467 for the first Woodhead Tunnel and managed to complete the contract for £200,000. It was not uncommon for Stephenson and Brunel to have two or three-fold cost overruns.
The first single track tunnel is 6.1m high and 4.6m wide with a brick and masonry lining. It has a maximum elevation of 294.4m above sea level, falling 24.4m to the west portal. Its average cover is 137.2m, though at one point the tunnel floor is 182.9m below ground level.
The tunnel was driven from five 2.4m diameter shafts and from either end, giving a total of 12 driving faces. Despite problems with water ingress and the site’s remoteness, work continued 24 hours a day seven days a week. Some 208,500 cubic metres of rock were excavated with explosives and by hand. Working conditions were harsh for the 800 workmen and around 30 were killed, 200 maimed and another 450 injured.
During construction, 25 side access connections were built into the tunnel in anticipation of the need for a second bore. As a result, the second tunnel was easier to drive. It too is single track and similar in design to the first. In January 1852, a bulge in the side wall at the centre of the tunnel had to be broken out and the lining rebuilt before the tunnel could be opened to traffic.
Both tunnels had problems with poor ventilation and the smoke from steam engines reduced visibility considerably on the 4.8km long journey through them.
The linings of the Victorian tunnels deteriorated over the next century and they were made redundant by a modern double track tunnel, designed by Sir William Halcrow & Partners to accommodate a 1,500V direct current electrified overhead line. Transport Minister Alan Lennox-Boyd opened it officially on 3rd June 1954. It had cost £4.3m and six lives. Both older tunnels were closed to rail traffic once the new tunnel was operational.
The third tunnel is 7.6m wide and has a reinforced concrete lining of 530mm minimum thickness. Its height (also 7.6m) is governed by the then Ministry of Transport’s requirement that there is a clearance of 710mm above the widest rolling stock travelling in the tunnel.
During construction there were two roof falls in 1951, about 280m from the Woodhead portal, and a 21m high wedge of shaly rock collapsed into the tunnel. Ribbed arches were erected across the void and concreted into a 1.5m thick section of tunnel lining, completed in 1952. Though the remedial work was successful, it prompted the construction of an adjacent bypass tunnel, which improved both access and ventilation.
The new bore is separated from the nearest Victorian tunnel by just 21.4m of solid rock. The proximity of the tunnels was an advantage not only for the convenience of track laying but also because water seeping into the old tunnels would help to drain the rock surrounding the new tunnel.
Passenger services through the third tunnel ceased on 5th January 1970, though the line stayed open to freight trains until 18th July 1981, when it closed. The Woodhead Tunnels are on the route of the Trans-Pennine Trail (opened 13th September 2001). Campaigners have lobbied for the re-opening of one or more of the tunnels since 2007, arguing that the freight traffic that once travelled the rails is now forced onto the congested roads between Sheffield and Manchester.
In the 1960s, the Central Electricity Generating Board (now the National Grid) bought the two older tunnels and installed 400kV cables in them to supply electricity to Manchester from power stations east of the Pennines. The cables are being replaced (2008-11) by new ones in the third tunnel — bought by the National Grid in the 1990s — which allows continuity of supply and precludes the need for repairs (estimated at £165m) to the first two tunnels. The electric cables would not impede trains if the third tunnel re-opened at a later date.
Supervising engineer (1839-45): Nicholas Wood
Resident engineer (1839-45): Wellington Purdon
Resident engineer (1839-45): Alfred Jee
Resident engineer (1949-53): J.D. Dempster
Contractor (eastern end 1837-45): Thomas Nicholson
Contractor (western end 1837-45) Richard Hattersley
Contractor (1847-52): G.C. Pauling
Power cabling (third tunnel 2008-11): Electricity Alliance East
Research: ECPK
"The Life of Joseph Locke, Civil Engineer" by Joseph Devey
published originally by Richard Bentley, London, 1862
reprinted by Kessinger Publishing, UK, July 2007
"Woodhead New Tunnel: Construction of a Three-Mile Main Double-Line Railway Tunnel" by P.A. Scott and J.I. Campbell, ICE Proceedings, Vol.3, Issue 5, pp.506-541, London, September 1954
"Discussion: Woodhead New Tunnel: Construction of a Three-Mile Main Double-Line Railway Tunnel" by J. Ratter et al, ICE Proceedings, Vol.3, Issue 5, pp.541-556, London, September 1954
"Future Rail Use and the Woodhead Tunnels" by The Northern Way Transport Team, Leeds, October 2008, available at www.thenorthernway.co.uk
"Briefing Sheet" by Reopen the Woodhead Tunnel, Hyde, July 2010, available at www.savethewoodheadtunnel.org.uk
reference sources   CEH NorthBDCE2BRHVicEng

Woodhead Tunnels