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A tribute to the now closed railway tunnel and its famous EM2 locomotives. The tunnel was the UK’s longest landwards example built during the 20th Century. Two major collapses caused huge delays in construction. The total cost was £4.3 million. It opened more than a year late in 1954 complete with Britain’s first ever electrified main line by the Minister of Transport, Alan Lennox-Boyd. The new tunnel replaced the two Victorian rail bores which run parallel. Sadly the Woodhead route closed in 1981 and the tunnels are now used for the National Grid.

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Commemorative plaque on the opening of the tunnel. Unveiled by Transport Minister Alan Lennox-Boyd on 3rd June 1954. Thats sixty five years ago this week. Source: Twitter

The official opening plaque is nowadays found on the wall of Hadfield station, several miles from its original position. It was indeed located at the west portal of Woodhead Tunnel but moved to Hadfield sometime in the 1980s after the line had closed.

Woodhead Tunnel was 3 miles 66 yards and by decree of its length became the third longest in the country. Contracts let out 1949 with Balfour taking a large part of the contract. The tunnel was completed October 1953 and officially opened on 3 June 1954.

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The opening ceremony reported in Railway Magazine August 1954.

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The tunnel opening ceremony train at Manchester London Road (now Piccadilly) in June 1954 with 27000 leading. Source: Twitter

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Photos of the tunnel opening in 1954 are rare however here’s one. The locomotive was 27000. Source: Flickr

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Transport Minister Lennox-Boyd (centre) at the tunnel’s ceremony. 3rd June 1954.

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The plaque seen on the tunnel portal after the opening ceremony. The image was linked to the Sheffield Star however no page can now be found thus the image from the Internet Archive is used here.

Google has a cache of the page in question that was formely on the Sheffield Star’s site (has strange formatting.) Another cached page showing the same image (again strange formatting.) Nevertheless a properly rendered page can be seen at the Internet Archive.

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The stone plaque above the tunnel entrance. ‘B.R. 1954.’ Source: Twitter

Full electric services began between Manchester, Penistone and Wath for the freight trains in June 1954. However passenger services did not begin until September 1954 when the wires through to Sheffield Victoria had been completed.

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The new through service from Sheffield to Manchester was finally inaugurated in September 1954, using the same locomotive 27000. Source: Twitter

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Advert for the new main line electric service between the two cities. Source: Twitter

Some might claim there were other lines electrified on the overhead before Woodhead. Certainly yes, but these were suburban lines, such as Victoria to Coulsdon/Sutton, Lancaster – Morecambe/Heysham, Liverpool Street – Shenfield and of course Manchester – Altrincham. The Woodhead route is acknowledged as the first such scheme to be completed for a main line.

Sadly the Woodhead line had a very short shelf-life and despite protests, interventions from MPs, local councils and huge opposition from the unions, British Rail, true to its word, shut the famous trans-Pennine line for good. In the period before it’s closure I was fortunate to ride a special railtour on the Woodhead route, known as the Great Central Wanderer. More of that later.

Much of the former Great Central route is now a public footpath, and people are still able to enjoy the views in the Longendale valley as if they had been on a train. One of the tunnels, Thurgoland, is now a pedestrian and cycling tunnel.

A short clip from a You Tube video covering the opening of the Woodhead line services in 1954. You Tube

Nice black & white film showing the Woodhead Line, the building of the new tunnels, the new services in 1955 etc. You Tube

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The entrance to Woodhead tunnel today. Source: Twitter

Although most sources suggest the Woodhead plans were first mooted in the 1930s, they were in fact put forward just before the first world war. By the 1920s (after the chaos of the 1923 grouping had abated) plans emerged for a comprehensive Manchester-Sheffield electrification scheme. Ultimately some sections were left out of the original plans.

The reason for the Woodhead project was the single bore tunnels underneath the Pennines. These presented numerous problems and were seen as a bottleneck, as well as being quite injurious to health because there was poor ventilation. Electrification would enable trains to speed through these tunnels faster as well as resolve the issues of proper ventilation.

Originally a total of 181 steam locomotives were provided for the Woodhead route. The LNER estimated they could do the job with 88 electric locomotives instead. There would be nine express locomotives, 69 mixed traffic and 10 banking engines.

In fact work on the Woodhead route began in 1937. One of the earliest signs was the first prototype electric locomotive. It was eventually known as Tommy.

Work was also undertaken over a distance of seven miles to build the cantenary needed for the project, although it seems the masts were not wired. I am not sure if these early masts were used for the post war electrification or not.

A flyover at Darnall was built to allow electric locomotives to pass from one line to the other en route from the depot there and that would facilitate an easier switch of locomotives from steam to electric for the run onwards to Manchester. The flyover had been completed by the summer of 1939. Other sources suggest it was the 1940s however the Machester Guardian for 24th August 1939 confirms this and several other elements including the locomotive sheds and also confirms this early erection of the cantenary system.

As time went on there were various mishaps, accidents, and even rockfalls in the old Woodhead tunnels. Their age plus the various mishaps ultimately urged the LNER to rethink its plans and it was decided a new tunnel was the way forward.

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Digging the first construction shaft in June 1949. Source: Twitter

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Woodhead tunnel under construction early 1950s. Source: Twitter

The entire project as it came to be was officially launched in November 1936 by the LNER and known as the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath (MSW) electrification scheme. This came complete with new marshalling yards and other facilities.

A circular line was proposed from Fairfield via Levenshulme to Manchester Central as well as that to London Road. This loop was wired only as far as Reddish.

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Original plans included a loop around Manchester.

The wires would extend beyond Darnall as far as the tunnels. Other than that Wath, Glossop and short sections off the main line at Guide Bridge and Dunkenfield would be wired. It was eventually wired to Rotherwood sidings. Tinsley was not in the original plans.

The second world war put a stop to progress. Ultimately it was British Railways who completed the project. Sadly the MSW electrification ended up having a quite short shelf life – although with effort British Railways could have made it viable and it would these days be a very important trans Pennine railway route.

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Aerial view of the tunnel workings at Woodhead in 1952. The new tunnel portal can easily be seen. Source: Twitter

The first part of the newly electrified line began operation on 2nd February 1952 between Wath, Penistone, and in due course Dunford Bridge. Trains under 750 tons were allowed a single engine up the banks, those over had to have a banker. After full operation began in 1954/55 trains generally had a pair of engines anyway, with the heavier ones still requiring banking assistance.

The construction of the new tunnel was not without its problems. A substantial section collapsed in June 1951. It took six months to clear. A further major fall sited 900 feet from the western portal crushed the steel ribs erected in readiness for the tunnel’s lining.

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Track laying in the tunnel probably 1953/54. Source: Twitter

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Electrification train at the Dunford Bridge portal, 1954. Source: Twitter

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The new Woodhead tunnel soon after opening in 1954. The old tunnels can clearly be seen. Source: Twitter

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Information board at the Woodhead portal. Source: Twitter

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Works to prepare Sheffield Victoria for the new electric services.

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Sheffield Victoria with classic Woodhead route train hauled by an EM2. Source: Twitter

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‘Tommy’ at Torside 1963. Source: Twitter

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Staff at Reddish depot late 1960s. Source: Twitter

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Great picture showing two different liveried EM1s (Class 76) at Guide Bridge in 1967. Source: Twitter (Note: The account @RailwayCentral has been either suspended or deleted thus an archive image is used.)

A report I have from 1973 details the lack of work for the line (it was ‘saved’ by Beeching because of expectations it would be able to carry far more freight than before.) Wath and Mottram Yards had become less used and although the merry go rounds were still a substantial traffic on the Woodhead route these block trains did not need the marshalling yards specially built for the MSW. It is recorded Tinsley Yard (at that time) had barely any work.

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Emerging from the tunnel 1980. Source: Twitter

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Skirting the reservoirs in Longendale, April 1981. There was once four tracks, BR whittled it down to three, two, one, and then none. Source: Twitter

It was accepted the 1500dc system was antiquated, especially as so soon after the MSW had been opened that the Lancaster-Heysham line had been converted to 25KV AC and this became the new standard for Britain’s railways.

BR was absolutely resolute and insisted the line had to go. It even set out its case for the line’s closure in a publication which I have, and some extracts are shown below.

As we know, the decision to close the Woodhead route was short sighted especially given the current pressures on the Diggle Line. British Railways could have done better, but there we are. That was the mentality at the time. Railways were seen as unproductive and the dice was always stacked in favour of roads.

The images below are taken from a booklet I have which British Railways published in the late 1970s called ‘Trans Pennine – The Facts’. BR sets out its case for wanting to be shot of the Woodhead route.

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BR compares Woodhead with the other three routes across the Pennines.

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BR’s explanation of why sending trains via Woodhead was inefficient.

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BR’s claims the Woodhead line was not worth modernising. Ironically the Diggle route is at capacity now and there are NO alternatives!

The impending closure of the line caused the visit of many enthusiasts’ trains, all wanting to sample this famous line before it shut for good.

Until recently there was considerable hope the Woodhead route could be reopened. However National Grid have now moved all their electrical cabling and equipment from the old tunnels into the new tunnel. As well as that they have laid a road through the railway tunnel itself to provide easier access to its equipment. This pretty well means there is no hope now for a reinvigorated rail route through the Pennines.

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Pair of Class 76’s running light through Woodhead station having just emerged from the tunnel. July 1975. Source: Twitter

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The same location today! Source: Twitter

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The tunnel in its last months. The 1954 plaque can still be seen on the left side of the portal. Source: Twitter

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The demolition train arrives at Torside, 1983. Source: Twitter

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37024 (now 37714) was the last locomotive to traverse the tunnel. Its seen here on 4th May 1986 with its track demolition train. Source: Twitter

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13th May 1986. The connection between east and west side trackage is severed inside the Woodhead tunnel. Source: Twitter

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As the track is severed in the tunnel, the inevitable writing appears on the wall… Source: Twitter

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The last lot of track being lifted progressively westwards from Woodhead. May 1987. Source: Twitter

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The last bit of Woodhead track at Hadfield. August 1989. Source: Twitter

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Thurgoland Tunnel today. Source: Twitter

The Great Central Wanderer

As I very briefly noted, the railtour I took through Woodhead was the Great Central Wanderer. 76001 was used on the eastbound trip.

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Some of the people on our railtour posing by 76001 at Godley. Source: Flickr

What follows is some of my pictures of the trip through Woodhead. These were pulled off slides thus the quality is a little poor. Besides Woodhead I especially enjoyed the run on the lines that once passed through Stockport Tiviot Dale, with its church right above the tunnel entrance!

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My pic of 76001 coming onto our train at Godley Junction. 8th April 1979.

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Another of my views – by Valehouse reservoir in the Longendale valley en route to Torside and Woodhead.

I particularly liked the run through Longendale past the reservoirs. It was a dull sort of day but enough to be able to see the impressive scenery as 76001 hauled our train up the long 1 in 100 and 1 in 117 gradients to Woodhead.

Passing through Woodhead station on the same railtour (from Flickr.)

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Snap! My photo of our train Entering the Woodhead tunnel.

The Woodhead tunnel was stupendous. Clean, brightly lit throughout. It wasn’t vast like some of the Victorian tunnels, Kilsby for example, but it had a good height. A far cry from the many other dark and dank tunnels on our railway system.

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The train emerging from the portal at Dunford Bridge.

Dunford Bridge station, like Woodhead station too, still existed although it was no longer in use. Interestingly these were the only two modern stations on the Woodhead route and they were built by necessity of having to divert the railway through the new tunnel.

In the last few months of the line’s existence British Railways apparently tried to prevent further enthusiasts specials through Woodhead. They felt too much attention was being drawn towards the route. British Railways claimed it was due to delicate negotiations with the unions. The LCGB was informed it couldn’t run a charter through Woodhead even though their railtour had been agreed by BR several months earlier. In the event the tour went ahead as did others after protestations were made to Sir Peter Parker, then BR chairman.

Postscript – Brief history of the EM2s and as the NS 1500s in Holland

As for the locomotives built for the Woodhead line, the ones specially built for passenger trains were exported to Holland in 1969 and became NS 1500’s – where they spent sixteen years on various lines throughout the country.

These were the only times I ever travelled behind an EM2! It was pretty much a fluke that the one continential route I would need was the Hague/Hoek van Holland-Rotterdam-Dordrecht-Tilburg-Eindhoven-Venlo route, which was worked almost entirely by the EM2s. I travelled on that route a number of times and it was nice to know it was a British built locomotive hauling the train. I remember doing photographs of the EM2s at Hook of Holland and the locomotive change over at Venlo, however that was in the very early 1970s – and not many of my photographs from those days have survived this long.

Update: One of those trips I have recorded in part. A few weeks after publishing this post I found some brief notes. In these I took the Loreli (Loreley) Express (which went as far as Venice) from the Hook on 1st April 1972. With an unspecified NS1500 in charge, it departed the Hook at 07.28am. Rotterdam 07.55am, Tilburg 08.45am, Eindhoven 09.10am, Venlo 09.45am where the NS1500 was switched rapidly for a DB locomotive before continuing onwards into Germany where I changed for another train at Mönchengladbach. As an international express the NS service didn’t serve Dordrecht.

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The prototype EM1 poses for the camera in this publicity shot 1947. Source: Pinterest

The prototype locomotive, 6701 (classed EM1 and later named Tommy) was designed by Sir Nigel Gresley and built by the LNER in 1941, but languished in the sheds because testing was limited to the short section of 1500dc line then available on the Manchester-Altrincham line.

In 1946 it was renumbered 6000, and a year later sent to Holland because their system was too electrified at 1500 volts dc – a perfect testing ground – also the Dutch were short of electric locomotives at the time. Despite initial problems the locomotive was soon found quite favourable there. Tommy spent three years on the Dutch rail system before returning to the UK in 1952.

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Tommy being put on the ferry at Harwich in 1947 en route to Holland. Source: Twitter

The first EM2s had the opportunity to be trialled on the new Liverpool-Shenfield suburban electrification system but were moved to Wath as soon as that part of the MSW scheme had become live. The Dutch’s prior experience with EM1 Tommy easily explains why the Dutch were quite keen to buy up the seven EM2s when these came up for sale in 1969.

The EM2s were generally stabled at Maastricht, however I expect the reason the EM2s stayed on the Hague/Hoek van Holland-Venlo route was because Tilburg locomotive works (closed 2013) originally overhauled and modified the locomotives for Dutch operation, thus Tilburg had specific knowledge in terms of maintenance and specialist repairs for these locomotives.

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A very smart 1501 in Holland, still with its ‘Diana’ nameplates – and much better cared for than BR! Location is Utrecht CS. Source: Spoorweg Materieel

One of the most obvious aspects of the NS1500s was the difference in size (loading gauge) between the continental railways and the UK railways could be seen. The difference between NS1501 and the carriage behind it are all to clear.

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NS1505 at Den Haag in 1982. Source: Flickr

The NS1500s were very well cared for, much better than any locomotives ever were on BR!

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Clearly 1501 was the most popularly photographed locomotive. Here it is at the Tilburg railway works (probably after retirement) in 1986. Source: Flickr

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1503 (formerly 27004 Juno) in NS livery. Source: Benluxspoor

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1501 (the former 27003 Diana) at Den-Bosch. Source: Pinterest

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Just for prosperity, here’s a fab shot of NS1503 at Venlo – with its fantastic semaphore signals – both upper and lower quadrant! Source: Flickr

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As the above pic shows, the EM2s worked until 1986 when Nederlandse Spoorwegen organised a grand finale. Source: Twitter (Note: The source in question seems to have deleted their Twitter account, hence an archived image is used here.)

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EM2/NS1500 line up at Boxtel Yard (just off their regular stamping ground at Tilburg) during the finale celebrations in 1986. Source: Flickr

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More Boxtel line-ups. EM2 Farewell tour 14th June 1986. Source: Flickr

Although the EM2s ended their service in 1986, three were preserved. Two are in Britain and one of these, Electra, returned to Holland in 1989 where it joined its preserved Netherlands counterpart, Diana, for a series of NS 150th anniversary specials.

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27000 Electra in Holland during 1989. Source: Benluxspoor

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I have seen 27000 at a number of rail open days. My photo of it at Chart Leacon in the early 1990s.

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NS1501 was repainted into BR Black during 1996 and seen at Hoek van Holland during a special railtour in September of that year. Source: Flickr

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27000 at York Railfest 2004. Source: Twitter

A great source of information and pictures on the Woodhead route: @WoodheadRoute