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British Industrial History

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Standedge Tunnels

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August 2012. Standedge Tunnel – Marsden (photo by Jonathon Tattersall).
August 2012. Standedge Tunnel – Marsden (photo by Jonathon Tattersall).
August 2012. Standedge Tunnel – Marsden (photo by Jonathon Tattersall).
August 2012. Standedge Tunnel – Marsden (photo by Jonathon Tattersall).

The Standedge Tunnels are four parallel tunnels that run beneath the Pennines at the traditional Standedge crossing point between Marsden and Diggle, on the edges of the conurbations of West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

There are three railway tunnels and a canal tunnel (on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal). The canal tunnel is the longest and oldest of the tunnels, and holds the record as the longest and highest canal tunnel in Britain.

All four tunnels are linked by cross-tunnels or adits at strategic locations within the tunnels. The adits allowed the railway tunnels to be built much more quickly by allowing 'waste spoil' to be removed by boat and reducing the need for shafts for construction.

Of the railway tunnels, only the tunnel built in 1894 is currently used for rail traffic. Closed in 1943, the canal tunnel was re-opened in May 2001.

Canal Tunnel

The Standedge Tunnel is the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain. It is 16,499 feet long, 636 feet underground at the deepest point, and 643 feet above sea level.

Benjamin Outram was the consulting engineer for the construction of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal (then known as the Huddersfield Canal), which links the towns of Ashton-under-Lyne and Huddersfield through the tunnel. However, Outram had so many commitments that construction took place under the supervision of a young and inexperienced surveyor, Nicholas Brown.

Layout of the tunnel was difficult. It would be necessary to lay out a straight line across the mountain top and calculate how deep below the canal would be. At intervals, pits would be sunk to the requisite depth and the tunnel dug outwards from their bases.

In addition it was necessary to drive drainage adits. Outram had given his opinion that the hill was composed of gritstone and strong shale and should not present any difficulties. In fact he had not expected the need for a lining. It was an extremely ambitious undertaking for the time and Outram was not yet an established engineer, though he had gained experience with the Butterley Tunnel on the Cromford Canal. However more than the expected amount of water entered the workings.

The adits allowed so-called 'water engines' to be used. These were simply two buckets on a rope which ran over a pulley at the top of the shaft. One bucket would be filled with spoil from the workings and the other would be filled with water which counterbalance the spoil causing it to rise to the top. Once unloaded, the water would be drained allowing the spoil bucket to fall for another load. Although steam engine pumps were tried, they proved inefficient and expensive to run.

A further problem was maintaining an adequate air supply for the workers. This was achieved by injecting water in a fine spray at the top of the shaft, which would carry sufficient fresh air down with it.

Work on the tunnel was fraught with difficulty and progress was slow. Gunpowder was used to blast through the solid rock and the work took place by candlelight.

In circa 1801, Outram resigned from his post in order to devote himself entirely to work at Benjamin Outram and Co, which was expanding rapidly. Following his resignation, Thomas Telford was called in to advise on the tunnel's completion.

Before completion, a severe misalignment was found in the tunnel due to inaccuracy on the part of the surveyor who originally laid it out. The tunnel was finally pierced through in 1809.

The canal tunnel was brick-lined in places, though bare rock was left exposed in others.

By 1804, work was well behind schedule and financially overstretched. Digging was progressing at each end of the tunnel, but the central section was untouched. Moreover there were problems along the canal from unworkable economies of design and bad workmanship, but also the disorganising effect of interference by the canal committee who, to be fair, were not experts in engineering matters, but were periodically starved of funds.

In 1805, a further Act of Parliament was sought to raise more investment and Thomas Telford was asked to prepare a programme for completing the work.

The tunnel eventually opened in 1811, and the canal then became a through route 13 years after the rest of it had been completed and 17 years after work first began, at a cost of £123,803.

Despite multiple problems, the building of the Huddersfield Narrow canal showed that the technique of quantity surveying had advanced greatly. Telford's report covered every expenditure to the last bucket; it was followed to the letter and the canal finally opened in 1811.

Between 1811 and 1840 the tunnel was used on average by 40 boats daily.

The canal tunnel is only wide enough for one narrowboat for much of its length, and to save on cost, as in some other canal tunnels in England, no tow-path was provided in the tunnel. As canal boats were horse-drawn, the boats had to be legged through the tunnel - a process where one or more boatmen lay on the cargo and pushed against the roof or walls of the tunnel with their legs. Professional leggers were paid 1s 6d for working a boat through the tunnel, which took 1 hour 20 minutes for an empty boat, and 3 hours with a full load.

There are several widened points in the tunnel, originally designed to be passing places. However, due to intense competition between boat crews, two-way operation in the tunnel was found to be unpracticable. The canal company introduced a new method of working where one end of the tunnel was closed off by a locked chain, preventing access to the tunnel unless authorised.

The Huddersfield Narrow Canal was purchased by the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway in 1846. The canal tunnel proved most beneficial in assisting with the construction of the first railway tunnel at this location, as no vertical shafts were needed in the construction and the canal was an easy way to help remove the large amount of spoil excavated. Several cross-passages were retained.

The last commercial boat to use the tunnel passed through in 1921, and the canal was officially closed in 1944, after which it soon fell into disrepair.

The canal tunnel was the beneficiary of a £5 million restoration project as part of an effort to re-open the entire canal. Several rock-lined parts of the tunnel were found to be unstable. Where possible, these were stabilised by rock bolts, or where impractical, concrete was used to stabilise the rock face. The tunnel re-opened in May 2001.

Most modern canal boats are diesel-powered. When the canal was reopened it was felt that it would not be safe for boaters to navigate the tunnel under their own diesel power, due to the extreme length of the tunnel and the lack of ventilation. Instead, electric tug boats haul narrowboats through the tunnel.

Railway Tunnels

There are three railway tunnels, running parallel to each other and the canal tunnel. The rail tunnels are level for their whole length providing the only section of level track on the line where water troughs could be installed to provide steam locomotives with fresh water supplies without the requirement for the train to stop.

The central tunnel at Standedge was completed by the London and North Western Railway, having acquired the former Huddersfield and Manchester Railway in 1847. This was a single line tunnel with a length of 3 miles, 57 yards. The tunnel is located immediately to the south of, but at a slightly higher level than, the canal tunnel.

The 1848 tunnel soon proved to be a bottleneck for rail traffic between Huddersfield and Manchester, and in 1871 a second parallel tunnel was opened. This tunnel was also a single line tunnel with a length of 3 miles, 57 yards, and was situated to the south of the first rail tunnel.

The 1894 double bore tunnel was opened by the London and North Western Railway with double track, and a length of 3 miles, 60 yards. For most of its length, it is situated to the north of the canal tunnel, but passes over the canal tunnel just inside each tunnel entrance.

Today only the 1894 rail tunnel is still used for rail traffic, although all three rail tunnels are still maintained. The 1848 tunnel is used to provide an emergency escape route for the other tunnels, and has been made accessible to road vehicles such as fire engines and ambulances.

The Standedge Tunnel Visitor Centre is situated at the Marsden end of the tunnel. It is located in the former warehouse, used for trans-shipment of goods from canal barge to packhorse during the period between 1798, when the canal reached Marsden, and 1811, when the tunnel opened. The centre contains exhibitions on the history of the tunnels, the canal tunnel's recent restoration, and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

The nearby Tunnel End Cottages, which formerly housed canal maintenance workers, house a cafe and the booking office for 30 minute boat trips into the tunnel. These trips use the same electric tugs as are used to tow private boats through the tunnel, in this case pushing a passenger-carrying barge.

The visitors centre is situated about half a mile (0.8 km) to the west of Marsden railway station and can easily be reached from the station by walking along the towpath of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which runs adjacent to the station. Adjacent to the station is the headquarters of the National Trust's Marsden Moor Estate, which includes a public exhibition, Welcome to Marsden, that gives an overview of the area and its transport history

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