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British Industrial History

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Woodhead Tunnels

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The Woodhead Tunnels are three parallel trans-Pennine 3 mile long railway tunnels on the Woodhead Line, a former major rail link from Manchester to Sheffield in northern England.

The western portals of the tunnels are at Woodhead in Derbyshire and the eastern portals are at Dunford Bridge, near Penistone, South Yorkshire.

  • 1845 Woodhead 1 was one of the world's longest railway tunnels when it opened.
  • 1853 Woodhead 2 was completed.
  • 1953 Woodhead 3 opened almost exactly 100 years later.

1970 Passenger services ended.

1981 Last train passed through.

The twin tunnels saw heavy use by steam trains (250 trains a day each way) and this traffic had a huge effect on the economy of the route well in to the 1950s.

They had a reputation for having a very poor operating environment with high maintenance needs, since such heavy usage had never been envisaged by their original constructors.

The tunnels were known to train crews as the "hell holes" as they were a very narrow bore and became claustrophobic and sooty as trains passed through and were too narrow and very unsuitable for electrification and were closed in 1953 when Woodhead 3 was completed.

Since 1963 the north tunnel has been used by the National Grid to carry the trans-Pennine 400 kV electricity link below ground under the Peak District National Park. A narrow gauge railway runs in the tunnel to service this link.

The south tunnel is in worse condition, has suffered from collapses and is not currently suitable for cabling or transport.

The first two tunnels were replaced by Woodhead 3 which was bored purposely for the electrification of the route and was completed in 1953. The tunnel was opened by the then transport minister Alan Lennox-Boyd on 3 June 1954. It was designed by Sir William Halcrow and Partners. This was electrified at 1,500V DC in a project known as the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification. In the 1960s it was proposed that this tunnel should be used as part of a Manchester to Sheffield motorway, but in the end only a short section of the M67 motorway was built.

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