Battle lines at Woodhead

  • Source: The Rail Engineer
  • Published: January 2008

Battle lines at Woodhead

A coalition of transport and environmental campaigners has vowed to fight the National Grid’s use of a tunnel on the former Woodhead route as a cable run.

A 400kV power line is currently carried in one of two Victorian single bores which cut through the Pennines but, according to NG, this is in poor condition and costly to repair. It now intends to install cabling through the 1954 double track tunnel, effectively scuppering any future use as a railway.

The plans are opposed by several local councils, regional business groups and the Peak District National Park. However the Government has refused to intervene as relaying the line does not feature in any strategic rail plans.

Protestors have launched a media campaign and are lobbying politicians. More than two dozen MPs have already signed an Early Day Motion whilst a petition has been set up on the Downing Street website. The tunnel’s western portal will be the venue for a demonstration against the scheme on Saturday 12th January.

Time is not on the campaigners’ side. It is understood that the National Grid will begin preparatory work early in the New Year.

Battle lines at Woodhead

  • Source: The Rail Engineer
  • Published: January 2008

People power resists cable plan

A coalition of politicians, transport groups and environmental campaigners have come together to oppose the National Grid’s use of Woodhead New tunnel as a route for power cables.

The company owns all three of the disused railway tunnels which cut through the hills for three miles between Dunford Bridge in South Yorkshire and Longdendale in Derbyshire. Currently a 400kV supply, linking a power station near Doncaster with Greater Manchester, is carried inside one of two single bore Victorian structures. Despite an investment of £15million on repairs, these are in poor condition. With the cables almost life-expired, NG now intends to install new ones in an adjacent double track tunnel opened by British Rail as recently as 1954.

The National Grid has consulted with the government and was told that the tunnel would not be needed for future rail use.

Although freight traffic on Britain’s railways is expected to grow by almost 30% over the next decade, there are no plans to reinstate any old lines. Instead the capacity of our existing network will be increased. However both the Yorkshire Regional Transport Strategy and South Pennine Integrated Transport Strategy endorse the reinstatement of the Woodhead line which was closed controversially in 1981. Any future resurrection for freight use would effectively be scuppered by the National Grid’s work.

The National Grid’s power lines will be moved from one of Woodhead’s Victorian single bores into British Rail’s 1954 tunnel.

Two years ago, Translink proposed a £159million scheme to create a ‘rolling highway’ over the route, with lorries being piggy-backed on low-floor rail wagons. The company claimed that the number of HGVs using the notorious A628 road, which runs partly through the Peak District National Park, could have been cut by 90%. The idea was considered by the Highways Agency before opting for a bypass.

Politicians on both sides of the Pennines have voiced their opposition to NG’s plan. An Early Day Motion urging the government to intervene has been signed by 44 members of parliament. High Peak MP Tom Levitt said “As transport and climate change issues grow in importance and priority, the chance of taking thousands of tons of freight off our roads and putting it on rail on this important trans-Pennine route must be preserved.”

Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, who chairs the Transport Select Committee told RailStaff that she would be “very disturbed if decisions were being taken which blocked off the development of a railway. I would always support anyone who wanted to protect a part of the system which might be needed for future use.”

Shortly before Christmas, local activists met to prepare a campaign against the cabling scheme and a rally was planned at Woodhead’s western portal on 12th January. “We understand completely that the National Grid has a commitment to provide electricity” said Anne Robinson of environmental pressure group Friends of the Peak District, “but the rail implications have not been fully thought through. It’s up to central government to step in and it’s taking a very short-sighted view. We need to be thinking big, long and hard – 20 years ahead, not five years.”

According to campaign co-ordinator Jonathan Atkinson, “It’s a really important issue in terms of future rail and freight services, the economic prosperity which would be brought to both sides of the Pennines and the bigger environmental challenges we face at the moment. Although it’s getting a green light from government, we believe there is a very strong case against the moves being taken here.”

Preparatory works in the tunnel should start this month, with the cables due to be installed during 2009.

People power resists cable plan

  • Author: Graeme Bickerdike
  • Source: RailStaff newspaper
  • Published: January 2008

Woodhead succumbs to tunnel vision

God created Saturday afternoons for football. Then Sky Sports came along and changed the world. Out went terraces and crunching tackles; in came executive boxes and Oscar-winning playactors. Think back to the Seventies – their sideburns might have defied all logic but our sporting heroes knew the right way to play. Oh how I long for Nobby Stiles.

Nobody should venture near one of today’s soulless stadia without first seeking financial advice. I apply the same rule when the wife suggests a shopping expedition. All of which can leave me at a loose end on Saturdays. But not so on January 12th. The diary entry read ‘Woodhead demo’. At one o’clock, having pitted my wits against a madcap HGV driver thrashing over the Pennines, I found myself sheltering beneath a disused tunnel portal with an unlikely band of brothers – air travel objectors, an MEP, ‘friends’ of the Peak District and a tambourine player. He refused to perform for me.

This was a big day for the alliance of transport and environmental campaigners who’ve rapidly come together to oppose the National Grid’s use of Woodhead New tunnel as a conduit for power. Around 60 of them gathered in its shadow to make their feelings known. Beyond a fence, Manchester’s 400kV electricity feed – kindly donated by a Yorkshire power station – gently hummed. It’s this supply which is the bone of contention, or at least NG’s plan to move the cabling from one of two Victorian single bores into British Rail’s comparatively spanking 1954 structure.

British Rail’s 1954 tunnel replaced Woodhead’s two single bores which opened in 1845 and 1852.
Photo: John Quick collection

Woodhead’s original tunnel – costing £60,000 and 26 lives – first welcomed trains three days before Christmas 1845. Seven years later, a second was added. Maintenance proved burdensome. When electrification of the line was reaching its climax in the late 1940s, their condition had deteriorated to such an extent that cutting a new hole through the hill had become the only sane option. So began a mammoth civil engineering project which sucked £4.6million from the Chancellor’s pocket.

The Central Electricity Generating Board acquired the redundant singles in the Sixties to hide a trans-Pennine power line, lessening its impact on the landscape of the Peak District. When the line finally shut up shop in 1981, BR’s tunnel also fell into its hands. Now, having poured £15million into the black hole of repair work, the National Grid wants to reap the benefits of its other asset next door. The cables are almost life-expired so the need for new furniture makes a move eminently sensible.

They came by cycle, camper van and Shanks’ pony to protest against the National Grid’s plans.

But not to those who want the railway back. Many of the protesting masses – and I use the term loosely – made the journey to Woodhead on foot and bicycle along the Longdendale Trail which occupies the former trackbed. It was a six mile trek from Hatfield station. Despite the weathered appearance of some, they were all substantially fitter than your reporter who, like the rest of the media horde, abandoned his vehicle within spitting distance of the tunnel. TV, radio and print hacks all turned out.

So what’s the protestors’ bottom line? They want to see the new tunnel safeguarded for future railway use. NG’s work would effectively rule that out as train and cable could not cohabit. Leaving aside their restricted gauge, bringing the singles back to good health would not be financially viable.

One of Woodhead’s former passengers reminisces with a reporter from Radio 4’s ‘You and Yours’.
A campaigner secures another signature on her petition.

Rail freight growth of almost 30% is expected over the next decade. It could double within 30 years. The government’s strategic plans envisage no relaying of old lines to meet this demand. Instead increased capacity will somehow be extracted from our existing network. Yet there’s a contrasting view at regional level. Recent transport studies have endorsed the need for more tracks across the Pennines, identifying Woodhead as the logical route.

The Northern Way is a collaboration of three development agencies. Its chair is Neville Chamberlain – bizarre but true. He reckons that “if the future use of the Woodhead Tunnels for rail is not assured, the need to construct a major new tunnel across the Pennines could thwart the ambition of a new higher speed line ever happening. Additional, faster capacity across the Pennines will be critical to the economic future of the North.” So the stakes are high then.

Chris Davies, who represents the North West of England in the European Parliament, accuses the UK government of lacking joined-up thinking. He rhetorically asked his Woodhead audience “just how far behind does this country have to go in infrastructure terms before Ministers start to plan for the future? The government seems to hope that this country’s transport problems will just go away. There’s no evidence that that’s going to happen.”

Chris Davies, the LibDem’s MEP for the North West of England, criticised the government’s lack of joined-up thinking.

For the National Grid, political handbagging has little relevance. It has been told by the Department for Transport that the tunnels are surplus to requirements. On that basis, it’s taken the financially sound decision to put a discarded resource to good use. Environmentalists support recycling, don’t they?

Which is why the protestors’ argument is not really with NG. They insist that “With competing demands for use of the tunnel, there must be a full appraisal of its future and an informed decision as to its most sustainable use for the 21st Century. To date there has not been an open, full dialogue with all appropriate stakeholders such as regional planners, the rail industry and its operators, and local people. We are calling for this to happen.”

Their campaign is building a head of steam. An Early Day Motion calling on the government to “prevent this strategic route being lost forever” has attracted the backing of 55 MPs. Local councils, Passenger Transport Executives and several green groups have also answered the call to arms.

During January, site offices and a security post were set up at Dunford Bridge, Woodhead’s eastern end.

This amassed muscle is causing Ruth Kelly to reach for her paracetamol but can it force NG into an eleventh hour retreat? Time will tell. Whatever the outcome, it would be a victory for common sense if this skirmish spawned a national strategy to assess and, where appropriate, protect the footprints of our retired network.

A South Yorkshire colliery recently rose from the dead courtesy of a 300% increase in wholesale coal prices. Who would have bet on pits being reopened 20 years ago? The fact is that we don’t know what the future holds or just how valuable our abandoned railway assets might yet become. It’s time the blinkers came off.

Woodhead succumbs to tunnel vision

  • Author: Graeme Bickerdike
  • Source: The Rail Engineer
  • Published: February 2008

Northern Way concerned for Woodhead’s future

Uncertainty still hangs over the long-term future of three disused railway tunnels as work to install power cables through one of them gets underway.

The National Grid intends to move its existing trans-Pennine electricity supply from a Victorian single bore at Woodhead into a newer tunnel, opened as recently as 1954. However the scheme has attracted considerable opposition from politicians, transport groups and environmentalists. The tunnel is the only one which could accommodate European gauge freight trains. Demand for 9’6” container movements between east and west coast ports is expected to increase significantly over the next 20 years. Campaigners believe that this traffic will be driven onto unsuitable and already congested roads unless the line through the tunnel is reopened.

It is a view supported by The Northern Way, a collaborative of the North’s three regional development agencies. Transport Director John Jarvis told RailStaff that its study into gauge enhancement has identified that, by 2030, there could be demand for 60 trains per day across the Pennines. “Currently traffic is suppressed by capacity and gauge. Teesport is awaiting a decision on a deep sea facility and work is ongoing around the Port of Liverpool. With those two and Hull, you begin to develop a sizeable market.”

In 1981, four months before it closed, Woodhead tunnel welcomes an eastbound freight train.
Photo: Kevin Cooke (used under Creative Commons licence)

On 30th January, Secretary of State Ruth Kelly told the Transport Select Committee that her department had been in discussion with NG over the Woodhead issue. “They have informed me that were the business case to materialise…the fact that the National Grid has laid cables in those [Victorian] tunnels would not preclude their use in the future. Were the new tunnel to be needed, then I think those cables would have to be relaid.”

A spokesperson for the National Grid resisted calls for the cabling work to be put on hold. “We can’t plan our network on speculation. We’re happy to talk to people and we have discussed this with relevant parties over the past few months. But we have to maintain security of electricity supply – we don’t want lights out across the whole of Manchester. The deadline for replacing these cables is 2010. Our position doesn’t change unless there are definite plans to reopen the railway, backed by the government.”

NG says that the poor condition of the two Victorian tunnels is one of the reasons for its project. The south bore suffered a collapse in 1988 and, during the Nineties, there were two fires. A campaign group claims that the company has put a price-tag of £165million on their refurbishment. NG refutes this. The structures were recently the focus of a £4million reinforcement scheme. RailStaff understands that now only a 7 metre section of the south tunnel is a cause for concern. This has been stable for the past six months. The north tunnel remains in reasonable condition throughout.

The spokesperson agreed that the tunnels would be available for rail use when its equipment has been removed from them in 2011. However they will then be sealed and “At the moment we have no intention of maintaining them because we would have no reason to.”

The possibility of the tunnels effectively being abandoned is causing concern within The Northern Way. “There are obviously risks in an approach where nature takes its course and we want to understand what those risks are” states John Jarvis. “We’re arguing a precautionary approach. If they do relocate the cable into the 1954 tunnel, we’ve got to keep open the option of it being put back into the Victorian tunnels at some future date. There’s a very strong need for a new [trans-Pennine] line and we think that will be before 2030. Woodhead is a candidate route, that’s why we’re making the case for safeguarding it rather than letting it go.”

Northern Way concerned for Woodhead's future

  • Author: Graeme Bickerdike
  • Source: RailStaff newspaper
  • Published: February 08

Woodhead tunnel: a comedy of errors

Not surprisingly for one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin was so 18th Century. Contrary to his well-worn assertion, death and taxes are no longer life’s only certainties. We’ll write off breathing as a clerical oversight, but today we can surely bet our bottom dollars on spin, inflation, bureaucracy and the presence of Betty’s Hotpot on the Rovers Return menu.

When it comes to the railway, ignorance is prevalent too, especially amongst the media and our political overlords. Recent proclamations on the unfolding Woodhead tunnel saga serve up morcels of evidence.

Preparatory works have been underway in the tunnel for the past four months.
Photo: Four by Three

In case you’re unfamiliar with this story, the National Grid owns the three former railway tunnels – two Victorian single bores and a concrete product of 1954 – which formerly funnelled trains beneath the hills of the Peak District. Despite benefiting from an early electrification scheme, the Woodhead route fell victim to acute myopia in 1981. NG has power lines through one of the older tunnels, the fabric of which is in decline. A project got underway in January to fit replacement equipment in the 1954 bore after which the singles will be abandoned.

Trouble is, there’s mounting pressure for the railway to be reopened. With a new deep sea facility authorised at Teesport, 60 additional daily train loads of 9’6” containers could be heading to and from the Port of Liverpool by 2030. None of our existing trans-Pennine lines are cleared for W12 traffic so the A19, A1 and M62 can look forward to more ravenous HGVs chewing up their tarmac. Yet the Fifties’ visionaries who built Woodhead did so to European gauge – it offers a ready-made alternative.

The impending loss of the tunnel did not blip on the radar of transport campaigners, environmentalists and politicians until it was too late to do much about it. They have though made a lot of noise, causing uncomfortable shuffling within the Department for Transport. A petition was established on the Downing Street website whilst 77 MPs put their names to an Early Day Motion appealing for intervention to “prevent this strategic rail route being lost forever”. That’s significant support – only 76 signed up for action against Japan’s hunting of whales.

At first glance, this might look like a little local difficulty. That’s over-simplistic. Woodhead is a yardstick against which the Government’s strategic transport vision can be measured. Forecasts point to the North’s economy exerting ever-greater pressure on its road and rail network. The case for a fourth trans-Pennine line – conventional or high-speed – is becoming stronger. The tunnel could prove to be a hugely valuable asset in years to come so isn’t it worth securing for future railway use? Not according to the DfT. It’s detailed plans look no further than 2014.

More HGVs are destined for the M62 in the absence of a W12 gauge trans-Pennine rail route.

The arguments are dry and complex, relying on the uncertain science of growth modelling. Still, those of us who’ve kept across this story for the past four months can thank our lucky stars for the comical subplot played out by Ruth Kelly and ministerial sidekick Rosie Winterton who’ve shown an unceasing willingness to open their mouths without first getting their facts straight. It’s been great entertainment.

The Transport Secretary dropped her first clanger on 22nd January when she declared that the presence of power cables “would not preclude reopening the tunnel for freight traffic were the growth of freight traffic to warrant it.” Throngs of health ‘n’ safety nursemaids must have suffered palpitations at the prospect of trains, trackworkers and 400kV all sharing the structure. Officials issued a clarification.

In front of the Transport Select Committee on 30th January, Ms Kelly claimed that the Victorian single bores – in a state of disrepair and of insufficient gauge to accommodate modern containers – could be reopened if there was a business case. Only Northern Rock would invest in that. Full of surprises, she then attempted to redraw the map of our former network. “There is a disused line between London and Birmingham” she announced. “One of the options we might look at in the future is whether we ought to bring that back into use. That line has been safeguarded.” Railway historians scratched their heads to oblivion before admitting defeat. No such line could be found.

Next on stage was Rosie Winterton. During a carefully crafted contribution to a Commons adjournment debate, the Transport Minister reaffirmed her department’s position that “no Government or rail industry strategy or planning document has identified a need for additional rail capacity across the Pennines that would require the reopening of the Woodhead route.” And she was right. The Yorkshire & Humber Regional Transport Strategy, the ageing South Pennines Integrated Transport Strategy and the Northern Way’s Steering Group Growth Strategy – none of which were the direct products of Government or rail industry – identified a future need for another trans-Pennine line without prejudging the optimum route. Woodhead was referred to only as an option.

She went on to delight her audience by agreeing to “meet National Grid in the next few weeks to confirm that the Government wishes to explore further the option of continuing the inspection and maintenance regime for the Victorian tunnels once National Grid has vacated them.” This deliciously vague undertaking came just days after both NG and Network Rail had made it clear that they would not fund that work. Several MPs claimed that the battle had been won – an absurd victory for wishing thinking.

Last month Ms Winterton added a cherry to her cake. In response to a parliamentary question, she explained that “Should additional capacity be required across the Pennines at some future date, capacity enhancements on the three existing Victorian tunnels on the Woodhead route would be considered first. This is because they are more likely to offer value for money than the reopening of a fourth route.” Woodhead, of course, would be a fourth route – she’s minded to increase capacity on a line which doesn’t exist. And where’s this third Victorian tunnel hiding?

In 1979, an eastbound freight service enters Woodhead’s gloom.
Photo: John Ashton

There’s a temptation to despair here. Whilst Europe enjoys all the benefits of investment in new railway, we’re left to make-do-and-mend our 19th Century network. Britain’s transport infrastructure is being stretched beyond its elastic limit. Calls for high speed lines – offering huge financial rewards – have so far fallen on deaf ears. We have climate change obligations which can never be realised without driving a significant modal shift. Where will the extra capacity come from?

It’s fair to contend that saving the Woodhead tunnel would immediately change very little. Allowing it to die perpetuates the notion that our Government remains committed to looking no further than the end of its nose. That’s not an encouraging transport policy. Moreover, the scourge of foot-in-mouth inspires no confidence in our political leadership.

Woodhead tunnel: a comedy of errors

  • Author: Graeme Bickerdike
  • Source: The Rail Engineer
  • Published: May 2008

Clouds descend over Woodhead

Any parent who’s ever been badgered to bestow upon their offspring the latest electronic i-Gimmick will be familiar with the phrase “we’ll see” – a dressed-up version of the word ‘no’, buying a few days peace by apparently leaving the door ajar. It’s basically ‘spin’, spawned by the same culture which causes government to launch feasibility studies when their conclusions have already been reached.

The future of Woodhead Tunnel descended into this thick cloud before Christmas with the publication of two documents – Network Rail’s consultation version for its Yorkshire & Humber Route Utilisation Strategy, and a report by The Northern Way on the tunnel’s potential for future rail use. Neither locks the door and throws the key away but only a delusionist would describe it as wide open.

The 112-page draft RUS touches on Woodhead in six paragraphs dealing with long-term challenges – Control Period 6 (CP6) and beyond. This level of analysis adds some weight to the arguments of those who accuse both the industry and government of short-termism. Someone needs to be looking further and deeper into the future. With the North’s creaking transport infrastructure forecast to witness a huge rise in freight traffic over the next 20 years, it’s fair to assert that expansion of our trans-Pennine rail network should be receiving vigorous attention now, planning timescales being what they are. Environmental obligations reinforce this view.

A pair of Class 76s haul a westbound freight out of BR’s 1954 tunnel.
Photo: Paul Richman

In acknowledging the government’s aspiration of doubling traffic levels over the next three decades, the draft RUS recognises that trans-Pennine growth consistently out-performs the national average. That means that the main route via Diggle could have reached capacity before CP6, even with the sticking plaster of longer trains being introduced. Though, on the face of it, this offers hope for Woodhead’s revival, Network Rail’s sights seem to be set elsewhere – in fact, across the River Tame from the existing line.

East of the hills, the Diggle route’s formation formerly hosted four tracks – reinstating these would be relatively straight forward, although linespeeds could be compromised as the existing two tracks make best use of the available land. The Nicholson and Nelson single bore tunnels at Standedge would have to be renovated and brought back into use.

Things prove trickier to the west, through the Tame Valley. Here, the document points to the former Micklehurst loop as an unlikely way forward. Since closure in 1966, this ‘relief line’ into Stalybridge has lost many of its structures including a 16-arch viaduct, whilst two of its three tunnels are partly buried. Residential development now occupies sections of trackbed. Cue the feasibility study?

The eastern portal of Butterhouse Tunnel on the former Micklehurst loop. The other end is buried.
Headstone Viaduct on the old Matlock-Buxton main line now hosts the Monsal Way footpath.

The old Matlock-Buxton route through the Peak District – which Railtrack once hoped to reopen – is put forward positively as a constraint-busting alternative to the Hope Valley line, shouldering much of the burden from eastbound aggregates traffic.

Though Woodhead merits more detail – presumably to calm its vocal advocates – the tone is generally downbeat. “There are several significant practical limitations” it states, most notably the reversing requirement at Sheffield’s Woodburn Junction and the impact of Woodhead traffic on the network around Manchester. It would “do little to relieve the key capacity shortage between Leeds and Manchester. The main benefits…would arise from dealing with congestion on the cross-Pennine road network rather than solving rail network issues.”

For the ‘Save the Woodhead Tunnel’ campaign group, this latter point holds no water. Rail must shoulder “some of the burden which is currently placed on our motorways” it states in its consultation response. “The priority must be to identify a robust trans-Pennine freight corridor rather than the vague possibility of enhancements to the Diggle route where [TransPennine Express] conflicts will continue to cause headaches”. This assertion is based on a study by The Northern Way – a collaboration of the north’s three regional development agencies – which forecasts a massive potential rise in container flows by 2030, if unrestrained by capacity and structure gauge.

The Northern Way itself has not been silent on Woodhead with a report considering the tunnel’s possible re-use for rail. Published at the end of October, it neatly sidestepped any comment on the merits of reopening the railway, focussing partly on dispelling myths about the National Grid’s ongoing project to transfer electricity cables from Woodhead’s Victorian north tunnel into British Rail’s 1954 bore.

For the next couple of years, Woodhead’s Victorian tunnels will continue to carry National Grid power cables.
Photo: John Ashton

It does however note that if the North’s productivity growth is to be maximised, strategic ‘gaps’ need to be closed, including the absence of a trans-Pennine rail plan – a view driven by the same study on container traffic which has so animated the tunnel’s campaign group.

“The Manchester Hub is the most significant rail bottleneck in the North” according to the report, and the Northern Way is working with Network Rail, the DfT and Manchester City Region on enhancement options. These efforts are likely to increase pressures on trans-Pennine capacity in the longer term.

As far as Woodhead is concerned, The Northern Way sees it as just one of many alternatives. It too questions its likely impact on the existing Hadfield-Manchester corridor as well as the network to the east of Penistone. Before preferred options can be identified, there needs to be “greater clarity about the objectives…and how well each [option] goes to meeting those objectives”.

So who is defining them? Where do the priorities lie – a dedicated freight route, high speed rail, more regional passenger services, all of the above? No-one seems willing to break the silence. The nature of the challenge will demand a suite of solutions, not a single one – rebuilding Woodhead would, in itself, cause more problems than it solves. But it needs to remain on the table.

The lights are on but no trains are coming. As the National Grid moves in, hopes for Woodhead’s rail revival are dampened.
Photo: Four by Three

The route’s future viability depends in part on the potential for relocating the National Grid’s cables back into the Victorian tunnels – currently in poor condition – if the railway needs to reclaim the BR bore. As things stand, NG’s intention is to seal and abandon them after they’ve moved out. So far, campaigners have drawn only woolly Ministerial mutterings on a maintenance regime beyond 2011. A major collapse thereafter could, in cost and engineering terms, colour any judgment on reopening the route.

In conclusion, The Northern Way serves up more unpalatable food for thought. Any possible re-use of the ’54 tunnel “would have to meet modern standards. That it once carried rail traffic is not material.” Don’t underestimate the implications of this. It claims that an evacuation walkway would have to be provided as well as a barrier between the tracks as protection against a derailment. A modern electrification system would necessitate greater clearances than those currently available. In fact the tunnel “would be preferably built as a twin bore”!

Perhaps it would be easier just to say ‘no’ now.