A lot has been written over the years about the history of the Woodhead line and its electrification. This is my own modest account.
Apart from the Woodhead Tunnels themselves, perhaps the most famous thing about the Manchester to Sheffield line was that it was electrified using a Direct Current (DC) system that, almost as soon as it opened, was destined to be regarded as obsolete and isolated. There is even an argument that the expensive modernisation of the line helped to seal its fate.
The Woodhead line was opened in 1845 by a company that soon became the Manchester, Sheffield, and Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR). The line linked Manchester and Sheffield across the Pennines through a three-mile-long tunnel at Woodhead. Initially there was just one single-track tunnel, but traffic, especially coal and heavy freight, grew quickly and a second single-track tunnel was opened in 1853. Narrow and claustrophobic both bores became notorious “hell holes” for steam locomotive drivers.
The MS&LR concentrated its activities in the north of England at first but in 1899, after constructing a link from Annesley via a new station (Victoria) at Nottingham to London Marylebone (the last main line to be built in the Victorian age), it became the Great Central Railway (GCR). When the government grouped the railways into the “Big 4″ in 1923, the GCR was absorbed into the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER).
Even before 1923 the GCR had looked at electrification of the Manchester to Sheffield line as a solution to its operating difficulties. It wasn’t long before the LNER began to give the idea serious consideration too.
Let down partly perhaps by its association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the 2017 film “The Current War” was a flop at the cinema. This is a bit of a shame really because it had a promising cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch and it told quite an interesting story.
The film is set in the late 19th century and depicts the battle over which electric power delivery system would be used in the United States. The “war” was fought between Thomas Edison’s direct current (DC) and George Westinghouse’s alternating current (AC). In the end “AC” won, of course, and today it remains the worldwide standard for mains electricity.
When it came to the electrification of the British railway system, there was a similar “current war” that lasted well into the 20th century. Manchester’s London Road Station (later renamed Piccadilly) was once right at the forefront of the battle.
AC was probably always the obvious choice for main line overhead electrification. Not only did it have a better ability to travel over long distances, but it also required fewer feeder stations and was cheaper to generate too. The lighter contact wire also meant that the structures needed to support it did not need to be quite as robust.
AC was initially held back, however, by the lack of equipment small and light enough to be mounted on trains to rectify the current to drive the DC traction motors. Suitable AC traction motors themselves only began to appear from the 1980s.
Overhead electrification using DC stole a march. Back in 1921 a committee decided that the future standard for the British network would be 1,500V DC; a system that was also being used increasingly abroad, notably in the Netherlands and France.
In the event, progress on wiring the network was extremely slow due to the poor economic climate; only one 1,500V DC project, the 1931 scheme linking Manchester London Road with Altrincham in Cheshire less than 9 miles away, was completed in the first 15 years.
As the economic depression worsened in the 1930s, the government created the Railway Finance Corporation to make low interest loans for schemes designed to relieve unemployment and improve transport links. The “Big 4” railways were asked for suitable projects and in 1936 the LNER put forward the Manchester to Sheffield electrification as one of them.
Although it was estimated that the transit times of passenger trains between Manchester and Sheffield could be reduced, The LNER proposal was based more on the operational benefits for freight traffic than on higher speeds.
Notwithstanding the terrible conditions for the crews, the Woodhead tunnels were a major bottleneck as they limited the number of train paths available. Only one train could be in each tunnel at one time and passage took around 6 minutes. Electrification would reduce the tunnel transit time and thus increase line capacity.
The freight-only line from Wath near Barnsley to Penistone was included in the proposal because much of the coal traffic across the Pennines originated from it. It was thought that electrification would increase the speed of heavy trains up the arduous Worsborough Bank from the limited 5-10 mph possible with steam.
The cost savings were also obvious. 88 new electric locomotives would replace 181 steam locomotives and, as they would use a regenerative braking system that meant trains descending on the heavily graded line would put power back into the overhead wires, the power costs would be lower too.
In 1936 the initial cost estimate for the Manchester, Sheffield and Wath (MSW) scheme of around 75 route miles was £2.5 million.
Work soon commenced and contracts were placed for the overhead line equipment and locomotives. The original scheme included extensions around the “Fairfield Loop” to Manchester Central and to Trafford Park. Allowing for all the sidings, triple, and quadruple track, it was estimated that around 400 track miles would need to be wired.
By early 1939 a lot of the masts to carry the wires had been erected over the line and in some locations they ran for several miles. Special equipment was also being designed to carry the wires through the (original) Woodhead tunnels. It was then thought that the scheme would be completed by 1941 at a cost of around £4m.
At the outbreak of war in September 1939, it was estimated that around 50% of the civil engineering work necessary for the project had been completed. Nevertheless, shortages of materials and manpower soon meant that work was suspended for the duration of the conflict.
When the project was finally given the go-ahead to restart in 1947, it was first envisaged it would take around 4 more years to complete. This was soon frustrated by the realisation that a new 3-mile tunnel would be needed at Woodhead, and a shorter one at Thurgoland.
In 1946 the drastic step of closing the oldest Woodhead tunnel for 9 months for inspection and repair had been taken. Big structural problems had been uncovered during this work and the LNER’s civil engineers had eventually made the case for a new tunnel instead. The board approved a budget of £2.5m for it. The cost for the whole electrification had now risen to £7.5m.
The railways were nationalised in 1948, but British Railways (BR) opted to continue work on the Woodhead project. In early 1949 it was estimated that work on the tunnel would take about three years to complete. As a result of the new tunnel being on a different alignment, new stations at each exit, Woodhead and Dunford Bridge, would be needed too.
A large labour camp complete with a bar and cinema housing up to 1000 workers was established at Dunford Bridge next to the eastern portal. Yet, even with much better working conditions, labour turnover in the improving post-war economy was high. It was for this reason, and because of several geological problems encountered, that progress was much slower than expected. Eventually the date for opening the tunnel slipped to 1954.
Traction for Freight
Meanwhile, some progress had been made with designing the electric locomotives to operate on the line. A prototype designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, the LNER’s chief mechanical engineer, creator of the world-famous Flying Scotsman and record-breaking Mallard steam locomotives, had been completed at Doncaster 1941. Known as EM1 (Electric Mixed Traffic 1), it had a Bo+Bo wheel arrangement, two diamond shaped pantographs and, capable of a speed of just 65mph, was designed mainly for hauling freight.
It had been stored for most of the war but in the years following the conflict, pending completion of the Manchester-Sheffield project, it was sent to the Netherlands and set to work on the Dutch state railway. The Dutch locomotive drivers christened it “Tommy” and when it was finally returned to the UK a few years later, British Railways made the nickname official.
In the end, a further 57 locomotives of the same basic design were ordered in 1949 and built over the next few years at BR’s Gorton works alongside the Woodhead line. One of them, No. 26020, was proudly displayed at the Festival of Britain exhibition in 1951. The design proved very robust, and the locomotives were among the most reliable in Britain.
They were re-categorised as Class 76 in the late 1960s, and 30 of them were fitted with jumper cables to enable multiple working for heavier trains. For 30 years they were pretty much the “face” of the Woodhead line.
Traction for Passengers
Another type of locomotive was also designed specifically for the new passenger services on the Woodhead line. The EM2 (later Class 77), although broadly similar to the EM1, was slightly longer and more powerful. It had a Co-Co wheel arrangement, a power output of 2,490hp and a 90mph top speed (a speed that could not actually be reached anywhere on the MSW system).
27 of the type were originally planned, but only 7 were built between 1952 and 1953 at Gorton. They were given names from Greek mythology starting, appropriately, with “Electra”. The EM2s* were fitted with train heating, although in the days before carriages had electric train heating themselves, this amounted to an electric kettle type apparatus that generated steam to feed into the train.
Finally, 8 Class 506 electric multiple units were constructed for the Manchester suburban services to Glossop and Hadfield.
(*14 EM1s we also fitted with train heating and given similar Greek names)
In the early 1950s, away from the tunnelling at Woodhead, progress continued. Electrical substations were completed, bridges were demolished and then rebuilt, or track was lowered to give clearance for the wires. Special “Cable trains” containing a drum of cable on a special wagon were used to “pay out” overhead wire and attach it to the gantries. At the depots, drivers began their training on the new electric locomotives.
Slowly though, the costs of the whole project began to creep up. In response to this several economy measures were implemented. The plan to wire to Trafford Park and Manchester Central was dropped, the number of locomotives on order was reduced to 65, plans for their depots were scaled back and the implementation of colour light signalling was cancelled.
This last decision was reversed after problems with poor sighting of the semaphore signals on the Wath branch, and this further delayed the opening of the line to Sheffield.
The “new railway” was opened in stages. The first part of electric line from Wath to Dunford Bridge was inaugurated in February 1952. Then, after a gap of more than two years, trains began running through the new Woodhead tunnel at the end of May 1954.
From early June 1954 electric trains were in operation between Manchester and Penistone and electric multiple units serving Glossop and Hadfield started at the same time.
The first Manchester to Sheffield train ran on 20th September 1954. The final* part of the route out to the exchange sidings at Rotherwood beyond Victoria station was opened in January 1955.
The project was finally complete. The total cost had ended up at £10.8 million.
*The route to Tinsley was wired when the yard there opened in 1965.
Promoted as “Britain’s first all-electric main line”, the modernised railway was an immediate success. Operations were greatly simplified and working conditions for footplate crews were improved beyond all measure. There were big improvements in journey times for freight too, with coal trains having their trans-Pennine transit times almost cut in half.
For passenger trains, however, the improvements were less dramatic. A lot of speed restrictions remained and whilst the Manchester to Sheffield time came down by ten minutes to just less than an hour, through trains, from London or to Liverpool, for example, now needed extra time to change locomotives at Guide Bridge or Sheffield.
Furthermore, if the expensive modernisation had been partly intended to create extra paths, it now seemed they were not quite needed. The initial schedule had just 16 passenger trains and 60 freight trains a day; the line was already 25% below capacity.
Nevertheless in 1954, it seemed that the line did have a bright future and there would soon be extensions of the wires, west to Liverpool, east to Lincoln or possibly even south towards London, that would bring it more traffic.
Then, in a cruel twist of fate almost within a year of the opening, BR decided that, following new technical developments with rectification equipment, all future electrification in the UK would use the 25 kV AC system.
So the Manchester to Sheffield DC electrification had quickly gone from “swan” to “ugly duckling”. It was also destined to become isolated, because in contrast to developments in France and elsewhere, where both AC & DC systems were (and still are) retained, BR seemed to go out of its way to avoid any natural extensions to the DC system.
By coincidence, the first line to be opened on the new AC system also involved Manchester London Road. Electric services began from there (now renamed Piccadilly) to Crewe (the first stage of wiring all the way to London Euston) in 1960.
When the infamous Beeching Report was published in 1963 it targeted duplicate routes all around the country. Between Manchester and Sheffield, it favoured the Woodhead line with its brand-new tunnel over the Hope Valley with its two Victorian bores.
In the end however, the higher number of intermediate population centres and better access to Sheffield’s more central Midland station meant that that the Hope Valley line was saved, and focus turned instead to the future of Woodhead’s passenger services.
Ironically, the only part of the Woodhead route that the Beeching Report did target is the only part that remains today: the local service between Manchester, Glossop, and Hadfield. The 1963 plan envisaged that the main route between Manchester and Sheffield would remain open along with larger stations such as Guide Bridge and Dinting whilst smaller places like Gorton along the way would lose their service. The closure was finally cancelled in 1966.
The decline of Sheffield Victoria started in the early 1960s when the station lost half of its passenger services after trains from the east were diverted around a new curve at Nunnery into Sheffield Midland. More services were lost after the GCR line to London Marylebone was closed and by 1966 just about the only trains left were the hourly Manchester services and the daily boat train from Manchester to Harwich.
The problem for the Woodhead line was that its traffic alone could not really sustain Victoria station, but neither could its trains from Manchester access Midland station without reversing to use the Nunnery curve.
BR quickly made the decision to concentrate all Manchester-Sheffield passenger services on the Hope Valley route and in 1969 announced the withdrawal of the Woodhead trains. Sheffield Victoria finally closed on 5th January 1970. The 7 EM2 (class 77) locomotives had already been withdrawn back in 1968 and exported to Holland.
At the beginning of the 1970s, Woodhead’s future as a freight route still looked secure. The heavy coal trains that originated in South Yorkshire, headed along the Wath branch and across the Pennines towards the Fiddler’s Ferry Power Station near Warrington were still a major source of traffic for the route.
Yet as the decade went on declining demand for coal and mine closures saw this traffic slowly disappear. By 1979 there were only 4 rail-connected collieries left in the Wath area and Woodhead was only using 39 of its available 120 paths each day.
More widely, only 50% of capacity of all the four trans-Pennine routes (Woodhead, Hope Valley, Calder Valley and Standedge) was being used, so there was plenty of scope to divert the traffic elsewhere. In 1976 BR established a committee to consider the line’s future.
Although declining traffic was always the main issue, in the background was also the fact that modernisation of the line was problematic. The 1500V DC system had been superseded and its uniqueness made the sourcing of new locomotives difficult. Conversion to AC was considered too expensive and, as the new concrete-lined Woodhead tunnel had been built for electric trains, use of diesel was not a realistic option either.
The closure was announced on October 7th, 1980, and the last trains ran over the route on July 17th / 18th 1981. To prevent theft, the electric wires were quickly removed but it was not until 1983 that removal of the track and the electrification masts began. The last (diesel-hauled) track-lifting train passed through the Woodhead tunnel in 1986. The tunnel had had an operational life of just 27 years.
All the remaining Class 76 locomotives were withdrawn soon after the closure. One of them, the same one that had featured in the Festival of Britain back in 1951, was preserved at the National Railway Museum and the cab section of another was kept at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. The rest were scrapped.
The Class 77s had given sterling service in the Netherlands until 1983 and one had been preserved there. Two have since returned to the UK and one is, still in its Dutch livery, now at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry. The other, restored to its 1950s BR look, is at the Midland Railway Centre.
In the late 1960s the National Grid had fed their high voltage power cables through the 1853 tunnel as an alternative to taking them over Woodhead hill suspended from pylons. By the early 2000s the solution was becoming life expired and so a plan to feed them through the 1954 tunnel was hatched. After much protest from supporters of reinstating the railway, the work was completed in 2012.
What Remains ?
The Class 506 electric multiple units continued to serve Glossop and Hadfield until 1984 when they were withdrawn. The line was then converted to 25kV AC in 1984, although mostly utilising the original gantries. Today it continues to prosper.
For two years the line from Penistone to Sheffield was kept open for diesel services running from Huddersfield and reversing into Sheffield via the Nunnery curve. Since 1983 then they have run via Barnsley using the Barnsley Junction to West Silkstone Junction section of the old Wath route.
The line from Deepcar into Sheffield and beyond was singled and retained to serve the steelworks on the short Stocksbridge branch.
The old track bed between Hadfield and Penistone, between Barnsley Junction and Deepcar, and between Silkstone and Wath has been converted for use as the Trans Pennine Trail
The Woodhead closure remains controversial, and despite all the obstacles there are still calls to reopen it to offer a faster transit between Manchester and Sheffield.
It does not look likely any time soon though.
Sources / Further Reading
The following books are in my personal collection –
- Cooper, B K (1979) Electric trains in Britain Ian Allan ISBN 0711009724
Bonavia, Michael R (1982) A History of the LNER 1934-39, Georg Allen & Unwin ISBN 0043850944
Allen, G Freeman (1981) The Eastern since 1948. Ian Allan ISBN 0711011060
Website Links (Valid in 2021)
- The Woodhead Route – Railway Archive has general information.
- How Electric Trains came to Glossop – Glossop Heritage Society has general information.
- EM2 Society has details of the Class 77 locomotives.
- Forgottenrelics.co.uk has an excellent account of the building of the first tunnels.
- Huddersfield.exposed has the BR pamphlet on the 1954 tunnel.
- eastbank.org.uk has some fabulous photographs of the line before and after 1981.
YouTube Links (Valid in 2021)
- Don Coffey’s cab view to Hadfield – Present day cab view from Manchester Piccadilly
- Railmart cab view to Deepcar – Includes present day cab view from Sheffield to Deepcar