The Woodhead Route by Anthony Dawson
During a summer’s walk along the idyllic Longdendale today, the loudest noise you will probably hear will be bird song, the barking of a pet dog or happy children. Thirty-six years ago, it would have been very different: the foot path you are walking or cycling along was once part of the first railway line linking Manchester and Sheffield. The famous Woodhead Route. Silent for nearly four decades, the Woodhead Tunnels resounded to the rattle and hum of Class 76 and 77 electric locomotives, speeding passengers and goods on their way between the two cities – and all stops in between.
The Woodhead Route was conceived in 1830 by industrialists in Lancashire and Yorkshire, who engaged the famous George Stephenson to plan the route of their new railway. Despite the failure of the first scheme (1830-1831), a second scheme, with the backing of the influential Lord Wharncliffe and engineered by Stephenson’s rival Charles Blacker Vignoles was ultimately successful. Three miles long, and driven some 600 feet below ground level, the iconic Woodhead Tunnel took eight years to blast through solid millstone grit and shale – not helped by Vignoles being sacked as chief engineer and being replaced by Joseph Locke, a one time pupil of Stephenson. Finally opening in 1845 it was hailed as a wonder of the age. No sooner was the first one finished, when the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway ordered the construction of a second, parallel, bore to ease the bottle-neck caused by the original single-track tunnel. Working conditions for the navvies were deplorable; social reformer Edwin Chadwick estimating more men died or were wounded working on the tunnels than during one of Wellington’s battles in the Peninsular War! To enable electric trains to run through to Sheffield, British Railways blasted a third tunnel through the Pennine ridge. Silent now, the Woodhead Tunnels were once the scene of incredible noise and bustle as steam trains, and later electric locomotives on ‘merry go round’ coal trains slogged their way up Longdendale and through the tunnel.
It is not just the rugged, dramatic scenery of the Woodhead Route which continues to attract enthusiasts: it was worked by unique 1.5KV DC electric locomotives, the EM1 and EM2. Designed by no lesser personage than Sir Nigel Gresley of the LNER, the prototype EMI ‘Tommy’ was built in 1941. Loaned to the Dutch Railways 1947-1952, where she gained her name, ‘Tommy’ was followed by a further 57 examples, only one of which made it to preservation as part of the National Collection at York. To handle express passenger services, seven Co-Co EM2 locomotives were built, each one named after a figure in Greek mythology: Electra, Ariadne, Aurora, Diana, Juno, Minerva, Pandora. Names which will once again adorn the railway network; Direct Rail Services naming their new Class 88 bi-mode electro-diesel locomotives after three of the Woodhead Goddesses, Ariadne, Minerva and Pandora. Of these three, only EM2 27001 Ariadne was preserved after service in the Netherlands and currently resides at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester. Wouldn’t it be nice for the two Ariadne’s to meet? I wonder what they’d talk about?
Anthony Dawson's new book The Woodhead Route is available for purchase now.