The Woodhead tunnels are located on the former Manchester to Sheffield railway line, known as the Woodhead route, which was closed to passenger traffic in 1970 and to freight in 1981. The original single bore Victorian tunnels were replaced in 1953 by a new tunnel when the line was electrified. In the 1960s, National Grid bought the Victorian tunnels and installed high voltage cables to transmit electricity. When the line finally closed in 1981, National Grid purchased the modern tunnel with a view of installing new cables in the modern tunnel and abandoning the Victorian tunnels when cables needed renewing some 30 years later.
In 2007, National Grid began work on this project. This is now close to completion and a contract will shortly be let for the permanent sealing of the Victorian tunnels.
In 2007 to 2008 ministers received many representations urging them to protect the Woodhead tunnels so that the Woodhead route could be re-opened to rail traffic in the future. There was no case then for taking any steps to halt National Grid’s plan but Ministers did agree to consider, at the appropriate time, whether or not to instigate an inspection and maintenance regime on the Victorian tunnels. This would leave open the option to move cables back into the Victorian tunnels and re-use the modern tunnel for rail traffic in the future. With completion of the work imminent, that decision needs to be made now before the tunnels are sealed.
Since 2008, much has happened which has helped inform my decision. The government has committed funding to the Northern Hub programme. This includes schemes to increase capacity and line speeds on the Hope Valley route. A study recently carried out by Network Rail indicates that demand for travel between Manchester and Sheffield could more than double in thirty years. With the planned investment, the Hope Valley line and its trains could accommodate this growth. If freight grows, schemes have also been identified which could enable more freight trains to run.
The Victorian tunnels are not in a good condition and would require on-going funding to keep them in a condition necessary for possible re-use. These costs would fall on the taxpayer or mean less money for other vital rail investment in the north.
If an additional rail route was ever required between Manchester and Sheffield, it is unlikely that even the modern tunnels would be suitable for re-use and, given advances in tunnelling technology even since 2008 as witnessed by Crossrail, the best solution is most likely to be the construction of a new tunnel.
I am therefore announcing that the government will not be purchasing the tunnels from National Grid in order to instigate an inspection and maintenance regime and I shall be informing National Grid accordingly.
Before reaching my decision, I wrote to over 40 MPs representing constituencies both east and west of the Pennines, and received three replies. I also wrote to other statutory bodies with an interest in the tunnels and Network Rail. In total just seven replies were received by early September but I have given them full consideration.
My decision does not rule the possibility of re-opening the Woodhead route to rail traffic in the future, should a new line ever be required.
Also large parts of the closed route are protected from development and will continue to be available for the enjoyment of cyclists, horse riders and hikers passing through the magnificent landscape of the South Pennines.