O, brave new world

Woodhead station and tunnel, Derbyshire (1975)

Woodhead station and tunnel, Derbyshire (1975)

I was born in 1947, and so grew up in a particularly special transition period in British history.

As part of the post-war recovery, many aspects of 1930s life simply continued in the late forties and fifties:  factories and coal-mines churned out their products;  people shopped at Woolworth’s and Burton’s and collected their “divvy” at the Co-op;  cinemas had one screen each and a queue outside twice nightly if not more;  British cars were built with British badges;  British Railways ran trains just about everywhere and served curly sandwiches in buffets with crockery and silverware;  radio announcers talked in clipped accents.

And yet, on the horizon a brave new world could be glimpsed – supermarkets, motorways, television, high-rise buildings, nuclear energy.  It was a moment when so much was about to disappear, and so much that was new was understood dimly and with optimism.

It came back to life for me when I was browsing through the British Pathé website and came across a clip of the opening of the electric railway from Sheffield to Manchester through the new Woodhead Tunnel:  http://www.britishpathe.com/record.php?id=62457.  This was the brief moment when post-war British railways seemed to have a future that was directly connected with their Victorian origins.

The original Woodhead tunnels were a saga of Victorian engineering, notorious for appalling working conditions and the contractors’ bloody-minded exploitation of their workers, vividly described in Terry Coleman’s 1968 book, The Railway Navvies, now long out of print.  54 workers lost their lives, and many more were injured.

The gradients were a nightmare:  up to five steam locomotives were needed to shift a single coal train up the 1 in 201 inclines.  Electrifying the route required a completely new Woodhead tunnel, which opened in 1953.  This project had started before the Second World War, using 1,500-volt DC traction, which was incompatible with the post-war standard 25KV AC system.

Once the new trains were running, the two original single-track tunnels, Woodhead 1 and 2, were handed over to the Central Electricity Generating Board to carry a 400KV power-cable underground, rather than disfigure the landscape with pylons.

The Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification, as it was called, closed in 1981.  The 1953 tunnel, Woodhead 3, figured in schemes, most of them barely practical, to carry the M67 motorway across Woodhead:  see http://pathetic.org.uk/unbuilt/m67_manchester_to_sheffield_motorway/maps/Woodhead%20East.shtml.

In recent years National Grid PLC has expressed increasing concern about the deteriorating condition of Woodhead 1 and 2, and lobbied to be allowed to move the power line into Woodhead 3.  This precludes the restoration of the rail route for the foreseeable future, and has attracted considerable opposition:  http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/save_the_woodhead_tunnel.

No doubt, the arguments will continue to roll back and forth about whether a tunnel, constructed to carry electric trains “under the hill”, as the railwaymen called it, should carry cars or a power line – or trains.

The brave new world of 1953 was remarkably quickly shunted into a siding and scrapped.

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