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An accident in the dark – Woodhead tunnel 1922

In today’s post, project volunteer and regular blog contributor Philip James looks at the (infamous?) Woodhead route, including the tunnels. He draws on an accident case he found when transcribing for our forthcoming data release, as well as providing us with a potted history of the Woodhead route. Our thanks as ever to Philip for his hard work on the project!


Recent work for the Railway Work, Life & Death project has focused on records of compensation payments and records kept by the railway trade unions. They may to some extent replicate Board of Trade records, although with less detail and a different perspective. Perhaps a line of research is needed to compare cases. A recent anniversary has prompted examination of an interesting case from an earlier phase – about to be made publicly available, covering the state accident reports for the inter-war period.

Picture 1 : Courtesy of Wikimedia. A diagram showing the route of the Woodhead Electric Railway, i.e. the lines electrified under the Manchester, Sheffield, Wath electrification scheme. The tunnel is a vital part of the east to west link.

An Interesting Case

Last year saw the 40th anniversary of the closure of the Woodhead route between Manchester and Sheffield; this prompted me to see if any earlier accident reports related to this route. I discovered that an accident in 1922 had fallen to me to record; I have reproduced the report below.


I HAVE the honour to report, for the information of the Minister of Transport, in accordance with the Order of the 7th July [1922], the result of my Inquiry into the circumstances attending the accident which occurred on the 19th June [1922] to L. Hirst, in the Woodhead Tunnel on the Great Central Railway.

Hirst, who is only 21 years of age, had been employed as an underman for 18 months prior to the accident. On the day in question he was detailed to act as lookout man for the electrical gang working in the down bore of the Woodhead Tunnel. Hirst was stationed at No. 22 manhole, about 775 yards from the Dunford Bridge end of the tunnel. Foreman T. Kirk was at manhole No. 21, 200 yards further on, acting as intermediate look-out for the actual gang. Hirst has no recollection of the accident, but Kirk states that he heard and transmitted Hirst’s warning of an express which entered the tunnel at 1.47 p.m., and of a coal train which entered at 1.55 p.m. Kirk saw a goods train enter the tunnel at 2.17 p.m.; but received no warning from Hirst, so as soon as the train had passed he proceeded to manhole No. 22, where he found Hirst in the recess in a sitting position with his back against the partition boards, and with serious injuries to his right hip and the right side of his head. His flare and hand lamp, both undamaged and alight, were with him in the recess.

Manhole No. 22 is 9 feet 6 inches wide, and has a single partition which is 7 feet 8 inches from the nearest rail of the down track. The wall of the tunnel is 5 feet 4 inches from the rail at this point. There is thus ample clearance, and the accident can only be attributed to Hirst’s unaccountable failure to stand properly clear.

Hirst was stated by his ganger to have been passed as a duly qualified look-out. Hirst, however, stated that he had not been so passed, though he had previously frequently performed the duties of look-out man. The ganger has only been on this length 5 months, and the Inspector is also new to the section. Records as to which men were properly qualified to act as look-out men do not appear to have been previously properly kept on this section, but I was informed that the matter has now been put right.

Hirst had been on duty 7 hours when the accident occurred.

I have, etc.,


Direction of Running Lines

Picture 2: Courtesy of Wikipedia. A diagram of the lines around Sheffield. The connections between the Great Central and other lines are suitable for freight but do not allow easy interchange for passengers in the city centre. This sort of problem occurs elsewhere and is inevitable given the uncoordinated development of the railways by separate companies with little importance initially being given to passengers.

The accident occurred before the construction of the new Woodhead tunnel in the 1950s, so it would have been in one of the single bore tunnels then in use. The location is described as the down bore. In general, railway directions are UP to London and DOWN to the country, although when travelling between towns outside London it may be less obvious which direction is which. Also a longer route may comprise sections of line built by different companies at different times and the direction in which the mileposts run may change as will the points from which they are measured.

The Great Central Railway is reputed to have measured distances from Manchester, implying the DOWN tunnel is the eastbound one at Woodhead. The accident location was near the east end of the three-mile long tunnel and the report implies that trains were entering the single bore from that end – suggesting that it is the westbound one. The description of manhole spacing and numbering suggests that the numbering was from west to east. (A manhole in this context was a refuge at the side of the tunnel for men working in it while trains were running.)

To resolve this, I have referred to my reprint of the July 1922 Bradshaw’s Railway Guide. This shows eastbound, Woodhead to Dunford Bridge, as the UP direction. It also shows London Marylebone to Manchester as the DOWN direction. It would therefore appear that the way the direction of trains and lines was described was consistent with general practise even if the numbering of mileposts and tunnel manholes was not.

Another document supports this view, available here as Appendix 1. On page 4, a chart shows gradients along the line with their summit in Woodhead Tunnel and the eastbound at Woodhead being the UP direction.

Picture 3: Courtesy of the National Railway Museum. The sole surviving EM1 locomotive, later classified as class 76 under the Total Operations Processing System (TOPS) classification scheme. A Bo-Bo electric locomotive, this type was used for passenger and freight work on the Woodhead route from electrification until its closure and some were tested on the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line prior to completion of the Woodhead electrification and the voltage change on the Shenfield line.

The Accident

The accident itself illustrates the dangers of working on the track in confined spaces while trains are running. It is also of a time when such practices were accepted; I have recorded many other accidents for the project, some of them in tunnels featuring working on tracks while trains are running. References to the actions of the injured man are also typical of such reports.

The report does not describe in detail the equipment or methods used by look-out men to warn other track workers but does mention a flare and hand lamp. It also implies a record of passing trains was being kept but without saying how this was done. It is probable that the signalman at Dunford Bridge would have logged passing trains and that could have been used to furnish the details in the inspector’s report.

It is fortunate that the gang working in the tunnel were protected by both a look-out and an intermediate look-out as an accident to just one could have compromised their safety. The intermediate look-out, Kirk, would have had to walk 200 yards to the manhole where Hirst was located to investigate. It is not clear how the look-out duties would have been carried out while he was doing this or if the work of the gang was continuing in his absence.

From the information given, trains could be entering the tunnel separated by as little as eight minutes although longer spacings would be possible. Presumably the men would have had some information about what trains might be passing and when. Kirk would have needed to know this to check up on Hirst and all men would have needed such information when walking to and from the work site.

The workmen were described as an electrical gang but this long predates the electrification of the Woodhead route so perhaps they were working on tunnel lighting, signalling or some other electrical infrastructure related to railway operation.

The Woodhead Route

The route and tunnel were one of four crossing the Pennines, in this case from Manchester to Sheffield. Built by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, later renamed the Great Central Railway, the first single bore opened in 1845 and the second bore in 1853. The double track tunnel replacing them was completed in 1953. More details can be found online.

The Wikipedia entry for the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electric railway summarises the route after modernisation. The railway was predominantly a freight line and the stations at Woodhead and Dunford Bridge were particularly quiet. The July 1922 copy of Bradshaw’s Railway Guide indicates that there were four or five through trains per day stopping at each station, though Woodhead had no service on Sundays. This should not come as too much of a surprise as in their early days, most railways were built to carry freight with passengers a secondary consideration. The stations mentioned were in open countryside and remained so until their closure, although this did not prevent them being rebuilt in 1953 when the new tunnel was opened.

The Railway Press

The Woodhead route is remembered as Britain’s first mainline electrified railway and the electrification project included a new tunnel built to replacing the decaying Victorian era ones. It also passed through a scenic area, the northern end of the Peak District, and its passing is thus mourned by many enthusiasts.

From time to time it has featured in reopening proposals and articles have appeared in railway magazines. I have read two recent items and one from a few years before.

RAIL 935 (14-27 July 2021). ‘Woodhead 40 years on: time to let go.’ By Pip Dunn.

Railway Magazine (July 2021). ‘Woodhead Remembered.’ By Graeme Pickering.

RAIL 844 (January 2018).Is reopening Woodhead viable?’ By Philip Haigh.

In summary, I think all three writers concluded reluctantly that it is unlikely to reopen. They identify obstacles such as the decaying and collapsing of the Victorian-era tunnels, now sealed, the reuse of the 1953 tunnel for National Grid electricity cables, the lack of population centres along the route limiting its utility as a passenger railway and the relatively low speed, 60 mph, possibly due to track curvature and gradients.

Added to these, the former route would need to be rebuilt through what is now a National Park and a way found to connect to an existing station in Sheffield. It would have to justify its place in the context of there being other rail routes across the Pennines, declining freight traffic and future requirements in the form of a high-speed line might be better served by a new alignment, 125 mph running and a different eastern destination, Leeds rather than Sheffield.

They also noted that the electrification used, 1,500 volts DC, was rapidly overtaken by 25,000 volts AC as the standard for future schemes; the DC voltage has been used with success elsewhere in the world. It was also used on the post-war electrification from Liverpool Street to Shenfield before this route was converted to AC supply. For a period, 6,250 volts AC was also used on some lines with limited clearance for overhead cables and some trains could switch between the two AC voltages while on the move.


The closure of an electrified line was inevitably controversial although not unprecedented: the line to Crystal Palace High Level closed in 1954 despite being electrified and in a largely built-up area. For the Woodhead route, the lack of compatible electrification to other lines meant that a change of haulage was needed for trains going further afield adding to costs and delays.

Picture 6: Courtesy of Flickr. A class 506 unit at Guide Bridge in October 1981. Note the diamond pantograph and similar body profile to the class 306. The two classes were built on the same production line, ninety-two becoming class 306 and eight becoming class 506. Class 506 units didn’t routinely operate through Woodhead Tunnel although a trial was conducted with this in mind.

The class 506 electric multiple units used on the line retained their DC propulsion until the end. When withdrawn, they were replaced by class 303 units from Glasgow and the surviving sections of line at the Manchester end converted to AC supply. Like the class 506 units, the class 306 units on the Liverpool Street to Shenfield line were an LNER design but they were subsequently converted to run from the two AC voltages as were the class 307 units that were visually different to either and were not used on the Woodhead route.

One unit, 306 017, survives in the national collection and is visually similar to the class 506 units although these and the 306 originally would have had a diamond pantograph above one driver’s cab and the guard’s compartment behind it.

The Woodhead line also used class 76 and class 77 electric locomotives. The latter used on passenger services became redundant in 1968 and were sold to the Dutch National Railway. Three examples survive, two of them in UK collections. One example of the numerically greater class 76 design survives in preservation at the National Railway Museum.


Regular passenger services through the Woodhead Tunnel ceased in 1970 and closure came in 1981 but with at least one track remaining in place until the mid-1980s.

Picture 7 courtesy of Flickr is the western (Woodhead) end of the tunnel with the new tunnel alongside the now bricked single bores. This is the end more frequently photographed. Note the short platform face. The platforms were staggered and the picture was taken from the down platform.
Locomotive 4472, Flying Scotsman (British Rail number 60103) visited the tunnel during the engine’s ownership by the late Alan Peglar, but had to be hauled through by an electric locomotive. A soundtrack in the form of a vinyl record of sound effects includes a whistle from 4472 in the tunnel and the electric locomotive warming up.

Reopening Protocols

I will not comment on the various reopening proposals save to say that these come with technical and business challenges and some are not considered serious proposals. Assuming that a line and tunnel through Woodhead were to be reinstated close to the site of former infrastructure, then these are some of the issues that might be encountered.

Business case. How would the cost of reopening be justified? What would the utility of the railway be and what capacity or capability would it offer that existing lines or alternative proposals cannot?

Speed and alignment. The north of England is polycentric in terms of its distribution of population centres. This implies a need for fast transport corridors to link them. While a north-south line like HS2 will be contemplating speeds of 200mph or higher with trains of 250mph likely to be feasible in its lifetime, the distances between station stops on an east-west line mean that trains will have to decelerate and stop long before they can reach such speeds. A line speed of about 125mph may therefore be suitable. The terrain may also make even this speed challenging in terms of the alignment of tracks. If the new alignment were to follow the disused one, would some deviations be viable to straighten it?

Tunnel. The Victorian tunnel bores are unfit for reuse and the 1953 bore is not available. There may also be reasons why it would not be suitable. I have not seen these stated but it is now almost seventy years old and has not been maintained for running service trains for about forty years. The existing bores include bends, twists and variations in gradient. A new tunnel might be straighter although the precise alignment may be influenced by geological considerations.

Picture 8: Courtesy of Geographic Britain and Ireland, © Walter Dendy, deceased. The eastern (Dunford Bridge) end with the new bore on the left under construction. The space between the new and old tunnels makes it harder to capture both in a picture.

Assuming the portals were to be close to the location of the abandoned Victorian tunnels, then it might be possible to fill these with foam concrete (a low-density material, up to 80% air) and re-bore them in a similar manner to Farnworh tunnel circa 2015. Filling three miles of tunnel with foam concrete sounds excessive but presumably the new tunnel would eventually deviate from the old alignments greatly reducing the distance to be filled. That said, it may be easier and safer to locate the new portals away from the disused tunnels.

Picture 9: Courtesy of Flickr. The eastern portal of the new tunnel in 2011. The tunnel now houses electricity cables and the Victorian bores have been abandoned although they may serve a useful purpose in draining away water that might otherwise build up in the new tunnel.

Sheffield Station. Sheffield Victoria was remote from the surviving station, Sheffield Midland and baring reversals, there is not an easy way for a train from the former to reach the latter. To create an interchange, it might be necessary to build a station on a new site.

Manchester. There are already congestion problems in Manchester due to lack of capacity along the Castlefield (or Deansgate) corridor. If a reinstated link to Woodhead were to result in more trains trying to use this, then significant new capacity would be needed. In reality, this bottleneck merits treatment as a separate scheme in any case.


Philip James


Supplementary Materials:


These videos illustrate the curves and gradients found on the route. They also show the short platforms at Dunford Bridge station after its rebuild.

This film from the 1940s shows the process of electrifying the Woodhead route.

This video from 1955, courtesy of British Transport Films, shows the recently completed work. 

Another video available via YouTube shows a cab view of the approach to the eastern portal after electrification.

Appendix 1

Appendix 1 is an Electric locomotive equipment for the Manchester – Sheffield – Wath line British Railways; Reprinted from an article by A B WASHINGTON B.Sc, M.I.E.E. published in “The Metropolitan Vickers Gazette” December 1954.

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