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Opening day of the Woodhead electrics.

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3rd. June 1954 saw the official opening of the newly electrified Manchester to Sheffield rail route through the new, double-width Woodhead tunnel which replaced the two original Victorian single bore tunnels at its side. 

Having had a neighbour who was a steam engine driver due to convert to the new electrics, he had taken us kids in his car, the first in the street, over the moors to see the progress of the wiring gantries being progressively erected. At the time we had no idea what the electric locos would look like, but going down Spital Hill en-route to Victoria station on the opening day, we got our first glimpse of one crossing the Wicker Arches and raced up the steps to the station ( and weren't there some steps !) to get a closer look. Wow, it beat our passion for both jet planes and the fictitious space ships in the Dan Dare comics ! Gleaming new in its all black livery with the early lion emblem of British Railways on its sides, we were enraptured, more so than when seeing the first of the super Roberts tramcars a few years before.

You have to remember that kids in those pre-electronic gadget days were very transport and engineering orientated with their Dinky toys, Meccano sets, train spotting and wonderful comics like 'The Eagle' which had exploded views of trains, planes, ships etc.. not to mention going to the Norton Battle of Britain days and seeing the futuristic V bombers fly over, so it was a great event which gave pride in the British technology and engineering of the time.

That same neighbour would later take us to the Darnall ( I think ?) sheds where he showed us inside one of the electrics, weren't our mates jealous ! As I can't recall seeing them, I don't know if the following is true or a railwaymens' joke, but there were said to be switches in the cab, one saying 'PANTS UP' and the other 'PANTS DOWN' referring to the compressed air mechanism which raised and lowered the pantographs ( collectors ) to the overhead cantenary, another was a switch saying ' 1/2" cock ' !  Can anyone verify ? 

The locos were of two types, Co-Co's and Bo-Bo's, the former having 3 x axles per bogie and used for express passenger service, and the latter with 2 x axles per bogie used for freight, all were built at Gorton 'Tank' ( don't ask ! )  in Manchester.  In early 1970 with the alleged decline of passenger volumes, the Co-Co's were sold off to the Dutch railways and sent over on BR's 'Cambridge' ferry from Harwich to Zebrugge with the Bo-Bo's taking over the reduced passenger services until they ended fully, the Co-Co's running far more years with the Dutch than with BR, one of which has been returned and can be seen in the Manchester Industrial Museum.

In July 1981 the whole system ended after just 27 years. Many argue that the decision was political and wrong, and still today there are groups campaigning for its re-opening. This is highly unlikely as BR sold the tunnels to the CEGB for, it is said, just £1 ! There have been plans to use the 'new' tunnel for a planned extension to the M67 motorway linking it to South Yorkshire, but this is still in mid-air.

Like most great British industrial enterprises, the Woodhead line is now back to nature with the tracks removed and the tunnel fenced off. A cycle track now uses the former picturesque track bed alongside the Woodhead reservoirs and today's lads who would have found work on such railways are now stacking supermarket shelves, that's progress !   ( Don't I go on ? Most of this is available on the internet, but I've added memories from 62 years ago to give a personal perspective. Thanks for reading and please add your own memories. )   

 

 

 

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From our garden I watched the gantries for the over heads being erected in the distance at Wadsley Bridge. Later on I went for an interview for a job installing the high voltage National Grid cables in the old tunnels. If my memory is right they were using the old twin bore original tunnels not the new tunnel. According to a friend who worked at the BR Technical Centre the line was closed because it was electrified at 1,500 volt DC not the modern 25Kv AC standard, and that the money raised from the scrap copper helped pay for the new Diesel Sprinter class of Diesel Multiple Units. As the voltage is lower at 1,500 volt the copper conductors have to be much larger than the ones used at 25Kv therefore a higher scrap value.

Another point of interest is that the first loco was constructed by the LNER under Sir Nigel Gresley in 1939 who initiated the electrification scheme. It was then put on hold due to the war. After the invasion of Europe this loco ran on the continent to help the war effort and after repatriation carried the name "TOMMY" 

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There are many reasons why the line was closed. One was because it became incompatible with the new standard electrification of 25kva...even though each loco was able to generate power on its own when travelling "down hill". Another was the decision, taken earlier, to close the Great Central main line...leaving the Sheffield to Manchester section isolated and with the expense of a station with no other traffic save the hourly service to Manchester. Thirdly, there were already three trans-Pennine routes and the Hope Valley route used the Midland Station and connected with the rest of the network. Lastly, freight traffic diminished ,considerably, from Sheffield following large scale closures of our steel and engineering industries and whilst the decision to close probably was political the main reason was economics...especially as the EM locos used had virtually no other utility and would need replacing at some point in the future.

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Thanks both. It just seems a monumental blunder to have such a great investment dismantled in such a short time. Don't know the economics, but hopefully it's 80 or so freight trains a day paid for the original outlay over those twenty odd years.

As I mentioned groups campaigning for its re-opening as a railway, if you google 'Re-open the Woodhead Line.' you'll see their arguments and campaigns.

 

 

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The main freight business of the Woodhead was coal from the huge Wath on Dearne marshalling yard that collected wagons of coal from the pits in the area.

Regarding the Great Central there have been campaigns to re open this line because it was constructed to the continental Berne loading gauge which is larger than the UK loading gauge. Re opening this line would permit through traffic from all over Europe to be carried to the North of England without having to tranship goods into our smaller wagons or lorries to make the journey north.   

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When I mentioned the picturesque aspects of the line, below is an official BR painting as hung in waiting rooms. There's a bit of artistic license used as the water didn't go quite so near to the track, but a stunning representation of nature and engineering.

For anyone researching the line and its locos for the first time, you will notice that a main difference between the Co-Co's and the Bo-Bo's, apart from the number of axles, is that the Co-Co's had the red buffer bar fixed to the body, while on the Bo-Bo's they were part of the bogies. 

So much on the internet about them that I won't go on, but personal stories and anecdotes would add to all this if you have any. The aforementioned driver, Jack Marr, had loads of tales of the line. One loco, I think it was 'Electra' was, he said, known as 'The Killer' due to having struck more than one plate-layer, supposedly having come into a station one day with a severed head stuck on the buffer bar. Another was that his train broke down on that stretch in the picture one winter when the reservoir was frozen over, and the guard is supposed to have walked across the ice for some bottles to that pub which used to be there ( anyone remember its name ?).

What a man ! Typical of the railwaymen of the time, he started as a steam fireman before becoming a steam driver, then was put on the Woodhead electrics from day one to the end and then on the London runs with diesels. When he died, his wife gave me his leather BR satchel and it was stuffed with technical papers which I couldn't begin to understand. A breed of working men long gone, but well remembered.

Think I'll do one on my lorry driving days with tales of the Woodhead , B all else to do at my age !  

 

 

 

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Pre-dating the electrification of the Woodhead route, my grandfather regularly drove both passenger and freight trains through the tunnels. The conditions inside these were horrendous and he told the tales of drivers and firemen regularly covering their heads with wet sacking as the train entered the tunnels in order to breathe and of their insides  being pure sooty mud either side of the rails. He wasn't a man to exaggerate so I have no doubt what he said was true .He also said the decision to electrify was taken so as to avoid the affects of the combination of smoke, steam and water.

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