When asked about early railway electrification in Britain, most will think of the Southern Railway’s commuter network fanning out from London. It seems that the first electrified mainline, the Woodhead route linking the great industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester across moors and through mountains, has been forgotten. Which is a shame, as it deserves to be remembered, not least for a helping hand to our friends in Holland at a time of need.
A hundred years ago, Sheffield in Yorkshire and Manchester were two of the most important cities in the British Empire. Sheffield is the home of steel – the city’s Company of Cutlers dates from 1624. It is the birthplace of silver-plate, crucible steel, the Bessemer process (1856 – to make purer and stronger steel) and of stainless steel, perfected in 1912 by Harry Brearley of the great Firth-Brown company. The quality and reputation of the city and its product is so strong that Sheffield is to this day the only placename protected by British Company Law – any application to use ‘Sheffield’ in a company name requires the consent of the Company of Cutlers before the company can be formed. It is also the home of organised sport – Sheffield Football Club was formed in 1857.
Manchester Docks – 50 miles from the Irish Sea
Manchester is just 50 miles away, across the great Pennine mountain range that forms the spine of northern England, and the name betrays its Roman origins. In the 19th century, it became the home of the British cotton industry, spinning and weaving cotton imported from the United States. Once the 40 mile Manchester Ship Canal linked it to the River Mersey and thus the Atlantic from 1893, it became the economic powerhouse of northern England. In the early 1950s, Sheffield and Manchester originated a quarter of Britain’s rail freight between them.
It wasn’t just steel and cotton – south Yorkshire was the heart of one of the largest coalfields in Britain if not Europe, and access to this natural bounty underpinned the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Getting it to Lancashire cheaply and reliably was crucial to the British economy and the best way to get it there was over Woodhead.
In the early 1950s, UK coal production was over 200m tons per year, and the industry employed three quarters of a million people – perhaps as much as 1 in 40 of the working population. Even as late as 1984, when the final rundown of the industry began, there were 56 collieries (deep mines) around Sheffield and the neighbouring towns of Barnsley, Doncaster and Wakefield alone.
So an early railway link between these two metropolises should be no surprise. The Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway opened in 1841, heading north west out of Sheffield, then west up the hills to cross the moors at Woodhead, with a twenty mile climb at 1.33%. Although the summit is only about 900ft above sea level, this a wild and lonely place of bleak windswept moors, rising above 1500 ft. And then, a matching descent to Manchester, down Longdendale. When built, it was the most challenging railway to operate in Britain, and it didn’t get any easier with the passage of time.
The railway passed under the moors in a single track tunnel – then the longest railway tunnel in the world; a second, parallel bore opened in 1852. But the tunnels were no easy option for engine crews – only 20ft high and 15ft wide, and over 3 miles long. With up to 100 trains each day, they must have been a hellhole, especially for slow eastbound goods trains – and, in steam days, they were slow! Probably a match for anything on the Southern Pacific?
West portals of the Woodhead tunnels, 1903
By 1900, the MS&L had become the ambitious Great Central Railway (GCR), with an extension from Sheffield to London that was designed to Continental standards to link with a proposed Channel Tunnel – but Woodhead remained as it was.
The obvious solution to a problem like Woodhead was electrification, but that was not a practical proposition until the 1920s. Instead, engines got bigger, and reached their peak in the Beyer Garratt articulated locomotive that the Great Central’s successor the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) built in 1925 – effectively, two 2-8-0 freight engines on one chassis with one huge boiler. It was designed specifically to push coal trains up the Worsborough Incline near Barnsley – seven miles of 2.5% at the very eastern end of the Woodhead route. She succeeded at this, but was not the answer for the mainline.
The North Eastern Railway, another LNER constituent, had tried electrification on Tyneside, with the first suburban electric network in Britain, which lasted until the mid-1960s. It also electrified the viciously steep branch from the mainline down to the Quayside in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Shildon to Newport route in County Durham – another line with very heavy coal traffic, but not the gradients of Woodhead. These small self-contained schemes lasted for upwards of 40 years, but the ambition to electrify the East Coast Main Line never got beyond the building of a prototype 1800hp locomotive that spent 30 years in the Darlington Works paintshop without turning a wheel in anger.
The ambition moved to Woodhead under the LNER, and plans were developed through the 1920s. There were two, linked, problems – the LNER lacked the funds, and the existing tunnels were too small to be suitable for electrification. The answer, of course, was a new, double-track tunnel, to be financed by government credit after the Great Depression. By 1939, the tunnel work was ready to start, the gantries for the electric catenary were largely in place and electric locomotives were ordered.
The technology chosen was a 1500v DC system, based on that used in the Netherlands, rather than the NER’s older version. The LNER, under Chief Mechanical Engineer Sir Nigel Gresley (1876-1941), had designed a 1900hp engine in conjunction with electrical equipment supplier Metropolitan-Vickers. Commonly known as Metrovick, the company had originated as the British business of Westinghouse before becoming part of the Vickers ship, plane and armaments group in 1919, and was already supplying electric train equipment to London Transport. Coincidentally, Vickers originated in Sheffield, as a maker of ship propellers and associated equipment.
But war intervened, the electrification works were deferred and plans were cut back to a single prototype, which emerged from Doncaster works in 1941 as LNER no 6701.
6701 was an unusual design by later standards. Instead of the drawbar and brakes working through the locomotive’s frame and body, the two twin axle bogies (or Bo-Bo) were coupled together, with the buffers and couplings mounted on the bogies and not the bodies. Electricity was taken through two large diamond shaped pantographs, capable of stretching 10 feet above the roof, and drove a 467hp motor on each axle, giving a total of 1900hp. Overall, she was 50 feet long and weighed 87 tons – a high axle load by British standards. The controller allowed for series or parallel operation of the motors, and offered 19 notch settings – so very flexible power delivery.
In addition, 6701 had regenerative braking – turning braking energy into electricity that was fed back to the catenary wires. And the cab was a revelation after the previous century of steam cabs.
After some simple trials, 6701 spent the war stored at Doncaster – the LNER had nowhere to use her! After the war, renumbered to 6000, she was moved to Essex and tested on the newly electrified commuter lines from London Liverpool St station, although there was no need for electric freight power, and there are no hills in Essex.
Then in 1947, her moment of fame. Lending 6000 to Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the Dutch rail system, whilst their railways slowly reequipped after the damage of war was a win-win – power for the Dutch, proper testing and proving for the LNER. Here we see 6000 ready to cross the North Sea, and at work in Holland, still in LNER apple green livery – I was delighted to find these shots.
The Dutch engine crews loved her (once a cab heater had been fitted!) and affectionately named her Tommy – the popular name for a British soldier – in honour of the men who liberated Holland in 1944-45.
On her return to Britain, in 1952, the name was officially confirmed, and Tommy proudly carried the name and plaque for the rest of her BR service.
Finally, in 1954, both the new tunnel (3 miles 66 yards, double track, 27ft in diameter and with 7 feet clearance above the trains) and the electrification were complete; at last, Britain had its first mainline that would operate entirely without steam. The fleet of what were now called EM1 locomotives (electric, mixed traffic) reached 58, with the production versions being built at the former GCR works at Gorton, Manchester and numbered 26001 – 57. They differed slightly from 6000 (now 26000), with a larger cab and more stylish window layout – well, slightly; they were going to haul coal from colliery to mill and power station across the North, mind, so nowt fancy!
From then on, for almost thirty years, the EM1s (later renumbered as class 76) hauled freight over Woodhead. The engines often worked in pairs, initially at front and rear of the coal trains, then later, when many had been fitted with multiple working equipment and the wagons had vacuum brakes, and not handbrakes or nothing, double headed with one crew. The Worsborough Incline required two at each end – the only use of four engines per train in Britain.
The 76s pioneered BR’s Merry-Go-Round concept – loop tracks at colliery and power station and modern loading and unloading equipment allowed trains to arrive at the pit, load, depart, travel across the country, unload and return without stopping, reversing or switching power.
The livery changed over time, from the very smart (when clean) BR mixed traffic glossy black with red and gold lining, to Brunswick green with the same lining on units equipped with passenger train heating boilers and, ultimately, from the mid-1960s the ubiquitous BR rail blue with yellow warning panels at both ends.
But the EM1 didn’t have Woodhead to itself. There was also the larger Co-Co EM2, of 2500 hp. Designed to operate the Woodhead expresses and also trains out of London Liverpool Street, BR ordered 27 of these fine looking machines in 1953, but only seven were ever built, also at Gorton, and BR used them exclusively over Woodhead. Here, 27000 hauls the first scheduled passenger service through the new tunnel – a historic moment for Britain’s railways.
The EM2s and some EM1s wore the names of Greek deities, with 27000 herself being the very appropriate Electra; the other names were previously worn by GCR steam engines – EM1s were male, EM2s were female.
There were also, on this 1500v DC island in the north, commuter trains from Manchester eastwards as far as Glossop, operated by multiple units.
But 1500v DC soon became obsolete as the French developed 25kv AC system showed its potential in the later 1950s. Woodhead was both Britain’s first and last 1500v DC mainline and the next electrification, the West Coast Mainline north from London to Birmingham and Manchester used 25kv AC.
These wires reached Manchester London Road (soon renamed Manchester Piccadilly) in 1960, and the cross platform comparison of the older EM electrics and the bright ‘electric blue’ AC West Coast engines was a stark one – 1940 meeting the manifestation of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’.
Sheffield – Manchester passenger trains over Woodhead ended in 1970, killed by a combination of more cars and the need to focus BR’s resources on the other trans-Pennine routes. The EM2s had already gone, withdrawn in 1968 and sold to our friends in NS. Refurbished and repainted, six of them formed the 1500 class (with parts from 27005 Minerva cannibalised), and until 1986 they hauled express trains between Den Haag and the German border – a longer career than they managed on BR, and retaining their BR names – unusual in mainland Europe.
Woodhead itself closed in 1981. Demand for coal was fading as deindustrialisation took hold, and the cost of renewal of electric wires and power was looming. Travel between Sheffield and Manchester remains problematic to this day; there is no motorway without a 40mile dogleg to Leeds to reach the M62, which is the busiest road in Britain (around 150,000 vehicles per day in places) except the wider M25 around London, and the highest motorway in Britain, and inevitably a regular feature on any traffic bulletin. The direct roads across the Pennines face the same problems that Woodhead did – weather and topography – and are among the first in the country to succumb in winter.
This is not a unique frustration in northern England – transport investment in all modes has historically focused on the south east, and is shows. To this day, you cannot reach Newcastle upon Tyne by motorway; only now is the road between Edinburgh and Glasgow being upgraded to motorway standard, and it takes longer by train from Liverpool to Hull (125 miles, over 3 hours) than from London to Paris (300 miles, 2.5 hours). And, a third of a century after the first one closed, there is no electrified mainline railway across the Pennines. This bias has held back economic renewal in the North significantly in recent years.
The new Woodhead tunnel is now used to carry high voltage electricity cables across the Pennines; the older tunnels are abandoned and bricked up.
Today, three EM2s survive, including 1505 Ariadne, donated by NS to the Manchester Museum of Science of Industry, on condition it kept its Dutch grey and yellow livery. Electra herself was preserved by the EM2 Society in 1986, and made a return visit, painted in BR green, to Holland in 1989. She is in safe hands even if there are no longer 1500v DC wires for her to use. 1501 Diana (formerly 27003) is privately preserved in Holland, by a group of former NS drivers.
26020, seen here at the official opening of the new tunnel, became the EM1 fleet’s celebrity and its sole survivor. She not only hauled the first train through the new tunnel, but was at the Festival of Britain in 1951 (alongside BR’s new steam Pacific, Britannia – another new direction for BR) and the centenary of the great Doncaster Works in 1953. She deservedly stands proudly in the Great Hall of the National Railway Museum in York, as part of the National Collection.
Periodically, there are calls and plans for reopening the historic Woodhead route, and after successful reopening of closed railways elsewhere, it is not beyond possibility that we could yet see its revival if the Government’s newly professed interest in Northern prosperity is for real.
But sadly, not with electric locomotives built in Manchester with key components of Sheffield precision and quality.