The Woodhead route provided a link between Sheffield and the Yorkshire coalfield with Manchester and latterly a power station near Widnes. Roughly midway between Sheffield and Manchester the railway plunged through the Pennines via the Woodhead Tunnels. There are three bores in all – the first two used by the Sheffield, Ashton-under Lyne, and Manchester Railway from its opening in 1845. This company combined with other local railways in 1847 to form the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, renamed the Great Central Railway in 1897. The 1923 amalgamations brought it into the LNER and later British Railways. Very heavy coal traffic and relatively heavy passenger traffic was carried from the early years and there were plans in 1936 to electrify the route but these were delayed by World War 2. Over time the old bores had degraded substantially and repairs would have been extremely costly so that the option to dig a single bore for the double track line became the obvious way ahead. The original bores had become seriously damaged by the powerful blast from the steam locomotives and the southern bore was deemed unrepairable.
When World War 2 was over work started on the construction of a single double track tunnel and this was completed in 1955 together with electrification of the route using the then “standard” power at 1500v DC from overhead wires. To operate the line two designs of locomotive were produced at Gorton Works, Manchester, The EM1 class (class 77) was produced to haul the heavy coal trains while the EM2 class 78 would handle the hourly express passenger services. Class 506 emus were produced for the Manchester (Piccadilly) Glossop – Hadfield suburban service.
Traffic was heavy for a good number of years but coal traffic began to fall and it was clear that this would cease in future years. An alternative route between Manchester and Sheffield via the Hope Valley was available and this would be difficult to close because it served several rather isolated villages. The fast passenger service was transferred to the Hope Valley line from 05-01-1970 and the remaining freight traffic soon followed. The Class EM1s were sold to the Netherlands Railways and served out a decent lifespan there. The EM2s needed a costly upgrade if they were to continue in use but this was rejected since it had been decided to convert the Manchester – Hadfield section to 25kV AC (the new standard system) with the Class 506 emus replaced initially by 303s from Glasgow and now by Class 323 emus. The line from Hadfield through the Tunnel was mothballed and in 2007 the tunnels were purchased by the National Grid to provide a route across the Pennines for major cables that was protected from severe weather conditions. This was achieved during the period 2008-12. Redundant track was lifted but much of the line east of the Tunnels remains in use by a daily Rotherham – Stockbridge freight service that serves a rather isolated steel plant.
Today one of the early Woodhead bores is felt to be in very fragile condition and will not be repaired. The other bores are used as a safe route for the cables. Proposals to use the tunnels for motor vehicle traffic as part of the Motorway network have been quietly dropped. There has been occasional mention of a possible suburban service at the Sheffield end but the population has not grown enough and the Sheffield station serving the Woodhead line is poorly located.