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175th Anniversary of Summit Tunnel

Summit Tunnel

Tuesday 1st March 2016 marked the 175th anniversary of Summit Tunnel. One of the oldest railway tunnels in the world, at its date of completion, the Summit Tunnel was also known as one of the longest railway tunnels in Britain.

Built between 1838 and 1841 by the Manchester and Leeds Railway beneath the Pennines, the tunnel is located between Littleborough and Walsden and created a vital gateway between Manchester and Leeds.

The completion of the tunnel meant that the Manchester and Leeds Railway opened over its whole length connecting the two growing industrial towns, not then cities, by railway. At the time this became the first completed Trans-Pennine railway line.

The tunnel was mined by hand through shale, coal and sandstone and was lined with six courses of bricks – using over 23 million handmade bricks in all – to form the horseshoe shape. This was then aligned by drilling fourteen vertical shafts to provide survey points on the hillside above. After the tunnel was completed two shafts were closed and the remaining twelve were used as blast relief shafts to vent steam from the locomotives that passed through.

Engineer Thomas Gooch had worked with both George and Robert Stephenson on various railway schemes since 1825. Between spring 1835 and 1844, he was the ‘acting engineer’ to the Manchester and Leeds Railway Company on George Stephenson’s behalf. Work began at Summit Tunnel in September 1837 with Gooch’s brother Daniel joining the team for a short time. Work commenced on the tunnel in January 1838 at a price of £107,800. Despite this price tag, the overall cost rose to £251,000 and construction proceeded at a slow pace until the contractors were replaced in March 1839 when tunnelling went ahead at about 150 yards a month.

The total number of labourers varied between 800 and 1,200 at different times with some being brought in from as far away as North Shields. The last brick was laid on 9th December 1840.

The first section of the line opened between Manchester and Littleborough on 3rd July 1939 and then the second section opened between Hebden Bridge and Normanton, West Yorkshire, via the Calder Valley on 5th October 1840 and finally, between Summit East and Hebden Bridge in late December. At Normanton the line joined the rails of the North Midland Railway, which had opened a few months earlier for the final ten miles into Leeds.

For the first eight months of 1985 the tunnel was closed following a very serious fire in December 1984. A train of 13 petrol tankers carrying 1,000 tonnes of petrol derailed in the tunnel resulting in a fierce fire, which rose out of the shafts, visible for miles around. The fire burned for four days and reached temperatures of 1,200 degrees C. There was little damage to the structure of the tunnel and luckily no one was injured.

On 28th December 2010, a passenger train travelling from Manchester to Leeds was derailed when it struck a large amount of ice that had fallen onto the tracks from one of the ventilation shafts. It is understood that ice had built up in the shafts during a period of exceptionally cold weather and then fell into the tunnel when warmer weather started to thaw the ice.  The train was the first to use the tunnel in three days following the Christmas shut down. It collided with the tunnel wall, but remained upright and no injuries were reported.

Despite its age, Summit Tunnel has been continuously used for passengers and goods since it opened 175 years ago.

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