Forget IEP, NET and HS2. Give ERTMS a miss. These high-gloss ventures might catch the eye but they have no soul, submerged in binary code. Writes Graeme Bickerdike

What this magazine really needs – apart from a glossary – is a piece on MVL3/40-SFT2/3/7, dripping with history from every mortar joint. We’re talking here about structures; substantial structures, taller than St Paul’s. Thousands of passengers rattle past daily, just feet away, yet they never see them and never will. Intrigued? Grab a torch and slip into something rubber. Ahead of us stands the portal to a sodden labyrinth wherein gangs of men toil. That’s right – dirty work, with proper tools and everything. Theirs is an absorbing tale of… ahem… downpipes and duff brickwork. I’m trying too hard, aren’t I?

Classic misdirection

Standedge Tunnel penetrates the Pennines between Diggle in Greater Manchester and Marsden, West Yorkshire. But just describing the place as a tunnel doesn’t really do it justice. This is a truly unique piece of infrastructure comprising four bores, all over three miles long and connected to each other by dozens of adits and passageways.

Its history goes back 220 years to the development of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, authorised by Parliament on 4 April 1794 and engineered by Benjamin Outram. Still the country’s longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel, construction was plagued by difficulty, mostly arising from poor working practices and a dearth of funds. Two contractors suffered financial ruin; activity ceased for long periods. Although the surface sections of canal were in use by 1798, it was another 13 years before Lively Lady became the first boat to officially navigate the tunnel.

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Photo: Four by Three.

To draw water from the workings and provide a drain for the water engines used to hoist spoil, 14 moorland construction shafts were initially progressed; adits and others shafts were then connected to them. But these temporary works proved expensive and something of a distraction. Eight of the shafts were ultimately abandoned and tunnelling thereafter was concentrated largely at the two ends.

Leaving much to be desired was the setting out over the hill. Shafts were displaced from their intended position both laterally and longitudinally, in one case by 40 yards. The elevation at the Diggle end was several feet too high, demanding costly remedial works. Nicholas Brown, the company’s surveyor, was dismissed whilst Outram resigned in 1801. Five years later, Thomas Telford formulated a plan to save the floundering project. He found that two approaching sections of tunnel were out of alignment by as much as 26 feet and only when the excavations were finally joined together in 1809 was an accurate length for the tunnel established: 5,477 yards.

The railway cometh

With its limited load-carrying capacity and the absence of a towpath through the tunnel, the waterway never successfully competed with the Rochdale Canal a few miles further north. The tunnel did however prove its worth when work began on the Huddersfield & Manchester Railway in 1846, running parallel with it on the south side. Thirteen adits were pushed outwards from the canal tunnel, allowing the single-track bore to be driven from their ends. A fleet of boats ferried spoil out and materials in, an approach which brought construction to a conclusion in a little over two years. The nearby Woodhead Tunnel – fulfilled in part by the same contractor, Thomas Nicholson – had been progressed from five shafts and took more than seven years to complete despite being slightly shorter.

As enterprises go, this was a great industrial spectacle. At its peak, 1,953 navvies were involved, mining and lining the tunnel from 36 working faces at a rate reaching 85 yards per week. One account records that “300 yards of the tunnel had to be worked out of a solid stone, extremely hard, being literally without a seam or crack, and is left without either wall or a sustaining arch. The general strata consists of strong posts of millstone grit, and in some places of hard sandstone and beds of shale.”

Nine men did not survive to see the tunnel finished; one had his skull split in two by a rock falling down a shaft from one of the skips. Meanwhile Nicholson and six others had to launch themselves against the sidewall to escape a collision between an engine and the horse-drawn wagon they were travelling in which met head-on in the darkness.

Costing £201,608 (about £17.7 million in today’s money), the tunnel was formally opened on 13th July 1849. Trains were accompanied through by a pilot man or pilot engine, their re-emergence being transmitted to the other end by Henry Highton’s patent telegraph system. The portal was designed with two entrances, underlining the intention to construct a second bore.

That eventuality came to pass in the spring of 1868 when contractor Thomas Nelson successfully tendered for the job. Again, spoil was removed by boat, hauled by four powerful steam tugs, the canal being linked to the new bore by 21 adits passing under Nicholson’s tunnel. The programme suffered from workforce unrest, with both miners and bricklayers separately striking in protest at payment terms and shift length. No fatalities had been reported by the time of its opening in February 1871, discounting miner David Harper who fell into the canal as he staggered back to his lodgings from the Navigation Inn.

Dark horse

With capacity still constrained, the London & North Western Railway embarked on a four-tracking project through Standedge in 1890. This demanded construction of the two-track tunnel used today by TransPennine services. The L&NWR progressed the work itself under chief engineer AA MacGregor, accommodating the 1,800 men involved in the Diggle paper mills and 54 wooden huts assembled at the eastern end. Although navvies were not particularly welcome in Marsden, several hundred locals did gather on 7 May 1892 to enjoy a parade of 40 works horses.

The tunnel’s heading – seven feet square – was again driven from 13 adits, this time connected to the 1849 bore. To expedite progress with the excavation, 40 break- ups were then opened and around 120 tons of gelignite consumed. The bricks – 25 million of them – were fired locally except for an outer face of Staffordshire brindles. Given the honour of placing the first two were MacGregor’s wife and 10-year-old son who were conveyed on a wagon to the tunnel’s midpoint for the ceremony. Can you imagine the paperwork? With the end in sight, a 26-foot length – mined and propped ready for lining – collapsed in April 1894, blocking the tunnel for a week.

Major Yorke, the Government inspector, deemed the tunnel fit for purpose on 1 August. Opening triggered temporary closure of the single-track bores for repair, whilst remedial work continued on the canal tunnel which had suffered considerable damage as a result of the blasting operations.

Closure came to the Huddersfield Narrow in 1944, commercial traffic having evaporated, although the Ailsa Craig managed to complete a passage of it four years later. A £30 million restoration brought the canal’s reopening in 2001, much of the money being invested in the tunnel which had collapsed in places. The Nicholson and Nelson bores last saw trains in the late Sixties and today are used for maintenance access. Located at their midpoint is a place to make U-turns – a full-height connection known colloquially as “the cathedral” due to its vaulted roof.

Clear the air

The canal and single-track bores benefit from natural ventilation via shafts at Cote, Flint and Pule Hill. Additionally, water sprays were used to create an artificial circulation of air through the adjacent Down Cast and Up Cast shafts at Redbrook whereby a system of doors and gratings – operated by the platelayers – regulated the flow through a subway to where it was needed.

Ventilating the operational tunnel are three shafts at Brunn Clough (known as No.2 shaft, 443 feet deep, now capped), Redbrook (No.3 shaft, 495 feet deep, capped) and Flint (No.7 shaft, 515 feet deep, not capped). Being railway owned, these are the focus of the ongoing intervention, their brickwork having deteriorated over many years through incessant water ingress. Initial activity has focussed on works to capture around 70% of this water, involving the clearing or renewal of ring dams and their associated downpipes (some of which were original, made from timber), the water then being discharged into the canal. Additional weep holes have also been inserted. Once the lining dries out, it can then be cleaned of its mineral deposits and repaired. All this should make life more palatable for those who have to enter in future. “By far the wettest shaft I have ever examined” is a notable quote from Flint’s 2008 detailed exam. Whilst the work is not particularly difficult, it is high volume. About 1,000m2 of No.2 shaft’s brickwork needs relining or pressure pointing with a specialist mortar; the figure is 2,600m2 for No.3 shaft – effectively the whole thing.

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Photo: Four by Three.

The key to all this – and the issue that causes most headaches – is access. When the team arrived on site in September, shafts 3 and 7 opened only into the operational tunnel which is used round-the-clock by Manchester Airport services. Had the project relied on short Saturday night Rules of the Route possessions, the work would have taken years to fulfil given the mobilisation time involved with each incursion. That timescale was untenable in light of the impending North Trans-Pennine Electrification scheme. Removing the shaft caps and descending from the surface would have brought severe restrictions due to the area’s designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Mitigation for the resulting public safety risks would have demanded 24/7 security patrols. But Network Rail and Amco Rail, its principal contractor, collaboratively came up with a solution, digging down to the latter’s mining roots.

You’ve ’ad it

With the 1849 bore already used for access, the logical approach was to connect it to shafts 3 and 7 by driving new adits. To establish a starting point, an initial core was drilled outwards from the shaft; thereafter they worked the other way, opening out the ground with a mini digger and breaker, then installing rock bolts, plates and stainless steel mesh to secure the ground before the next 0.5m advance. Progress was slow – a function of the geology – but methodical.

Once through, work platforms had to be assembled in each of the shafts to enable the workforce to reach every part of the lining. Clad in glamorous PVC, I emerged into the downpour at the base of shaft 7 to be confronted by…a spaceship apparently, surreally floating a few feet off the ground, having descended from the heavens. Contracted to provide these modular structures is the impeccably named Apollo Cradles. Each is powered by four electric motors, enabling the platform to climb wires attached to suspension beams across the top of the shaft, threaded through cores in the cap and then dropped down to anchors at the bottom.

Complicating life further in shafts 2 and 3 are crash decks comprising two layers of bullhead rail, through which openings have had to be cut so the platforms can be constructed above them. In shaft 3, the rails are at an unhelpful height of 16 metres and have themselves required remedial works in order to make them secure. By necessity, Haki stair towers have been deployed to reach their underside but these have in turn brought difficulty with the winching of platform components.

Hats off

What at first might appear to be a mundane job is actually anything but. If you overlook its scale and spectacular setting, yes, the substantive work is routine. But for every obstacle that’s been surmounted, another looms ahead. Amco has risen to each challenge and continues to make headway, somewhat against the odds.

For those labouring in the deluge, modern foul weather gear affords better protection than the navvies who sunk these shafts 120 years ago could ever have dreamt of. The conditions though are probably as close as anyone comes now to those experienced in the Victorian era. And yet these men always have a smile for you or a warming cuppa. I have nothing but admiration…big time.