Join our Re-open the Woodhead Line for just £10 a year (£5 concessions) to support our work and have a say in how our group works.

Subscribe here!

We need your support.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Save the Woodhead Tunnel press release: Kelly’s ignorance is Woodhead tunnel’s biggest threat

We are sending out this press release today following the recent remarks of Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly in a transport questions slot in the House of Commons on January 22nd 2008 (details can be found here):

Last week the National Grid (NG) set up a compound at Dunford Bridge, South Yorkshire as a base for its project to install cables through the newest of Woodhead’s three disused railway tunnels. The double-track structure was opened in 1954 as a replacement for two Victorian single-bore tunnels.

The route is seen as strategically important by regional business and transport bodies as the existing trans-Pennine rail lines are now working close to capacity. With the demand for rail freight forecast to grow by more than 25% over the next ten years, the case for reopening the Woodhead route is now compelling. The cabling project would scupper that as the 1954 tunnel could not accommodate both trains and 400kV cables - a view endorsed by the National Grid itself and other engineers.

But not, it would seem, our Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. On 22nd January, she told the Commons that NG “owns the tunnel and can invest in its own cabling in the tunnel. Secondly, it has assured us that even if it did that, it would not preclude reopening the tunnel for freight traffic were the growth of freight traffic to warrant it.”

Today her department was forced to issue an embarrassing clarification, explaining that the project would indeed prevent the 1954 tunnel from being used for rail but the adjacent single bores would be available as the National Grid is moving its existing cables out of them.

But this position does not hold water either. The single bore tunnels are unsuitable for European gauge freight trains and high-speed passenger services. Perhaps the DfT envisages a multi-million pound scheme to lay a steam-hauled tourist line through them?

The financial implications don’t stack up either. At a meeting on 14th January, the National Grid told members of the ‘Save the Woodhead Tunnel’ campaign team that refurbishing the old tunnels would cost £165 million. OfGem laid constraints on NG through a Capital Price Plan which effectively ruled out this option.

To put this figure into context, relaying 35-miles of the Waverley Railway between Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders is currently costed at around £175 million. Translink’s 2006 bid to reopen the 32-mile Woodhead line for an HGV piggy-back service involved a capital investment of £159 million.

The campaign is making a Freedom of Information Act request to OfGem to secure documents relating to the financing of this project and the decision-making which went on around it. But, even at this stage, it seems that the figures quoted by NG are grossly over-inflated.

Contacts in South Wales tell us that, over the summer, a disused tunnel is due to be repaired by the British Railways Board. It is in excess of 1,300 yards long, has collapsed in places, and there are houses and highways above it. BRB’s annual budget is less than £8 million. For this, it inspects almost 4,000 non-operational structures and carries out repairs.

Construction work is currently nearing completion on a five-mile long tunnel near Loch Ness which forms part of a hydro-electric scheme. In total, nine miles of new tunnel have been bored. The total cost of this project is £140 million.

The National Grid is guilty either of gross financial incompetence or a deliberate manipulation of the facts in order to justify its preferred, cheapest option.

The ‘Save the Woodhead Tunnel’ campaign believes that the new Woodhead tunnel must be secured for future railway use. Ruth Kelly’s failure to do so demonstrates this government’s acute short-sightedness. The National Grid should be compelled to invest a little more of its riches in the refurbishment of the Victorian tunnels. This should not include gold-plating them.

Two things need to happen as a matter of urgency. An informed decision has to be taken as to the most sustainable use of the new Woodhead tunnel for the 21st Century, involving an effective dialogue with regional planners, the rail industry and other relevant stakeholders.
OfGem must also launch an evaluation of NG’s project submission with particular emphasis on the legitimacy of its costings.

All works at the tunnel must be suspended until the outcome of these reviews is known.