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Saturday, 2 February 2008

Save the Woodhead Tunnel Press Release: More contradictions over Woodhead tunnel

On 30th January, Secretary of State Ruth Kelly appeared before the House of Commons Transport Committee and answered questions on the National Grid’s (NG) intention to install power cables through the newest of Woodhead’s three disused railway tunnels, opened in 1954.

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. Research published in 2007 by the Northern Way proves that the potential demand for rail container traffic across the Pennines could not be accommodated by the existing network.

The case for reopening the Woodhead route is compelling but the cabling project would scupper it as only the 1954 tunnel can accommodate trains with a European loading gauge. The two Victorian tunnels - one of which currently has National Grid power cables running through it - are much smaller and, according to NG, in a state of disrepair.

But it would seem that Ruth Kelly and her department are not particularly interested in freight. It doesn’t have a vote or complain very loudly, after all. She told the Transport Committee that “were the business case to materialise for passenger transport in future, then…the fact that the National Grid has laid cables in those [Victorian] tunnels would not preclude their use in the future.”

However, at a meeting on 14th January, members of the ‘Save the Woodhead Tunnel’ campaign were informed by NG’s project team that after its existing cables had been removed from the Victorian tunnels, they would be sealed up and no longer maintained.

Financially, the implications of using the older tunnels for rail are staggering. A campaign co-ordinator said: “The National Grid told us that the cost of refurbishing those Victorian tunnels would be £165 million. On that basis, if a new Woodhead line was forced to use them, it would effectively double the project costs. That could tip it over the edge of viability.

And if the taxpayer did stump-up over £300 million, we would have a new railway which could not accommodate modern freight trains. For anyone with their head screwed on, that makes no sense logistically, economically or environmentally.”

At the 14th January meeting, NG asserted that the issue of a railway through the 1954 tunnel could be looked at again in 40 years time, when its new cables will be at the end of their asset life. Not according to Ruth Kelly. She informed the committee that “were the new tunnel to be needed, then I think those cables would have to be relaid. Now that’s one of the issues that I’m looking at at the moment. I’m not saying there wouldn’t be an expense associated with that.”

That extra expense could make the difference between a new railway being viable or not.

In 15 years, another trans-Pennine rail line will need to have been built. And it will be needed to carry freight. The right decisions must be taken now. The only reasonable course of action is for the government to require the National Grid to make the Victorian tunnels fit for its own purposes and to install the new power cables through them.