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Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Sheffield Star: New blow to Woodhead tunnel hopes

An article from today's Sheffield Star about the continuing wrangle of Woodhead's future, by Mark Hookham:

The Woodhead Tunnel route does not need to reopen to improve South Yorkshire's rail network, a minister has insisted.

Transport minister Rosie Winterton told MPs that neither the Government, the rail industry nor local transport chiefs have identified a need to substantially boost the number of freight trains crossing the Pennines.

She said a decision will be made in 2010 or 2011 over whether to permanently seal the two Victorian Woodhead tunnels - a move which would kill off hopes that the route could be reopened.

Ms Winterton, the MP for Doncaster Central, made her comments during a parliamentary debate secured by Sheffield Hillsborough MP Angela Smith.

Ms Smith wants the 1953 Woodhead Tunnel to be reopened - boosting the entire northern economy, by cutting journey times between Sheffield and Manchester and allowing freight containers to be moved from the North Sea ports across the Pennines.

Her campaign is under threat because the tunnel owners, National Grid, plan to move electricity cables from the two decaying Victorian tunnels into the more modern tunnel. Any decision to then seal the older tunnels and keep the cables in the 1953 tunnel would prevent the route reopening. Ms Smith said: "The whole point of reopening the Woodhead line would be to enable passengers, as well as freight, to travel more quickly.

"In relation to travel to work, the economic benefits of easier access to workplaces are obvious."

Ms Winterton made it clear that there is currently little enthusiasm among ministers and rail chiefs for the route to be brought back into use.

She said: "I am sure she realises that no government or rail industry strategy or planning document has identified a need for additional rail capacity across the Pennines that would require the reopening of the Woodhead route."

She said Network Rail had only identified a need to increase freight capacity on one of the three trans-pennine rail routes - the Hope Valley line between Sheffield and Manchester.