180 years of history: one of the world’s oldest railway tunnels gets a facelift

Constructed between 1838 and 1841 as part of the Manchester and Leeds railway, one of the world’s oldest railway tunnels has undergone a facelift to make the tunnel more reliable for passengers this coming autumn. Frankie Youd profiles the tunnel’s history.


he 180-year-old Summit Tunnel connecting Rochdale and Hebden Bridge has recently undergone a facelift to provide a safer, more reliable service for passengers.

Organised by Network Rail, the upgrade saw the 3km of tracks throughout the tunnel being replaced during the period of 23 and 31 October, with the railway closed for nine days.

Costing £2m the Great North Rail Project investment aims to improve the service for passengers, improve connectivity, and provide passengers with a more reliable service.

Alongside providing improved service, the tunnel upgrade will also act as one of the largest flood alleviation schemes in the north of England, playing a vital role in protecting the local community from the risk of flooding.

Network Rail CEO Andrew Haines. Credit: Network Rail

The development: where it all started 

Summit Tunnel, located near Todmorden Yorkshire, is one of the world’s oldest railway tunnels. Constructed between 1838 and 1841 by the Manchester and Leeds Railway Company, the tunnel acted as a direct line between Leeds and Manchester.

Upon completion of initial construction, the tunnel was the longest railway tunnel in the world. Stretching over 2.6km with the ability to carry two standard gauge tracks, the aim of the tunnel was to connect two key locations for industrial and passenger journeys.

Designed by Thomas Longridge Gooch the initial construction of the tunnel faced some setbacks early on, due to excavation proving to be more difficult than anticipated. The tunnel was driven by hand through layers of coal, shale, and sandstone.

Once completed, the walls were lined with six layers of brick, taking more than 23 million bricks to complete. Handmade locally, up to 60,000 bricks were laid in a single day by the tunnel workers, with an estimated 8,100 tonnes of cement being transported to the tunnel from Hull.

Lithograph by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905) showing the west entrance to Summit Tunnel, 1845. Credit: SSPL | Getty Images

A workforce of between 800 and 1,250 men and boys, 100 horses and 13 stationary steam engines (which were used to remove material) were needed onsite for work on the tunnel.

Summit Tunnel was scheduled to open on New Year’s Eve 1840. However, this was delayed when defects were found, which, once scheduled to be fixed, allowed the tunnel to be opened on 1 March 1841 with a cost of £251,000 – a cost far greater than anticipated by the railway company – and resulted in the death of 41 workers.

After the grand opening, the tunnel was forced to close for the first eight months in 1985 due to a fire that broke out in the tunnel, which generated enough heat to vitrify layers of the outer brickwork.

Damage to the inside of the tunnel lining was minimal due to the installation of ventilation shafts That allowed gases and heat from the fire to escape. Restoration of the tunnel saw over 500m of track and sleepers being replaced, which allowed the tunnel to re-open in August 1985.

35 years after the fire, on 28 December 2010, a passenger train derailed on its journey from Manchester to Leeds. The derailment occurred after the train struck ice that had fallen onto the track after it had built up in the ventilation shafts over the winter and had begun to thaw. Although the train collided with the tunnel wall it remained upright, and no injuries were reported.

The facelift: new and improved 

Still in use today, the Summit Tunnel provides a key transport link for areas between the Manchester and Liverpool area, which has led to Network Rail setting out an improvement plan for the tunnel to increase service reliability.

Scheduled to run for nine days starting on 23 October trains were replaced by buses between the Rochdale and Hebden Bridge area, which caused disruption between the Manchester Victoria and Leeds line.

During the improvement works the tunnel had more than 3km of track replaced, as well as the culvert beneath the railway lines being updated.

This project will play a crucial role in better protecting the community from the risk of flooding.

Speaking on the development in a press release, Karen Hornby, Network Rail North West head of performance and customer relationship said: “The work will mean fewer train delays on the Calder Valley line and make tracks inside the Victorian-built structure fit for the 21st century. However, replacing track like this means we have no choice but to close the line for old sections to be ripped up and replaced with new.”

The inclusion of a new culvert beneath the railway lines is a result of Network Rail working in partnership with the Environment Agency, which will improve the railway’s role as a flood defence.

Speaking on the development Environment Agency senior flood risk advisor Nick Pearson says: “Working in partnership with Network Rail as part of the proposed £56m Rochdale and Littleborough Flood Risk Management Scheme will make a huge difference to rail passengers, residents and the local economy.”

“This project, one of the biggest flood alleviation schemes in the north of England, will play a crucial role in better protecting the community from the risk of flooding and we are pleased to see it progress.”

Main image: Aerial shot of the Calderbrook end of Summit Tunnel. Credit: Network Raill