A RAILWAY tunnel beneath the Pennines could hold the secret to the North’s high-speed rail ambitions – but only if the Government acts now to save it.
Transport bosses are urging the Government to secure the Woodhead Tunnels passing under the Pennines in South Yorkshire, and are facing a battle with one of the world’s largest utilities companies for their future.
The Northern Way, a quango designed to lobby on behalf of the Northern development agencies, has joined campaigners calling on the Government to scrap plans by the National Grid to run electricity cables through the tunnels.
The line is owned by National Grid, which wants to divert cables from an older section of the three Woodhead Tunnels.
If the cables are diverted through the disused twin-track tunnel, it could ruin the Northern Way’s plans to have a railway line linking the North, both Newcastle and Manchester, with London on a high-speed track.
The Northern Way sent a compelling document to the Government last year outlining the huge economic benefits of such a route.
They estimated that a high-speed track would bring in more than £3.5bn to the North and up to £10bn nationally.
Neville Chamberlain, chair of the Northern Way, said: “Ultimately, if the future use of the Woodhead Tunnels for rail is not assured, the need to construct a major new tunnel across the Pennines could thwart the ambition of a new higher speed line ever happening.
“Additional, faster capacity across the Pennines will be critical to the economic future of the North.”
John Jarvis, the Northern Way’s transport director, said: “If National Grid relocates the electricity transmission lines as they are currently planning to do, it is essential that the option is kept open for the electricity lines to be put back again into the older tunnels at some future date to provide for a new rail line across the Pennines. We appreciate that in the absence of a specific proposal to reopen the Woodhead corridor for rail, the cost of losing the Woodhead Tunnel is difficult to measure.
“However it is likely, based on the work that the Northern Way has carried out to date, that a new higher speed rail route across the Pennines will need to be built in the next 15-30 years.
“Without the availability of the Woodhead Tunnels, this would involve large-scale, expensive tunnelling and would dramatically increase the costs to build any new rail line across the Pennines.”
Mr Jarvis has written to Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly urging her to keep all options – and tunnels – open for the North.
A Department for Transport spokesman said the Government was considering the options for Wood head Tunnel, but was unlikely to make any high-speed rail decisions before the next transport review in 2012.