*I originally wrote this article for RAIL magazine, where it appeared in the summer of 2021. I’m reproducing it here with added pictures*.
I’ve always enjoyed crossing the Pennines by train but it was only when I moved to the Calder Valley in 2010 that I really began to appreciate the history of the area and the way the railways revolutionised life in the valley – and beyond. It’s a fascinating story that goes right back to the very early days of the railways and involves some of the most famous railway names.
The Manchester and Leeds railway had been proposed as early as 1825 but it was the successful opening of the Liverpool and Manchester in September 1830 that spurred investors on to bring the line to fruition following a meeting in Manchester in October of the same year. The board of 29 Directors appointed George Stephenson and James Walker as joint engineers. Each proposed a route. Walker’s was shorter but required expensive civil engineering. Stephenson proposed a route that was 13 miles longer as it weaved around the course of the river Calder through West Yorkshire but it had the advantage that it linked many more towns en-route.
The first bill to build the line was presented on the 10 March 1831 but failed due to the dissolution of Parliament the next Month. Appeals to reintroduce the bill were thrown out and it another five years before the process restarted with a second bill in February 1836. By this time the finances of some supporting the scheme had improved with the payment of slavery compensation money and the bill received Royal Assent on 4 July 1836. The company was authorised to build a line from Oldham Road, Manchester to a junction with the proposed North Midland Railway at the village of Normanton, 15 miles to the south-east of Leeds. Thomas Longridge Gooch (brother of the GWRs Daniel Gooch) was appointed as Resident Engineer. Despite much opposition from the canal companies the line finally opened in three sections. Manchester to Littleborough, on July 4th, 1839, from Hebden Bridge to Normanton, on October 5th, 1840 and from Littleborough to Hebden Bridge through the Summit Tunnel on March 1st, 1841. When the line opened 10 trains a day ran in each direction with 4 on Sundays. The Sunday service was so contentious 4 of the company’s Directors resigned in protest!
The Summit tunnel was the biggest engineering challenge facing the engineers. Built on the highest section of the line work began in August 1838. Delays and problems during construction resulted in the contractors being sacked with George Stephenson taking over supervision of the work himself. It was a mammoth task as the 2885 yard long, 22 foot high tunnel was dug by hand without the aid of modern machinery. The only mechanical aids were 13 stationary steam engines which were used to haul spoil up the ventilation shafts. The final cost of the tunnel was £251,000, which was £108,000 above the original estimate. Some things never change!
The tunnel has withstood the ravages of time, including a terrible accident in 1984 when a train carrying a million litres of petrol derailed in the tunnel and caught fire. Thankfully, the train crew managed to make their escape without injury. The spectacular conflagration burned for days and could be seen for miles with flames shooting high into the air from the tunnel vent shafts like some ghastly blowtorch. The recovery and repair work shut the tunnel until August 1985 when the line finally reopened to traffic.
The Summit tunnel’s not the only example of substantial Victorian engineering. At Gauxholme near Todmorden there’s a skew bridge over the Rochdale canal that was designed by George Stephenson. The single 31 m (102 ft) cast iron span consists of a pair of bowed ribs with vertical hangars projected above the ribs in an ornamental Gothic arcade. The abutments are semi-octagonal castellated turrets. The whole structure looks very grand and must have been incredibly impressive in its day, projecting the power of the new railways and Lording it over the old-fashioned Rochdale canal below. In 2020 the grade 2 listed bridge underwent a £3.7m restoration which involved grit blasting back to bare metal to allow structural repairs and a full repaint to take place.
Between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax stands the 23 arches of the tall Copley viaduct which was built in 1851 as part of the line from Milner Royd Junction to Dryclough Junction that was constructed in order to allow the railway to run direct trains from Manchester to Halifax. The new line opened on the 1st January 1852. The town had been linked by rail towards the East since 1st July 1844 when the steeply graded (1/45) line from Greetland Junction opened. Originally the town was a terminus as the line onwards to Bradford didn’t open until 1st August 1850.
In 1847 the Manchester and Leeds and several smaller railway companies had amalgamated to form a name that became synonymous with railways across the Industrial North – the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway. Under the ‘Lanky’ (as it was affectionately known) the railways of the Calder valley thrived, being the conduit that carried coal, cotton and wool across the land from Liverpool in the West to Hull in the East, thence to all parts of the Empire. Lines in the Calder valley continued to expand under the L&Y. On New Years day 1875 a short branch from Greetland to Stainland and Holywell Green opened. Another branch from Sowerby Bridge to Ripponden and Rishworth opened in stages between 1878 and 1881 with a plan to extend the line to Littleborough in Lancashire (knocking 5 miles of the original route via the Calder valley) although this never materialised. Coal traffic was so important to the line that new sorting sidings were opened at Mytholmroyd. As an illustration, in 1960 a freight train was booked to pass Hall Royd Jn, Todmorden (the junction for the Manchester an Burnley lines) every 17 minutes.
As well as freight the Calder valley carried Leeds/Bradford/Manchester/Liverpool expresses, boat trains from Leeds to Fleetwood for Belfast, and a network of local services, not to mention huge numbers of excursions for holiday traffic when the mills closed for the annual holidays. Motive power for the Calder valley was provided by the large locomotive depot at Sowerby Bridge. Opened in 1887, this 6 road, dead end shed serviced heavy freight locomotives or sent engines to shunt the yards at Halifax and throughout the valley and continued to do until it shut on January 4th 1964, rendered redundant by the opening of the new Healy Mills marshalling yard.
The railways importance in the valley slowly began to decline in the late 1920s due to competition from trams and motor buses and the two most recent additions to the network were the ones who suffered first. Passenger service were withdrawn from the Ripponden branch on the 8th July 1929 and from the Holywell branch on the 23rd September 1929 although both remained open for freight until 1958 and 1959 respectively. Another early casualty was the station at Copley between Sowerby Bridge and Halifax which closed on the 20th July 1931.
After WW2 the station at Eastwood near Todmorden was the first to close, shutting its doors for the last time on the 3rd December 1951. Walsden station succumbed on the 6th August 1961 whilst on the 6th June 1962 Greetland, Elland and Luddendenfoot closed to passengers. As an aside, Luddendenfoot once had an (in) famous Clerk, drunkard Branwell Bronte, brother to the famous Bronte sisters and writers. He was sacked from his post in March 1842 after an audit revealed a discrepancy in the books. Today, a blue plaque on the Jubilee Refreshment rooms at Sowerby Bridge station commemorates him. The final station in the area to close was Brighouse which saw its last train call on the 5th January 1970. The 1970-80s saw the continued decline in freight traffic as coal fell out of fashion, local goods yards closed and the cotton and woollen mills fell silent. Sowerby Bridge which was once such an important centre continued to shrink. A fire destroyed the huge station building in 1978. It was demolished in 1980 leaving a ticket office operating from what’s now the refreshment rooms. By the mid-1980s all the stations were unstaffed. Completing the decline was the withdrawal of passenger services from Halifax on the original 1844 line via Greetland Jn with the line being mothballed. Passenger services via the Copy Pit line via Burnley were almost non-existent until a merger of building societies encouraged BR to begin running a daily Preston – Bradford train. (which was the genesis of the present day hourly York – Blackpool services).
Passenger services along the Calder route were reduced to hourly Leeds-Halifax-Manchester trains. Freight had also been vastly reduced, the staple traffic being petroleum trains until a BR policy change in 1985 decreed the line was a strategic freight asset (the gradients were easier than the line via Stalybridge) so coal traffic (especially MGR services) returned. But better days were to come…
The 1990s saw a gradual build-up of services as passengers returned to the railways. Walsden station reopened on the 10th September 1990. Part of the success was down to the West Yorks Passenger Transport Executive which had been formed back in 1976 as well as privatisation – although the early days were rocky due to the Railtrack debacle and the early Northern franchise being let on a ‘no- growth’ basis. Trains became half-hourly and in 2000 services were reinstated between Halifax and Huddersfield, running hourly. This revived the station at Brighouse after a gap of 30 years with new platforms being built on the site of the old. The December 2008 timetable saw a Leeds – Southport service introduced that calls at Mirfield, Brighouse and Calder valley stations.
On 23 May 2010 a new kid on the block (Grand Central) began open access services between Bradford Interchange and London King’s Cross, calling at Halifax, Brighouse and Mirfield. Another happy event occured in May 2015 when the Todmorden curve finally re-opened after 40 years. The single track forms a triangle East of the station, allowing an hourly service to run from Manchester Victoria to Blackburn adding valuable connections and extra journey opportunities. More was to come with the introduction in May 2019 of an hourly Leeds – Chester service via Halifax and the Calder valley although this change also saw services calling at Sowerby Bridge and Mytholmroyd pruned back.
Of course, it’s not just the quantity of services that’s improved, it’s the quality too!
The line’s had two types of train that have become synonymous with the route. Due to the gradients on the Calder Valley British Rail ordered 30 three-car DMUs from the Birmingham Railway and Carriage Workshops in 1961. The driving cars were equipped with 180hp Rolls Royce engines, giving them the highest power/weight ratio of any DMU of that era. A revised design of the earlier Class 104s the units were designated Class 110 and became known as the Calder Valley units. 20 were allocated to Bradford Hammerton St and 10 to Manchester Newton Heath although in their later years they were all based at Leeds Neville Hill. The trailer cars were removed in the early 1980s, making the units even nippier. They lasted in service until 1989 but by which time they’d been displaced from Calder Valley services by seven Class 155 ‘Super Sprinters’ (155341-347) purchased by West Yorkshire Passenger Transport, who also earned the sobriquet ‘Calder Valley’ units. These are the only Class 155s that weren’t converted to Class 153 single car units and although they’re still in in service with northern they’re no longer tied to the valley.
In 2020 the last Pacer trains which had provided many local services since the 1980s vanished with little fanfare due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They’d hung on due to late deliveries of new and cascaded stock with the final one not being withdrawn until 27th November. Now services are operated by a mix of Class 150, 153, 156, 158 and 195 units although the 156s tend to stick to the Manchester-Todmorden-Blackburn circuit. The 3-car CAF built 195/1s have taken over Leeds – Chester and York – Blackpool services whilst 2-car Class 195/0s share work on the Leeds – Manchester Victoria route with older units. The route also hosts the oldest of the 2nd generation units in the shape of the 3-car Class 150/0s which have been transferred to Northern from W Midlands services around Birmingham. Whilst 2 car trains were the norm in the valley just a few years ago they’re now rare, most services are 3-4 car (despite the pandemic).
The line’s an important diversionary route for Trans-Pennine Express especially when the Colne Valley route is closed due to disruption or maintenance work on the Standedge tunnel. It’s likely TPE will be seen more often when the multi-billion pound Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade starts to affect Huddersfield station.
After a long period of decline freight services through the Calder valley are buoyant although many services are ‘as required’ or only run on certain days. The longest running freight service is the tanker train between Lindsay oil refinery on Humberside to Preston Docks. Running via the Calder and Copy Pit lines this trains been worked by Colas for several years, bringing Class 56s and 70s to the route.
Nowadays, coal is no longer king – biomass is! In October 2017 GBRf began running trains from Liverpool Docks to Drax power station via the Calder valley using a fleet of specially built high-capacity lidded wagons. Currently up to 8-9 services a day (with less at weekends) are diagrammed through the valley using either Class 60s or 66s. The same year GBRf begun running spoil trains from Manchester Collyhurst St to Scunthorpe via the Calder. Another Manchester service run by GBRf is aggregates to Pendleton and/or Bredbury from the Arcrow quarry on the Settle-Carlisle line which was reopened to rail in 2016. DB Cargo operate a flow of waste from Knowsley (Merseyside) to Wilton (Teeside) as well as a Friday Seaforth – Tinsley empty steel. Freightliner put in an appearance with their Mondays only Leeds Hunslet – Tunstead empty bogie hoppers. As well as scheduled freight there’s a variety of Network Rail services that use the line depending on requirements plus excursions and specials and the odd steam locomotive although Covid has curtailed many of these activities for the moment.
The introduction of the new CAF built Class 195s to the Calder valley services in October 2019 was the culmination of a series of infrastructure improvements on the line that cost several hundred million pounds. To accommodate the new trains platforms at Walsden. Todmorden. Hebden Bridge. Mytholmroyd. Sowerby Bridge and Brighouse had to be lengthened. In October 2018 a three day blockade of the line to commission the resignalling scheme saw the last three traditional signalboxes on the route at Hebden Bridge, Milner Royd Jn and Halifax taken out of service although all three remain standing.
Other work to the route has included relaying miles of track and some linespeed improvements which (coupled with the resignalling) have knocked a few minutes off the timetable and helped service resilience. At Todmorden station bridges have been renewed and redundant structures removed. Some overbridges have been renewed and foot crossings replaced by bridges – all of which have clearence suitable for overhead wires if and when the day finally comes for the line to be electrified. In 2015 the Northern Electrification task force listed the Calder Valley (Leeds to Manchester and Preston via Bradford and Brighouse) as their highest priority for electrification that should be included in Network Rails CP6 spending plans. Sadly, the report came to nothing. Another welcome investment has been Mytholmroyd rail station receiving £3.95 million funding through the West Yorkshire-plus Transport Fund for a new 181 space car park which should help increase footfall and take traffic off the main A646 road along the valley. A similar scheme at Hebden Bridge which is due to start shortly will provide another 45 spaces.
The investment the line has seen in recent years is a welcome boost but there’s more in the pipeline. Plans are being finalised for a new station in Elland which lost its original station in 1962. The proposal is that the new one will open in December 2022 – almost exactly 60 years since the original closure. Meanwhile, there’s exciting plans for Halifax which would see the the area transformed into a bus/rail interchange. The current high level entrance would be demolished and a new split level building erected as well as improving access to the South of the station by reopening an old underpass. Reinstating a third platform is also mooted.
The developments in recent years haven’t all been about bricks and mortar or track and trains. The Calder valley has a very strong community rail focus with friends groups looking after many of the stations on the line. At Mirfield and in conjunction with Grand Central and local youth groups the friends have transformed the dingy underpass outside the station with murals and lighting and revitalised the massive derelict flowerbed on the island platform (site of the old station building). The group at Brighouse have turned the station into a colourful place festooned with plants and flowers all year round. At Sowerby Bridge another group based around the Jubilee Refreshment rooms have added a garden complete with original railway features, planters on the platforms and a series of information boards relating the history of the town and its famous residents. They’re an educational way of whiling away the time whilst waiting for your train. As well as gardening the group at Mytholmroyd have been instrumental in getting the huge old four-storey station building brought back to life. After being vacant since 1985 the property has been restored by funds from Network Rail and the Railway Heritage Trust (amongst others). Covid has delayed finding new occupants but the intention is to make spaces available to community groups and businesses. It’s been a mammoth task that illustrates the tangible benefits volunteers bring to both their communities and the railways. Despite the groups being unable to carry out their normal range of activities because of the pandemic the groups are bouncing back and making up for time lost over the past year, returning the stations to the attractive places they were before anyone had heard of Covid 19.
Photography along the line.
As you can imagine, there’s some great photographic opportunities on a line hemmed in by the high hills of the Pennines but it’s not just the lineside, Hebden Bridge station is a wonderful period piece that retains its original buildings and a selection of old wooden signs and running in boards that make a great backdrop for pictures.
Nowadays it’s very difficult to recreate some of the images from the 1960s – 70s because trees have reclaimed much of the valley, but there are some wonderful spots where you can get high above the railway. Gauxholme/Walsden is an excellent location as there’s footpaths aplenty that allow unhindered views up and down the line and into Todmorden. Autumn’s a lovely time to visit as the tree cover near the line is ablaze with colour. For the adventurous who don’t mind a bit of a hike there’s plenty of opportunities to be had around Todmorden as the hills provide a great platform to watch trains cross the viaduct that bisects the centre of town, giving a historic backdrop of Victorian architecture. There’s also a road bridge next to the junction at Hall Royd where the line to Copy Pit diverges. At Mytholmroyd there’s several bridges for shots along the line. Halifax provides similar opportunities as Todmorden. A steep climb from the station will take you up to Beacon Hill where the whole of Halifax is laid out behind the station, including the magnificent Piece Hall. So, whether you like a rural, industrial or historical background for your pictures, there’s plenty of options in the Calder Valley.
Now that Covid travel restrictions are easing, why not come and visit? There’s plenty to see, visit or photograph and local businesses will welcome you with open arms! A West Yorkshire DaySaver ticket covers lines East of Walsden and costs just £8.30.