Castles in the Air


If that is the solution then what is the problem? That was my initial reaction to the suggestion that a tunnel could link the M1 with the M67. The idea is that a road and rail tunnel could start somewhere near Junction 36 of the M1 and come out of the ground near the M67 just east of Manchester1.

Details are scarce but two questions come immediately to mind. What is meant by a road and rail tunnel? Surely not trains running alongside cars and HGVs in the same tunnel as that would expose the road vehicles to the piston effect of high speed trains, something which designers of the Channel Tunnel needed to counter. In that case, the two running tunnels were connected via piston relief ducts2. So are we looking at two rail tunnels? If so then it is difficult to see how it could start at Junction 36 since there is no nearby rail connection.

Are we looking at a road tunnel? Something like Mont Blanc? If so a tunnel from Junction 36 to the M67 would be around 23 miles in length, i.e. three times as long as Mont Blanc.

The M1 is already heavily congested so could it really cope with the volume of traffic which would need to be attracted if a new trans-Pennine tunnel were to be a self-financing option? There is, however, another problem to which there have been no answers and that is the construction phase. Not something we should be willing to inflict on residents of villages such as Tankersley, Birdwell and Hoyland.

Taking Mont Blanc as an example of a road tunnel we can see the scale of the work its construction would entail. Mont Blanc is 7.2 miles long, has a diameter of 28 feet and a height of 14 feet3. Not high enough for some modern HGVs. It took 4.6 million man-hours over a period of eight years to build during which 555,000 cubic metres, (Est 1.3 million tons4), of rock were removed using 700 tons of explosives. A further 60,000 tons of cement and 280,000 cubic metres of aggregate along with 600,000 gallons of fuel and 37 GWh of energy added to the total. Multiply all that by a factor of three for a comparable tunnel under the Pennines and we probably have something in the region of 400,000 HGV movements.

Would a copy of Mont Blanc be adequate? Probably not given that it was considered too small some years ago. There were plans to widen it which were abandoned due to lack of finance and opposition from local residents concerned about traffic volume and poor air quality3. An indication that something similar would affect the areas around both Junction 36 and the M67.

There are dangers in all forms of transport but the consequences can be much greater in the confined space of a tunnel. In 1999 39 people were killed at Mont Blanc when a lorry carrying flour and margarine caught fire5. The tunnel remained closed for three years. A blockage in a 23 mile road tunnel would leave traffic backed up for miles with no way of retracing its steps as it would be too narrow for long vehicles to turn around. A fire in the Channel Tunnel in 1996 did £200 million of damage, closed one tunnel and disrupted traffic for months6. In 2008 there was a further serious fire7.

The idea of a road tunnel under the Channel had been considered but was rejected  so we could ask why it would be suitable under the Pennines. So are we really looking at a Channel Tunnel as an option? If so from where to where? What provision would be required to manage traffic to prevent gridlock on the approaches to either railhead? Would drivers or hauliers actually be prepared to go through the hassle of embarking on and disembarking from trains and pay handsomely for the privilege? The more one looks at this issue the more questions present themselves and all we can currently conclude is that the proponents have not thought beyond a few sound-bites.

Earlier tunnels were sunk when finance was more easily available than it is today so, given all the potential pitfalls, will it ever happen? Probably not but maybe some ‘consultants’ hope to be paid vast sums to write ‘feasability studies’ running to hundreds of pages only to gather dust in the ‘Too Difficult’ tray.

We are all aware of the problems of cross-Pennine traffic. The A628 through Penistone and onto the Woodhead Pass is congested with more and larger vehicles than it was ever intended to carry. Severe weather leads of closure in winter and the only motorway link is the M62 which adds to journey times for traffic travelling between Barnsley and south Manchester but the M62 exists now and could be further upgraded for far less cost than some unproven and grandiose scheme to tunnel under the Peak District.

Dumas coined the phrase ‘building castles in the air; a few years after the Montgolfier brothers had flown their first balloon and 200 years later its seems that one thing still in plentiful supply is hot air!


  1. BBC Radio Sheffield 2/X/12
  2. Channel Tunnel – Supplement to Civil Engineering Vol 108 November 1995
  5. Autoroutes et Tunnel du Mont Blanc
  6. The Independent 24/III/98
  7.  5/V/09