Summit Tunnel blaze was a threat to towns' future

VICTORIAN engineers built things to last – and 25 years ago this week an example of their handiwork faced its most serious test.

For three days from December 20, 1984, Summit Tunnel, one of the major rail links between Yorkshire and Lancashire blazed after a train travelling from the Haverton Hill Chemical Works, near Middlesbrough, to Glazebrook, near Warrington, hit difficulties in the then 140-year-old tunnel.

At around 6am four out of the 10 tankers, pulled by a locomotive, became derailed in the centre of the tunnel.

It seemed a miracle nobody was injured as the driver and guard were able to escape the site and firefighters were forced to flee when one of the tankers gave way to the immense pressure inside it and threatened to explode.

Driver Stanley Marshall later told the public inquiry into the crash, when asked how fast he and his guard left the tunnel, which is 2,869 yards long, replied: "If Sebastian Coe can run it in four minutes, we certainly bettered that."

They had managed to drive the engine and three front tankers clear, helping reduce the damage caused by the crash, which the inquiry found had been caused by an axle failure.

Around 140 residents from 80 homes had to be evacuated as firemen and engineers could only watch, waiting for the tankers to either explode or burn out.

They were joined by 60 workers from a Littleborough factory and the evacuation lasted 27 hours, when an explosion was feared.

Head of Calderdale police Chief Supt Trevor Davey said there had been confusion over the liquid carried in the tankers, receiving conflicting reports that the tankers contained gas oil and then petrol – the markings were similar – and evacuation was the safest course of action.

On Friday, December 21, 1984, while the tankers were still alight, firefighters re-entered the tunnel to determine the extent of the fire.

There was still the risk of an explosion although gallons of foam had been poured down the tunnel's ventilation shafts throughout the previous night in a attempt to the quell the flames which, at their peak, could be seen for miles around from the same shafts.

The heat reached more than 6,000 degrees centigrade in the tunnel, with eight of the 10 tankers splitting and releasing around 40,000 gallons of what turned out to be petrol.

If there is a word that sums up every aspect of Summit it is resilience.

By Saturday, trains were able to run from Todmorden to Leeds and a bus link between the town and Littleborough set up for rail travellers, although it was months before the tunnel could reopen following extensive repairs to brickwork and track.

Evacuated residents were able to return to their homes on the Friday afternoon, having spent Thursday night with friends and relatives or in Calderdale Council accommodation.

Rochdale Road, which had been closed to traffic, was reopened on the Saturday after fire chiefs had made it clear there was no further chance of an explosion.

The public inquiry, held in Manchester, praised the work of the professionals, which included Todmorden and Hebden Bridge firefighters and policemen and women, and of the townspeople who had reacted so quickly.

Among those Supt Davey singled out for praise were Todmorden Rotary Club, helping volunteers and evacuees alike, and Todmorden Cricket Club, the latter allowing a helicopter to land on the cricket field before it flew over the tunnel to allow officials to decide how to tackle to blaze.

Tony Pollard, still running his fish and chip shop Grandma Pollard’s at Rochdale Road, Walsden, provided 250 hot meals for those working at the scene. Tony said at the time: “It was the least I could do – they were working in freezing conditions.”

In August 1985, Todmorden Round Table staged one of its biggest fund-raising events when Calder Valley people – and many more who came from miles around – were able to take part in a “walk-through” of the now repaired, at a cost of 1 million, tunnel before it reopened to rail traffic.

Back in 1841, the first train was driven through the tunnel by driver William Landless, and among the walkers was his great-grandson, 78-year-old Edwin Landless, of Liverpool.

The blaze had put the future of the Calder Vale line in doubt, a possibility which would surely have had repercussions for Pennine towns like Todmorden and Hebden Bridge which are renowned for commuter traffic.

Most resilient of all had been the work completed by William Landless’s contemporaries, the Victorian engineers and workmen who had built the tunnel at some cost of human life, and which was designed by George Stephenson, whose great-great nephew Robert Stephenson Roper, of Rochdale, also took part in the tunnel walk.

Their superb workmanship – six bricks thick, with only the first layer in the tunnel having fallen apart under the intense heat of the blaze – was instrumental in saving the tunnel from being irreparably damaged.

They had done their work well, and Summit still stands as testament to them.