THE first railway to tunnel through the Pennines owed everything to its famous engineer, George Stephenson.

Commissioned to build the Manchester & Leeds Railway, he chose a route that had the then supreme challenge of driving the one-and-three-quarter mile long Summit tunnel between Littleborough and Todmorden.

It required a labour force of around a thousand men and boys, many of them toiling ceaselessly below ground in pitch darkness. They relied on matches to light candles, their clay pipes and gunpowder to blast the solid rock.

It was a lethal combination and 41 had died by the time the tunnel was opened in 1841.

George Stephenson recognised the limitations of early locomotives and avoided steep gradients at all costs. East of Todmorden the line to Leeds stuck to the bottom of the Calder Valley to the great dismay of towns such as Halifax and Huddersfield that were denied the benefits of the new railway age.

Eventually Halifax got its own branch line, although it left much to be desired. A local paper, referring to the ‘miserable, dirty and disagreeable’ facilities, concluded that ‘there is not a town from Caithness to Cornwall which could exhibit a more filthy doghole of a place in which all the railway traffic has so long been conducted’.

Bradford fared no better. Passengers had to leave Manchester to Leeds trains at Brighouse and then suffer an uncomfortable seven-mile journey over rough roads in horse-drawn coaches.

Hopes ran high when a railway from Halifax to Bradford was opened in 1850 but these were not realised.

EL Ahrons, one of the most acerbic writers of the day, referred to the terminus as a dreadful bottleneck providing ‘an unceasing wellspring of torrid language in which the railwaymen and the general public took a hearty share’.

It was Ahrons who had much to say when in 1847 the Manchester & Leeds line optimistically became part of the newly formed Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway. Describing it as ‘probably the most degenerate railway in the kingdom’, he highlighted its ‘ugly inconvenient stations, broken-down engines and dirty carriages, and superlative unpunctuality’.

Largely controlled by cotton men from Manchester, it was thus beyond hope from a perspective taken by West Riding wool men.

The only redeeming feature was that its failings provided a rare source of agreement for inhabitants of the two counties, who otherwise argued over virtually everything from Yorkshire Pudding versus Lancashire Hotpot down to the finer points of country cricket.

Among the many inconvenient stations was Luddendenfoot, west of Sowerby Bridge. There is a certain irony that neglect by a junior clerk should be sufficient to put him second only to George Stephenson among those indelibly associated with the Manchester to Leeds Railway. His name was Branwell Brontë.

Leaving the company of his three literary sisters at Haworth, he was described as working in a ‘rude wooden hut’ and going ‘thoroughly to the bad’. Deprived of any stimulating company, he was soon dismissed for ‘constant and culpable carelessness’ and died a broken man with the end hastened by drink and opium.

Against many odds, the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway somehow reformed itself and became a thoroughly efficient railway with smart-looking expresses, complete with restaurant cars in the glory days of dining by rail.

By the early years of the 20th century, the Belfast Boat Train was pulling out of Bradford Exchange every night at around 8.0pm to head west to Fleetwood and connect with a night steamer across the Irish Sea.

In more recent times, the main line through the Calder Valley changed less than its surroundings. Comparing photographs of locations such as Sowerby Bridge in the 1950s with those taken 20 years later make it all too clear how the way of life had been transformed. The abundance of mill chimneys had gone.

After a long decline, the increase in rail travel has meant that the line was soon carrying far more frequent services than at any time in its history.

Trains from Leeds via Bradford and Halifax to Manchester Victoria were soon augmented by hourly services to Burnley and Blackpool.

George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railways’ and creator of the first line through the Pennines, would have been hugely impressed.

* Piercing the Pennines, by Bradford writer David Joy, explores the heroic railways linking Lancashire and Yorkshire and the stories behind the tunnels, railways and the magnificent feats of engineering that went into building them.

The book, which looks at the epic construction of railways in the harshest of conditions, with high loss of life, includes a range of illustrations, from period lithographs to present-day photographs.

Piercing the Pennines is published by Great Northern Books, priced £19.99. Call (01274) 735056 or visit