Totley Tunnel - a marvel of rail construction technology

July 30, 2021
Explore the significance of Totley Tunnel, a crucial railway connection between Sheffield and Manchester, in this insightful blog.

Humans are resilient and intelligent creatures, as you can see from many feats of railway engineering. The Channel Tunnel, the Ribblehead Viaduct, the Snowdon Mountain Railway and Totley Tunnel.

If you’ve ever travelled by train from Sheffield to Manchester, you have the limestone and gritstone wedges of inhospitable terrain as barriers. The Dark Peak, to the north, is generally gritstone, whilst the White Peak of Derbyshire and Staffordshire is predominantly limestone.

Gritstone dominates the space between Manchester and Sheffield and it even has its own titular long distance walk called the Gritstone Edges, starting from Bamford. The rock itself is incredibly hard and weather resistant and needs specialist equipment to make use of its many qualities.

The Totley Tunnel is the second longest rail tunnel in Britain, taking 5 years to plan, design and build before its formal opening on the Hope Valley line in 1888. It really is a miracle of Victorian engineering - let’s explain why.

That gritstone rock wasn’t easy to drill into. They didn’t have the giant mechanical HS2 boring machines of today - instead they used explosives, gelignite, an inexact science. Water was encountered in the form of underground springs. Not feeble amounts either - 118 litres per second which meant drains had to be installed.

Its workforce suffered too - from typhoid, diphtheria, smallpox etc - caused by 24 hour working conditions in this damp tunnel, exacerbated by limited washing and sanitary facilities as 20 to 30 men shared a small house.

There’s other factors too that caused problems - heat and humidity in summer and poor ventilation until a turbine fan and air shafts were created - one still visible today from the Sheffield leg.

There’s no doubt that this was an incredible achievement in its day.We wonder too how Raildiary could have helped if a similar project was undertaken now.

In this age of cost accountability, there would be clearly a need for fiscal measurement to ensure budgets were adhered to where possible. The 160 tons of gelignite used to blow a way through the almost 4 mile length would not have been cheap in 1888, nor would a HS2 Boring Machine which you can see here

These TBMs alone had an estimated purchase cost of £16 million to £18 million each - and that was in government guidance from June 2015.

We are a specialist, dedicated provider of software for the rail industry. Our app has everything you need in one place, with detailed reporting and analytics, along with real-time data collection.

Rail construction hasn’t stood still - but the technology to plan, collect data, analyse and report have - so why don’t you book a demo today by clicking the link below?

Find out more about Raildiary

And the next time you travel on a train, take note of what our forbearers achieved and how this is being emulated today with projects like HS2.

Totley Tunnel - a marvel of rail construction technology

Will Doyle


I am an experienced RICS chartered Quantity Surveyor​ with first-hand experience of how the consistent capture and analysis of data can transform global project delivery.

Raildiary LinkedIn
Table of Contents

Keep up with Gather

Make sure you never miss out! Sign up to our monthly newsletter to keep up with the biggest news stories in construction and the latest Gather updates. Full of our latest case studies, blogs and fun quizzes!

Thank you for subscribing!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Gather needs the contact information you provide to us to contact you about our products and services. You may unsubscribe from these communications at anytime. For information on how to unsubscribe, as well as our privacy practices and commitment to protecting your privacy, check out our Privacy Policy.