The Sheffield, Ashton-under-Lyne & Manchester Railway — also known as the Woodhead Line — was a line that opened in stages from 1841 and 1845 between Manchester and Sheffield, via Woodhead and Penistone. At the time, the Woodhead Tunnel was the longest in England at just over 3 miles.
A branch line from Ashton-under-Lyne to Stalybridge opened in 1845.
The company's stations at Stalybridge and Penistone were subsequently used as junctions for lines through to Huddersfield — namely the Huddersfield & Manchester Railway and the Huddersfield & Sheffield Junction Railway respectively.
Together with the Sheffield & Lincolnshire Junction Railway and the Great Grimsby & Sheffield Junction Railway, it became the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway (MS&LR) on 1 January 1847. It seems likely that the Huddersfield & Manchester Railway & Canal Company could have been the fourth company in the merger had they not decided against it at a meeting held on 28 February 1846.
The single line through the Woodhead Tunnel proved to be a bottleneck and a second tunnel was constructed between 1847 and 1852, opening on 2 February 1852.
Penistone Station was relocated in 1874 from its original location to the north of the town to the junction with the line to Huddersfield. Prior to that, passengers with connections had to walk about half a mile.
The MS&LR became the Great Central on 1 August 1897, with a service from Manchester London Road Station to Marylebone Station in London commencing in March 1899.
The electrification of the line necessitated the construction of a third Woodhead Tunnel, which was constructed between February 1949 and June 1954. Unfortunately there were six fatalities during the building of the double-line tunnel. Once opened, the two Victorian tunnels were closed off.
British Rail desire to run more freight trains along the Woodhead Line led to the withdrawal of passengers services in January 1970. However, the decline in freight — particularly coal and steel — led to the line's closure in 1981.
Of the two Victorian tunnels, one subsequently suffered from roof collapses and the other was used by National Grid PLC to carry a 400 kV electricity link under the Peak District National Park. Despite hopes that the newer tunnel might remain available for re-use in the future, National Grid took the decision in 2008 to use it for the electricity link. In 2013, the Government announced that the Victorian tunnels would be sealed off.