Woods was born in London on 28 April 1814 and died thjere on 14 June 1903. His life is covered by Marshall and in an excellent ODNB biography by W.F. Spear, where the hand of its revision by Mike Chrimes is clearly visible. Not included in threadbare Oxford Companion, After an education at private schools, in 1834 he became an assistant to John Dixon, recently appointed chief engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Woods was placed in charge of the section between Liverpool and Newton-le-Willows, including the tunnel then under construction by William Mackenzie between Lime Street and Edge Hill stations. In 1836 he succeeded Dixon as chief engineer. Despite the amalgamation of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway with the Grand Junction Railway in 1845, Woods remained, until the end of 1852, in charge of the works on the Liverpool and Manchester section. These included the construction of the Victoria Tunnel (completed 1848) between Edge Hill station and the docks, a large goods station adjoining Waterloo Dock, and a line between Patricroft and Clifton, opened in 1850. In 1853 he established himself in London as a consulting engineer.
Woods's work on the Liverpool and Manchester line enabled him to observe at first hand the strengths and weakness of this pioneer railway. He played a prominent part in various early experimental investigations into the working of railways. When Count de Pambour visited Britain in 1834, and again in 1836, Woods assisted him with his experiments into fuel consumption and locomotive performance. Pambour's work was widely reported, and translated into English (A Practical Treatise on Locomotive Engines, 2nd edn, 1840). Woods gained from this experience, and was soon conducting his own experiments. In 1836 he made observations on the waste of fuel due to condensation in the long pipes conveying steam about a quarter of a mile to the winding-engines used for hauling trains through the Edge Hill Tunnel. He was a member of a committee, with Dr Dionysius Lardner, appointed by the British Association in 1837 to report on the resistance of railway trains, and presented a separate report (British Association Report, 1841, 247). In 1838 he presented On certain forms of locomotive engines. Trans Instn Civil Engrs, 2.13755. This contains some of the earliest accurate details of the working of locomotives, and for which he was awarded a Telford medal. The consumption of fuel in locomotives was the subject of a paper presented by him to the Liverpool Polytechnic Society in 1843 (Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering, 2/5, 1844), and of a contribution to a new edition of Thomas Tredgold's The Steam Engine in 1850.
In 1853 Woods and W.P. Marshall conducted experiments on LNWR locomotives between London and Rugby, and their three reports to the railway company recommended weights and dimensions for various classes of engines. These were followed, in 1854, by a joint report on the relative merits of coal and coke as locomotive fuel. Woods's research provided an invaluable insight into early locomotive design and performance, and influenced many of his contemporaries.
The consultancy work undertaken by Woods was chiefly connected with the railways of South America, including the Central Argentine Railway, the Copiapo extension, Santiago and Valparaiso, and Coquimbo railways in Chile, and the MollendaArequipa and CallaoOroya lines in Peru. Many of these lines were built by the American contractor Henry Meiggs, with Woods acting as UK consultant. He was responsible not only for surveys and construction, but also for the design of rolling stock to meet the somewhat special conditions. His son Edward Harry assisted him in much of this work, and acted as resident engineer and manager on the Central Argentine Railway. Other engineering work included a wrought-iron pier, 2400 feet long, built on screw piles at Pisco on the coast of Peru, a quay wall built at Bilbao in 1877, and Montevideo waterworks.
In the battle of the gauges he favoured the Irish gauge (5 feet 3 inches) or the Indian gauge (5 feet 6 inches). He regarded break of gauge as a mistake, and in 1872 opposed the introduction of a new gauge in Victoria, Australia. In 1877, as president of the mechanical science section of the British Association, he delivered an address on Adequate brake power for railway trains. Elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1846, he was president in 18867. In 1884 he was president of the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers. Woods was buried at Chenies, Buckinghamshire.