Great Central Main Line

Great Central Main Line

The Great Central Main Line (GCML), also known as the London Extension of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway was a main railway line in England that linked Sheffield with Marylebone Station in London via Nottingham and Leicester. Opened in 1899, it was the last main line railway built in Britain until High Speed 1 opened in 2003. The construction of the line was a financial disaster for the MS&LR, shortly renamed as Great Central Railway which had previously been a moderately successful trans-pennine provincial railway. However the inspired leadership by the General Manager Sam Fay (later knighted for his role in the Railway Operating Division in WW1) succeeded in turning this disaster around.

Originally, the southern part of the route into London was over existing tracks mainly built by the Metropolitan Railway (MetR) and shared with that company. However, non-cooperation on the MetR's part caused the GCR to build the Great Western and Great Central Joint Railway joint line, which by-passed the greater part of the MetR's tracks, except for a shorter section on the approach to Marylebone. At the northern end, at Sheffield, it connected Woodhead Route which linked Manchester and other GCR lines in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.


In 1864 Sir Edward Watkin took over directorship of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway. He had grand ambitions for the company: he had plans to transform it from a provincial middle-of-the-road railway company into a major national player. Watkin was a visionary who wanted to build a new railway line that would not only link his network to London, but which one day would be expanded and link to a future Channel Tunnel. This ambition was never fulfilled. He grew tired of handing over potentially lucrative London-bound traffic over to rivals, and, after several attempts to co-build a line to London with other companies, believed that the MS&LR needed its own route to the capital. At the time many people questioned the wisdom of building the line, as all the significant population centres which the line traversed were already served by other railway companies' lines.

In the 1890s the MS&LR set about building its own line, having received Parliamentary approval on 28 March 1893, for the London Extension. Building work started in 1895: the line opened for passenger traffic on 15 March 1899, and for goods traffic on 11 April 1899. The London extension was the last mainline railway line to be built in Britain until section one of High Speed 1 opened in 2003. It was also the shortest lived intercity railway line. The new line, 92 miles (147km) in length, was built from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to join the existing Metropolitan Railway (MetR) Extension at Quainton Road where the line became joint MetR/GCR owned and returned to GCR metals at Harrow for the final section to Marylebone.

Features of the line were:
* Unlike other railway lines in Britain, the line was built to an expanded continental loading gauge which meant it could accommodate larger sized continental trains, in anticipation of traffic to a future Channel Tunnel. There is, however, a popular myth that the GCR was built to the standard continental Berne loading gauge - impossible, since the Berne gauge convention was not held until 1912.
* The line was engineered to very high standards: a ruling gradient of 1 in 176 (exceeded in only a few locations on the London extension) was employed; curves of a minimum radius of 1 mile (except in city areas) were used; and there was only one level crossing between Sheffield Victoria and London Marylebone (at Beighton, ironically still in use).
* The standardised design of stations, almost all of which were built to an "island platform" design with one platform between the two tracks instead of two at each side. This was so that the tracks only needed to be moved further away from the platform if continental trains were to traverse the line, rather than wholesale redesign of stations. It would also aid any future plans to add extra tracks (as was done in several locations).The cost of building the line was huge and overran its original budget of £3.5 million by a factor of three. In order to get permission to build the line the Company had to agree to put parts of the line through tunnels to avoid upsetting the local land owners. It was so expensive that the original plans for their London terminus at Marylebone had to be scaled back drastically.

Traffic on the London extension

The London Extension's main competitor was the Midland Railway which had served the route between London the East Midlands and Sheffield since the 1860s on a different route. Traffic was slow to establish itself on the new line, passenger traffic especially so. Poaching customers away from the established lines into London was more difficult than the GCR's builders had hoped. However, there was some success in appealing to higher class 'business' travellers in providing high speed luxurious trains. These were in a way the first long distance commuter trains. Passenger traffic was never heavy throughout the line's existence, but freight traffic grew healthily and became the lifeblood of the line.

The First World War and the hostile European political climate which followed, ended any possibility of a Channel Tunnel being constructed within the GCR's lifetime. The various Channel Tunnel schemes, including one in 1883 which prompted Sir Edward Watkin and the MS&LR to construct the London extension, but which foundered on the fear of French invasion; and further work in the 1920s, but yet again vetoed for similar reasons, probably ended any possibility of any such construction being constructed within the GCR's lifetime. The extension thereby lost much of its "raison d'etre", and almost certainly led to its being a casualty of the Beeching Axe in the 1960s.

In the 1923 Grouping the Great Central Railway was merged into the London and North Eastern Railway, which in 1948 was nationalised along with the rest of Britain's railway network.

Rundown and closure

From the late 1950s onwards the freight traffic (mostly coal and limestone) upon which the line relied started to decline, and the GCR route was largely neglected as other railway lines were thought to be more important. It was designated a duplicate of the Midland Main Line and transferred to the London Midland Region, whose management still had loyalties to former companies (Midland/LMS) and against their rivals GCR/LNER. In 1960 the express passenger services were discontinued, leaving only a medium-fast service to London.

In the 1960s Beeching era, Dr Beeching decided that the London to northern England route was already well served by other railway lines, and that most of the traffic on the GCR could be diverted to other lines. Closure became inevitable.The stretches of the line between Rugby and Aylesbury, and Nottingham and Sheffield were closed in 1966, leaving only an unconnected stub between Rugby and Nottingham on which a skeleton passenger service operated. This last stretch of the line was closed in 1969.

The closure of the GCR was the largest single closure of the Beeching era, and one of the most controversial. Indeed, in a contemporary letter published in the Daily Telegraph of 28 September 1965, Lord Lanesborough commented that " [a] mong the main lines in the process of closure, surely the prize for idiotic policy must go to the destruction of the until recently most profitable railway per ton of freight and per passenger carried in the whole British Railways system, as shown by their own operating statistics. These figures were presented to monthly management meetings until the 1950s, when they were suppressed as "unnecessary", but one suspects really "inconvenient" for those proposing Beeching type policies of unnecessarily severe contraction of services [...] This railway is of course the Great Central forming a direct Continental loading gauge route from Sheffield and the North to the Thames valley and London for Dover and France [...] ". [The Daily Telegraph, 28 September 1965; Quoted in: Buckman, J., "The Steyning Line and its closure", S.B. Publications, 2002, p. 7.]


The line was very much a strategic one in its concept. It was not intended to mimic the Midland line, whereby it had to serve a great many centres of population: hence the fact that for much of the route it ran through sparsely populated countryside. Commencing at Annesley in Nottinghamshire, and running for 92 miles (147km) in a relatively direct southward route, it left the crowded corridor through Nottingham (and Nottingham Victoria railway station), which was also used by the Midland and the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), it struck off to its new railway station at Leicester Central, passing Loughborough "en route" where it crossed the Midland main line. Four railway companies served Leicester: GCR, Midland, GNR, and LNWR. Avoiding Wigston, the GCR served the town of Lutterworth before reaching the town of Rugby (at Rugby Central Station). At Woodford Halse there was a connection with the East & West Junction Railway (later incorporated into the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway), and slightly further south the GCR branch to the Great Western Railway station at Banbury. Apart from a small freight branch to Gotham between Nottingham and Loughborough, these were the only branch lines from the London extension. Although the line crossed several other railways, there were few physical connections.

Remaining infrastructure

In 1969 a group of enthusiasts and volunteers was formed to preserve a substantial chunk of the double-track main line. In due course it took over a stretch of the line between Loughborough and the northern outskirts of Leicester and in 1976 started operating it as a heritage railway line for tourists known as the Great Central Steam Railway. It remains very active to this day. Additionally a preserved single-track section under the auspices of the Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre at Ruddington is operated with occasional services by the Great Central Railway (Nottingham). There are plans to relink this section to the adjacent double-track section described above.

Passenger services still operate over the joint line between London Marylebone and Aylesbury and also between Marylebone and High Wycombe (continuing northwards to Princes Risborough, Bicester North, Banbury and Birmingham Snow Hill). Strictly speaking, neither of these routes are specifically of GCR heritage, although the line between Neasden South Junction and Northolt Junction was built, maintained and run by the GCR and is still in use today for all Chiltern services. The line north of Aylesbury still exists as far as Claydon L&NE Junction (the point at which the GCR passes the former Oxford–Cambridge Line), but has a freight-only service, which consists of binliner (containerised domestic waste) and spoil trains going to the landfill site at Calvert. A short extension of passenger services to a new Aylesbury Vale Parkway railway station [ [ Chiltern Railways ] ] on the Aylesbury-Bicester main road is due to open in 2009.

Sections around Rotherham are open for Passenger and Freight traffic, indeed a new station was built there in the 1980s using the Great Central lines which were closer to the town centre than the former Midland Railway station. Commuter EMU trains run from Hadfield to Manchester via Glossop. These are modern trains using 25 kV overhead wires that were installed to replace the 1500 V system. Daily steel trains run from Sheffield to Deepcar where they feed the nearby Stocksbridge Steelworks owned by Corus Group.


Many people have argued that the closure of the line was short-sighted, since the Channel Tunnel opened just 25 years after the line closed. Since construction started on the Channel Tunnel in the 1980s, a private company called Central Railway has put forward proposals to re-open the GCR largely as a freight link. These proposals face many difficulties, financial, environmental and social, and have twice been rejected by Parliament.

There is a petition on the website of the Prime Minister to reopen parts of the line between Beighton railway station and Nottingham railway station along with the line to Langwith Junction even the section of the Woodhead Route between Hadfield and Penistone via Woodhead as the Manchester to Penistone via Woodhead line as part of the British Rail network. [ [ Petition to: reinstate the former great central railway main line to london ] ]



* Dow, George (1965) "Great Central, Vol II : Domination of Watkin, 1864-1899", London : Ian Allan, 437p
* Healy, John M.C. "Echoes of the Great Central", Greenwich Editions (1987) ISBN 0-86288-076-9

External links

* [ The Last Main Line - history and photographic archive of Great Central Railway]
* [ British Railways in 1960 - Marylebone to Neasden South Jn. and Grendon Underwood Jn. to Holmewood Colliery (Part of Marylebone to Holmewood Colliery)]
* [ British Railways in 1960 - Neasden South Jn. to Grendon Underwood Jn.]
* [ British Railways in 1960 - Pilsley to Woodhead]
* [ British Railways in 1960 - Dunford West to Ardwick Jn.]
* [ British Railways in 1960 - Ardwick Jn. to Manchester London Road (Part of Crewe North Jn. to Manchester London Rd.]

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