Great Central Railway

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Great Central Railway


4141 Great Central Railway (1).jpg
GWR 5101 Class on the Great Central Railway
Gauge: standard
No. of stations: 4
Track: 8.25 miles (Leicester)
10 miles (Nottingham)
Headquarters: Loughborough &
Operated by: Great Central Railway plc

The Great Central Railway is a heritage railway in Leicestershire, named after the company that originally built this stretch of railway.

The Great Central is currently Britain's only double-track mainline heritage railway, with 5¼ miles of working double track, period signalling, locomotives and rolling stock. It runs for 8¼ in total from the large market town of Loughborough to a new terminus just north of Leicester.

Four stations are in operation, each restored to a period in the railway's commercial history; Loughborough Central to the 1950s, Quorn & Woodhouse to the Second World War and the remainder of the 1940s, Rothley to the Edwardian Era and Leicester North to the 1960s.

Background history

In 1897 the Great Central Railway itself was formed, becoming the last steam mainline in the United Kingdom. Two years later in 1899 "The London Extension" was officially opened to passenger and freight traffic, allowing more direct journeys from the capital to Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield and Manchester. The entire line was built to accommodate a European standard loading gauge and all but a few stations were single island platforms. This construction scheme was devised by chairman Sir Edward Watkin, who had envisioned his railway one day running under a Channel Tunnel to France, linking Britain with the continent.

This plan never came to fruition however as the Beeching report to begin cutback and closure was published in 1963, some 31 years before the tunnel was fully constructed. In the report, the line was listed as a duplicate of the Midland Main Line. Apart from the most Southern section into London, the line was closed as a through route in 1966 as part of the Beeching Axe, although a section of the line between Nottingham and Rugby remained open until 1969. The closure became one of Doctor Beeching's largest cuts. It was also famous for being one of the most controversial.


In 1969 local groups who opposed the closure gathered together for a meeting in a Leicester Central waiting room. The Mainline Preservation Group (MLPG) was soon formed with the aim of restoring a section of the railway so as to run large steam and diesel locomotives on double track in a heritage capacity and be able to recreate scenes from the past using these features. Work began on salvaging as much reusable material as possible for the project from the recent demolitions. The original plan was to restore the entire closed line from Nottingham Arkwright Street to Rugby Central, but this ambition was soon toned down to a smaller Loughborough to Leicester section due to time and financial constraints. British Rail retained a single track between the Loughborough and Ruddington for British Gypsum freight and access to the now-closed Ministry of Defence base.

The early years (1969-1976)

The MLPG received a lease on the station, buildings and most of the trackbed at Loughborough Central in 1970; this would become their base of operations. By the following year negotiations into purchasing the rest of the remaining railway had proven successful and the group were able to buy it for a mere £75,000. The rest of the Loughborough yard complex was secured in 1972. In the same year, the first coaching stock arrived on site. The first open day occurred in 1973, shortly after the arrival of working motive power. Passengers were offered simple wagon or coach rides run by small industrial locomotives. On 30 September 1973 LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 No. 5231 hauled the first passenger train since the railway's commercial closure to Quorn and back, but at the same time the Down line was being uplifted between Birstall and Quorn because of BR's increasing demands.

To purchase what was left of the track the MLPG was re-merged into a supporting charity, the Main line Steam Trust (MLST). The entire value of the eight miles of Up line were re-assessed by BR and swollen to £279,000; the MLST was now paying £3,300 a month just to keep it. A deal was set on 1 April 1976 that would see the remainder of the Down line ripped up if BR's cash demand were not raised. At this time passenger trains were still running as far as Rothley, but without an ample supply of working mainline classes the line had to resort to industrial tank engines working single track.

Great Central Railway plc

To purchase the land and track, Great Central Railway (1976) plc issued shares, and the MLPG transformed into the MLST, a charitable body to support the company.

Charnwood Borough Council agreed to purchase the land from BR and lease it to the railway for 99 years. However this still left the PLC the task of raising over £150,000 to purchase the track. Ultimately, the target was not met and only a single track between Loughborough and Quorn could be afforded (BR allowed more time to raise funds to purchase Quorn to Rothley). The double track from Rothley to Belgrave & Birstall was lifted along with the 'down' line from Loughborough to Rothley.

In the late 1980s the intention was announced to extend the line back to Belgrave & Birstall. The former station had been vandalised and the railway had no choice but to demolish the buildings. In 1990, a station called Leicester North was opened a hundred yards to the south of Belgrave & Birstall. This shift in location placed the new station inside Leicester's city boundary, allowing the 'Leicester' tag to be included in the name along with unlocking extra funds to assist in the construction.

The double track project (1991-present day)

With the exception of the short section between Bewdley North and Bewdley South signal boxes on the Severn Valley Railway, the GCR is currently the only standard gauge heritage railway in the UK with double track outside of stations. However, there are other preserved lines that were previously double track.

In the 1990s, David Clarke approached the railway about the possibility of double tracking the line. As a signalling enthusiast, David dreamed of operating a signal box on a double track main line, and so the campaign to raise funds to double the section between Quorn and Rothley was launched, with David himself providing a large amount of the capital.

Until signalling was complete the second track was operated separately from the main track. This provided a unique opportunity for trains to 'chase' each other between Quorn and Swithland.

After reaching Quorn, work moved ahead to extend the second track to Loughborough. The double track between Loughborough and Rothley opened on 1 June 2000. This gives additional capacity which is especially useful at galas, where up to six trains may be in operation at any one time. This enables the running of non-passenger carrying trains (freights, TPO set) during galas to a greater extent than any other heritage railway. It also means that the timetable can be generally adhered to, as delays do not cascade as they do on single track lines.

Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate has granted powers to run private test trains at up to 60 mph. Other special trains at public events run at up to 45 mph. Typically UK heritage railways are limited to a maximum speed of 25 mph.[1]

In 2004 a new signal box at Quorn opened, the only preserved box in the UK with a double track on either side. With this new signal box a train can, in theory, be dispatched from Loughborough every 10 minutes. A further signal box at Swithland Sidings has been fitted with Great Western Railway style signals in the style of the GCR/GWR joint line via High Wycombe, allowing for a further capacity increase on the preserved GCR. The full Swithland project was completed in May 2012.[2]

On 5 December 2012, the GCR was awarded the NRHA Signalling Award for this long running and complicated project.[3]

Major engineering projects

The gap and Loughborough Midland (High Level)

Abutment for the missing bridge over Railway Terrace

Between the A60 and Loughborough locomotive shed is "The Gap", a section of embankment and bridges (including a large single span over the Midland Main Line) that had to be reinstated to join the two concerns together. That is a long term, expensive project and in the mean time there are plans to construct a new "Loughborough Midland High Level" station on the embankment near the A60 road bridge. This would allow easy interchange with Midland Main Line trains with trains from the GCR(N) and if the Gap is bridged, the Greater Great Central Railway (GGCR) as it is known almost universally by Great Central staff. On 12 February 2009 it was announced that the project would receive £350,000 for a feasibility study, much of it taxpayers' money. When completed the GCRN will merge with the GCR to create a single 18-mile track[4] which will also be rebuilt as a double track line for most, if not the whole length.

Latest Engineering studies of the 'Gap' have produced a design for a single track link utilising 2 ex-Network Rail single track bridges (removed as part of the Reading Station upgrade). The latest design proposes to re-instate the bridge over the Midland Main Line, complying with electrification clearances for the recently announced electrification project. The replacement embankments to the north of the Canal bridge are proposed to use the latest construction techniques to provide a higher but narrower structure. Funding options are currently being reviewed for the 'Greatest Heritage Railway Project' in the UK.

The Mountsorrel Railway Project

The Line and Wagons at Swithland Junction

The Mountsorrel Railway Project has been devised and financed by Railway Vehicle Preservations Limited.[5] The projects aim is the rebuilding of the Mountsorrel branch off the Great Central railway at Swithland Sidings to the working Mountsorrel quarry.

The branch is essentially intact but the track was lifted in the mid 1960s. The original purpose of the reinstatement was to provide a carriage shed to house the restored carriages of Railway Vehicle Preservations Ltd and shelter them from the elements. In 2006 they applied for planning permission for the shed; this was rejected due to badger setts discovered on site. The reinstatement of the line is going ahead with ballast being donated from the quarry it served. The total length being reinstated is a mile and a quarter. It is intended a halt will be built at the quarry end, offering train rides up the line to add an extra attraction to the Great Central Railway, with services either run by a DMU or else a push-pull fitted steam/diesel locomotive. The line is now fully ballasted for half of its length with tracklaying well underway.[6] Tracklaying has recently passed through the Wood Lane bridge and officially entered Mountsorrel Parish.

The plans for the shed are being re-evaluated and a NEW Planning Application has been entered for a 4 road shed at the back of Swithland sidings[7] On 4 February 2013 the ambitious plans were given conditional approval.[8]

Recently Lafarge, (operators of the Mountsorrel Quarry) revealed a proposal for a stone loading terminal at the end of the Mountsorrel Railway.[9] This was in response to a planning submission[10] to build 300+ Houses near to the proposed Bond Lane Station, and was clearly aimed at Lafarge protecting the mineral extraction rights. The proposal would be dependent on the GCR 'Bridging the Gap' to GCRN. GCR then would build a north chord from the southern end of Swithland Viaduct to meet the existing track just at the end of the straight section of the Mountsorrel Railway.[11] The proposal estimates that 3 loaded trains of 1000 tons would leave the proposed terminal every weekday and travel via the GCR to the Midland Main Line Connection.

Stations of the heritage Great Central Railway

Loughborough Central 52°46’7"N, 1°11’45"W The largest of the working stations on the line, with a long overhead canopy, museum, gift shop, café and 1950s period detail. This has helped the station feature in numerous films and television programmes.

The signal box and traction maintenance depot north of the platform are both open for public viewing, allowing for an insight into the physical labour that is required to run a steam railway.

Quorn & Woodhouse 52°44’25"N, 1°11’16"W Serving Quorn and Woodhouse, this station is built to the standards of Great Central, with an island platform and an overbridge. The station details were intended to make it reflect Second World War and the remainder of the 1940s. This has allowed for several World War re-enactments to be played out in recent years.

The newly built (2011) 'Butler Henderson Bistro & Tea Room' (built in a sympathetic architectural style) provides a cosy source of food and refreshments.

South of the platform is a small set of goods sidings which currently store the Travelling Post Office, mineral wagons and other stock when they are not in use.

A turntable has been installed at Quorn & Woodhouse Station and officially opened in the latter part of October 2011.

Rothley 52°42’17"N, 1°9’36"W Similar in appearance to Quorn & Woodhouse, Rothley was rebuilt by the volunteers of the Great Central to look like the Edwardian era, when it is believed the GCR company was at its high-point. Today the recently extended Ellis tea room serves refreshments year-round and the Charnwood Forest Garden Railway run by a small group of enthusiasts runs various types of stock.[12]

A large 4-road carriage shed of corrugated metal owned by RVP Ltd is the major restoration facility for their historic collection of Gresley Teaks and Mk1s.

Leicester North 52°40’7"N, 1°7’59"W Just south of Belgrave and Birstall station, the new Leicester North terminus, built because the original station was heavily vandalised. Currently little more than a small waiting room and canopy in 60s style.

Adjacent to the station is the recently leased 'Greenacres Centre' with the 'Platform Tea Room' and Training Facilities.

Film and television

Many filmmakers have taken advantage of the atmosphere of the Great Central and it has had many notable appearances in film and television.


  • Buster (1988)
  • The Secret Agent (1993)
  • Shadowlands (1993)
  • The Navigators (1999)
  • Enigma (2001)
  • The Hours (2002)
  • Cemetery Junction (2010)


  • She's Out (1994)
  • Woof! (1995)
  • Goodnight Mr. Tom (1998)
  • Take a Girl Like You (2000)
  • The Cazalet Chronicles (2001)
  • Casualty (2001, 2014)
  • Hawking (2004)
  • The 4:50 from Paddington (2004)
  • E=MC2 (2005)
  • The 39 Steps (2008)
  • Central Steam (TV Series) (2010)
  • South Riding (TV miniseries) (2011)
  • Top Gear (2011)[13]
  • Heston's Fantastical Food (2012)[14]
  • Our Story (2013)[15] - To be Screened on ITV in 2014
  • Great British Railway Journeys (2013) - First Screened on BBC TV in January 2014

Music video

  • Stereophonics - Indian Summer (2013)[16]

Locomotives and rolling stock

The Great Central Railway has a reasonable running length with the added bonus of a mainline setup, and so some of Britain's largest locomotives have been there in recent years. The steam fleet currently comprises over a dozen mainline classes, many of them either heavy freight, express passenger or shunting tank engines. Some are of types that were preserved in abundance elsewhere, but others have been leased from the National Collection. On most days a green-liveried, two-car British Rail Class 101 DMU runs from Loughborough to Leicester.

As well as running stock the railway also has a large collection of heritage rolling stock. Passenger stock is made up of three uniform rakes of British Rail Mark 1 coaches originally built in the 1950s and 60s. They are in Maroon, Carmine and Cream, and Southern Green liveries. BR Western Region Chocolate and Cream livered Mark 1 coaches will gradually enter service during 2014.

Supporting bodies

Both the Great Central Railway PLC and the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) have a number of supporting bodies which are based at each individual line. The majority of these are locomotive or rolling stock groups, however there are a number of private owners who have based their stock or locomotives at the lines.

  • Main Line Steam Trust, established in 1969 as the Main Line Preservation Group, with the intention of preserving a section of the line (ultimately Loughborough. In 1971 it established its charitable status as Main Line Steam Trust Limited. The operation and the assets were transferred to the Great Central Railway (1976) Ltd. and MLST thereafter took on the role of a charitable support body for the Great Central Railway and the Great Central Railway (Nottingham).
  • The Friends of the Great Central Main Line (FoGCML), which now incorporates the Main Line Steam Trust
  • David Clarke Railway Trust (DCRT) also provides volunteers and the funding.
  • Outside commercial interests and individuals are able to donate toward various projects (Loughborough's 'Crystal Palace', Mountsorrel Railway, RVPS restorations etc.) to the DCRT, gaining valuable tax advantages.
  • Great Central Railway plc: The company was created to own the railway in 1976, and named 'Great Central Railway (1976) Public Limited Company' (its name changed in 1996). The company made a profit during trading year ending 2007 of £62,000; the first genuine profit in 30 years as a visitor attraction.
  • The Gresley Society: A small group based at Loughborough who are devoted to LNER Chief Mechanical Engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley. They also own large suburban tank locomotive GNR Class N2 No. 1744.
  • Renaissance Railcars: They own the five Class 101 vehicles at the Great Central Railway, of which only "Set A" (affectionately known as "The Green Goddess"), is in regular passenger use.
  • Boscastle Locomotive Syndicate: Owners and carers of Bullied Pacific locomotive 34039 Boscastle, which is undergoing a protracted overhaul due to take 3 years and £200,000+ of donated money.
  • 73156 Standard 5 Support Group: Formed in 1985, the group owns BR standard class 5 No. 73156 and numerous storage vans.
  • Loughborough Standard Locomotive Group: Look after and part-own a number of locomotives.
  • 5305 Locomotive Association: have a number of locomotives in their care.
  • Type One Locomotive Company: A diesel group who own and care for Class 20 D8098, Class 31 D5380 and Class 47 D1705.
  • Railway Vehicle Preservations Ltd: own (with their members) the second largest collection of LNER coaches in preservation today, which include the famous LNER Travelling Post Office set, two LNER Beavertail observation saloon (including one in its rebuilt condition), and a number of "Gresley" teak-panel passenger coaches.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Great Central Railway)


  1. "Minor and heritage railways". 2012-04-23. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  2. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway (2012-05-30). "Signal Box – Swithland Sidings | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  3. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway (2012-12-06). "National award for Swithland Signalling | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  4. "BBC News - Steam track could run for 18 miles from Nottinghamshire to Leicestershire". 2013-06-01. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  5. Railway Vehicle Preservations
  6. Railway, Mountsorrel (2012-08-08). "The Mountsorrel Railway: Track Laying Passes the Half Way Point!". Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  7. GCR Main Line Issue 153/Winter 2012 Pg 16
  8. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway. "Membership Signup | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  9. Document 324/RF/SK2
  10. Charnwood Borough Council #P/12/0022/2
  11. GCR Main Line Issue 153/ Winter 2012 Pg 14
  12. Charnwood Forest Garden railway
  13. "Top Gear trio pull latest stunt at Great Central Railway". Leicester Mercury. Retrieved 22 July 2011. 
  14. "Heston's Fantastical Food - Heston's Big Breakfast". Channel 4. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  15. "GREAT CENTRAL RAILWAY WEEKLY NEWSLETTER". Great Central Railway. 2013-05-08. Retrieved 2014-02-02. 
  16. "Stereophonics - Indian Summer". YouTube. 2013-01-17. Retrieved 2014-02-02.