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The London North Eastern Railway

As was the case with the London Midland Scottish Railway, the existence of the London North Eastern Railway was the result of British Government legislation enacted after the end of the Great War. The Railways Act 1921, also known as the Grouping Act, was enacted at the instigation of the British government and was intended to address the losses being made by many of the country's 123 railway companies. It was intended to move the railways away from competition between themselves, and to retain some of the benefits which the country had derived from a government-controlled railway during and after the Great War of 1914-1918. The Railway Magazine in its issue of February 1923 dubbed the new companies as "The Big Four of the New Railway Era". These "Big Four" were: London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) Great Western Railway (GWR) London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) Southern Railway (SR). The new Act had little impact upon the Great Western Railway which remained as it was, primarily absorbing a number of small railways companies principally in Wales.

The LNER's presence in Warwickshire was very minimal being a short section of the Great Central Railway's (GCR) main line that ran from the North of England to London which crossed the North Eastern edge of the county and passing through Rugby. The name Great Central Railway was adopted by the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway in 1897 in anticipation of the opening in 1899 of its London Extension. The GCR was merged into the London and North Eastern Railway on 1st January 1923.

Background and Introduction

Upon assuming its new title, the GCR main line ran from Manchester London Road Station via Penistone, Sheffield, Brigg and Grimsby to Cleethorpes. A second line left the aforementioned line at Penistone and served Barnsley, Doncaster and Scunthorpe before rejoining the Grimsby line at Barnetby. Other lines linked Sheffield to Barnsley (via Chapeltown) and Doncaster (via Rotherham) and also a line linking Lincoln and Wrawby Junction. Branch lines in north Lincolnshire ran to Barton-upon-Humber and New Holland and served ironstone quarries in the Scunthorpe area. In the Manchester area, lines ran to Stalybridge and Glossop. In the 1890s the MS&LR began construction of its 'Derbyshire Lines', in effect the first part of its push southwards. Leaving its east-west main line at Woodhouse Junction, some 5½ miles southeast of Sheffield, the line headed towards Nottingham, a golden opportunity to tap into the collieries in the north of the county before reaching that city. A loop line was built to serve its new Central station in Chesterfield.

The MS&LR had obtained Parliamentary approval in 1893 for its extension to London. On 1st August 1897, the original name of the railway was changed to become the Great Central Railway. Building work started in 1895: the new line, some 92 miles (147 km) in length, opened for coal traffic on 25th July 1898; for passenger traffic on 15th March 1899, and for goods traffic on 11th April 1899. It was designed for high-speed running throughout. As a Sheffield company, the company retained its nomenclature when the London extension opened. Trains to London were still 'Down' trains, the opposite of standard practice on most other main lines to the capital. The new line had been built from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to join the existing Metropolitan Railway (MetR) extension at Quainton Road, where the line became joint MetR/GCR owned (after 1903), to return to GCR metals at near Finchley Road for the final section to Marylebone. In 1903, the new rails were laid down parallel to the Metropolitan Railway from Harrow to the junction north of Finchley Road, enabling more traffic entering and leaving Marylebone. On 2nd April 1906, an 'Alternative Route' or 'alternative main line', running from Grendon Underwood Junction to Neasden was opened.

It has often been stated in various historical descriptions of the Great Central (including ourselves in our original description) that through Sir Edward Watkin it had management connections with the Channel Tunnel Company, and its loading gauge was built to continental dimensions in anticipation of through traffic to Europe. However, Emeritus Professor Dennis Wilcock states, 'The GCR's London Extension was NOT built to a continental or Berne loading gauge. At 9ft 3in wide with a maximum height of 13ft 5in it was no bigger than on most British main line railways. As to being built to the Berne loading gauge that would have been blessing the GCR with incredible influence, great foresight or being very fortunate. The London Extension was planned on the early 1890s with construction starting in 1895. The Berne Loading Gauge (of which there were four) was not agreed until 1913 and only implemented on 1st January, 1914. All four variants of the Berne Loading gauges had a width of 10ft 4in with a minimum height of 14ft'.

The line was joint GCR/GWR between Ashendon Junction and Northolt Junction. The line was built to increase traffic on the GCR by overcoming capacity constraints on the Metropolitan Extension. It was also built due to various disagreements between the MetR and GCR after the resignation of Sir Edward Watkin from both companies. He resigned due to poor health. Ironically, by the time the new line was built, the two companies had settled their differences. It was the last complete mainline railway to be built in Britain until section one of High Speed 1 opened in 2003 (The GWR can claim that their route built in 1909 to connect the South West with Birmingham via the North Warwickshire Line and the upgraded single line between Stratford upon Avon and Honeyborne etc was the last main line built. However as much of the GWR's route was not new the GCR claim is the one accepted by most historians). It was also one of the shortest-lived intercity railway lines.

The GCR's main line was very much a strategic line in concept. It was not intended to duplicate the Midland Railway's line by serving a great many centres of population. Instead it was intended to link the MS&LR's system stretching across northern England directly to London at as high a speed as possible and with a minimum of stops and connections: thus much of its route ran through sparsely populated countryside. Starting at Annesley in Nottinghamshire, and running for 92 miles (147 km) 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 Railwayand the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), then struck off to its new railway station at Leicester Central, passing Loughborough en route, where it crossed the Midland Railway main line. Four railway companies served Leicester: GCR, Midland, GNR, and LNWR. Avoiding Wigston, the GCR served the town of Lutterworth (the only town on the GC not to be served by another railway company) before reaching the town of Rugby (at Rugby Central Station), where it crossed at right-angles over, and did not connect with, the West Coast Main Line. It continued southwards to Woodford Halse, where there was a connection with the East and 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.

From Woodford Halse the route continued in a roughly south-easterly direction via Brackley to Calvert and Quainton Road, where Great Central trains joined the Metropolitan Railway(later joint Metropolitan Railwayand Great Central Railway) route via Aylesbury into London. Partly because of disagreements with the Metropolitan Railway (MetR) over use of their tracks at the southern end of the route, the company built the Great Western and Great Central Joint Railway joint line (1906) from Grendon Underwood to Ashendon Junction, by-passing the greater part of the MetR's tracks. Apart from a small freight branch to Gotham between Nottingham and Loughborough, and the 'Alternative Route' link added later (1906), these were the only branch lines from the London extension. Although the line crossed several other railways, there were few physical connections. North of Sheffield, express trains on the London extension made use of the pre-existing MS&LR trans-Pennine main line, the Woodhead Line (now also closed) to give access to Manchester.

Reasons for construction

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 (although this ultimate ambition was never realised). He grew tired of handing over potentially lucrative London-bound traffic to rivals, and, after several attempts to co-build a line to London with other companies, decided that the MS&LR needed to create 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 companies. In 1897 the MS&LR changed its name to the grander sounding Great Central Railway to reflect its new-found national ambitions.

The line was engineered to very high standards: a ruling gradient of 1 in 176 (5.7%) (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, 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, this was especially true of Catesby Tunnel in Northamptonshire and St. John's Wood Tunnel in London. 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. Enticing 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 staples being coal, iron ore, and fish and banana trains.

Nevertheless, in the late-1930s heyday of fast long-distance passenger steam trains, there were six crack expresses a day from Marylebone to Sheffield, calling at Leicester and Nottingham, and going forward to Manchester. Some of these achieved a London-Sheffield timing of 3 hours and 6 minutes in 1939, making them fully competitive with the rival Midland Railwayservice out of St Pancras as far as journey time was concerned. 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, foundered on the fear of French invasion. Further work in the 1920s was again vetoed for similar reasons. The extension was therefore seen has having lost some of its original raison d'etre. In the 1923 the Great Central Railway was merged into the London and North Eastern Railway, which in 1948 was itself nationalised along with the rest of Britain's railway network.

From the late 1950s onwards the freight traffic 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 former Midland Railway'smain line and in 1958 transferred from the management of the Eastern Region to the London Midland Region, whose management still had loyalties to former companies (MR/LMS) and against their rivals GCR/LNER. In January 1960, express passenger services from London to Sheffield and Manchester were discontinued, leaving only three 'semi-fast' London-Nottingham trains per day. In March 1963 local trains on many parts of the route were cancelled and many rural local stations were closed. However, at this time it was still hoped that better use of the route could be made for parcels and goods traffic. In the 1960s Beeching era, Dr Beeching decided that the London to northern England route was already well served by other lines, to which most of the traffic on the GCR could be diverted. Closure came to be seen as inevitable.

The sections between Rugby and Aylesbury and between Nottingham and Sheffield were closed on 3rd September 1966, leaving only an unconnected stub between Rugby and Nottingham (Arkwright Street), on which a diesel multiple unit skeleton shuttle service operated until it was also withdrawn on 5th May 1969. The closure of the GCR was the largest single closure of the Beeching era, and one of the most controversial. In a letter published in the Daily Telegraph on 28th September 1965, Denis Anthony Brian Butler, 9th Earl of Lanesborough, a peer and railway supporter, wrote: '[Among] 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.'