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Railway Magazine November, 2013

Bridge to the Future Pages 14 to 19


After years of dreaming and planning, the Great Central Railway’s bridge over the Midland Main Line is to be built within the next two years… by Network Rail! Professor Dennis Wilcock, a director of GCR plc and editor of the railway’s journal, Main Line, tells the story of preservation’s most extraordinary project.


HE long-held ambition to reunite the two preserved sections of the Great Central Railway is about to become a reality. It will fulfil the dreams of the early preservationists who, back in the dark days of 1969, established the Main Line Preservation Group to re-establish the GCR as a main line between the cities of Leicester and Nottingham. The Great Central story has always been one of burning ambition. First there was Edward Watkin who, in the late 1800s, dreamt of a link from the industrial north of England to continental Europe through a Channel tunnel and ensured that the line’s London extension was built to continental loading gauge. Then there was general manager Sir Sam Fay, who vigorously promoted the railway in the early 1900s, and engineer John Robinson, whose excellent locomotive designs did the railway proud. Despite the rundown and closure that was to follow in the middle of the 20th century, their enthusiasm never dimmed and was revived by the pioneers of the Main Line Preservation Group in 1969. The Parliamentary Bill authorising the construction of the London extension received Royal Assent on March 28, 1893 and construction began in November 1894, divided into northern and southern divisions. The northern division ran from Annesley (north of Nottingham) to Rugby with Sir Edward Parry in charge of detailed design and construction. Within that division three construction contracts were let and it was contract No. 2 – for the 16-mile 36-chain section from East Leake to Aylestone – that included the bridge over the Midland Railway’s

Span No. 1 2 3 4

Height 14ft 6in 14ft 8in 14ft 8in 15ft 8in

Skew Span 32ft 6in 33ft 0in 32ft 0in 32ft 0in

Square Span 27ft 6in 27ft 8in 27ft 10in 27ft 10in

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own London line at Loughborough (Bridge No. 328). The Wolverhampton firm of Henry Lovatt won the contract at a price of £548,835, including the four-span wrought iron girder structure built on a slight skew. Its dimensions (from the north) can be seen in the table at the

foot of the first column. The Midland’s four tracks ran through spans 2 and 3. Presumably spans 1 and 4 were provided to allow for a widening of that route if necessary, but they were never used. Had it been a bridge of just two spans, the task of rebuilding it would have been much simpler and cheaper!

How it will be: A computer-generated impression of how the bridge is likely to look once reinstated. The difference in span and abutment design will be noted. NETWORK RAIL

How it used to be: A fine study of a Great Central Main Line express heading north across the original Loughborough bridge behind Standard 5MT 4-6-0 No. 73010 in the summer of 1963. T G HEPBURN/RAIL ARCHIVE STEPHENSON

Progress on construction was published in local papers. On June 27, 1895, the brickwork for the abutments was above ground level and on September 7, the abutments and piers were completed. A week later, the girders were in place and on February 15, 1896, the bridge was reported as complete with only the

embankments north and south of it to be built. The GCR opened to coal trains on July 25, 1898 with through passenger traffic to London beginning on March 15. Thereafter, the bridge led an anonymous existence as one would expect. The GCR was duly absorbed into the LNER in 1923 and became part of British Railways in 1948. New express services from London Marylebone to Sheffield and Manchester had been introduced in 1947 and continued after Nationalisation. There was even an Aberdeen to Penzance service, using a connection with the GWR at Culworth Junction, near Banbury. In the early BR period, there were seven down and six up expresses each weekday, supplemented by local services stopping at all stations – six each way between Nottingham Victoria and Leicester Central and a further six on longer stopping services. And, of course, there were holiday excursions and specials as well. The GC was also a major freight route with fish trains from Grimsby, express goods and parcels services and freight trains emanating from Immingham and running onto the GW system via Banbury. There were also the famous “Runners” or “Windcutters”…

Infilling of the gap at Loughborough will create an 18-mile line between Leicester North and Nottingham South.

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A diagrammatic version of the central part of the photo on the left, showing in detail the relevant streets and buildings. The loco shed will have to be relocated.

This aerial photograph shows not ony the relevant stretch of missing line but the sections at either end of it. From the bottom right-hand corner: Beeches Road bridge; Great Central Road bridge; Loughborough GC station; Empress Road bridge; the GCR locomotive shed; the Grand Union Canal; the missing section (green); the Midland Main Line and the Great Central Railway (Nottingham), linked by a chord. Loughborough main line station is just visible in the upper left-hand corner of the picture and the two replacement bridge girders from Reading can be seen stored on a patch of spare land to the left of the GCR station. BOB FLEMMING

The bridge when new, pictured on August 21, 1897. This is one of many photographs taken by Sydney Newton during and after the construction of the GCR’s London extension in the 1890s. LEICESTERSHIRE RECORD OFFICE

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coal trains running on an extremely tight schedule between the marshalling yards of Annesley and Woodford Halse. All seemed set fair for the Great Central Main Line. So what caused its decline? After the Second World War, Britain was in a parlous state. Coming so close on the heels of the 1914/18 conflict, the war had basically bankrupted the country. There were huge debts to be repaid to the USA and Canada, so money was in short supply and it is perhaps not surprising that the railways were unable to command large Government funds. The 1950s brought better times, and with them the railway modernisation plan, yet car ownership and road building boomed under the direction of pro-motoring Transport Minister Ernest Marples. The GC line had benefited in the early BR years from the use of a batch of Gresley A3s (including Flying Scotsman) but indications of costcutting came in 1957 with the transfer of those Pacifics back to the East Coast Main Line. Then, on February 1, 1958, the GC route was transferred from the Eastern to the London Midland Region. That was to spell the end. The Midland Region now had two routes basically duplicating each other between Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester and London. With Midland men holding the balance of power in the Region, it was clear that the GC line would be the one to suffer. Express passenger services were withdrawn and replaced by semi-fasts on January 2, 1960, less than two years after the amalgamation. The long-distance locals were also withdrawn. Even so, the line remained busy; David Holmes, stationmaster at East Leake in 1962/63, recorded 130 trains (including freights) passing the station in a 24-hour period. The next blow came on March 4, 1963, when most of the country stations were closed, leaving only Loughborough Central and East Leake on the stretch of line that is preserved today. At the same time, the Beeching Report proposed the closure of passenger services from London Marylebone to Leicester Central and Nottingham Victoria. A crosscountry service from York to Banbury via Sheffield Victoria, Nottingham Victoria and Leicester Central was also to be a casualty. The GC line was doomed. The engine sheds at Leicester and Woodford Halse were closed in

Left: At the moment, the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) is able to run trains as far as Bridge 326, adjacent to Brush’s Falcon Works (just north of the connection with the Midland Main Line). Visiting GWR 4-4-0 City of Truro is seen waiting to return north from there on August 28, 2011. NICK PIGOTT

Below: A BR handbill from the days when titled expresses ran through from Yorkshire to London Marylebone.

1964 and 1965 respectively (the one at Neasden had gone in 1962) and freight traffic was withdrawn from the route on June 11, 1965. The second Beeching Report, The Development of the Major Railway Trunk Routes, had been published four months earlier but, in retrospect, Dr Beeching cannot really be blamed for the closure of the GC line. That had already been set in train by the transfer of the route to the Midland Region. The inevitable came on September 3, 1966 when the line was severed south of Rugby. Access to Nottingham Victoria station ceased and Nottingham Arkwright Street, which had been virtually derelict since its closure in 1963, was reopened as the Nottingham terminus. A DMU service was provided between Arkwright Street and Rugby, but that was put out of its misery on May 5, 1969 when the remaining stations at East Leake and Loughborough Central succumbed. So ended the line of Sir Edward Watkin, so

excellently built by Sir Edward Parry, so valiantly promoted by Sir Sam Fay and so magnificently equipped by John G Robinson. Bridge 328 and its embankments north and south remained untouched for a time after closure. The British Gypsum Works at Hotchley Hill and an MoD depot at Ruddington continued to be served by rail, initially from Nottingham, but in 1973 it was decided to build a chord between the Midland and GC lines at Loughborough so that British Gypsum and the MoD could be served from the south.


Material to build the chord was taken from the Great Central embankment between the Grand Union Canal Bridge (No. 331) and Bridge No. 328 and from the embankment immediately north of Bridge No. 328. Unusually, presumably to save cost, the bridge itself was left in situ, leaving it stranded. Such was the situation until the late 1970s

The removal of the embankment in the early 1970s. This was done partly to provide earth for the new chord. In the distance is Bridge 329 over Railway Terrace. BILL SQUIRES

when proposals were made to electrify the Midland Main Line. With its small clearances, Bridge 328 presented an obstacle to overhead wires and it was finally removed in 1980. (Thirty years later, the Midland line is once again to be electrified; nothing like forward planning!) The MoD depot was proposed for closure in the middle of the 1980s, which prompted members of the Main Line Steam Trust (successor to the Main Line Preservation Group) to preserve that section of line too. When the depot did close, they secured part of the site and the 10-mile trackbed from Ruddington to just north of the Midland Main

Bridge 328 in the winter of 1979/80, isolated and ready for final demolition. On the left are the Brush works and in the right background is the new chord line. NIGEL TOUT

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How Bridge 328 looked shortly before its demolition as ‘Peak’ No. 82 enters Loughborough Midland circa 1973. The GC embankment north of the span has already been bulldozed away and screens have been erected on the bridge to prevent falls of debris. On the extreme right can be seen Bridge 329 over Railway Terrace. NIGEL TOUT

The ‘gap’ south of Railway Terrace, in 2013: The factory on the right belongs to Preci Spark. DENNIS WILCOCK

The original north abutment of Bridge 329 over Railway Terrace. The south abutment has been demolished. The refuse tip is to the right and the Precis Spark car park is behind the north abutment. DENNIS WILCOCK

The two bridge spans made redundant by Network Rail’s Reading station modernisation arrive in Loughborough by road on August 4, 2011. They will be placed end-to-end over the MML. NIGEL HARRIS

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Line at Loughborough, where the chord from that line joins the GC route. The line north of Loughborough is now operated by Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Ltd. The former MoD depot area has been developed into a major facility with a full-size steam shed, model and miniature railways and a road transport collection. With heritage steam railways north and south of the gap, the impetus to return to the original dream of a through line between Nottingham and Leicester gained momentum. In 1996, Great Central Link was established under the enthusiastic leadership of Tony Sparks. He and the company were able to demonstrate the physical possibility of restoring a link and suggested some of the means of achieving that. But if the gap could be filled, what was to be the cost and, in modern parlance, what would be the benefit/cost ratio? To establish that and to give an independent view, engineering consultants W S Atkins was commissioned, with the support of the East Midlands Development Agency and Charnwood Borough Council. In 2010, they reported that the project was physically possible and, in finance terms, had a benefit/cost ratio of 2.8 – albeit with a cost of £10 to £15million! The task then turned to how the link was to be financed. To do this, Great Central Railway Development was established in 2010 under the chairmanship and dynamism of GCR plc director Nigel Harris. His wide range of contacts in the railway industry soon established an impressive board including Robin Owen, a specialist infrastructure lawyer; Jim Steer, a director of Greengauge 21; and Professor Andrew McNaughton, chief engineer of HS2. An early success was the acquisition of two redundant bridges removed by Network Rail as part of the Reading station developments. These, which had formerly spanned Cavendish Road, Reading, arrived at the GCR in 2011 and dramatically reduced the cost of reunification. Funding options were examined and

technical problems overcome with Andrew McNaughton being invaluable in coming up with solutions. It is not possible to rebuild the line on its exact original alignment because this has since been obstructed by redevelopment. A second, smaller bridge (No. 331) spanning Railway Terrace was also demolished by BR and immediately behind the north abutment of that bridge is a car park belonging to Preci Spark Ltd. Secondly, Railway Terrace now provides access to a domestic refuse tip, so an all-new bridge here will have to avoid the car park and be at a much higher level than the original in order to allow large lorries to reach the tip. Will the link be double track or single? We would all like to see double but, because of the obstacles around Railway Terrace, it would be prohibitively expensive, so single it will be. This does, however, bring another advantage. With a single track, the two ex-Reading bridges can be used end-to-end across the Midland Line, bringing a substantial saving. The icing on the cake is that Network Rail has agreed to build that bridge for an agreed price of £1m, so alleviating the GCR of the design, planning and construction and giving an achievable financial target. Right: After closure of the GCR main line as a through route to London, a basic diesel multiple unit shuttle service was introduced between Rugby Central and Nottingham Arkwright Street (the latter station used following closure of Nottingham Victoria). The service lasted only from 1966 to 1969.

End of the line for now... south end: Bridge 331 lies behind Loughborough engine shed and spans the Grand Union Canal. In the picture on the left, looking south, the roof of the shed can be seen, while the photo on the right shows the bridge from the canal towpath. Remedial work is needed to make it fit for use again. Both: DENNIS WILCOCK

We have now established a fundraising scheme to raise the £1m required and are hoping for the support of Railway Magazine readers (see page 23). If you’ve ever wanted to see this happen, now is the time to act! When will it be built? The pressure is on because of the forthcoming electrification of the Midland Main Line, along which preparatory work is already underway. So Network Rail will be applying for planning permission for the whole of the reinstatement, from Canal Bridge to north of the Midland line, by the end of this year and plan to have the bridge in place by Easter 2015. Survey work is already underway. Having got the major element of reunification in place, there are other elements: Behind the GCR’s engine shed at Loughborough is a disused bridge over the Grand Union Canal. Its main girders seem sound, but the pads on which they rest on the abutments need to be examined. We are expecting to do this by the end of this year so that any repairs or replacements can be planned. If we achieve our £1m target, it is expected that the gift aid recovered will pay for the repair of that bridge! It’s almost a case of buy one bridge and get one free!


The other major part of the project is the replacement of 300 metres of embankment involving some 50,000 tonnes of material, which, once the canal bridge is repaired, can come in by train from the GC railway. This embankment will pass close behind another Preci Spark factory, then onwards to Railway Terrace, where the new bridge will be single track, and finally, via another short embankment, to the main line bridge (which we are calling the ‘Bridge to the Future’). Once across that, another embankment will need to be built to connect to the GCR(N) metals adjacent to the chord from the Midland Main Line. All that will cost a further £6-7m and will be completed by 2019. It does, of course, mean that the locomotive shed will have to be moved to make room for the new railway. We have options, but no decision has yet been taken. Finally, GCR plc and GCR(N) are in discussions about the organisation required for the reunified railway. These are stories for the future. Just imagine – an 18-mile railway running between Nottingham and Leicester – a true inter-city heritage line!

Its service pattern? First train of the day from Ruddington Fields would be a non-stop express running to Leicester North, where it will enter the heart of the new Leicester Railway Museum, with its major exhibition of locomotives, carriages, wagons and other artefacts from the National Railway Museum. That would be followed by a semi-fast train calling at Loughborough Central and then

by an all-stations local service, stopping at Rushcliffe Halt, Loughborough Central, Quorn & Woodhouse and Rothley on its way to Leicester North. The Great Central Railway has never been short of dreams, never been short on ambition. With your support, it will never be short on delivery. To quote its motto… ‘Forward’! ■

“If you’ve ever wanted to see this happen, now is the time to act!” Right: End of the line for now... north end. A view of the GCR(N), looking south alongside the Brush works at Loughborough. Once reinstated, the line will continue straight on beyond road bridge 326. (See also picture at top of page 17). IAN ALLISON

In 1966 – the last year of through London expresses – Brush Type 4 No. D1799 runs alongside an almost deserted M1 motorway at Ashby Magna (between Leicester and Rugby) with a York-Bournemouth train. MICHAEL MENSING

November 2013 • The Railway Magazine • 19

Railway Magazine Nov 2013  

Bridge to the Future

Railway Magazine Nov 2013  

Bridge to the Future