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A Favourite Tunnel

Summary: Glenfield tunnel in Leics and memories of Leicester West Bridge. . . . . . .

Glenfield Tunnel. In May 1962, 58143 ventures towards the tunnel’s now-buried eastern portal. Photo: Richard C Riley/ Transport Treasury

The subject of tunnels features regularly in railway histories, particular in a recent issue of the Friend’s magazine, ‘The Review’, but there’s one close to my heart because it is not so far from where I was born – the disused Glenfield Tunnel in Leicestershire. It’s an interesting story and, although this isn’t the place for more detailed railway histories, its origins are worth summarising.

The problem for nineteenth century colliery owners in north west Leicestershire was access to their markets. The Nottinghamshire pits had access through the Erewash canal but not in Leicestershire. So, with the input of George Stephenson, a plan was developed to build a line from Long Lane into Leicester at West Bridge, alongside the Soar navigation – The Leicester and Swannington Railway. Built by his son, Robert, the line included the Glenfield tunnel, 1796 yards long. It opened in July 1832 and became only the second passenger carrying railway tunnel to be opened at that time. The first train was hauled by ‘Comet’ with George, himself, at the controls.

The railway sold out to the Midland Railway (MR) in 1845 and the MR speedily set about improving the line, extending it to Burton on Trent. Rather than double the Glenfield Tunnel, the MR built a diversion from Desford into Leicester London Road, avoiding the tunnel and reducing the tunnel and West Bridge to a spur. Passenger traffic through the tunnel ended in 1928 but goods trains continued to 1966.

Pre-pandemic I joined one of the guided tours inside the partly open tunnel. It betrays its vintage status with ancient brickwork and a construction more akin to a canal tunnel. It has restricted clearances making it only workable with engines with cut down cabs and carriages with bars over the windows to prevent the curious from looking out. A collection of Johnson 0-6-0’s was kept at Coalville for the tunnel workings, later replaced by BR Standard Class 2’s, all with cut down cabs. The tunnel was dry if pretty claustrophobic. It felt like what it was – a piece of early railway industrial archaeology.

One of the tunnel's tighter ventilation shafts.

I talked with one or two veterans who remembered the line when in operation (as I do). It was a strange set up, with ‘West Bridge’ easily overlooked if you didn’t know your Leicester railways. Roy remembered playing among the wagons during World War II at West Bridge. ‘If the guard wasn’t looking we would get in a wagon and go through the tunnel, jumping off at the end. It didn’t go fast’. (Don’t try that at home, folks!).

‘Did you walk back through?’

‘Sometimes, but it was a long walk. There weren’t many trains,’ he added, reassuringly.

Playing among the wagons was another pastime. ‘Harry got stuck between the buffers of two wagons and we had to push him out,’ Roy chortled. A vision of Billy Bunter flashed through my mind briefly. ‘No shunting, fortunately.’

‘I remember goods wagons of all sorts but especially I can remember field guns, I think, loaded on to wagons and parked at West Bridge. It was a sort of storage yard.’

‘Did they use Glenfield Tunnel to shelter trains during bombing raids?’

‘I don’t remember. I was too young then. The war was just another event in life, not something to be taken seriously, as an adult would’.

Well, I imagine many of us have a railway of some sort close to our hearts, but why Glenfield Tunnel for me? In 1894 Long Lane, largely a collection of villages with collieries, was formed into ‘Coalville’ where I was born. My first home was just across the road from Snibston Pit, one of the earliest, and owned by George Stephenson who lived in nearby Ravenstone at the time. Ravenstone is, I suppose, my family seat. In later years, I lived nearer the tunnel but I can remember those Johnson 0-6-0s at Coalville and West Bridge. Sometimes, driving along the M1 in Leicestershire north west of Leicester, I imagine myself whipping past the old tunnel sitting beneath a small hill to the west of the motorway. What would the Stephensons have thought?

There’s plenty more to tell about the history of railways in that part of Leicestershire and I’m hoping to produce my own article on the subject for The Friends’ ‘Review’ in the not too distant future.


Tours of Glenfield Tunnel are run by the Leicester Industrial History Society, continuing, hopefully, in 2022. More info about this can be found here

John Swanwick

Since 1977 over £1.8m has been raised by Friends of the National Railway Museum initiatives to support over 60 museum projects in the following categories :- Locomotives – Carriages - Artefacts and Archives. The National Railway Museum acknowledges that the scale and range of the projects have made a significant unique contribution to the expansion of the museums offer to the public over the last 43 years. The cash has come from Members subscriptions , Trading , Outreach activities, Public Appeals, Partnerships, Lottery Awards, Legacies and Donations.

Friends contributions to the National Railway Museum can be seen here

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