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Great Central (Again)

The value of the disused Great Central route. . . . . . .

Last week’s post on this site discussed the story of the Great Central Railway (GCR) and its creator, Sir Edward Watkin. Mindful of the inclination to start writing a book about all this (as plenty of others have done), nevertheless I couldn’t resist the temptation to say a little more.

Given that Watkin was Chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR) Board and several others, we might reasonably conclude that the GCR was, at the very least, endorsed by the Board. Watkin was quite a persuasive character, prone to be very independent minded. Examining his voting record as an MP he tended to go his own way a lot and was notorious for not particularly aligning with one political party or another. In some ways, the GCR bears testament to that. I can imagine the Board beginning to blanche, though, as the costs of construction started to roll in.

The GCR was known for some quite prestigious passenger services, delivered by impressive locomotives and coaches, but it was really conceived as a freight line, transporting heavy goods from north to south and, if Watkin had had his way, on to the Continent. True to its founder, the GCR independently and, later, as a part of the LNER and BR, was thought of as a bit ‘different’ and we might debate how this ‘difference’ was reflected in both the GCR (and the GWR). This ‘difference’ became more significant when closure loomed. Work by Mark Tittley and others showed how the GC route came into its own in helping the railway system cope with the movement of materials during two world wars. But after 1950, the allegation is that BR saw no need for another main line between north and south and so let the GC route ‘wither on the vine’ until statistics suggested it would be better to close it. Which they did in the 1960’s. The data collected by various researchers shows that the closure may have had an impact on some of the travelling public but more so with the movement of freight. There was congestion in yards like Totton where coal trains, in particular, waited until a path was found for them through traffic on other lines such as the old Midland Railway route through the Midlands.

Looking north east from Toton East Junction, a mineral train climbs to the junction from Toton Sidings. The locomotive is LMS No 3799, built at Derby in 1904. The photograph was taken pre-1951 when 3799 was re-numbered BR 43799. Image:

Whatever the arguments (and they are still going on) the route closed and in my oral history recordings there are several instances of interviewees remembering with emotion the closure of the line. Railwaymen were more sanguine, largely seeing the end coming in most cases, and plotting their next move – to elsewhere in the BR system or, more likely, away from the rail industry. Most of them considered the closure of the GC route as symptomatic of the decline of railways and the rise of the roads network. Most thought there had been dirty goings on, involving a multitude of characters starting at the top with Marples and Beeching. We all have our opinions, I suppose.

For my part I watched as the closed line has slowly fallen apart. Weeds grow on old track beds, then the old track disappears entirely. It is ploughed over or built on – new houses, warehouses, new roads. In a new century, though, rail continues and is as intensively used as ever, sometimes morphing into ‘Metro’ services involving trams as well as purpose built railway rolling stock. For me, I am reminded of my past but I’m not especially emotional about it. You know, ‘it happened’, ‘get over it’, ‘move on’. And yet, somehow, history has this nagging ability to prod us and remind us about our past, what went right, and what didn’t.

We could say that with the railways haemorrhaging money, closing the GC route (along with plenty of other lines) was the right, if short term, thing to do. It may have cost a lot of money and have been a civil engineering marvel, but 60 or so years later, the world had moved on.

But then we could also finger that famous word of management and politicians, ‘short term’. I asked a lot of interviewees what they thought. Most thought it could have been HS2 (with a careful link into Birmingham); some mentioned plans never realised to use it to enhance mass transit systems in cities like Leicester and Nottingham. All in all, it went to waste. Looking at my old 1911 gazetteer of railway lines across the country, an awful lot of others have gone the same way. The land is criss crossed by many old lines, now erased totally from the landscape, some lending themselves to other uses. Have the worst excesses of the Victorian railway promoters all gone to waste?

Image: NRM. Midland Railway Public Timetable 1908 (TIME/MR/P/00030)

Ah, well, history and hindsight are wonderful things, readers. But it’s the past now, appropriate for a museum and not the modern world. It nags at me though, sometimes adopting a ‘curious mind’ pose and wandering around the NRM. Should it all have gone to waste? Was Watkin right all along?


John Swanwick

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