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Great Central Railway

The Great Central Railway (GCR) was a former main railway line in the United Kingdom which linked London to Sheffield via the east midlands. It is also the name of a heritage railway line in Leicestershire which preserved part of the former main line and is still operating today.

The line was formerly part of the British railway system and run by British Rail until most of it was closed in the 1960s, in the Beeching axe.

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The Route

When it was operating, the line began at Marylebone railway station in London, ran through northwest London including Wembley, and then diverged into a direct route towards Aylesbury and less direct route through High Wycombe. The part of the line between London and Aylesbury and High Wycombe was never closed and still operates today.

North of Aylesbury the line ran through sparsely populated countryside for about thirty miles until it reached the small town of Brackley[?] in Northamptonshire. The line then ran through more sparsely populated countryside for another 15 miles or so until it reached a village called Woodford Halse[?] also in Northamptonshire, where it formed a junction with several other railway lines, including a spur to the town of Banbury and the Straford Junction Railway.

It ran north for another twenty miles or so until it reached the town of Rugby. This was the first major population centre the line served after Aylesbury. The line crossed over the West Coast Mainline on a viaduct at Rugby, and ran north serving the small Leicestershire town of Lutterworth, and then another twenty miles north until it reached the city of Leicester. It then ran to Nottingham, serving the town of Loughborough[?] on the way. This part of the line is now run as a heritage railway.

It ran north for another fifty miles or so until it reached the city of Sheffield on the way serving the town of Chesterfield. A number of smaller communities were also served by the line which have not been mentioned here.


The GCR was part of an ambitious project to create a railway that would link a Channel Tunnel to the north of England. It was the last intercity railway line to be built in Britain, and also the shortest lived.

The line was the brain-child of Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901) who was the chairman of the Manchester Sheffield & Lincolnshire railway[?], which operated a modest network of railway lines in northern England. Watkin was a visionary who had huge ambitions for his company. He 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. This ambition was never fulfilled.

Parliament gave consent to the new line in 1892, and building work started in 1895. In 1897 the company changed its name to the grander sounding Great Central Railway Company to reflect its new ambitions.

At the time many people questioned the wisdom of building the line, as all the significant population centres which the line passed through were already served by other railway lines. The GCR's main competitor was the Midland Main Line which had served the route between London the east midlands and Sheffield since the 1860s on a different route.

Unlike any other railway line in Britain the line was built to the continental Berne Gauge[?] which meant it could accommodate larger sized continental trains, in anticipation of traffic to a future channel tunnel.

The cost of building the line was huge. In order to get permission to build the line they had to agree to put parts of the line through tunnels to avoid upsetting the local land owners. It was so expensive that the original plans for their Marylebone London terminus had to be scaled back drastically. The line was opened in 1899.

Traffic was slow to establish itself on the new line, passenger traffic especially so. Poaching customers away from the established lines into London was more difficult than the GCR's builders had hoped. Passenger traffic was never heavy throughout the lines existence, but freight traffic grew healthily and became the lifeblood of the line.

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.

In the 1923 grouping the Great Central Company was merged into the London and North Eastern Railway[?], which in 1948 was nationalised along with the rest of Britain's railway network.


From the late 1950s onwards the freight traffic (mostly coal and limestone) which the line relied upon started to decline, and the GCR was largely neglected as other railway lines were thought to be more important. In 1958 the Express passenger services were discontinued, leaving only a slow service to London.

In the 1960s Beeching era, Dr Beeching decided that the the London to northern England route was already well served by other railway lines, that most of the traffic on the GCR could be diverted to other lines. Closure became inevitable.

The stretches of the line between Rugby and Aylesbury, and Nottingham and Sheffield were closed in 1966, leaving only an unconnected stub between Rugby and Nottingham on which a skeleton passenger service operated. This last strech of the line was closed in 1969. The closure of the GCR was the largest single closure of the Beeching era, and one of the most controversial.

A group of enthusiasts and volunteers took over a stretch of the line between Loughborough and the northern outskirts of Leicester and started operating it as a heritage railway line for tourists, which still operates to this day.

Since the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, there have been proposals to re-open the GCR largely as a freight link. These proposals face many difficulties and have yet to be approved.

External Links

See Also List of British heritage and private railways

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