Great Central Railway

In 1864  Sir  Edward Watkin in charge of a Manchester, England based provincial railway company had a dream- to build England’s fastest railway connecting Manchester to London to a future channel tunnel. Despite cynics and critics who noted that there were already other lines connecting Manchester, the line was opened in 1899. It was the last mainline built in the Uk until HS1 opened two years ago. The Channel tunnel was not built until 1994, 130 years after Sir Watkin’s dream.

Grand Central was built with some very unique features:

  • a minimum of stops
  • running from London through empty countryside
  • built to accommodate the wider and taller European trains, in anticipation of the Channel Tunnel.
  • few rises and drips
  •  only one level crossing on the whole route (ironically still in use at Beighton)
  • no tight curves (to allow high speed running)
  • island platforms at all station (a single platform  in the middle of both tracks)- again to allow accommodation of the wider European trains
The trains started at Marylebone  railway station (players of the English Monopoly will know it is as one of the four stations in the board) in London, and ran up to Rugby then Leicester, Loughborough, Sheffield and into Manchester.
The line was never profitable and in the 1960s, under the whole-scale shut down of much of the British rail system by Lord Beeching, the Great Central disappeared. Almost immediately, a group was formed to preserve part of the main line between Loughborough and Leicester, opening in 1976 as the  Great Central Steam Railway (the steam bit of the name was later dropped). Today, 700 volunteers and a small team of permanent employees run a 13km four station railway line.   Voted number 12 on the list of the 50 greatest railway journeys in the world the Great Central Railway is the UK’s only double track, main line heritage railway. They boast that “it’s the only place in the world where full size steam engines can be seen passing each other” – just not the day we went!

We started at  North Leicister station – the southern terminus of the railway. It was originally known as Belgrave and Birstall station.  One of the nice features of the station is a WH Smith gift shop set up as it would have been a century or so ago. We bought our tickets and hopped onto the first train of the day. There are seven train trips a day along the line in each direction.
Ou steam train puffed through to Rothely  station, which has been rebuilt by volunteers to look exactly like an Edwardian station, one hundred years ago with  working gas lamps, open fireplaces and  historic posters and signs adorn. Rothley station is officially listed as haunted – by whom we never found out.
From there the train passes over Swithland Reservoir, an area not accessible to the public, and home to many wild birds before arriving at Quorn and Woodhouse station.
The end of the line is at the next station, Loughborough Central, where there was a Museum, Gift Shop, Refreshments room, and engine sheds. In this video, a LMS engine steams through the station:

Riding  the train, it is easy to imagine the old steam expresses racing along at 130km/h and its sad we cannot see that speed in the old steamers with today’s journey being much more liesurely. Of interest, is that of course, the Great Central would be very useful today with the overcrowding on the existing lines. HS2, the new line from London to Manchester will make use of a 12km section of the original Great Central route. When it opens, Sir Watkin may be proved right after all!

For unlimited travel all day,  the fare is 14 pounds for an adult, nine pounds per child or 32 pounds for two adults and up to three children

The day out was a definite 10 out of 10!



  1. I will have to add this to my list of places to visit in the UK, thanks much for a really interesting post!

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