London Extension 1899 - 1969
The London Extension was bought about through the desire of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire railway to be able to run directly to London without the costs and troubles of running over other companys lines. The line came into being largely through the willpower and determination of the MS&Ls chairman, Sir Edward Watkins (1819 - 1901). His plan was to link his company with the continent via a tunnel under the English Channel. As well as the MS&L, he also controlled sufficient railway companys to run from London to Dover. What was therefore needed was a high speed route down the middle of the country linking the southern companies with the MS&L, which by the 1890s had reached as far south as Annesley - 8 miles north of Nottingham. This line was to become the London Extension and would be the last main line to be built in Britain.
It was conceived from the start as a highly engineered line, which would sweep down through middle England for 135 miles on a series of massive embankments, tall viaducts and deep cuttings. The steepest incline on the whole line would be 1:176 and the sharpest curve would have a radius of 1 mile. There would be no footpaths or other crossings of the road - everything would be carried above or below the line. The line would start at Annesley Junction and run to Quainton Road where it would meet the Metropolitan and run over their metals to the companies new terminus at Marylebone.
The company first applied to Parliament in 1891 for permission to build the line, but in the face of much opposition from rival companies who already ran to London, the bill was defeated. Sir Edward was not to be beaten though, and on 28 March 1893, the bill received Royal Assent. Construction costs were estimated at £3,132,155 with the work divided into seven contracts. The line was divided into two Divisions - the North (51miles 69chains) running from Annesley to Rugby, and the South (40miles 5chains) from Rugby to Quainton Road. Work began in November 1894 and would continue for nearly four years. The final bill for the construction was reckoned to be some £11,500,000
On 25 July 1898 the company, who had changed their name on 1 Aug 1897 to the Great Central Railway, began running goods traffic over the line to settle the earthworks. The line was officially opened on 9 March 1899 although the first passenger train did not run until 16 March. It soon earned itself a reputation for fast running although difficulties with the Metropolitan Railway after Sir Edwards retirement and subsequent death caused problems. A new line would soon be built linking the Great Central with the Great Western at Ashendon Junction which would ease many of the problems. From a passenger point of view the Great Central was not ideally placed with only a few large population centres along it's length.
On 'Railway Sunday', 1 January 1923, the many small railway companies in Britain were grouped into four large companies, 'The Big Four'. The Great Central became a part of the London and North Eastern Railway even though much of it's territory was closer to the London Midland and Scottish. The line continued under the ownership of the LNER until nationalisation on 1 January 1948 whereupon it became part of the Eastern Region of the new British Railways. Ten years later, the London Extension passed to the Midland Region of BR, and from this point on was considered to be a duplicate main line. It is felt by many that the Midland Region saw an opportunity to "do away" with their old rivals, and the facts certainly seem to bear that out:
On 2 January 1960 Express services were cut back, in March 1963 local trains on many parts of the route were cancelled and many local stations closed. In 1965 the lines lucrative express freight and parcels service was killed off. The biggest blow of all occured in the early hours of Sunday 4 September 1966 when the final train from Marylebone to Nottingham ran over the line and the Great Central ceased to be a trunk route. A diesel service ran over the stretch of line between Nottingham and Rugby for a few more years, but the track south of Rugby and north of Nottingham was lifted with indecent haste. Nottingham Victoria was also demolished with the long closed station at Arkwright Street serving as the Northern Terminus for the last years. The final curtain came down on 3 May 1969 when the diesel service was withdrawn and the Great Central was laid to rest at the tender age of 70.
The line has now been closed for longer than any of it operators owned it and most of it lies in ruins, overgrown and largely forgotten. However, through the same sort of stubborness and force of will that led the line to be built, approximately 18 miles of line remains between Birstall station in Leicestershire and Ruddington station in Nottinghamshire. There are two stretches of line, one from Ruddington to Lougborough and the other from Loughborough to Birstall, seperated by two missing bridges and several hundred feet of missing embankment. These lines are in the hands of preservationists with the southernmost line having been preserved from the final day of BR operation onwards. This section, owned by Great Central Railway Plc and based at Loughborough, at approx 8 miles retains much of the lines original character with most of the stations in original condition and double track for the majority of its length. A regular passenger service is operated along with goods and other 'speciality' trains at galas. The northern section has entered the field relatively lately, and is based around the former MOD depot at Ruddington. It has the longer stretch of line at 10 miles and much of this is still in regular use bringing gypsum to the British Plaster factory near East Leake via a chord from the Midland Mainline at Loughborough. The line is operated by the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Ltd who have recently been succesful in purchasing the single line from Rushcliffe Halt to Loughborough from Railtrack - no mean feat. A great deal of work is required to return the line to its former glory - but so much has already been accomplished it can only be a matter of time.
The ultimate aim of the two companies is to reinstate the missing formation and form an 18 mile long railway between Leicester and Nottingham - a fine tribute to the generations of railwaymen who lived by the motto 'Forward'.
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