Great Central Railway (heritage railway)

The Great Central Railway (GCR) is a heritage railway in Leicestershire, named after the company that originally built this stretch of railway. It runs for 8.25 miles (13.28 km) between the large market town of Loughborough and a new terminus just north of Leicester. It has period signalling, locomotives and rolling stock.

Great Central Railway
Leaving Loughborough
LocaleLoughborough, Leicestershire, England
TerminusLeicester North
Commercial operations
Built byEdward Watkin
Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway
Original gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Preserved operations
Operated byGreat Central Railway Plc
Length8.25 miles (13.28 km) (Leicester)
10 miles (16 km) (Nottingham)
Preserved gauge4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Commercial history
Closed17 March 1969
Preservation history
23 March 1974GCR Reopened
1976GCR Plc formed
2000Double track opened
2012Swithland Sidings opened to the public
HeadquartersLoughborough Central &

The GCR is currently the only double track mainline heritage railway in the world with 5.25 miles (8.45 km) of working double track.[1]

Four stations are in operation, each restored to a period in the railway's commercial history: Loughborough Central (the 1950s); Quorn & Woodhouse (Second World War and the remainder of the 1940s); Rothley (Edwardian Era); Leicester North (the 1960s).

Background history

Great Central Railway
Limit of operations
Ruddington South Junction
Gotham Branchline
Rushcliffe Halt
East Leake
Barnstone Tunnel
Barnstone Sidings
Brush Traction
Midland Main Line
Loughborough Top Shed
Loughborough Traction
Maintenance Depot
Loughborough Central
Quorn and Woodhouse
Swithland Sidings
Belgrave and Birstall
Leicester North
Leicester Central

In 1897, the Great Central Railway itself was formed, becoming the last steam mainline in the United Kingdom. Two years later in 1899, "The London Extension" was officially opened to passenger and freight traffic, allowing more direct journeys from the capital to Nottingham, Leicester, Sheffield and Manchester. The entire line was built to accommodate a European standard loading gauge and all but a few stations were single island platforms. This construction scheme was devised by chairman Sir Edward Watkin, who had envisioned his railway one day running through a channel tunnel to France, linking Britain with the continent.

However, this never came to fruition; indeed, the Beeching report which led to cutback and closure was published in 1963, some 31 years before the tunnel was fully constructed. In the report, the line was described as a duplicate of the Midland Main Line. Apart from the most southerly section into London, the line was closed as a through route in 1966 as part of the Beeching Axe, although a section of the line between Nottingham and Rugby remained open until 1969. The closure became one of Doctor Beeching's largest cutbacks. It was also famous for being one of the most controversial.


In the late 1960s, local groups who opposed the closure gathered together for a series of meetings at Leicester Central railway station and the Main Line Preservation Group (MLPG) was formed. There had been talk of restoring the entire closed line from Nottingham Arkwright Street to Rugby Central, but this was rationalised to a section from Ruddington to Leicester and later, because British Rail retained the single track between Loughborough and Ruddington for British Gypsum freight and access to the now-closed Ministry of Defence base, the group's plans focussed on the Loughborough to Leicester section. The published aim of MLPG was "to acquire a suitable length of main line, for the operation of steam hauled passenger trains, at realistic speeds".[2] Work began on salvaging as much reusable material as possible for the project from the recent demolitions.

The early years (1969-1976)

The MLPG received a lease on the station, buildings and most of the trackbed at Loughborough Central in 1970; this would become its base of operations. By the following year, negotiations into purchasing the rest of the remaining railway had proven successful and the group was able to buy it for a mere £75,000 (£956,041 in 2015),[3]. The rest of the Loughborough yard complex was secured in 1972. In the same year, the first coaching stock arrived on site. The first open day occurred in 1973, shortly after the arrival of working motive power. Passengers were offered simple wagon or coach rides run by small industrial locomotives. On 30 September 1973, LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 No. 5231 hauled the first passenger train since the railway's commercial closure, to Quorn and back, but at the same time the down line was being lifted between Birstall and Quorn because of BR's increasing demands.

To purchase what was left of the track, the MLPG was re-merged into a supporting charity, the Main Line Steam Trust (MLST). The entire value of the eight miles (13 km) of up line was re-assessed by BR at £279,000 (£3,042,895 in 2015),[3] and the MLST was now paying £3,300 a month (£32,719 in 2015),[3] just to keep it. A deal was struck on 1 April 1976 that would see the remainder of the down line lifted if BR's cash demand was not raised. At that time, passenger trains were still running as far as Rothley, but, without an adequate supply of working mainline locomotives, the trust had to resort to using industrial tank engines working single track - some way short of the original vision of the MLPG seven years previously.

Great Central Railway Plc

To purchase the land and track, Great Central Railway (1976) PLC issued shares, and the MLPG was transformed into the MLST, a charitable body, to support the company.

Charnwood Borough Council agreed to purchase the land from BR and lease it to the railway for 99 years. However, this still left GCR (1976) PLC the task of raising over £150,000 (£973,644 in 2015),[3] to purchase the track. Ultimately, the target was not met and only a single track between Loughborough and Quorn could be afforded (BR allowed more time to raise funds to purchase Quorn to Rothley). The double track from Rothley to Belgrave & Birstall was lifted, along with the 'down' line from Loughborough to Rothley.

In the late 1980s, the intention was announced to extend the line back to Belgrave & Birstall. The former station had been vandalised and the Railway had no choice but to demolish the buildings. In 1990, a station called Leicester North was opened a hundred metres to the south of Belgrave & Birstall. This shift in location placed the new station inside Leicester's city boundary, allowing the 'Leicester' tag to be included in the name, along with unlocking extra funds to assist in the construction.

The double track project (1991-present day)

In the 1990s, David Clarke, who setup the Gray Paul Ferrari dealerships in Loughborough and Nottingham, and went on to become president of the GCR, approached the Railway about the possibility of double-tracking the line[4]. As a signalling enthusiast, David aspired to operate a signal box on a double track main line, and so the campaign to raise funds to double the section between Quorn and Rothley was launched, with David himself providing a large amount of the capital.

After reaching Quorn, work moved ahead to extend the second track to Loughborough. The double track between Loughborough and Rothley opened on 1 June 2000. This gave additional capacity, which is especially useful at galas, where up to six trains may be in operation at any one time. This enables the running of non-passenger-carrying trains (freights, TPO set) during galas to a greater extent than any other heritage railway. It also means that the timetable can be generally adhered to, as delays do not cascade, as they do on single track lines.

Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate has granted powers to run private test trains at up to 60 mph. Other special trains at public events run at up to 45 miles per hour (72.4 km/h). Typically, UK heritage railways are limited to a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour (40.2 km/h).[5]

In 2004, a new signal box at Quorn opened, at that time the only preserved box in the UK with a double track on either side. With this new signal box, a train can, in theory, be dispatched from Loughborough every 10 minutes. A further signal box at Swithland Sidings has been fitted with Great Western Railway style signals, in the style of the GCR/GWR joint line via High Wycombe, allowing for a further capacity increase on the preserved GCR. The full Swithland project was completed in May 2012.[6] On 5 December 2012, the GCR was awarded the NRHA Signalling Award for this long-running and complicated project.[7]

Major engineering projects

The gap and Loughborough Midland (High Level)

Between the A60 and Loughborough locomotive shed is "The Gap", a section of embankment and bridges (including a large single span over the Midland Main Line) that need to be reinstated to join the two concerns together. That is a long term, expensive project and, in the meantime, there are plans to construct a new 'Loughborough Midland High Level' station on the embankment near the A60 road bridge. This would allow easy interchange between Midland Main Line trains and trains from the GCR(N) (and, if 'the Gap' is bridged, the Greater Great Central Railway (GGCR), as it is known almost universally by Great Central staff). On 12 February 2009, it was announced that the project would receive £350,000 for a feasibility study, Charnwood Borough Council having won a grant from the East Midlands Development Agency. The GCR is to contribute £100,000 to the study (combined cost of £450,000). If completed, the GCRN would merge with the GCR to create a single 18-mile (29 km) track[8] which would also be rebuilt as a double-track line for most, if not the whole, of its length.

Latest engineering studies of 'the Gap' have produced a design for a single-track link (difficult to justify the additional cost for double-track) - previously proposing to utilize two, ex-Network Rail, single-track bridges (removed as part of the Reading Station upgrade), now to be utilized to bridge the Preci-Spark Car Park and Railway Terrace. The latest design proposes to re-instate the bridge over the Midland Main Line utilizing a new-build single span bridge, complying with electrification clearances for the recently announced electrification project. This will cost significantly more than the original proposal, but has the benefits of reduced future maintenance and access charges for the previously proposed central pillar. The additional cost is somewhat offset by the use of the 'Reading Bridges' at the locations mentioned. The replacement embankments to the north of the Canal bridge are proposed to use the latest construction techniques to provide a higher but narrower structure. Funding options are currently being reviewed for what may be the 'Greatest Heritage Railway Project' in the UK.

The Mountsorrel Railway Project

This is a project devised and financed by Railway Vehicle Preservations Limited.[9] The projects aim is the rebuilding of the Mountsorrel branch off the Great Central railway at Swithland sidings to the working Mountsorrel quarry.

The branch is essentially intact but the track was lifted in the mid 1960s. The original purpose of the reinstatement was to provide a carriage shed to house the restored carriages of Railway Vehicle Preservations Ltd and shelter them from the elements. In 2006 they applied for planning permission for the shed; this was rejected due to badger setts discovered on site. The reinstatement of the line is going ahead with ballast being donated from the quarry it served. The total length being reinstated is 1.25 miles (2 km). It is intended a halt will be built at the quarry end, offering train rides up the line to add an extra attraction to the Great Central Railway, with services either run by a DMU or else a push-pull fitted steam/diesel locomotive. The line is now fully ballasted for half of its length with tracklaying well underway.[10] Tracklaying has recently passed through the Wood Lane bridge and officially entered Mountsorrel Parish. The plans for the shed are being re-evaluated and a NEW Planning Application has been entered for a four road shed at the back of Swithland sidings[11] On 4 February 2013 the ambitious plans were given conditional approval.[12]

Recently Lafarge, (operators of the Mountsorrel Quarry) revealed a proposal for a stone loading terminal at the end of the Mountsorrel Railway.[13] This was in response to a planning submission[14] to build 300+ Houses near to the proposed Bond Lane Station, and was clearly aimed at Lafarge protecting the mineral extraction rights. The proposal would be dependent on the GCR 'Bridging the Gap' to GCRN. GCR then would build a north chord from the southern end of Swithland Viaduct to meet the existing track just at the end of the straight section of the Mountsorrel Railway.[15] The proposal estimates that 3 loaded trains of 1000 tonnes would leave the proposed terminal every weekday and travel via the GCR to the Midland Main Line Connection.

Stations of the heritage GCR

Accidents and incidents

  • On 4 February 2006, LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 locomotive 45305 Alderman A. E. Draper collided with a rake of six carriages at Loughborough Central, damaging the locomotive and one of the carriages. Two people were injured. An investigation by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) found that the driver was not wearing spectacles at the time of the accident, despite it being a requirement on his medical certificate to do so when driving. No testing was carried out by the GCR on the train crew for drug or alcohol use. There was no first aid kit carried on the locomotive, although this was recommended by Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate for all locomotives. The RAIB made four recommendations as a result of the accident.[19]
  • On 27 April 2013, LMS Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0 46521 was derailed on trap points at Quorn & Woodhouse.[20] The accident was filmed by a visitor to the railway whose film clearly shows the train departing from a loop against a danger signal. This had been authorised by the signalman as the signal was not working. However the signalman failed to close the trap point and the driver failed to check the trap point in accordance with the rules. The incident was not investigated by the RAIB.[21]
  • On 12 May 2014, Class 37 diesel electric locomotive 37198 ran away from Quorn & Woodhouse pushing a TPO carriage . They collided with a rake of five carriages at Loughborough Central.[22][23] The RAIB investigation into the accident, published on 21 May 2015, found that the accident was caused by the train being stabled in an ineffective manner to protect it from a runaway. Additional factors were that there was no brake van in the train, contrary to GCR rules, and that the train was left parked in a position where there was no runaway protection, such as catch points, available. The RAIB made four recommendations as a result of the accident.[24]

Film and television

Many filmmakers have taken advantage of the atmosphere of the Great Central and it has had many notable appearances in film and television.



Music video

Locomotives and rolling stock

The Great Central Railway has a reasonable running length with the added bonus of a mainline setup, and so some of Britain's largest locomotives have been there in recent years. The steam fleet currently comprises over a dozen mainline classes, many of them either heavy freight, express passenger or shunting tank engines. Some are of types that were preserved in abundance elsewhere, but others have been leased from the National Collection. On most days a BR Green with Whiskers liveried, three-car British Rail Class 101 DMU runs from Loughborough to Leicester. As well as running stock the railway also has a large collection of heritage rolling stock. Passenger stock is made up of uniform rakes of British Rail Mark 1 coaches originally built in the 1950s and 60s. They either carry Maroon, Carmine and Cream, Western Region Chocolate and Cream, or Great Central Pullman liveries.

Supporting bodies

Both the Great Central Railway PLC and the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) have a number of supporting bodies which are based at each individual line. The majority of these are locomotive or rolling stock groups, however there are a number of private owners who have based their stock or locomotives at the lines.

Main Line Steam Trust

Main Line Steam Trust was established in 1969 as the Main Line Preservation Group, with the intention of preserving one of two potential sections of the line, one based at Lutterworth, running from Leicester to Rugby Central, and one based at Loughborough, running between Leicester and Nottingham. The Loughborough base was chosen and work began on restoring the station, an office was rented at street level at Loughborough Central station, and in 1971 Charitable Status was granted to MLPG, who changed their name to Main Line Steam Trust Limited.

Substantial monthly payments were required to keep the formation intact between Loughborough and Belgrave & Birstall, with steam hauled services operating from Loughborough Central to Quorn & Woodhouse Station, and eventually Rothley station. The money required to purchase the line south of Rothley was not available and only the Loughborough to Rothley section of line was preserved, with the aid of Charnwood Borough Council.

The operation and the assets were transferred to the Great Central Railway (1976) Ltd. and MLST took on the role of the charitable volunteer run support body for the railway. MLST has continued to support the Great Central Railway PLC (the 1976 was eventually dropped from the title), and the various organisations around the railway. It also supports the Great Central Railway (Nottingham).

MLST have funded a great deal at the Great Central Railway, including assistance in funding the double track, Leicester Station, Quorn & Woodhouse Signalling, Swithland Signalling, Loughborough South Remodelling, and has assisted in bringing in visiting locomotives for gala events on numerous occasions.

MLST has now been incorporated into The Friends of the Great Central Main Line (FoGCML), this with the David Clarke Railway Trust (DCRT) provide the volunteers and the funding. Outside commercial interests and individuals are able to donate toward various projects (Loughborough's 'Crystal Palace', Mountsorrel Railway, RVPS restorations etc.) to the DCRT, gaining valuable tax advantages.

Great Central Railway PLC

The company made a profit during trading year ending 2007 of £62,000, the first genuine profit in 30 years as a visitor attraction.

The Gresley Society

A small group based at Loughborough who are devoted to LNER Chief Mechanical Engineer, Sir Nigel Gresley. They also own large suburban tank locomotive GNR Class N2 No. 1744.

Renaissance Railcars

Renaissance Railcars own the five Class 101 vehicles at the Great Central Railway PLC, at present only one set, known as "Set A" (affectionately also known as "The Green Goddess"), is in regular passenger use, however progress is being made on the other vehicles based at the line. A third 101 driving trailer unit is on standby should one of the other driving cars require mechanical attention.

They also own 59575 a 111 centre coach, and it is currently being restored, to be eventually worked with the "Green Goddess" or "Daisy".

Boscastle Locomotive Syndicate

Owners and carers of Bulleid Pacific locomotive 34039 Boscastle, which is undergoing a protracted overhaul due to take 3 years and £200,000+ of donated money.

73156 Standard 5 Support Group

Formed in 1985, the group owns BR Standard Class 5 73156, which underwent an extensive restoration at the railway and numerous storage vans.

Loughborough Standard Locomotive Group

Loughborough Standard Locomotive Group, or LSLG, look after and part-own a number of locomotives. These are BR Standard 2MTs Nos.78018 & 78019, BR Standard 5MT No.73156, BR Standard Class 7 70013 Oliver Cromwell and LMS Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0 No.46521

No.70013 "Oliver Cromwell" is part of the national collection, owned by the National Railway Museum, and has been restored by both LSLG and the 5305 Locomotive Association. 'Cromwell' is running on both the GCR and Network Rail. LSLG also have in their care a Directors Saloon, coach no. M999504, which is on loan from EWS.

5305 Locomotive Association

The 5305 Locomotive Association have a number of locomotives in their care, these are LMS Black Five No.45305 "Alderman A.E. Draper", SR King Arthur No.777 "Sir Lamiel", British Rail Class 33 D6535 "Hertfordshire Railtours", BR Standard 7 No.70013 "Oliver Cromwell", and British Rail Class 45 "Leicestershire And Derbyshire Yeomanry" Peak D123.

Nos.777, D6535 and 70013 are all part of the National Collection and are owned by the National Railway Museum. No.777 emerged from a lengthy overhaul in British Railways Brunswick green livery, under the BR number 30777 and has just been refinished in Southern Malachite Green with running number 777.

Type One Locomotive Company

A diesel group who own and care for Class 20 D8098, Class 31 D5380 and Class 47 D1705.

Railway Vehicle Preservations Ltd

Railway Vehicle Preservations Ltd, and their members, own the second largest collection of LNER coaches in preservation today. These include the famous LNER Travelling Post Office set, two LNER Beavertail observation saloon (including one in its rebuilt condition), and a number of "Gresley" teak-panel passenger coaches.

Quorn Wagon and Wagon

A group dedicated to the restoration of steam era goods rolling stock. Responsible for over 75 privately owned vehicles which make up the majority of the boxvan, mixed freight and permanent way trains, as well as 4 of the brake vans in operation on the railway. Restoration activity is centered around the southern section of Quorn and Woodhouse station yard.[30]


  1. "'Split' rail line to be reconnected". 12 February 2016. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  2. "How You Can Help", a pamphlet printed for the Main Line Preservation Group by the Winfield Press, Rugby, in 1969
  3. UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 27 January 2019.
  4. Overton, George (18 June 2010). "Mountsorrel Railway: David Clarke Railway Trust donates £5,000 to track appeal!". Mountsorrel Railway. Retrieved 5 February 2019.
  5. "Minor and heritage railways". 23 April 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  6. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway (30 May 2012). "Signal Box – Swithland Sidings | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  7. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway (6 December 2012). "National award for Swithland Signalling | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  8. "BBC News - Steam track could run for 18 miles (29 km) from Nottinghamshire to Leicestershire". 1 June 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  9. Railway Vehicle Preservations
  10. Railway, Mountsorrel (8 August 2012). "The Mountsorrel Railway: Track Laying Passes the Half Way Point!". Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  11. GCR Main Line Issue 153/Winter 2012 Pg 16
  12. The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway. "Membership Signup | The UK's Only Main Line Heritage Railway". Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  13. Document 324/RF/SK2
  14. Charnwood Borough Council #P/12/0022/2
  15. GCR Main Line Issue 153/ Winter 2012 Pg 14
  16. Charnwood Forest Garden railway
  17. "BBC News - Great Central Railway plans museum in Leicester". 8 December 2012. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  19. "The collision of a locomotive with carriages at Great Central Railway's Loughborough Central station, 4 February 2006" (PDF). Rail Accidents Investigation Branch. July 2006. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  20. "Train derails – at low speed – at gala event". Leicester Mercury. 29 April 2013. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  21. Baker, Richard (29 April 2013). "46521 with TPO at Quorn Saturday 27th April 2013". Richard Baker via YouTube. Retrieved 12 May 2014.
  22. "Locomotive collision at Great Central". Loughborough Echo. Retrieved 15 May 2014.
  23. "Collision at Loughborough Central on the Great Central Railway (GCR), 12 May 2014". Rail Accidents Investigation Branch. Retrieved 30 May 2014.
  24. "Runaway and subsequent collision near to Loughborough Central station, Great Central Railway 12 May 2014" (PDF). Rail Accidents Investigation Branch. Retrieved 21 May 2015.
  25. "Top Gear trio pull latest stunt at Great Central Railway". Leicester Mercury. Archived from the original on 19 July 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2011.
  26. "Heston's Fantastical Food - Heston's Big Breakfast". Channel 4. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  27. "GREAT CENTRAL RAILWAY WEEKLY NEWSLETTER" (PDF). Great Central Railway. 8 May 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  28. "Stereophonics - Indian Summer". YouTube. 17 January 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2014.
  29. "Louise Steel - Take Off And Busk". YouTube. 9 September 2015. Retrieved 9 June 2016.
  30. Quorn Wagon and Wagon Group
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