Great Central Railway (preserved)

Not to be confused with the modern day train operating company Grand Central Railway

see Great Central Main Line for full route of original railway.

The Great Central Railway (GCR) is a heritage railway in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire currently split in two sections.

The Southern section runs for 8.25 miles from Loughborough to the northern outskirts of Leicester. The former Belgrave and Birstall station was demolished and the current terminus (named Leicester North) built to the south. With the exception of the short section between Bewdley North and Bewdley South signal boxes on the Severn Valley Railway it is currently the only standard gauge heritage railway in the UK with double track.

North of Loughborough, at Ruddington, is the Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre, the home of the Great Central Railway (Nottingham), which runs for 9 miles towards Loughborough. In the future the two railways will be connected by reinstating a bridge at Loughborough to cross the Midland Main Line.


The Great Central London extension opened in 1899 as a link in connecting Manchester to London via Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, and Rugby. It was the last domestic main line to be built in the UK, and was built to a continental loading gauge as the plan was for a channel tunnel.

In 1923 the GCR came under the control of the London & North Eastern Railway. At Nationalisation in 1948, it became part of British Rail Eastern Region. In 1958 a BR reorganisation moved it into the London Midland Region. Historically, the Midland and Great Central had been bitter rivals and the 'Midland' soon reduced services, ending all expresses on the line in 1960.

Main Line Preservation Group (MLPG)

In the Beeching report of 1963, the line was listed as a duplicate of the Midland Main Line. Apart from the most Southern 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. Local groups who opposed the closure formed the MLPG at Loughborough.

The original MLPG scheme was to rescue the line from Nottingham Arkwright Street to Rugby Central. This soon was cut back due to financial realities, and refocused on Nottingham to Leicester. After continued funding difficulties and BR's intention to retain the line north of Loughborough for freight traffic, the scheme to preserve Loughborough to Belgrave & Birstall was devised.

North of Loughborough, a Ministry of Defence ordnance depot at Ruddington and the British Gypsum works at East Leake kept the line open, though BR sold the land in Nottingham City that gave access to this stub of a line from rest of the network. BR took up 300 yards of embankment between the preserved section and the Midland Main Line (over which the GCR passed) at Loughborough. Later, in 1980, the bridges over the MML and Railway Terrace at Loughborough were removed. The missing bridges and embankment form now what is known as the "gap".

BR opposed the running of their lines by 'amateurs', and strict operational conditions were imposed on the MLPG when they first operated trains on the double track between Loughborough and Quorn in 1973. A BR pilot-man was required to be on board at all times and held the key to unlock points. In 1976 BR increased the track retention fee from £1,100 to over £3,000 per month. At the same time, they announced that an agreement to buy the line must be made by April 1st or the track would be lifted.

The Main Line Steam Trust (MLST)

To purchase the land and track, Great Central Railway (1976) PLC issued shares, and the MLPG 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 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.

North of Loughborough

At the same time as the Leicester extension, the Ministry of Defence depot at Ruddington closed, and the 4 miles of track from East Leake to Ruddington were no longer needed by BR. It was also clear that British Gypsum were unlikely to bring in any more materials by rail. The GCR Northern Development Association was formed. Work initially concentrated on restoring Rushcliffe Halt, however when Rushcliffe Borough Council agreed to lease part of the former MOD site to the association, the grand scheme of the Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre was devised to encompass not only railway preservation, but any transport heritage relevant to the area.

In the 1990s, work on what had become the Great Central Railway (Nottingham) Ltd was concentrated mainly at Ruddington. The transfer of BR into Railtrack and then Network Rail hindered attempts to purchase the line. Ironically, it was British Gypsum's intentions to renew rail freight traffic that formed the catalyst that allowed the GCR(N) to buy the line and restore it initially for freight use.

At East Leake station houses were built on the former goods yard in the 1980s, and some were built only yards from the remaining track. The disused nature of the line combined with a solicitor's error led the new occupants to believe that the line was closed (BR never listed the line as closed and could have resumed operations at any time). However, when the GCR(N) applied for a Transport and Works Act Order to purchase and operate the line, objections from local residents resulted in a permanent speed restriction of 5mph through East Leake and the station remaining closed.

For Network Rail to route freight trains onto the line during the week and GCR(N) to operate heritage trains at the weekend, a length of rail north of East Leake was removed to create two separate railways. With this 'rail break' the GCR(N) were unable to access Rushcliffe Halt. A more convenient solution was found in the form of a clip on double-sided wheel scotch padlocked to the line at the site of the rail break. At weekends, the GCR(N) phone Network Rail to take possession of the line. Network Rail then lock the line out of use from their end and allow the GCR(N) to unlock the rail break and access the track to Loughborough.

In 2003 regular services to Rushcliffe Halt resumed. Passenger trains further south are limited to the second Sunday of each month as there is no station at Loughborough and the station at East Leake is closed.

The double track project

In the 1990s, David Clarke approached the railway about the possibility of double tracking the line. As a signalling enthusiast, David dreamed of operating 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.

Until signalling was complete the second track was operated separately from the main track. This provided a unique opportunity for trains to "chase" each other between Quorn and Swithland.

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, and for the first time on a preserved railway steam trains could pass each other at speed.

Her Majesty's Rail Inspectorate has granted powers to run private test trains at up to 60mph. Other special trains at public events run at up to 35mph. (Typically UK heritage railways are limited to a maximum speed of 25mph.)

In 2004 a new signal box at Quorn opened, 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 is being fitted with Great Western style signals.

Work continues on commissioning the signal box at Ruddington North Junction and development of the Heritage Centre (including a brand new station).

Route in detail

Major engineering projects

There are currently 4 engineering projects underway, these include extensions south and north, and also a 1/2 mile length of line joining together the Loughborough to Leicester line, and Loughborough to Ruddington line as the Leicester to Ruddington line.

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 mean time there are plans to construct a new "Loughborough North" or "Loughborough High Level" station on the embankment near the A60 road bridge. This would allow easy interchange with Midland Main Line trains with trains from the GCR(N) (and later when the Gap is bridged, the Greater Great Central).

Southern Extension Leicester Abbey

Recently discussion has looked at a possible extension south of Leicester North station, to a new station 1 mile away, at Beaumont Leys Lane, close to the Abbey Pumping Station, National Space Centre, Abbey Park, and ultimately Leicester city centre. The extension would be single track from Leicester North, and would be for passenger use only. A run-around loop would be located at Beaumont Leys Lane, along with a single platform and station facilities.

Extending to the Abbey Lane area would require the demolition of part of the platform at Leicester North, and bridging the Leicester Outer Ring Road and Thurcaston Road. Extending to Leicester Central was once an option considered by the railway, but pulled out of talks with the Council, stating that the restoration and rebuilding works would be too expensive and would not fit in with the Council's timetable for the area.

This project may yet happen as soon as the Loughborough Gap is bridged to join the two sections of the Heritage GCSR together.

Loughborough Locomotive Shed Project

The current Locomotive Shed at Loughborough stands in the way of the double track main line which will eventually run through to the Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre. A solution was found by Tom Tighe, the GCR PLC’s Locomotive Superintendent whilst on holiday up in the lake district, he stumbled across Workington Locomotive Shed, which was shortly to be demolished. The shed was saved and funding sought from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources.

The shed was dismantled and moved piece by piece to Swithland Yard for eventual rebuilding on the site of the old Loughborough Tip.

When the Locomotive Shed is built, it will feature an 8 road shed, with 5 roads for running locomotives, and 3 roads for locomotives under restoration or overhaul. Originally it was a 10 road Shed, the other two roads will feature a mess room, offices and amenities for the Locomotive Department.

Another proposal is for a small platform adjacent to the shed for a shuttle service to be operated between Loughborough Central, the Locomotive Shed, and the proposed Loughborough Midland (High Level) station.

Northern Extension Wilford / Nottingham (Riverside) River Trent

In a 10 year business plan published in 2004, a feasibility study was proposed into extending the line northwards from Ruddington to head towards the River Trent as it passes by Wilford village. This would be a further extension of almost two miles and would take the line within metres of the boundary of Nottingham City itself. Extension further north would be extremely difficult since the viaduct over the River Trent was dismantled in the 1990s and the land beyond has been redeveloped as a new housing estate.

However, Nottingham Express Transit, who own and promote the Nottingham Tramway have plans to convert the section of the line from the River Trent to Clifton Boulevard into an extension to their existing tram line (which also re-uses existing GCR structures at Station Street).

There are plans to rebuild the old viaduct across the River Trent for the Nottingham Tramway to cross over & construct a new railway station called Nottingham Riverside railway station which would be both the new northern terminus of the Heritage Great Central railway line and the new southern terminus of the Nottingham Tramway. There is even a proposal for a proposed Wilford railway station between Ruddington & the proposed Nottingham (Riverside).


Main article: Great Central Railway locomotives

GCR Rolling Stock Trust

A group called the GCR Rolling Stock Trust owns the largest single collection of pre-grouping rolling stock known to exist in the UK, including the famous 'Barnum' carriages (so named as these were the type hired by P.T. Barnum's travelling circus) and some items that even herald from the days of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln Railway - the GCR's title before completing the London extension. The details of the stock are below.

  • Six Wheeler GCR No 946.The group's current restoration project, bodywork restoration is nearly complete and the body has lifted to replace some timber on the Chassis, replace a leaf spring and test and work on the brakes. All of the old timber has been removed and some of the fittings that were removed for attention are being fitted and then the new timber will be fitted, the leaf springs have been refurbished and are ready for fitting, the bolts are being worked on and 5 out of ten doors have been finished. Completion is expected in 2008.
  • Barnum Bar coach No 228 built in 1910. The framework, chassis, floor and roof are in good condition, it is planned to fit a Bar in once finished. Restoration planned to start once the new Barnum building is built.
  • Barnum Brake Coach No 695 built in 1910. Currently in No 5 shed undercover but a building is being made up which will hold all four Barnums, restoration planned to start once 228 is completed, a kitchen will be fitted to this during restoration.
  • Barnum Dining Car No 666 built in 1910. Outside No 5 building but to be moved into the planned Barnum building, work due on it once 695 is completed, should go inside No 5 building to have its body, roof and windows repaired once 664 has had similar work done on it.
  • Barnum Dining Car No 664 built in 1910. Undercover in No 5 shed but will be moved into the planned Barnum building, work hopefully will start once 666 is completed, currently being made weatherproof and fit for display by having its body, roof and windows repaired so 666 can take its place inside for a short while to have some work done on it. The current work is that the body is being sanded and preporations are being made to fit some wood on the roof to make it watertight.
  • Clerestory 1st and 3rd class No 1663. Body Stored on a flat Wagon but frames are nearly ready to hold the body to take the weight of the body, shortly to be moved onto its own frames, final Frame work and bodywork Restoration will begin once Barnum No 664 is complete. Undercover in No 5 building.
  • Suburban No 799. Outside with good framework and the roof has recently been tarpaulined, work due to start once 1663 is complete.
  • Suburban GCR Coach No 555. Parted from its frames at the moment, work due to start once 799 is complete.
  • Six Wheeler No 373 GCR. Stored with poor body and major work needed on the frames, it will be the last Carrige to be restored.

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. Sadly 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.

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.

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.

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

Loughborough Standard Locomotive Group

Loughborough Standard Locomotive Group, or LSLG, look after and part-own a number of Locomotives, these are BR Standard 2MT No.78019, BR Standard 5MT No.73156, BR Standard 7P6F No.70013 “Oliver Cromwell” and LMS 2MT No.46521

At present only No.78019 is in running condition and can regularly be found operating passenger trains, although the other locomotives are making progress. No.70013 “Oliver Cromwell” is part of the national collection, owned by the National Railway Museum, and is being restored by both LSLG and the 5305 Locomotive Association. 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 5” No.45305 “Alderman A.E. Draper”, SR King Arthur No.777 “Sir Lamiel”, BR Class 33 D6535 “Hertfordshire Railtours”, BR Standard 7P6F No.70013 “Oliver Cromwell”, and BR 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. Recently No.777 emerged from a lengthy overhaul in British Railways Brunswick green livery, under the BR number 30777.

Railway Vehicle Preservations LTD

Railway Vehicle Preservations LTD, and their members, own a number of vehicles around the railway, these include the famous LNER Travelling Post Office set, LNER Beavertail Observation Saloon, and a number of LNER “Gresley” Teak passenger coaches.

Nottingham Transport Heritage Centre Ltd

Nottingham Society of Model and Experimental Engineers

NSMEE operate a mile-long circuit of mixed-gauge miniature railway at the Heritage Centre.


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