The Mainlines Of Yesteryear

East Midlands Trains' 222010 and another class 222 at Loughborough station
Loughborough Meridians: 222010 and a classmate at Loughborough (Midland Main Line) station
This post was nearly titled ‘Back To The Past’, since it follows on from ‘Back To The Future’, the previous instalment in my ‘Roving The Midlands’ travel report series and features a visit to a heritage railway.

Our travels on Tuesday 15th August began with a short hop along the Midland Main Line from Leicester to Loughborough, the home of Brush Traction, on board ‘Meridian’ 222010 which formed the 09:30 to Sheffield. There we temporarily bade the modern railway farewell and took a taxi to the other Loughborough station, home of the persevered Great Central Railway’s locomotive fleet.

The entrance to the Great Central heritage railway's station in Loughborough
Great Central Station: entrance to the heritage railway in Loughborough.

The engine shed at Loughborough we left for later in order to board the 10:15 steam service for the journey along the length of what is claimed to be Britain’s only mainline heritage railway. The route was indeed once part of the Great Central Railway’s main line, which according to Wikipedia opened in 1899. Around 70 years later much of it was considered to be unnecessarily duplicating other main lines and therefore closed.

Steam train at Leicester North station
End Of The Line For Steam: our train at Leicester North, with the rusty totem signage just visible on the left.
The particular section that has been reopened as a ‘mainline heritage railway’ certainly is a ‘duplicate route’ as the train was taking us back towards Leicester. The southern terminus of the heritage operation, Leicester North station, is however a long way from the city centre and national rail station, hence my decision to join the heritage railway at its northern end. The totem signs here were rusty; perhaps artificially so since this station is presented in 1960s style (which of course was when the line closed). The transitional era depicted also permits the station staff there to wear uniforms featuring the British Rail double-arrow logo.

Signal cabin at Rothley station on the Great Central Railway
Shades Of Green: Rothley Signal Box
After the engine had run round, we headed back north to Rothley station where we were due to arrive at 11:17. I can only assume that the shade of green coating the signal box and various features on the platform was used by the original Great Central Railway company, although the warning signs on the foot crossing were London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) ones. Somewhat inexplicably, these platform features included several Great Western Railway benches; I don’t think this was ever G.W.R. territory but I’m not an expert on railway company boundaries.

GWR benches on the platform at Rothley on the Great Central Railway
Which Great Railway? GWR benches on the platform at Rothley.
Our next train, due at 11:35, was the other rake of the two in service on the day and would take us back to Leicester North. While waiting for this at Rothley my grandmother visited the café and I took a look at the garden railway. As a result of this we only just made it back onto the platform in time to catch the train (the staff may even have held it briefly as they saw us heading for it). To my slight disappointment the 2-6-0 locomotive hauling the train was the same type as the one hauling the other set of coaches, an LMS/BR class 2.

Looking south from Rothley station to where the double track line from Loughborough reduces to single track
Single Southwards: two tracks merging into a single-track at the southern end of Rothley station.
The section between Rothley and Leicester North is, like other heritage railways, single-track and traversed (at least on the day of our visit) at low speed. The first impressions of a passenger starting their visit to the railway from Leicester North might therefore be one of a ‘sleepy branch line’, despite the fact that this was once the Great Central Main Line.

A view of Leicester North Station from behind the buffer stops.
Single Platform: Leicester North Station with the bricked-up entrance to the now-demolished original island platform just visible above the train.
Leicester North is the railway’s only station with just a single platform at the side of the formation, and was built from scratch for the heritage operation. Intriguingly, the other three stations (Rothley, Quorn & Woodhouse and Loughborough) all have an island platform between a pair of tracks (so two platform faces). A former station on the site of today’s Leicester North had the same island platform arrangement but was demolished due to it being in poor condition.

Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
On The Double: Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
Staying with the second rake we departed Leicester North on the 12:05 service, this time bound for Loughborough. North of Rothley, the ‘mainline’ claims of today’s Great Central are far-more justifiable as the route is double-track. Unlike on other heritage lines, our train was thus able to pass the other without stopping to exchange single-line tokens, although this happened to occur only moments before we called at Quorn & Woodhouse anyway. We did however still appear to be limited to the same low speeds of the country’s various preserved branch lines.

L.N.E.R. buffet car in the platform at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Strange Route: the places listed on the side of the teak carriage do not appear to belong to a single train service.
As with other heritage railways, most of the coaching stock appeared to be of the British Railways mark 1 design. Back at Loughborough however I was able to photograph two older vehicles, one (out of service) in LMS livery and an LNER varnished teak buffet car in our train. The latter had traditional destination boards on the side with a curious list of place names: Marylebone, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. All were presumably served by the original Great Central but surely a train service would not have followed such an indirect route.

Platform furniture, buildings and canopy at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Blues And Greens: the slightly uncomplimentary colour schemes on the Great Central station at Loughborough.
The colour scheme at Loughborough’s heritage station was a curious mix of British Railways (eastern region) blue and black and green seen at Rothley. Surprisingly, the railway permits extensive public access to their locomotive shed at Loughborough. This provided us with the opportunity to see much of the railway’s varied locomotive fleet, rather than being limited to the ones in service. The size of these impressive machines can really be appreciated when viewed up-close at ground level rather than from a station platform.

A close look at the chains and cables coming from under Loughborough signal box on the Great Central Railway
Ye Olde Signalling Cables: chains and wires coming out of Loughborough signal box.
Also on show was an array of chains and cables emanating from Loughborough signal box. The building itself is a fine example and, like many others across the UK railway network, puts the ‘re-locatable equipment buildings’ used for modern signalling equipment to shame aesthetically. ‘Re-locatable equipment building’, by the way, I believe is just a posh way of saying ‘portacabin’. As per usual, clicking the photograph will take you to my Flickr page where you will find a shot of the signal box along with other photographs from the holiday. At the time of posting, the album is not complete, there are still more photographs to upload from this trip.

Class 47 diesel locomotive 'Sparrowhawk' on the Great Central Railway.
Shiny Sparrowhawk: class 47 diesel locomotive outside the shed on the Great Central Railway.
Once again, we then had to hurry to catch a train, this time the 13:58 East Midlands Trains service from the other Loughborough station. This meant I did not have much time for looking around the small museum at the other end of the heritage railway’s platform and, to my annoyance, we forgot to ask the question that had in part brought us here. That question was whether the ‘only mainline heritage railway in Britain’ ever ran trains above the normal low speeds with members of the public on-board. I have read that the line is permitted to run faster, up to 75mph for testing. They also run demonstration travelling post office trains at above the normal heritage railway speed limit of 25mph during gala events. What I do not know is whether those gala events also include the operation of passenger trains at speeds greater than 25mph.

Unfortunately, we felt we did not have time to double back and ask the question, so carried on our walk to East Midlands Trains’ Loughborough station. I think we arrived with about 10 minutes to spare, so I was able to obtain some photographs of the station with the Brush Traction works in the background. With one heritage mainline, the Great Central, behind us we switched to another when we boarded Diesel Multiple Unit 222015 which was bound for Nottingham. The class 222 units are only middle-aged, yet represent how very outdated the Midland Main Line is. In 1981 British Rail recommended a programme of electrification which prioritised electrification of the Midland Main Line, plus the Birmingham to Derby and Leicester routes, ahead of the East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle. 36 years later, diesel trains built at the time are becoming life-expired and electrification north of Kettering on the Midland Main Line (MML) is once-again without a funding commitment from the government.

Loughborough Midland railway station, seen from the car park, with the Brush Traction works behind
Loughborough Midland: the East Midlands Trains station in Loughborough, with the Brush Traction works behind.

Meanwhile the Great Central Railway is constructing a new bridge over the Midland Main Line in Loughborough, which will reconnect the line with another stretch of the Great Central Main Line which has also reopened as a heritage railway. According to a notice on the Leicester North to Loughborough line, the original Great Central Railway bridge over the MML was demolished to make room for electrification of the MML. Electrification that still has not happened; a modern railway this is not.

East Midlands Trains' 156415 at Beeston station
Break At Beeston Over: our train to Matlock arrives
We left the Meridian at Beeston to await the 14:25 service to Matlock, which was formed of ‘Super Sprinter’ 156415. The run past Attenborough and back to the double triangular junctions south of Long Eaton offered tantalising views of pleasant-looking lakeside walks, primarily in Attenborough Nature Reserve, before the train rounded the north side of the southern triangle and joined the MML’s western branch towards Derby. Staying on-board, we were taken up into the very different terrain of the Peak District.

Footbridge to disused platform with surviving building at Cromford station
Cromford Cottage: attractive building, with footbridge, at Cromford station
Now merely a branch line, the Matlock route was once part of the now-severed main line from Derby to Manchester. One of the railway guidebooks I was carrying told us to look out for the curious mix of architecture found at some of the stations on the branch, and I managed a photograph of one station buildings through the train window.

Matlock railway station with an East Midlands Trains class 156 in the platform
End Of The Line: the Super Sprinter that look us to Matlock rests before its return journey.
It is possible to travel a little further than Matlock by changing for ‘Peak Rail’, another heritage line, which operates almost as far as the Peak District National Park. Neither that nor the East Midlands Trains service actually cross that boundary however. My plans did not include a ride on Peak Rail, so after I few photos of Matlock station had been taken I re-boarded the Super Sprinter to head back down the Matlock branch.

This post terminates here, but the day was not quite over. In a fortnight’s time, I hope to bring you a report on the following day’s travel. The story of Tuesday’s events, following our departure from Matlock, will be continued next week if possible.

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