Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Trip Report - Great Central Railway

Frank writes...

So here's part two of our European vacation adventure (part one is here).  After leaving the National Railway Museum we drove to Loughborough, near Nottingham, and stayed overnight there so that we could visit the Great Central Railway in the morning.  The GCR is a heritage railway which operates over the right-of-way of the original Great Central, the last main line built in Britain, constructed in the 1890s from the east Midlands to London and largely abandoned in the 1960s.  The GCR operates over an eight mile route from Loughborough to Leicester; just north of the terminus at Loughborough, on the other side of the still-active Midland main line, is another ten-mile segment operated by the Nottingham division of the GCR.  Most of the rolling stock, however, is on the southern segment based at Loughborough.

I should point out that in Britain there seems to be more of a distinction made between three classifications of railway preservation organizations: museums, heritage railways, and living history villages (or "outdoor museums").  Museums, like the NRM, are mostly dedicated to preserving artifacts and tend to have less of an emphasis on operations.  Heritage railways, like the GCR, are much more common; they own, preserve and restore a tremendous number of artifacts but more of an emphasis is placed on an historic experience and not just on historic rolling stock or artifacts.  Outdoor museums, like the Crich Tramway Village (trip report coming soon!), are like heritage railways but expanded to create an entire environment evocative of some period in the past.

So that being said, the GCR focuses on presenting a historically accurate experience much more so than a place like IRM, but not all of the equipment is restored faithfully to some past condition.  Rather, it is restored in such a way as to give an overall impression that is representative of a past time period.
Arriving at the GCR is an impressive experience.  The Loughborough station is the same century-old brick structure that was originally located at this site and it is accessed via a headhouse alongside a road bridge over the railway.  The station entrance is the top photo.  You purchase a ticket inside the entrance and descend the steps to the platform, which is located between the up and down main lines, with a loop track beyond each of these for a total of four tracks at this spot.  When we arrived the old down (northbound) main was empty while spotted on the up platform was the GCR's dining train, shown above.  Note that these cars are lettered "Great Central Pullman" - not historic lettering, but boy does this train look sharp!  Like many (most?) passenger cars in use on British heritage railways, these are Mark 1s built by British Railways.  There are hundreds and hundreds of these cars preserved all over Britain so they're commonly painted in "home road" or not-quite-accurate liveries like this.
The Loughborough station is fantastic.  As seen above, the platform and station are littered with historic artifacts, posters, notices, and other items evocative of the 1950s.  The GCR owns and operates four stations on its line and each is restored to a different period: one to the Edwardian era, one to the 1940s, one to the 1950s and one to the 1960s.  Unfortunately we only got to spend much time at the 1950s-era Loughborough station, but what a great idea!
Even the station master's office is largely 1950s-era.  While IRM does an outstanding job (if I do say so myself!) of restoring rolling stock accurately, we don't do quite as well at communicating the experience of riding the rails in the "glory days" of train travel.  One look at an IRM trainman in a golf shirt and trucker's baseball cap, or at a bench made of concrete and composite wood, will jolt one into the present day rather quickly.  At the GCR, everywhere you look you are transported back in time.
But of course it wouldn't be a heritage railway without a train.  Like at IRM, our tickets were good for as many rides during the day as we wanted, though unfortunately we only had a few hours.  The first trip of the day was the two-car diesel MU set shown above.  Around the time this showed up it started raining and didn't stop until late in the afternoon, after we'd left the GCR, but oh well... welcome to England!  Anyway, there was going to be a steam train 20 minutes after the DMU so we waited.  Our patience was soon rewarded.

The power for our train was Great Northern Railway 1744, an N2 class 0-6-2T suburban tank engine built in 1921 by the North British Locomotive Company.  This is one of those wheel arrangements not seen much in the States but not terribly uncommon in Britain.
Normal operations on the GCR seem to involve three separate train sets: a DMU set, a standard coach set, and the dining car train which runs once for lunch and once for dinner (and is not cheap!).  The standard set, on which we rode, included among its Mark 1 coaches a "griddle car" on which food was served.  I was looking forward to this and was not disappointed; the griddle car was a Gresley teak car, seen above, with a stained-and-varnished exterior.  High class!
The interior, seen above (with my wife in a cameo appearance at right), appeared to be modernized, but no matter.  The food was good and the ride was very pleasant, even with the rain.  The scenery was wonderful and the railway itself was very impressive.  The GCR has the only double-track main line in preservation in Britain (and I don't think there are any in the United States), five miles of fully signaled double track with another three miles of single track at the south end.  Originally the entire Great Central line was double-track but the heritage railway had to restore the second track at great expense in the 1990s.  They also have several working signal boxes, or interlocking towers to you and me.
When we got back from the trip, which was about 45 minutes long for the round trip, we took a walk over through the rain to the GCR locomotive depot, or workshop.  On the way we got to see some neat equipment lined up ready for operation.  Above is shown a "Deltic" passenger diesel, a British Railways 2MT 2-6-0, and Southern Railway (not THAT Southern Railway) 4-6-0 "Sir Lamiel."
There was also this Pannier 0-6-0, which caught the eye of this Great Western fan.  This is GWR 5786, painted in London Transport colors as its later identity L.92 and on loan from the South Devon Railway.  Short-term equipment loans between museums are much more common in the UK than they are in the United States though I'll admit I'm not entirely sure why; maybe trucking is cheaper there?
And we got to wander through the locomotive workshop.  There was signage leading to it, so we wandered in, but I'm still not sure whether we were really supposed to be there!  It was obviously a working shop and several volunteers were engrossed in one of several rebuilding jobs underway.  But nobody bothered us and we toured the building.  This part of the GCR made me feel much more at home; the environment was a bit more "used," like in the workshops at IRM, and there were piles of spare parts outside along with plenty of storage containers and the bodies of goods wagons.  The GCR even had three bookstores: the official bookstore, the official used bookstore, and another used bookstore located alongside the locomotive workshop which seemed to direct its proceeds solely to locomotive restoration.  The similarity to the IRM "fiefdom model" of organization was heartwarming.
But seriously, the amount of work being done was extremely impressive.  Numerous steam engines were undergoing major overhauls including heavy wheel work, boiler replacement and other giant tasks.  In the UK there is generally more interest in history among the population than here in the US, leading to a greater number of volunteers at museums like this.  They also have the Heritage Lottery which supplies funding to some of the bigger capital projects.  In the above two photos you can see Great Western "Hall" class 4-6-0 "Witherslack Hall" awaiting a new boiler and British Railways 63601, a 2-8-0 originally built in 1911 for the Great Central and undoubtedly a familiar sight on this very line during its service life, in the shop for some sort of repair work. 
There was also this boiler sitting outside of the workshop, apparently having been recently rebuilt.  Anyone know which locomotive it is for?
And there was this LMS Fowler 3F 0-6-0T sitting outside the workshop.  This was a very successful design of which over 400 were built in the 1920s and 1930s and was nicknamed the "Jinty."  I'm not sure what the skull-and-crossbones herald is, but I don't think it got incorporated into BR.

I should also mention that the entire locomotive workshop mentioned above is going to be obliterated in the next few years.  But it's not a bad thing; the workshop sits right on the old Great Central right-of-way just south of the still-active Midland main line, in the gap between the eight-mile southern and ten-mile northern portions of the GCR heritage railway.  The GCR is currently making good progress on fundraising to bridge that gap, and quite literally: with a large steel bridge right over the active railway line.  It will be extremely impressive when complete and will see the GCR heritage railway line running right through the current site of the locomotive workshop.
And so we left the GCR site at Loughborough - not without stopping at all three bookstores, natch - and adjourned via automobile to the next station down the line, Quorn & Woodhouse, which is restored to the 1940s.  Right next to the station is a cafe, owned by the heritage railways, which serves a very nice lunch and overlooks the railway.  Above is a diesel-hauled train that passed while we were eating.  I wish I had more time to spend at the GCR - it's a fascinating operation that has built up a truly outstanding environment at its stations - but then I guess I'll just need to go back one of these years!

1 comment:

David Wilkins said...

The GCR is very impressive. It is mostly double-tracked and mostly fully signaled, complete with towermen (or towerwomen) in each tower setting up the routes for the various movements.