This article is not a historical reminiscence, although the writer is old enough to remember the Great Central Railway (GCR) running passenger trains from Loughborough to London Marylebone in the early 1960s with a journey time of 2 hours. Not bad for steam engine hauled trains having several stops en route.

Readers of this magazine will almost certainly know a great deal about the GCR. Some may have lived through its run-down and closure which began in 1960 with the withdrawal of the Manchester – London expresses and ended with the last remaining Nottingham – Rugby section closing in 1969.

The closure was much lamented by railway enthusiasts for many reasons, partly because it was the only UK mainline railway built
to an expanded loading gauge capable of accommodating larger continental trains in anticipation of a future Channel Tunnel. This was the dream of GCR’s then chairman and driving force, Sir Edward Watkin, who envisaged a new railway line that could be expanded and linked to the continent via a tunnel. Sadly, the closure of the GCR put paid to that, and with 20-20 hindsight we now realise what a dreadful mistake it was. There may even have been a case for part of the old GCR to take the proposed HS2 from London to near Birmingham.

Following the closure of the Nottingham – Rugby section, a group of enthusiasts got together with the aim of keeping at least part of the line open as a heritage railway. Fund raising was a major problem in the early 1970s and this was only resolved when the local Charnwood Borough Council came to the rescue by purchasing the trackbed and associated lands from Loughborough to Belgrave and Birstall (now Leicester North).

During the last four decades, the expertise and dedication of both volunteers and some highly experienced and qualified staff have transformed what was a struggling little concern into one of the UK’s leading heritage railways. The collection of restored stations, signalFIG 9  Class 70 locomotive [online] boxes, carriages, wagons and steam and diesel locomotives are also a tribute to the hard work of those involved.

From 25 to 60 mph

Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate (HMRI – now the Office of Rail Regulation or ORR)
did not normally permit a heritage or minor railway to operate passenger trains above a speed limit of 25mph as laid down in the Light Railways Act 1896. This speed limit initially prevailed on the GCR. However in 2001, senior officers at GCR realised that there was a business need to utilise their infrastructure to provide a facility for established and potential operators which wanted to carry out testing of railway vehicles and associated components without interference on days when heritage trains were not running.

An application was made to HMRI for a derogation to run trains at up to 60mph to enable such testing to be undertaken. It
was laid down by HMRI that, to permit such running, there should be no public access to the railway, a full track survey would have to be undertaken and appropriate remedial work carried out, GCR should appoint a competent Permanent Way Engineer and a full risk assessment should be drawn up by GCR staff and approved by HMRI.

All these requirements were met and derogation was granted in 2002 which allowed testing at 60mph in perpetuity.

The upgrade from 60 to 75mph running

For many years, brake tests on freight wagons were carried out on the national network, latterly between Crewe and Winsford. Up until 1993, this testing was carried out free of charge to the operator. However, with the run up to privatisation and with track access charges/traction hire/traincrew/test staff, the cost of a test slot escalated sharply to several thousands of pounds.

Following the derogation for 60mph running, the GCR became the preferred site for brake testing by BR Research. The officers of the company quickly realised there was a further business case for upgrading the test line up to 75mph so that new freight wagons could be tested away from the national network at much lower cost and with a more flexible programme.

HMRI (ORR) laid down conditions before GCR were allowed to run test trains at 75mph. Primarily, ORR had to be satisfied that the permanent way was in a fit condition to accept trains with axle loads up to 25 tons at this speed. To this end, all lines along the GCR route were crack detected. This resulted in some repair and remedial work, after which the track was re-tested to ensure that it was in A1 condition. Interestingly, a high-speed rail crack detection vehicle was flown in especially from the USA to carry out this work and was flown back as soon as it was completed.

Many of the conditions laid down for 60mph running were reviewed for the higher speed derogation and a further full risk assessment was also carried out by GCR staff which was approved by ORR. To accredit their drivers to work at 75mph, GCR selected existing qualified 60mph drivers and ran accreditation sessions with them using a volunteer, who is also a Pendolino driver, and was passed to work trains at speeds up to 125mph.

In order to ensure the safety of the public and those carrying out testing duties, all work is carried out under total possession of the line and nobody is allowed at trackside within the possession limits except for essential testing staff. Along the length of the test track, there are no farm crossings, accommodation or footpath crossings. GCR observe high standards of Health and Safety in what can otherwise be at times a hazardous environment.

The first testing at 75mph took place in 2008 involving brake and slip tests on a WH Davis Super Low 45 wagon. Many tests have been carried out since and, although GCR has to apply for a letter of no objection from ORR each time 75mph testing is carried out, to date there have been no problems.

Advantages of the GCR

One of the major problems faced by owners of any form of rolling stock is the ability to have it tested in the UK. Using Network Rail infrastructure is expensive, takes a long time to organise and usually has to be carried out at the most unsocial of times often in the hours of darkness and in some cases, geographically remote from the point of origin of the vehicles to be tested.

As a private railway, the GCR can offer testing facilities at any reasonable time usually within a few days of the first contact. It is located in the East Midlands just a few minutes from Junction 23 of the MI. The railway is eight miles long with five and a half miles of double track. It has gentle curves and shallow gradients (maximum of 1 in 176) and axle loading is the maximum permitted in the UK at 25 tonnes. Access is by road only at present usually at Quorn, three miles south of Loughborough, via a large yard where there is ample room to set up a project base. There are, however, well advanced plans to develop rail access to the national network at Loughborough on the Midland Main Line. The GCR has four stations, a sixty foot turntable, maintenance sheds and one of the finest mechanical signalling schemes in the heritage arena.

Having gained approval to test at 75 mph, GCR has accumulated an impressive list of clients including Network Rail, Balfour Beatty, Amey, Serco, Brush Traction and various overseas organisations. Testing has included mileage accumulation (1000 km in 2 days), braking tests including slip tests at 75mph and noise acceptance trials. The latter was particularly useful to WH Davis back in 2008 when their new Super Low 45 wagon became subject to the requirements of the full EU Technical Standards for Interoperability (TSI).

Noise testingFIG 5  Network Rail hybrid technology train [online]

Within the environmental section of the TSI is a requirement for any new vehicle to pass certain parameters in regard to noise generation. At the time, there was no private test track in the UK able to carry out these tests, so Network Rail and GCR jointly set up a noise testing facility. Had this not happened the WH Davis wagon would have had to be transported, at considerable cost, to either Switzerland or Germany or Poland or the Czech Republic for testing which would have resulted in enormous delays in the approval process.

Noise testing is carried out on a specially prepared stretch of continuously welded rail approximately one quarter of a mile long. Noise detection equipment provided by Network Rail stands in a ‘free field’ site, i.e. a location out in the country with minimum external noise sources. As both sides of the vehicle have to be tested, it is turned around on the 60ft turntable that was gifted to GCR by the National Railway Museum and which is located at Quorn.

Brake and slip testing has been carried out in conjunction with disc brake manufacturers so that essential coefficient of friction characteristics can be collated for various compounds used in disc pad manufacture. Tests involving the intentional modification of the wheel/rail interface have been undertaken, examining the effect of different railhead conditions and quantifying measures that can be taken to combat lack of adhesion.

New (old) locomotives

One particularly interesting piece of testing, especially to steam enthusiasts, involved
the Peppercorn A1 Pacific steam locomotive 60163 Tornado. Trials required assessment of wheel impact and loads on the infrastructure, both for the identification of wheelset defects and acceptability of new locos in terms of vertical and horizontal forces. These trials were carried out whilst Tornado was at the GCR for acceptance and running in tests.

GCR have an ongoing training partnership with Vital Rail and others, providing a facility where permanent way trainees can learn their craft ‘hands-on’. Apprentices can get ballast on their boots and receive lessons in track maintenance, inspection or design. Washing and messing facilities are available on site.

GCR has also helped organisations that have required their staff to have realistic driving and operating experience. The four stations provide opportunity to learn braking and control of both light engine and braked trains so as to achieve the correct stopping points. For theory work, classroom facilities are provided and the inner man is catered for by on-site cafes and restaurants providing everything from coffee and biscuits to full meals. Conference rooms are also available for larger or specialist groups.

What does the future hold?

At the time of writing, the other two test tracks in the UK are also fairly busy. Network Rail’s own site at High Marnham has a lower speed limit than the GCR and is also used for testing on-track machinery, while the nearby track at Old Dalby (just a few miles from Loughborough), where the Virgin Pendolinos were commissioned, is now operated by London Underground testing both new
trains and a new signalling system. With the excellent facilities that GCR can offer other customers for both vehicles to be tested and project support staff, their future looks bright.