The United Kingdom rail network is being used by unprecedented numbers of trains and the demand for more passenger and freight services continues to rise, particularly on arterial routes such as the East Coast main line. Writes Peter Stanton

That growth has led to considerations about how to better use the existing infrastructure and, to that end, historical routes parallel to that main line have been considered for modified use.

The Great Northern Railway and its rival the Great Eastern Railway established the Great Northern and Great Eastern Joint Railway in 1879. The joint company built a line between Spalding and Lincoln to complete a new, primarily freight, route between Cambridge and Doncaster, a distance of about 123 miles. The main purpose was to move Yorkshire coal into East Anglia, a highly profitable enterprise.

The route survives except for the Lincoln by-pass line and the section between March in Cambridgeshire and Spalding in Lincolnshire, both of which were closed in the 1980s. The section between Peterborough and Spalding is now regarded as part of the joint line although this is not strictly (historically) accurate.

Plans for the future

The Network Rail East Coast Route Utilisation Study, published in 2008, identified the potential severe restrictions to traffic growth on the route. The East Coast main line 2016 capacity review was then released as a draft for consultation in August 2010. That confirmed that the GNGE scheme could provide a significantly upgraded line between Peterborough and Doncaster via Spalding and Lincoln.

The decision was then made to go ahead with the project which, when completed, will generate additional passenger train paths on the East Coast Mainline between Peterborough and Doncaster through the provision of W9 and W10 gauge cleared paths on the GNGE Joint Line (Peterborough to Doncaster via Spalding and Lincoln), and the upgrade of structures and track to accommodate the predicted increase in annual gross tonnage.

Foot bridge install 1 (1) [online]

Additional infrastructure upgrades are being introduced to provide a journey time that allows rail freight to compete with road haulage. Werrington Junction is to be upgraded to allow rail traffic to / from the east/south to cross the East Coast main line without conflict. Level crossings are being upgraded as required, driven by increased traffic and line speeds.

The scheme will allow the GNGE Joint Line to become the primary route for daytime freight traffic and permit parallel growth in passenger services on the core ECML route. It is important to note that the decision to reinvigorate this line was chosen ahead of other options (such as four-tracking the ECML) as secondary benefits to the local communities and economies are anticipated through better opening hours, improved journey times and the opportunity to tap into the blossoming rail- freight market.

The route also has passenger services and details can be found in table 18 of the Great British Timetable. Services are run by East Midlands Trains between Peterborough and Doncaster, though not all services run the whole length of the route. There is a roughly hourly service between Peterborough and Lincoln calling at Spalding, Sleaford, Ruskington and Metheringham. There are also a few services that link Sleaford to Doncaster (calling all stations), again operated by East Midlands Trains.

Northern Rail operates the all-stations service between Lincoln and Sheffield which calls at Saxilby and Gainsborough Lea Road before diverging from the line to Doncaster just after it crosses the River Trent. There are no services between Sleaford and Spalding after around 17:00 Monday to Saturday as the signal boxes are closed. The revisedinfrastructure will allow new opportunities for passenger services to further enhance the gains from the route improvements.

Challenges ahead

Network Rail’s project director is Ian Quick, based in York. Ian has been with Railtrack and Network Rail for some eleven years. His earlier career was in the building services area of the electrification and plant function. He then moved on through the estates team and dealt with projects such as Potters Bar station and Derby station renewals. He gained further experience with the Edinburgh Waverley roof renewal and Nottingham Hub projects. He took up the GNGE project in 2012.

Ian described his view of the project. Essentially, the section north of Lincoln was in an optimum condition for freight with reasonable infrastructure condition including concrete sleepered track. South of Lincoln he found to be a significant contrast with wooden sleepers and many conventional manual signalboxes. He viewed his core aim to be to improve journey times to equal the East Coast main line timings for freight while improving clearances to W10 gauge. The strategic aim looks to be able to generate a 15-year maintenance-free period, a welcome move to the users of the route.

A major project

The first thing that strikes is the surprising scale of the scheme – some £330 million pounds is being spent on a stretch of railway which does not come across as particularly high profile. The changing pattern of freight has seen the route drop below the horizon and it is the resurgence in the last few years that has brought awareness of its potential to support, and help capacity, on the main East Coast route south of Doncaster. That scale can be summed up as 86 miles of route between Werrington and Doncaster and the renewal of 27% of the track and 53% of the point ends.

On top of the trackwork itself there are 49 underbridges, 19 overbridges and 82 culverts to be dealt with. There is even a tunnel where there is a 66 metre track-lowering job.

The route has a history of heritage signalling and, to that end, the route is to be recontrolled with modular signalling from Lincoln control centre. 13 signalboxes and 11 manned gates are to be replaced while 92 level crossings will be tackled. Station works are included as well, with five platform gauging sites and the footbridges at Saxilby and Ruskington to be given attention. Control at the north end is based on Doncaster and the system will run on the fixed telecommunications network (FTN).

Off track is no less testing with lineside fencing, 68 kilometres of route works, 151 kilometres of vegetation clearance and nine kilometres of earthworks including cess support and restraints.


In view of the size of the scheme, and its geographic and operational coverage, the programme has been split into five phases. Peculiarly, Phase 2 was built first as that gave the best solution for keeping the railway open during the works.

The sections involved are:

  •  Phase 2 – Decoy North Junction to Gainsborough Trent Junction
  • Phase 1 – Beckingham Junction to Pyewipe Junction
  • Phase 3 – Branston & Washingborough to Sleaford South Junction
  • Phase 4 – Sleaford North Junction to Gosberton
  • Phase 5 – Spalding to Werrington Junction.

Network Rail is managing the project but the works are being dealt with through the GNGE Alliance with the strapline ‘Four as One’. The Alliance with Network Rail consists of Babcock, Siemens Rail Automation and Carillion, although there are other players from major companies such as Balfour Beatty, Kier and QTS. Ian emphasised the excellent relations within the Alliance and was full of praise for how that relationship had enabled the project to move forward so effectively.

The main construction base is at Peterborough with sub-bases at Lincoln and Spalding.GNGEroute_Matt_edit

Progress has been smooth with the planned completion date of this third of a billion pound project originally set for March 2014. However, the recent landslip at Hatfield Colliery (issue 105, July 2013) had quite an impact on the programme as the diversion of traffic due to that event changed the traffic levels on the joint line. This forced some of the GNGE works to be rescheduled, putting the completion date back to November 2014.

Major signalling work

Four of the five phases use Siemens’ modular signalling solution – a conventionally-signalled system would have required extensive copper cabling and trackside infrastructure which would simply have been too costly. By its very nature, modular signalling uses less trackside infrastructure than a conventional application of computer-based interlocking technology.

As a further example of the scale of the project, Siemens delivered Phase 1, the re-signalling of the GNGE route between Gainsborough Trent Junction signal box to the north and Lincoln West solid state interlocking to the south, in January 2014. The work included the commissioning of 27 signal bases and structures, 48 object controller installations and four modular equipment housings (MEHs), as well as some 22 kilometres of power cable and 25 kilometres of signalling fibre.

The project team also commissioned a new modular signalling solution for a number of level crossings, including Sykes Lane, Saxilby and Kesteven – all of which have now been converted to manually controlled barrier with object detection (MCB-OD) operation – as well as Stow Park, which has been converted to MCB- CCTV controlled operation.

Phase 3, covering a further 32 miles of railway and five manually-controlled barrier (MCB) level crossings, followed and was commissioned in  April. This phase included the commissioning of 38 VMS LED signals, 70 object controller installations, five modular equipment housings (MEHs), 93 power boxes, 104 axle counter sections and 36 automatic warning systems fitments.

Siemens still have more work to do. Senior project manager Paul Carlile said: “The adoption of modular signalling has been fundamental to the delivery of the whole scheme, representing a major element in four of the programme’s five phases. We now move on to Phase 4, which is scheduled to be commissioned in August 2014”.

Good neighbours

Another point to emphasise is that the project team has made great efforts to get on with neighbours and stakeholders and is able to point to a good consultative relationship with local and parish councils – this neighbour interface has been a real success story. There has doubtless been some disruption and impact on those local communities but excellent public relations has ensured that those communities look forward to the benefits accruing from a better rail service. Work to replace Saxilby level crossing between

20 December 2013 and 5 January 2014 closed the only access to and from West Bank, Saxilby. Following consultation with the local community and elected representatives, Network Rail provided a 24-hour minibus service for West Bank residents, enabling them to access local facilities and their cars which were held in a secure car park nearby. Phil Verster, route managing director for Network Rail, publicly stated he was grateful to the people of Saxilby, especially residents of West Bank, for their patience and understanding during the works.

Thus this apparent backwater railway is poised to take its place as a really relevant part of the UK railway network in the twenty-first century – returning to the important role undertaken by the line at its build date. Ironically, it will be a robust freight route again – albeit one allowing improved passenger working as well.