In the early hours of Sunday 3 September 2017, a long-held ambition to reinstate a demolished Great Central Railway bridge across the Midland main line at Loughborough took a major step forward as the two main beams of a new bridge were installed after overnight works by contractors.
There are many heritage railways in the UK; some small and some with a very strong presence. One thing they all have in common is very strong support from volunteers, usually supported by some paid professionals.
Some of the heritage railways also offer more than just a nostalgic or scenic trip by contributing to the general development of railways in the UK. One such is the Great Central, effectively occupying the East Midlands’ remainder of the Great Central Railway main line to London. It was closed as a through route to London in 1966, although the stretch between Nottingham and Rugby didn’t close to passengers until 1969.
In two parts
The Great Central main line crossed the Midland Railway’s main line just south of Loughborough station on a two track overbridge. On final closure of much of the line, two bridges and a length of embankment were removed to avoid the maintenance liabilities of crossing the busy Midland route and the two parts of the Great Central were severed, seemingly for ever.
The northern part of the route survived to serve the Ministry of Defence depot at Ruddington and eventually a new access to that freight-only segment was constructed as a chord from the Midland main line.
A group of enthusiasts was determined to keep the line alive for the running of main line locomotives. The Main Line Preservation Group was formed to begin the mammoth task of preservation and restoration and, in 1971, the Main Line Steam Trust was formed and registered as a charity in order to raise funds through covenants. Following that, the Great Central Railway (1976) Ltd was formed to raise funds through the sale of shares.
This early development eventually led to the current situation. Volunteers and staff have re-instated a double track section from Loughborough Central to Rothley and opened a single track to Leicester North, having restored the infrastructure on that section.
For the northern section, the existence of freight traffic to the British Gypsum’s works helped keep the line alive and a similar effort by the volunteers of Great Central Railway – Nottingham (GCRN) ensured the survival of that part of the route.
The two, effectively separate, railways continued to function as heritage routes, though the southern part also began to develop itself as a commercial test track, able to offer double track 75mph facilities with a level of access not available on the national system.
However, the two ‘sides’ were committed to linking back up. This meant that the five hundred missing metres of track between them needed to be rebuilt, a project that became known as ‘Bridging the Gap’.
Planning the connection
The end result will be eighteen miles of comparatively high-speed main-line heritage railway. This will give heritage locomotives a chance to ‘stretch their legs’ as well as allow suppliers to the modern railway to test their equipment under relevant conditions.
Despite the government announcing work to electrify the Midland main line north of Kettering has been currently stopped, Network Rail is still assisting the heritage line in building the critical new bridge. A redundant bridge, replaced during the remodelling of Reading station, was donated to the cause. Originally planned to span the Midland main line, this will now be used as part of the approach to provide access to local facilities and reduce the vibration impact on local properties. As a result, a brand new bridge would be needed for the main deck.
But before that could happen, much work was needed.
The project is being managed by FJD Construction of St. Paul’s Square in Birmingham on behalf of the Great Central Railway and work has taken place in collaboration with Network Rail which has supported the project and monitored the work to ensure there is no disruption to the main line operation.
Contractors MPB have been on site since February 2017, constructing the abutments and preparing the site for this historic event. MPB Structures, formed in 1987, is a privately owned company, working on reinforced concrete sub- and superstructure packages in the civil engineering and rail sectors.
Meanwhile, Moore Steel of Peterborough manufactured the bridge deck and delivered the sections to site shortly before installation work was due to commence.
A 1,000 tonne crane arrived on site on 24 August, transported in sections and assembled on site in preparation for the bridge installation.
Finally, all was ready. On the night of Saturday 2 September, in a moment many have campaigned for decades to see, a 1,000 tonne crane installed two steel beams across the concrete abutments. The operation to lower the beams started as soon as possession of the Midland main line was granted by Network Rail, at approximately 23:00, and work continued throughout the night to be completed by 07:00 when the trains started operating again on the main line beneath.
The project is, without doubt, one of the most ambitious civil engineering projects undertaken by a heritage railway. When the whole project is complete, the combined eighteen-mile heritage railway, stretching across the East Midlands, will create jobs and drive regeneration through tourism.
At a cost of £2.5 million, this element of the ‘Bridging the Gap’ project is the most complex and has taken a number of years to complete. Funding was provided through a combination of donations from GCR and GCRN supporters, a £1 million grant from the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership (LLEP) and £250,000-worth of shares purchased by Leicestershire County Council. Several members of staff from Network Rail also freely gave their time to the community-led scheme.
Nick Pulley, chair of the LLEP said: “The LLEP Growth Deal has been extremely successful for the Leicester and Leicestershire area and we are really excited by this unique project which supports the creation of an 18-mile mainline railway. The GCR project will open up significant commercial and tourism opportunities to increase visitors by 60,000 per year. In fact, this is the biggest investment in a heritage railway in the UK.”
GCR’s CEO, Richard Patching, commented: “This is an exciting night for the Great Central Railway. For over 40 years, our supporters and friends have dreamt of work starting on the reunification of the line. We hope to continue raising funds to complete the project and finally join the two railways.
“We would like to thank our many supporters who have enabled us to get to this stage.”
Phil Stanway, director of GCRN, added: “As this first phase of the reunification project reaches an exciting climax, what was once deemed nothing more than a dream moves one step closer. The bridge installation is testimony to all who have contributed so far.”
With the beams in position, attention will move to the next phase of the gap project, construction of the new bridge deck and the rail link that will also give the southern half of the Great Central access to the national network. In turn, this will mean excursion trains can access the planned new Heritage Lottery funded rail museum to be built in Leicester. Rail Engineer will be keeping an eye on the project to join the existing half of the line through to the new bridge.
Two rail bridge beams (ex-Reading) have already been sourced and await installation, while reinstatement of the bulldozed embankment will also need to be dealt with. There will need to be a significant remodelling of the locomotive maintenance area, which currently sits on the old main line Great Central track alignment.
At the south end of the line, by the site of the old Belgrave and Birstall station, there are well-developed proposals for a heritage centre that will form a heritage trail next to the National Space Centre and the historic pumping station in Leicester City.
Testing for today
The railway is helped in its financing by the provision of test facilities to the rail industry. The available line is eight miles long, with shallow gradients and gentle curves. It can handle the biggest loads at high speed and allows testing at speeds of up to 75mph in a realistic, safe, and confidential environment.
The route includes double and single track, over- and under-bridges and a viaduct, so vehicle interfaces with other rolling stock and infrastructure can be observed. Four stations, a sixty-foot turntable, sheds and comprehensive mechanical signalling complete the picture. Clients include Network Rail and many leading designers of rolling stock.
Companies are also using the railway for training. Trainees could not experience a better outdoor classroom, allowing a real operating experience while apprentices can get their ‘boots on ballast’ for hands-on lessons in maintenance and design.
The Great Central has much to offer, and will have a lot more once it finishes ‘Bridging the Gap’.
This article was written by Peter Stanton.