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Great Central Railway

Lots of steam from a double headed steam train standing in the platform at Leicester North railway station on the Great Central Railway

Great Central Railway

Overview

The Great Central Railway is the only former double track main line operated as a heritage preserved railway in the UK. The original main line ran from Nottingham through Leicester, Rugby and on to London Marylebone.

The railway was another victim of the infamous 1960s ‘Beeching Report’ which also saw the closure of the railway between Matlock and Buxton as discussed in both my Peak Rail and Monsal Trail location reports.

After the railway was closed in the late 1960s, a group of enthusiasts got together to secure the line for future generations. In 1976 a small section was opened and the railway has grown steadily over the years to become one of the premier preserved railways in the UK.

The current preserved railway runs between Loughborough and Leicester North (Birstall) with stations at Quorn & Woodhouse and Rothley.

Interestingly the northern section, from Loughborough to Nottingham, is run as another separate preserved railway.

There is a gap between both railways of just over a mile. The gap includes a missing bridge that originally took the railway over the current Midland Main Line immediately south of the existing Loughborough main line station.

The Great Central Railway is in the process of raising around £1m to undertake the work necessary to join these two railways. The railway has raised around £750,000 towards its target, which is currently the largest infrastructure project in the preserved railway industry. Full details can be found at the ‘Bridge to the future’ page on the main Great Central Railway website.

Loughborough

Loughborough Central is the main operating centre for the railway. You will find a large two platform station, signal box, water tower and loco servicing shed. The station is set out to evoke a 1950s feel complete with authentic period posters and fixtures. The railway staff are all dressed in appropriate uniforms which reinforces the impression of times gone by.

The signalbox is a Grade II listed building as it is the only surviving Great Central Railway signalbox.

The engine shed is accessible for viewing with supervised trips being available on running days.

Quorn and Woodhouse

Quorn and Woodhouse station represents the railway during the 1940s and has many interesting World War 2 features. Under the railway bridge is the air raid shelter which is decked out as a NAAFI style cafe and serves teas and coffees.

On certain days you will find the home guard walking around the station.

At the side of of the track on platform 2 is the ‘Dig for Victory’ garden which adds to the wartime theme.

Rothley

Rothley station has been restored to depict the railway as it would have looked in 1912.

On the platforms you will find an authentic parcels office and waiting room.

All lighting on the platforms and inside the buildings is provided from authentic gas lamps which I am sure would create an excellent feel for any night photography.

Leicester North

Leicester North is a newly built station slightly south of the original Belgrave and Birstall station. The Belgrave and Birstall station fell into disrepair and suffered heavily from vandalism after closure of the station in the early 1960s.

Currently there is a single platform with a canopy, a waiting room and small cafe.

The railway has submitted a bid to the National Lottery Fund for £10m to build a museum here that will hold locomotives and historical artefacts from the National Railway Museum.

Photographic Opportunities

The railway very much embraces its main line heritage and provides many varied photographic opportunities.

On the date of our visit, the railway was hosting its annual Winter Steam Gala. The gala event featured 8 different steam locos operating an extremely intensive timetable that featured passenger trains, freight and Post Office trains.

Steam locos in attendance at the Winter Gala were

  • GWR 7820 ‘Dinmore Manor’
  • BR Pannier 1501
  • BR 7P 70013 ‘Oliver Cromwell’
  • LMS 8F 48624
  • SR 777 ‘Sir Lamiel’
  • BR Standard 78019
  • BR Standard 9F 92214
  • LMS 46521

The Great Central has a unique attraction in that it has a fully operational mail collection and delivery system. Back in the day, mail trains would drop off and collect mail from lineside equipment at speed without stopping. Demonstration runs of this equipment, complete with authentic Post Office carriages, are run on many dates throughout the year. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t conducive to getting good footage of this interesting aspect of railway operation.

In line with its role as a one of the big players on the Heritage Railway, the Great Central Railway has a busy and varied program of activities.

The photographic opportunities are plentiful. The railway has a sizeable fleet of steam locomotives and period rolling stock. It also has a mixed fleet of heritage diesel locos dating from the 1960s and 1970s for those not old enough to remember authentic steam working. All locos and coaching stock are painted in appropriate colour schemes for the time frame being depicted. There are no modern ‘gaudy’ colour schemes to ruin the authenticity of your photography.

As discussed, the 3 main stations are restored into differing periods of the lines historical operation which provides additional varied photographic material. In my view this is one of the better Heritage Railways for experimenting with black and white photography.

Something I intend to do is return on one of the railways 1960s weekends when the diesels are running. I want to try and capture a feel of the 1960s and 1970s and experiment with some retro colour film effects that could be appropriate for this subject matter.

The Great Central Railway doesn’t feature too many spots for photographing the operations from outside. Most of the vantage points are from overbridges which greatly restrict your creative options.

There are only a couple of spots that do allow taking photos from the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately that means that these spots get very busy, especially during the special event weekends.

The railway does run a scheme whereby members of the railway can apply for lineside passes. These passes allow you to walk lineside, after suitable training, during running operations. I haven’t explored this opportunity but it would definitely allow you to get some interesting vantage points.

Lasting Impression

The Great Central Railway is a great place to visit for any photographer looking to increase their portfolio of historic railway scenes. From the minute you enter the booking hall you are immersed into an authentic world of historic railway operation. The authenticity level is extremely high with the staff dressed in period clothing, restored stations and appropriately painted rolling stock and locos.

With such a high level of attention to detail, just about everything you see forms the basis for creative photography. As mentioned earlier, there is massive opportunity to experiment with black and white photography.

The engine shed provides opportunities for those who like trains, engineering and mechanical subjects. The staff are great for those with a penchant for people photography. The period set pieces on the platforms are great for creating mini scenes in themselves. My best advice is to take your time, look around, and see what catches your eye.

The best thing I found is that because there is so much to see, any non photographer accompanying you wont be standing there tutting and sighing asking “How many MORE do you want of that ‘xyz’ ?!?!?”

I hope you enjoy this location report. Please feel free to leave me feedback and let me know if I have missed anything of importance.

Cheers for now,

Gary

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