John Speller's Web Pages Great Central Railway

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The Great Central Railway largely came about as the vision of a single man, Sir Edward Watkin (1819-1901), who in 1854 became the General Manager of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, a medium-sized railway serving the Midlands and East Anglia. In 1864 he was appointed Chairman of the MS&LR, a position he held for thirty years until his retirement in 1894. He was a Director of a number of other railway companies including the Great Western Railway, and was also a Liberal Member of Parliament. A man of vision, he dreamed of the MS&LR becoming a high-speed broad-gauge railway stretching from Manchester through London to the English Channel, and through a Channel Tunnel to the Gard du Nord in Paris. He was also Chairman of the South Eastern Railway and a Director of the Chemin de Fer du Nord in France, but did not manage to get anywhere with either of those companies. Many of his plans were never realized, but one which did come about was the extension of the MS&LR to a London terminus at Marylebone. It was not broad gauge, but was built to continental clearances, which makes it particularly unfortunate that it was abandoned in the 1960s. Watkin's schemes were the cause of ridicule, and Punch (28 March 1891, p. 155) poked fun at him for his support of the London Extension in a Commons debate, referring to him as "Lord Chunnel-Tannel," perhaps the first use of the word "Chunnel" in the English language. The London Extension led to the MS&LR being renamed the Great Central Railway in 1897. On the approach to Marylebone the Great Central had to rely upon the Metropolitan Railway's route from Aylesbury to London, and since relations with the Metropolitan were not always congenial, at the beginning of the twentieth century a second route to Aylesbury via High Wycombe and Princes Risborough was built as a joint line with the Great Western.

The Great Central had a locomotive works at Gorton in Manchester, and from 1900 to 1922 the Chief Mechanical Engineer was John G. Robinson (1856-1943), who had been a pupil of Joseph Armstrong on the Great Western and then Locomotive Superintendent of the Waterford & Limerick Railway in Ireland from 1884 to 1900. He was offered the post of Chief Mechanical Engineer of the London & North Eastern Railway at the Grouping of 1923, but declined, recommending "young Gresley" instead, citing advancing years as his reason for doing so. With Robinson's fast and graceful locomotives and the Great Central's relatively lightly loaded trains, the Great Central was in the forefront of speed in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Many of his 2-8-0 heavy freight locomotives were built as part of the war effort during the First World War, and a couple of his designs, the 4-6-2 tanks and the "Director" Class 4-4-0's were perpetuated by Gresley under the LNER.

The Great Central Railway also had a very competent chief executive in Sir Sam Fay (1856-1953), who was the General Manager between 1902 and 1923. He was never quite able to get the Great Central out from under the enormous debt they had accumulated in building the London Extension, but he did make quite a bit of headway, which was probably more than most people at the time deemed humanly possible. And perhaps it was.


In the early 1900s the Great Central was running some of the fastest expresses in the country. In 1905 the best time between Marylebone and Leicester was 1 hour 45 minutes, an average speed of 58.8 m.p.h. Between Nottingham and Marylebone the best time was 2 hours 14 minutes, an average speed of 56.6 m.p.h. And the best time between Sheffield and Marylebone (non-stop) was 2 hours 50 minutes, an average speed of 58.1 m.p.h. The only train faster than these was the Great Western's "Cornishman," which covered the distance between Paddington and Bath at an average speed of 59.2 m.p.h.
In the early years of the twentieth century, a Great Central Railway express from Marylebone to Manchester passes Rickmansworth on the Metropolitan line behind a Robinson "Atlantic"
Another Robinson "Atlantic" No. 362 heads the 12:15 Sheffield Luncheon Car Express, with coaches finished in the post-1910 varnished teak livery, near Gerrards Cross
One of John G. Robinson's stately Class "8" (LNER "C-4) 4-4-2 locomotives No. 108 heads a Great Central Manchester express near Northwood
The ultimate development of Great Central Railway motive power -- Robinson's elegant "Sir Sam Fay" Class of 1912-13
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