The footpath skirted the top of the cutting as it followed the contour of the land down to the level of the old railway. I scrambled down the side of the cutting onto the trackbed which was waterlogged and overgrown with birch saplings. I pcked my way through the baby forest and from barely ten yards away a massive brick structure was suddenly revealed. It came as something of a shock. Above the portal was the date 1898. I walked up to the now barred tunnel entrance and gazed into the dank gloom. There was a pinprick of light. This was the north portal of the tunnel 2,973 yards away. It was proof that the tunnel was gun barrel straight, a fine example of Victorian civil engineering. .
I was in Northamptonshire and this was Catesby Tunnel on the Great Central railway London Extension, opened in March 1899 and closed south of Rugby in September 1966, a line that died so young that children who stood excitedly to see the first train arrive at their local station were still alive to bring grandchildren to see the final train in more sombre circumstances. In view of recent discussions about HS2 it is worth reflecting on what was lost when the GCR closed and on the short sightedness of British transport policy.
The GCR London extension was the brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin Chairman of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. The line ran from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to Quainton Road in Buckinghamshire where it joined the previously existing Metropolitan Railway which Watkin conveniently happened to own. In London two new miles of line were built, tunnelling under Lord’s cricket ground to a new terminus at Marylebone. When the line opened on 15th March 1899 the MSL changed its name to Great Central Railway. Commercially the line was a failure. All the major places it served, such as Nottingham Leicester and Rugby already had established connections to the capital and passengers mainly stayed loyal to the older railway companies. Although via its branch to Banbury and link with the Western Region it provided a useful link between the East Midlands and the West Country it was considered vulnerable in the harsh climate of the Beeching years and became the most spectacular casualty of the closure programme with complete closure south of Rugby in 1966.
What was lost was a superbly engineered railway with no level crossings, no curve of less than a mile radius and no steep gradients. It was also the only British main line built to a continental loading gauge. This was because Watkin planned to go beyond London to the South Coast and to the planned Channel Tunnel. Watkin and his railway were a hundred years ahead of their time. Had the GCR not been closed we would not need to spend the next fifteen years building HS2 as a large part would already be in place. Indeed some of the GC formation south of Brackley has been proposed for reuse. As part of East West rail trains will again run from Calvert through Quainton Road to Aylesbury. In a few years heritage steam trains will again connect Nottingham and Leicester over GC metals. The railway did not die but as a through rourte it is broken up beyond recall. Catesby Tunnel will continue to disappear into its wilderness. It could all have been different.
And what of the bridge? The GC crossed Leicester on a series of bridges and viaducts of which substantial sections remained until recent years. A particularly fine latticed girder bridge, known as the Bowstring Bridge, spanned the junction of Western Boulevard and Braunstone Gate not far from the castle. It was a popular local landmark and you could almost imagine that, if you waited long enough a train would eventually rattle over it. It was demolished by Leicester City Council in November 2009 despite a long and bitter campaign to save it. The plan was to release land to sell to De Montfort University to build a sports hall.Officially it was announced that the bridge was in poor condition and would cost too much to make safe. In fact the demolition costs were higher than expected because the bridge, built in 1898 by Henry Lovatt of Wolverhampton was in such good condition, forty years after the final train passed over it. More fine Victorian engineering. To read just how fine, indeed unique,read this.
Three years on the site is windswept and empty. It is sad and fitting comment on the treatment of the finest railway this country ever had. and the narrow minds that failed to see its potential.