Published 08th May 2013
The unique selling point of the Great Central Railway (GCR) is the five and a quarter miles of double track main line between Loughborough and Rothley (the remaining three miles from Rothley to Leicester North is single track) which offers the experience of steam-hauled trains passing each other at a maximum closing speed of 50mph on a heritage line.
While the double track was in full use for the GCR’s April 27-28 event, the focus of this ‘Swithland Steam Gala’ was a location the public cannot normally visit, the siding complex at Swithland close to the reservoir and the adjacent, newly-revived, Mountsorrel branch line.
A pair of buses ran a regular shuttle service for gala ticket holders from Quorn to Swithland sidings (which does not have a station and therefore has no visitor facilities) to provide a novel experience eagerly taken up by large numbers of enthusiasts.
At the sidings complex, the pair of ex-Port of Par (in Cornwall) Bagnall 0-4-0STs Judy and Alfred normally resident at the Bodmin & Wenford Railway provided visiting entertainment.
The pair were built with exceptionally low-height cabs (literally no higher than the top of an open wagon) to enable them to pass under a very low bridge at their original working location.
At Swithland they periodically top-and-tailed a rake of wagons (which included three vehicles restored in the form of Mountsorrel Granite company vehicles) from the sidings onto the GCR proper then up the first section of the Mountsorrel branch. These trips were occasionally interspersed with longer forays up the GCR, presenting no little surprise for passengers passing in trains on the other side of the double track section!
In fact, a private party celebrating a senior railwayman’s 60th birthday took place in the LNER ‘Beavertail’ Saloon and were stunned to see one of these tine engines shoot past!
The derailment at Quorn on the morning of the first day of the event (separately reported), was an unfortunate distraction from the central innovative aspect of this event, provision of public access for the first time to Swithland Sidings following completion of the GCR’s new signalling project, but really did not detract from the attraction of being at Swithland.
Temporary barriers divided the publicly accessible area from the main running lines, meaning that aside from the Alfred and Judy entertainment, it was possible to look over the two main line tracks and their respective loops.
Where else on a heritage railway can you see trains across four standard gauge tracks, watch steam-hauled operations run through non-stop at speed and see steam locos held at a signal while another passes on the ‘fast’ line?
The main line star, making its final appearance on the GCR before returning to its Didcot home, was The Great Western Society’s ‘Blue King’ No. 6023 King Edward II. Also in action were visiting LNWR 0-6-2T Webb ‘Coal Tank’ No. 1054, GCR-based ‘Jinty’ No. 47406 and BR 2MT No. 78019 and a DMU, with a Class 20 diesel added to the roster after Ivatt 2MT No. 46521 came off the rails on the Saturday morning and 8F No. 48624 was stopped with leaking tubes.
The weekend plainly did not go as the GCR had hoped (who wants an hour’s suspension of running on the first day and to end up with two steam locos sitting cold in disgrace on the shed roads at Loughborough rather than in action on the main line) but the main feature of the event delivered entertainment exactly as promised.
The Loughborough steam crane was steamed up and taken to Quron late on Saturday afternoon, pulled by ‘Peak’ No. D123 providing an unusual and highly photographed addition to the Gala event. This meant that wrong line working was implemented from late on Saturday afternoon at Quorn bringing some ‘rare’ moves to linesiders.
Written by Cliff Thomas