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The financial impact of the Great Central Railway's London Extension

Tony Sheward, Railway and Canal History Society

By internet link via the RCHS Journal, 2021

Article review

This 68-page un-illustrated article has been offered by the RCHS in its journal via an internet link. It seems to have been written by an accountant and contains a great deal of tabulated data and the odd graph. However, it also contains an attempted history of the railways involved in conceiving and building the GCR London Extension and tries to draw historical conclusions that are beyond the article's remit. It does not appear to have been peer reviewed nor checked for accuracy.

One financial aspect glossed over is that GWR funding for the Banbury Branch seems never to have been repaid. Indeed, I would go on to say that the GWR was shrewder than the GCR in seeing its potential, soon operating far more stock over it (to the chagrin of the GCR), and being the first to introduce passenger services over it. Other financial aspects I shall come to.

A significant fault is omission of the Extension's financial raison d'etre (lucrative coal traffic), and that it was always an extension and part of the whole. This is why no accounts were prepared for it.

The author then invents two "Phases I and II" which he claims depend on:

- chronology ("1894-1899" and "1900-1906")

- and geography (the line from Annesley to London (I) - and (II) the Banbury Branch and the GW&GCJ line, the latter presented as part of the London Extension, which it was not).

And misappropriates things with events outside these dates. For example, the Banbury Branch was proposed and built while the line to London was being built - it was not a later addition. Nor was the Met's quadrupling of the line south of Harrow to relieve congestion close to Marylebone and Baker St., which took an eye-watering five years (1896-1901) and was later leased to the GCR.

By contrast, the GW&GCJ line was an unplanned, opportunistic development with the GWR which came about after the Extension was opened and whose main purpose for the GCR was as a relief line to the Met's although only some of the long distance expresses used it. However, this joint line in territory adjacent to the Extension enabled unforeseen consequences, primarily instigation of a London suburban service - and an awakening in the Met that sharing suburban services would benefit both companies, under what later became the GC&MetJ Committee. And a goods pick-up service which had previously not been provided.

The author omits many changes of plan, and this is crucial because parts of the London Extension were poorly planned or not envisaged at the outset - which is not unknown in major construction projects - and there were quite a few faux pas which cast doubt on the efficacy of Watkin and the MSLR/GCR board - and the Metropolitan Railway's. I have a detailed account of all this and the consequences in the pipeline. A key example concerns opening a terminus in London which, uniquely in the Capital, had no suburban service - a financial milch cow for all the other railways. And from 1894 (after Watkin's retirement, just as construction of the Extension started), the Metropolitan's counter-productive tactics. It is a moot point as to how much Watkin bequeathed to the GCR and how much had to be undone with attendant increase in time, effort and cost.

As regards the route over the Metropolitan it isn't good enough to say that "doubts were expressed" when the junction at Aylesbury was so sharp and so poorly signalled that an ineffectual speed limit of 15mph was imposed in the hope of mitigating against an accident waiting to happen, which it soon did in 1904, and seriously. It would have been more cost-effective to have engineered a solution before rather than after the event.

One might also question competence in several aspects of the original passenger service, including over-spending on catering carriages for the new expresses, which was soon seen as mistaken and had to be replaced. By contrast the secondary service was dire and that also had to be replaced.

The author uses the two "phases" he has invented to say that on one hand "Until Phase II was completed in 1906, the full potential to develop more traffic was not available" and contradicts it with "the London Extension after two Phases ended up being over-scoped for the likely traffic and more costly than continued co-operation with the MR" (by "MR" he means the Metropolitan Railway). But this doesn't stack up in three regards - with the line's raison d'etre; because the Met reduced cooperation after Watkin's retirement; and because the Extension suffered the precise opposite in under-capacity, which had deleterious consequences and required attempts to find solutions unknown to other railways. Indeed, under-capacity was a reason for its rundown by the LMR and eventual closure. How ironic that the most successful part - the London suburban traffic - prospers to this day, despite not having been part of the original scenario.

To conclude, the financial aspects were dealt with fulsomely by Martin Bloxsom and Robert Emblin in a main-stream article in Back Track (May 1996), which is more knowledgable and isn't referenced by Sheward. The main problem is that this author's consideration of the historical events is poor and adds myths about the GCLE.

Steve Banks

Revised 15-8-21

Some illustrations

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Why the GCLE was built is shown by a GCR-built heavy freight O4 2-8-0 on an Up coal train from Annesley, around the time of the Grouping. Photo: author's collection.

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The Aylesbury smash soon after opening of the line was so devastating that postcards of the scene were sold. Source: author's collection.

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Modern Marylebone, as far as the trains are concerned: much of the station is as built by the GCR. Photo: Mick Baker.

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