For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

The Great Eastern Railway, its Predecessors and Successors

The formal opening of the Eastern Counties Railway on June 18th 1839, from a temporary terminus at Mile End to Romford, heralded the beginning of the development of the railway system in East Anglia. Originally the ECR had obtained Parliamentary approval to raise the capital to build a railway from London to Norwich and Great Yarmouth via Ipswich. However events took a different course and by 1843 the ECR had only got as far as Colchester. It was subsequently left to the Eastern Union Railway in 1849 to finally complete the route to Norwich via Ipswich. Expansion of the railway system in East Anglia followed the country-wide pattern of many small companies building railways to connect with the main arterial routes. In keeping with the rest of the country, most of these small companies were later swallowed up by their bigger brothers. Hence by the early 1860's the ECR was predominant in either working the smaller concerns under agreement or by acquisition. These arrangements were formally recognised by Parliament when the Eastern Counties, Eastern Union, East Anglian, East Suffolk & Norfolk Railway companies, along with their subsidiary undertakings, were incorporated into the Great Eastern Railway on the 7th August 1862.

The East Anglian Railway System circa 1923

Click on the map to see a full size version

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The birth of the Great Eastern Railway was not without problems. 1867 saw the company overstretching its financial resources and finding itself in chancery. During this unhappy period some of the Company's assets were claimed by creditors manifested in some instances with locomotives bearing plates proclaiming their new ownership! Fortunately the GER survived this set-back and entered a period of growth and stability which was only interrupted by the First World War and the subsequent amalgamation of the major UK railway companies under the 1923 Grouping.

Essentially the GER catered for three distinct customers; the commuter, the agriculturalist and the holiday traveller. Each in turn had a profound effect on the development and character of the Company. The commuter traffic culminated in the world's most intensive steam suburban system. The farmers' and growers' needs were catered for with a comprehensive network of branch lines. The holiday traveller was provided with services to both the East Anglian coastal resorts as well as the Continent via the Harwich ferries. The GER had the lion's share of rail traffic in East Anglia with competition only for the holiday traveller from the Midland & Great Northern Joint and the London, Tilbury & Southend Railways.

Although the GER was one of the smaller pre-grouping companies, it managed its affairs in a prudent manner and its contribution to the development of the railway system has not been fully recognised hitherto. Mention has already been made of the intensive suburban steam service into Liverpool Street introduced in 1920 as a result of the Company finding it uneconomic to improve services by electrification. However by taking a pragmatic approach in modifying existing working arrangements, at minimal cost to the Company, the resultant 'Jazz Service' handled more passengers during the rush hour periods than any other UK railway company at that time.

Other notable milestones included:

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  • Building of the first UK locomotive to the 0-10-0 wheel arrangement. This locomotive No. 20 was known as the 'Decapod' and was a 'one off' built to demonstrate that steam traction could match electric traction for acceleration.
  • Assembly at Stratford Works in 1891 of a steam locomotive to working order in the record time of 9 hours 47 minutes.

  • One of the first UK railway companies to introduce complementary bus services in 1904 and to build omnibuses in their own workshops at Stratford.
  • First UK railway company to provide 'on train' refreshments for 3rd Class passengers in 1891.
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  • First UK railway company to employ a 'foreigner' as a General Manager namely Henry Worth Thornton who took office in 1914 having served as General Superintendent of the Long Island Railroad, USA.
  • First regular British use of oil-fired locomotives in 1887.
  • High degree of standardisation introduced into its locomotive design by the turn of the century.
  • First UK railway company to install electric-pneumatic power signalling notably at its Spitalfields signal box in 1899.

The LNER Period

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The incorporation of the Great Eastern Railway into the London & North Eastern Railway in 1923 did not result in any immediate profound changes to railway operations in East Anglia. Business was much as usual with freight traffic in East Anglia continuing as a significant contribution to the LNER's turnover. This was augmented by the inauguration of the Harwich-Zeebruge train ferry service in 1924 by the independent Great Eastern Train Ferries Ltd.

Inevitably GER rolling stock and locomotives gradually sported their new LNER livery and stock from the other LNER constituent companies found its way onto GE metals. However the LNER recognised the need to expand its operations in East Anglia to keep pace with developments in the pattern of railway traffic and several significant changes were introduced during its tenure as illustrated below.

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To provide much needed extra capacity for surburban traffic, widening of the Liverpool Street-Norwich main line from Romford to Shenfield, including the replacement of semaphores with 'searchlight' colour light signals.

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Introduction of 'Sandringham' Class 'B17' 4-6-0 locomotives to supplement existing ex GER motive power. Two of this class were fitted with streamline casing in the manner of the East Coast Main Line 'A4' Pacifics to haul the new 'East Anglian' Liverpool Street-Norwich service introduced in October 1937.

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Building of the automated marshalling yard at Whitemoor which saw the first British use of hydraulic wagon retarders.

The passing of the First World War saw a general decline in the fortunes of Britain's private railway companies and this continued after the Grouping. The LNER was particularly affected resulting in the inevitable curtailment of services. The East Anglian region saw the withdrawal of passenger trains from several lines but otherwise the system remained essentially intact until after nationalisation. Two announcements in 1935 were to have far-reaching consequences for the former GER's suburban catchment area. On the one hand the London Passenger Transport Board advised of the planned extension of the Central Line tube from Liverpool Street to Stratford and thence to embrace the LNER's Loughton branch including the Fairlop Loop with a new underground section from Leytonstone to Newbury Park. Additionally the LNER publised its intention to electrify the Liverpool Street-Shenfield section. In the event both schemes were started but were interrupted by the Second World War and were not completed until the LNER had lost its identity as from the 1st January 1948 to be part of the new nationalised British Railways.