I wrote in an earlier blog about a trip on the ‘parliamentary’ rail service along the Brigg line in North Lincolnshire. Since then we’ve had several more shorter trips on the purely parliamentary section between Brigg and Gainsborough Central. It’s since become a regular feature of our journeys between the north east and Norfolk, so much so that our daughter Chloe has travelled on the line three times in the first 17 months of her life!
To recap, the service between Sheffield and Cleethorpes via Gainsborough Central and Brigg has been a nominal one operating on Saturdays only since October 1993. Parts of the route are served by other services which I suppose means the railway industry think those areas are adequately served.
At the western end trains between Sheffield and Lincoln serve all stations to Retford but take the ‘joint line’ at Trent junction and serve Gainsborough Lea Road before trundling (or bouncing) off to Lincoln. To the east of Brigg from Barnetby to Cleethorpes there is a TransPennine Express service that runs via Doncaster and Scunthorpe and an East Midlands Trains service between Lincoln and Grimsby via Market Rasen. With the much bigger places of Scunthorpe to the north and Lincoln to the south well served, I dare say the rail planners preparing for privatisation in the early 90s weren’t too worried about the places served by that strange line in the middle.
It wasn’t always like that. The line through Gainsborough Central and Brigg was originally part of the main line of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway (MSLR) whose main business was shipping coal from the South Yorkshire coalfield out through Immingham. The MSLR was later to expand to London and link up with its Chairman, Sir Sam Fay’s other railway interests in the Metropolitan Railway in London through the building of the Great Central main line linking Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester with the Capital. Later still the section between Manchester and Sheffield became Britain’s first electrified inter-city main line. Sadly neither the Great Central nor the Woodhead line across the Pennines survive today but that’s another story for another day!
Since 1993, the three stations of Gainsborough Central, Kirton in Lyndsey and Brigg have been served by just three trains each way on Saturdays only. The lack of a weekday service means that the line plays almost no part in the lives of people in the communities it purports to serve. The situation has perpetuated itself through three franchises – the original Regional Railways North East (later Northern Spirit), the first Nedrail/Serco Northern franchise and into the present Arriva franchise. There were high hopes that some improvement might come through the last re-franchising exercise but it was notable by its absence from the Train Service Requirement (TSR).
The situation isn’t helped by local government boundaries. The route from Sheffield to Cleethorpes via Brigg passes through South Yorkshire PTE, Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and the North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire unitary authorities. No one authority could really promote it and each of them have other priorities when it comes to rail. Brigg itself prior to 1996 was the administrative centre of Glandford Borough Council with its HQ on the approach road to the town’s railway station. On re-organisation of Humberside local government, Glandford was merged with neighbouring Scunthorpe to create North Lincolnshire with its HQ in Scunthorpe. No guesses for where their rail priorities lie. Even the appointment of Brigg constituency MP Andrew Percy as ‘Northern Powerhouse’ Minister for a while didn’t produce any change in political support for a six or seven day a week service!
Our recent trips on the Brigg line have seen us stay overnight in a Travelodge near Hull and drive to Brigg arriving around 10:00am. Originally we had breakfast in the local Wetherspoons. These days we have breakfast in the nearby Deli Diner on the recommendation of Brigg line campaigner Paul.
The Deli Diner is itself an interesting building having once been a pub called the Butchers Arms! Having fortified ourselves with a full English its up to Brigg station for the 11:47 to Sheffield which we take as far as Gainsborough Central. On our most recent trip on 3 June 2017, 142 007 did the honours. Apparently this was an unusual working in that it’s a Manchester based unit that rarely strays this far east. Looking at its tatty bus style bench seats, it can stay west of the Pennines for good as far as I’m concerned!
Our return to Brigg has involved the 13:01 departure from Gainsborough Central, this time on 142 093 giving us the luxury and refinement of high backed seats. (Apparently the last return trip that day had the luxury of a class 150 Sprinter unit!) Our time at Gainsborough on this occasion was spent mainly queuing for the baby change facilities at Tesco as Chloe needed a nappy change!
I must admit to waiting for the 13:01 with a certain amount of trepidation. On a previous trip the train was delayed by just over an hour by a power failure at Trent junction and we were worried that we would be stranded. No such worries on this occasion. It was also good to see a large family group heading for the seaside with buckets and spades – evidence that the message about the line is getting out there.
The journey itself is pleasant if a little uneventful. Lincolnshire is not as flat as it appears to be and the mile long Kirton tunnel punctuates our journey. At the east end of the tunnel are the remains of Kirton lime sidings with evidence of limestone workings and lime kilns alongside the railway. Even in the few years we have been visiting it is noticeable how nature is gradually reclaiming this area.
On the approach to Brigg the gas fired power station has changed completely in appearance over the past three years whilst the distant views of the ‘megawatt valley’ 1960s coal fired power stations at West Burton and Cottam is likely to change in the near future as coal ceases to be the primary source of fuel.
Indeed the latter changes are likely to represent the biggest and latest threat to the line as traffic taking imported coal to the power stations dries up. There are no current plans to close the line but the industry stubbornly refuses to develop plans to upgrade it into a daily service either. So the line continues in its present strange state of limbo, it’s very existence promoted by a dedicated band of local volunteers.
Footnote: Since writing this blog it has become public that Northern are looking at extending the Sheffield – Retford stopping service to terminate at Gainsborough Central. Subject to the necessary Network Rail this would finally give Gainsborough Central an hourly weekday service though Kirton in Lyndsey and Brigg would continue to be served on Saturdays only.