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The 120th anniversary! The first official train left Marylebone 9th March and the station opened to the public 15th March 1899. The London terminus was to be a grand one, both for the Midlands, the North and even a rail link to an early Channel Tunnel! The Great Central was therefore built to larger dimensions in anticipation of this forthcoming greatness. Sadly the station remained very much a backwater compared to other London termini. Its renaissance during the past twenty years has been amazing and despite its small size is now a premier London terminus.

The first part of this takes us from construction in the late 19th century to the end of World War Two.

The very first time I used Marylebone was in the late 1980s when I decided upon a trip from Marylebone to Banbury on what was part of the former Great Central route (even though it was built mostly by the GWR.) By that time British Rail had decided the station and the route it served were nothing but dinosaurs – and perhaps quite wishing a meteorite would somehow hit the lot (!)

They were very active in seeking to get rid of Marylebone station and that would have been the final nail in the coffin – or perhaps their best success to date – after the wholesale (and very controversial) closure of the original Great Central route in 1966.

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The glorious plans for make benefit of the roads lobby! Rails into roads as plans for busways take over much of London! Source: Twitter

This explains my desire to take a trip on the line before it became extinct. In terms of passing into the great unknown as far as the UK’s railways go, one major proposal at the time was the conversion of the route into an express bus or coachway.

British Railways were indeed very serious that a substantial London terminus of theirs was to close – no doubt very much to the delight of the road lobby. BR announced Marylebone station would shut with effect from 15th March 1984. Naturally there was huge opposition. This article at London Reconnections sums up the history of this quite well.

As the image below demonstrates, two years later British Railways had a change of heart…

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British Railways’ change of heart in closing Marylebone, 1986. Source: Twitter (Note: The Twitter account has been suspended/deleted thus an archived image is used here.)

Despite the attraction of the line’s Class 115 DMUs and the front seat views, the once proud main line was in fact a bygone relic – and notoriety was added in the form of the dreadful train accident that occurred in deep mid winter at Seer Green.

One thing that impressed me in those days, this is going back well over thirty years, was just how much main line still existed between Marylebone and Princes Risborough. Every substantial station en route had its four tracked layout complete (two platform tracks and two fast tracks.) Each too had their large signal boxes proudly overlooking the entire station and track areas with lovely arrays of semaphore signals to complement the scene.

Not forgetting the signal box at Neasden with its nice array of signals. In terms of the junction signals right by the box itself quite strangely the ‘main line’ (as it became after 1966) to Ashdendon was to all purposes and intents the branch – whilst the ‘branch line’ (to Aylesbury – now that the bit on to Grendon Underwood had been cut) was rather more the main route (as it had originally been when it all belonged to the Metropolitan – and promoted by Sir Edward Watkin!) Thus we all know why the signals are arranged the way they were.

And those signals were right. The services towards Aylesbury were more regular and a considerable commuter service prevailed – although there were odd gaps in the mornings and afternoons plus of course the last southbound and northbound train (and all day on Sundays) where a change was required at Amersham en route to/from London. Chiltern used to continue this arrangement but that has been phased out.

The other way, to the left as indicated by the branch signal at Neasden, wasn’t quite so fortunate. Yes it was a real main line however the real oddity was once the train reached Princes Risborough. From there it basically became a very long branch line (this is over twenty six miles of singled route with a solitary loop at Bicester North) as far as Aynho junction. In those days a fair bit of the route’s discarded second track could still be seen rusting away in the luxurious undergrowth.

For most it was considerably faster and more convienent to take a train from Banbury to Paddington. The level of comfort and rding quality these other trains had excelled – they were HST’s too let’s not forget. Did anyone (apart from the more stoic rail enthusiasts and the hardened commuter) really want to spend roughly an hour and forty five minutes on a somewhat uncomfortable and motley service along a clapped out main line? Passenger numbers unsurprisingly were struggling – no wonder BR wanted the lot gone.

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An example of how ‘railway modernisation’ turns out to be typical British stupidity… Top: Incomplete Princes Risborough station early 1900s. Bottom: Rationalised layout 1989. Pictures from Great Central Then and Now (pub 1991)

Let’s take the example of the convoluted layout at Princes Risborough. Under eventual, partial, modernisation (this is when British Railways thought the line finally had some merit…) the down platform was taken out of use. The down slow basically remained as a link to the Chinnor branch. The down fast, well it wasn’t ‘fast’ it simply led into the loop formed by the old up and down lines. Beyond that the line was singled. Stopping trains had to use the main platform in either direction. It meant any up trains waiting to enter the platform had to be held if a down was occupying the platform. The down would then have to move off onto the ‘fast’ down line (to all intents and purposes the loop) to allow the up to proceed into the platform.

If a down was waiting to use the loop it had to be held on the down line further back whilst any up train vacated the station platform. Any fast trains behind had to stop also before the track was cleared and the ‘fast’ line cleared for the non stopping train to proceed – except it wasn’t going anywhere ‘fast!’ These days its better as the down platform’s been restored to use giving more flexibility – and there is of course bi directional signalling which improves matters considerably (it too means trains can take the ‘overground’ route – the down line – or the earlier ‘underground’ route – the tunnelled up line in either direction.)

The silly layout at Princes Risborough existed until the early days of Chiltern Railways as I remember well. Thankfully they got rid of it and once again there is a nice properly double tracked route all the way to Aynho junction with far higher speeds than was ever possible in those days.

However things are not that perfect as we all would like. Like Princes Risborough (which has no down fast) the other once substantial stations en route have too all lost their four tracked layouts – and this rather limits the Chiltern Line’s full potentiality.

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Bourne End no more….. The lovely sign at High Wycombe evoking the days when it was a junction. Source: Twitter

Of course at some of the stations there is the potentiality for express trains to be able to overtake stopping trains – such as at High Wycombe – but that depends on whether the other platform track is vacant. After all there are only two tracks where there was once four. And if the other line isn’t any fast trains essentially become stopping all the way to Marylebone.

There you are, our rail planners know best and that is without a doubt why Britain’s railways are great! (Its eyes over to the continent for a even better greatness in terms of railways.)

We have lost the Great Central – all of it – and even if the plans for HS2 do come to full fruition, its only a little bit of the former GCR that will once again see use.

At least we still have Marylebone station and look at how it has turned out! A lot of people say its their favourite London station. Yes its cute but its also a serious station. It has more platforms than ever – although the earlier loss of the western side train shed because of more rationalisation and the land being sold off – meant new platforms had to be built, somewhat awkwardly, further out in order to provide the extra capacity needed.

It shows how, with a bit of determination, people will use a station/services provided the appeal and the incentive is there. Its a shame they did not do that in the sixties, we would still have had the Great Central and no need for HS2.

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The classic view of the station from the buffers. Does Marylebone look like a library from Nottingham? Source: Twitter

I like this quote from Sir John Betjeman and I think it fits quite well here:

Its an interesting thought. Am sure quite a few people will not realise the connotation these days but of course its because Marylebone was ‘just down the line’ from Nottingham, something that has not been possible since 1966 when the Great Central route closed and British Railways allowed bats to take over Catesby Tunnel lock stock and barrel!

The greatest protagonist of the Great Central Railway happened to be one Sir Edward Watkin, a man who liked to have his name everywhere. As well as wanting an even bigger Eiffel Tower in Wembley, he wanted a Chunnel and was responsible for the opening in 1892 of Britian’s first ever dedicated footpath. Its now one of the main tourist paths up Snowdon. Its not a path for the faint hearted but it is spectacular. This is the man in question, courtesy of Time Out:

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It doesn’t look much like Sir Edward Watkins does it? Its more of a caricature. Source: Time Out (Note: The original image is now deleted – probably in error – thus the image used here is from the Internet Archive.)

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Photographs of Watkins the man himself are quite rare and those that are on the internet are held by the top notch UK museums. However this picture from the Chethams Library blog gives us a good picture of what the man himself looked like. Source: Chethams Library

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This colourful picture shows Sir Edward Watkin’s aspiration to bring the continent to London (on top of taking the new railway to the continent too!) His plans for a sumptuously large pleasure gardens in Wembley (and putting Gustav Eiffel to shame with an even bigger version of his famous tower) were sort of successful (despite a partially built tower.) However Wembley soon became a famous exhibition and parade ground more than anything else, before ultimately becoming the home of English football. Source: Twitter

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Watkins’ unfinished Wembley Tower amidst a barebones parkland. The tower was begun 1893 and demolished 1907. Source: Twitter

There wasn’t just the Great Central or the ‘Eiffel Tower.’ Watkin too had plans for a fantastic new railway in the Wembley area. I covered this on my blog several years ago and this would have been the first public application of Louis-Dominique Girard’s unusual Gliding Railway. Like several other schemes of Watkins’ this one too fell through.

The biggest success for Watkins was of course the Great Central Railway. Built as a high speed railway in the late 1890s to almost a continental gauge standard, the one major defining success (after some near failures and the threat of total closure) happens to be Marylebone station itself. And the station’s famous Porte Cochère is enormous eye candy!

Let’s not reminiscence too much however for this post is more about Marylebone station and how it has looked since its opening in March 1899. There will however be some images of the Great Central as well as the famous London station itself. Let’s press onwards and focus upon the many views from these past 120 years….

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Great Central construction in the late 1890s. Source: Twitter

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Marylebone probably before it first opened in 1899. Source: Twitter

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The inaugural train 9th March 1899. Source: Twitter (This links to a Tweet which unfortunately links to a tweet fro Greatest Capital who have apparently deleted their account – thus an archived image has been used.)

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The new station. Source: Twitter

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The station when still quite new in 1905. Source: PicClick

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The Great Central timetable 1905. Source: Twitter

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Railway porter 1907. Source: Twitter

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Great Central Railway police officer at Marylebone 1907. Source: Twitter

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Sign outside the hotel in Marylebone Road in the early days. Source: Twitter

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The station probably 1908. Source: PicClick (Note: The PicClick page in question has been changed to show a different image thus an archived image is used here.)

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The Great Central touted as a healthy railway. Meaning travel’s good for one’s health. 1911. Source: Twitter

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Another GCR advert from 1911. Source: Twitter

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Carriage cleaners at the start of the war 1914. Source: Twitter (Greatest Capital has now deleted their timeline.)

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Women porters at Marylebone #1. 1915. Source: Twitter (Trench Detective has deleted this post.)

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Women porters at Marylebone #2. 1915. Source: Twitter

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Manchester Express leaving Marylebone probably before World War one (the signals on the gantry had changed by the 1920s.) Source: PicClick (Note: The PicClick page in question has been changed to show a different image thus an archived image is used here.)

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The 3.20 Manchester Express passes Rossmore Road bridge at Marylebone in the mid 1920s. Source: Railway Wonders of the World

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Telephone booths at Marylebone 1931. Source: Twitter

Marylebone station was hit by bombs in 1944. The carriage washing plant was destroyed and two rail workers killed. A replacement carriage washing facility was later built. The following pictures illustrate this incident…

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The bombed carriage depot and washing plant. Source: Twitter (Trench Detective has deleted this post thus an archived image is used here.)

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A new washing plant being built. Source: Twitter (Trench Detective has deleted this post thus an archived image is used here.)

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Some notes on the 1944 incident at Marylebone. Source: Twitter (Trench Detective has deleted this post thus an archived image is used here.)

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Mothers and children at the station July 1944. Source: Twitter

Continued in Part Two

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Ralph Bramley

What an excellent article and the photos many of which I hadn’t seen before. All through the 60’s and into the 70’s I worked for an oil lubricants company only a couple of minutes away from Marylebone station and travelling up from the Chilterns every day I must have used that station thousands of times. In one of John Betjeman’s films, I think, he gave a great description of Marylebone Station where he mentions if I remember rightly the trolleys having rubber tired wheels so as not to wake up staff, or something like that. Have you any idea of that talk and where I might find it. I did have it and now of course can’t find it!