The Gainsborough Line
TRAVEL IN WARM AS TOAST, AERODYNAMIC ROCKETS
David Cameron (Witney, Oxfordshire) and Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) reportedly had a long running argument about which of them lived in the more scenic constituency and therefore who had the more picturesque journey out of London on a Friday evening. Well, if they had elected to travel east as opposed to west, and if they had done so by train, they would be hard pushed, after their journey on the mainline from Liverpool Street to Marks Tey, to gaze on a more bucolic setting than that enjoyed by passengers on the Gainsborough Line from Marks Tey to Sudbury.
The 12-mile journey, over 19 minutes, between these two stations, stopping off at Chappel & Wakes Colne and Bures along the way, takes the traveller from Essex into Suffolk, over the River Colne and the River Stour.
The passage over the Colne valley is particularly impressive, when seen both ‘in the air’ from the train and below from the ground. The viaduct at Chappel is over 70 feet high and 1066 feet long, comprising 32 arches, and is a feat of Victorian engineering. It was originally proposed as a wooden construction, but the unexpected discovery of brick earth in the area prompted the decision that it should instead be built from brick. Around seven million of them were used, making it one of the largest brick-built structures in the country. Construction took two years, between 1847 and 1849, and required the labour of more than 600 men and 100 horses. In 1967, it was granted listed status.
The Stour crossing at Daws Hall may be a less spectacular construction, but the scenery is glorious – beautiful open skylines, for which East Anglia is renowned (just blot out the pylons). Although the track is now called the ‘Gainsborough Line’ (much less chavvy than its former name, the Lovejoy Line), this is the countryside that Constable depicted.
The line originally ran on from Sudbury to Long Melford before branching west to Cambridge, via Glemsford, Clare and Haverhill, and north to Bury St Edmunds, via Lavenham and Cockfield. At its peak, before the First World War, there were six passenger trains each way per day, as well as freight services carrying coal and agricultural produce. However, the advent of the motor car led to use of the service declining and, despite a resurgence during the Second World War on account of airfields being established in the area, cutbacks to the service became inevitable. In 1961, passenger trains ended on the route from Long Melford to Bury St Edmunds and, in 1965, the British Railways Board sought permission to end passenger services on the route between Marks Tey and Cambridge as part of the Beeching Axe. This led to uproar, but Beeching for the most part got his way and, on 6 March 1967, the last passenger service travelled between Sudbury and Cambridge.
However, thanks to protests from local residents, the line between Marks Tey and Sudbury was kept open, largely because Sudbury was seen an expanding community, with the prospect of increased commuter use. We all owe these fine folk a debt of gratitude. Further attempts were made to close the line a few years later but, following the prospect of petrol rationing in 1974 on account of the energy crisis, the line was granted an indefinite reprieve.
In recent times, the line has had something of a resurgence. Track improvements were made between 2005 and 2007 and, in 2006, the line was designated as a community railway.
But the most noticeable change was made even more recently, in January 2020, with the arrival of a fleet of brand new trains built by Stadler. Gone are the chilly, diesel, bone-shakers, replaced by state of the art, warm as toast, aerodynamic rockets. Sadly, the single track, which has not been further upgraded, means that we may not see their top speed of 100mph. But their enhanced performance means improved consistency and reliability, with annual punctuality now at very respectable 97.5%. The trains also boast a host of environmentally friendly features, including bi-mode engines which produce lower emissions, and modern brakes which release fewer dust particles. There are now three carriages instead of two, thereby increasing capacity by approximately 14%, and for Generation Z there is free Wi-Fi, and USB and plug points between each pair of seats.
However, for all these improvements, there are some things that haven’t changed. Most reassuringly, there is a guard on every train, who will happily sell you a ticket if you haven’t purchased one ahead. More disappointingly, the trains still run at only one an hour and there must be little chance of that changing when passenger numbers are noticeably reduced (at least on Mondays and Fridays) by comparison with levels prior to the pandemic.
But, speaking as a former ‘Colchester-commuter’ who now begins and ends the day at “Sudbury International’ train station, there is much to commend the Gainsborough Line: the comfort of new carriages, the tranquillity of the scenery over the Rivers Colne and Stour and the proximity of the car park at the end of the journey. We are lucky to have this service. It is a quintessential part of rural life that Messrs Cameron and Letwin would surely envy – on a Friday evening or a Monday morning.