Last days of the East Lincolnshire Railway

Mike Fowler takes a closer look at what happened during the final 10 months of the East Lincolnshire Railway, which saw its last weekend of service in October 1970.

On Sunday 17th August 1969 I stood with friends on Burgh-Le-Marsh station awaiting the 18.39 to King’s Cross. I remember it well because it was my wedding day and the friends were guests returning south with us. Burgh station looked exactly as always, neat and tidy and full of Victorian atmosphere. There was little to hint that it had just 14 months left.

We next returned to Lincolnshire for Christmas. This time arriving at Firsby at 18.57 on Monday 22nd December. This was just three days after the formal closure announcement on 19th December 1969, though the actual closure date was not stated. We had left King’s Cross at 16.30 travelling on the Cleethorpes buffet car express. As always, we pulled up twice to the sound of the announcements concerning the Skegness connection. The exit was always by the side entrance, where Frank Archer took the tickets and a very respectable group of passengers disappeared into the night air, much as they had done for the last 122 years.

After Christmas it was back to London from Firsby on New Year’s Day, which was not a Bank Holiday at that time. I took the opportunity to chat with leading porter, James Thornley about the year ahead. He seemed optimistic that line closure wouldn’t happen and there would be a permanent reprieve. At this time, closure was scheduled for 4th May. I next saw Thornley and Archer on duty at Skegness station in late 1970, after they had sadly been transferred following the Firsby closure.

During the preceding eight years since the Beeching Report, there had been considerable activity to try and prevent or at least delay closure. This had been motivated by the Lincolnshire Standard newspaper with the support of local MPs including Sir Peter Tapsell, Mr Richard Body and Sir Cyril Osborne.

There were two public inquiries at Skegness: in 1964 and 1968. British Rail showed how Grimsby to Peterborough was losing £172,400 a year and Firsby to Lincoln just under half of that at £61,500. When pushed, BR showed little interest in economies of scale, explaining that everything had been done. But everybody knew the problem was the 63 level crossings between Grimsby and Peterborough, plus those on the branches amounting to about a further 50. Say a crossing keeper was paid £1,000 per year, that meant a minimum costing of £63,000 a year to staff the crossings on the main line. Save that by automation and you’re well on the way to balancing the books.

There were two further issues reducing income for the line. Firstly, even though Humberside was developing to the tune of £3million a year, southbound freight from Grimsby and Immingham had all been diverted via the congested Lincoln line from the mid ’60s onwards. If a proportion of this had been routed via the East Lincolnshire from 1968 onwards, what income would this have generated? (We should also remember that all locally generated freight had been abandoned in the early ’60s when local depots closed.) Secondly, station income had been slashed by the use of Paytrains on the branches, which attributed no income to the stations. On the main line, passengers were often told to pay at their destinations.

On that New Year’s Day morning in 1970, the silence in Firsby was broken at 6.25 with the DMU departure for Mablethorpe. At 7.16 the first train from Skegness arrived on its way to Peterborough. The next arrival from Skegness was at 8.00 to coincide with the Cleethorpes-King’s Cross arrival at 8.04. This was a buffet car express due into King’s Cross at 10.30. Sure enough the Class 47 hauled the 11 coaches in on time drawing up twice as always. A number of passengers left for the 8.17 Skegness connection. No sooner had the King’s Cross departed south than the northbound 7.05 from Peterborough to Grimsby arrived at 8.15 adding more passengers to the waiting Skegness DMU. Two more trains were due before the early morning rush was over: the 9.37 Skegness to Lincoln and our train, the 9.41 to King’s Cross. That was the second King’s Cross train within an hour and forty minutes – what a service! One couldn’t help wondering at the time what they were going to do after closure.

So how did the next ten months slip by? Full of protest? Sit-ins? Greatly increased passenger numbers? Sadly not. After eight years of a modest protest, there was a sense of resignation. Really there should have been some renewed vigour because British Rail announced in the New Year that closure would not be on 3rd May but five months later in October. The Skegness branch had received a further two years’ reprieve but Mablethorpe knew it was the last summer for those important excursions from the Midlands.

On that final weekend there was no Sunday service, so all events on the Mablethorpe branch took place on Saturday 3rd October. The Sunday was a busy day on the main line. At 10.52 the King’s Cross Express left Grimsby behind Class 47 D1577. Only 18 minutes later the Lincolnshire Standard Special left at 11.10. Both were heading to King’s Cross and arriving at similar times. The ‘Standard’ was full to capacity and the earlier service train with enthusiasts, who were only travelling to Peterborough and then returning on the 16.00 Grimsby service. Further down the line at Firsby there were a couple of Skegness shuttles during the day. At 17.53 the second service train of the day left Grimsby arriving in King’s Cross at 21.21. During the afternoon there was a charter from King’s Cross that had travelled to Lincoln (12.15) via Spalding and then the New Line to Firsby, then to Mablethorpe and via Willoughby to Grimsby and then returning to London at 21.30
At King’s Cross there was some juggling to ensure the ‘Standard’ special would ultimately be the very last train over the East Lincolnshire line. It left at 18.50 closely followed at 18.55 by the very last Cleethorpes service train. It was arranged that the service train would pass the Standard Special at Huntingdon thus making the Special the very last train over the East Lincs route.

Once north of Peterborough the arrival times of the two trains began to hopelessly slip through celebratory activities at each station. Instead of 22.41, the last service train arrived in Cleethorpes at 23.10 and the Standard Special at Grimsby at 23.50 having not reached Louth until 23.00. All in all, 4th October was a busy day and a fitting end to 122 years of public rail transport.

On Monday morning the railway fell silent. Years ago I came across a moving piece in a magazine or newspaper written about Firsby on that day. Here is an excerpt:

‘Firsby is silent like 17 other stations and 100 miles of track. No bells ring in the signal box and the gates remain closed. There is no signalman on duty. The lights are turned off. Under the last GNR overall roof a fitting North Sea breeze blows as the sombre railway staff, now in the role of undertakers, remove enamel and cast iron signs that could have lasted another 122 years.

‘It takes some imagination to recall all those trains that passed through during yesterday’s final Sunday service. From the first at 10.33 to the last at 22.04. It was such a special day. Now those tracks are silent and possibly the first signs of rust are appearing. They are a true symbol of redundancy. I can’t believe just hours ago this was a fully working railway and part of an 80-mile route from Grimsby to Peterborough… an artery from North to South maintained to the highest standard…

‘There’s no turning back now. From 1963 and especially the last ten months, that was the exact intention of British Railways’ accountants.’

‘The existence of a railway faded from the public consciousness. However, there were some happenings at the time of closure and shortly afterwards that are worth mentioning.

British Rail produced a booklet giving all the alternatives by both road and rail. It wasn’t exactly fiction but gave alternatives far from the convenience of the lost rail services. But a commitment had been fulfilled.

For the people of Louth and even Alford, a bus service to Market Rasen was provided to link with the newly routed London service. How long the service lasted, I do not know.

Improved services were initiated from Skegness but not really promoted. I recall that there was pressure to reopen Little Steeping as the Firsby alternative but clearly that wasn’t approved.

Things were much better for Spalding residents. A co-operation between Peterborough and Spalding councils resulted in a commuter service being reinstated in May 1971. This has continued to develop and Spalding’s isolation was avoided.

If you want just a brief glimpse of the old lines, visit the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway at Ludborough. They will take you on the actual track used 50 years ago and you’ll help them return the railway to Louth.

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