The GER was formed in 1862 from a number of earlier railways operating in East Anglia. The principal line was the route from London to Norwich, opened by the Eastern Union Railway and later operated by the Eastern Counties Railway. It was during the period of the Great Eastern Railway that passenger transport was most extensive in the east. The GER was still opening new railways almost until the end in 1923, but under the LNER they were beginning to close them. One of the first places to lose its passenger service was Stoke Ferry in Norfolk, which saw its last coaches draw into the station in 1930. Hadleigh in Suffolk lost its passenger service two years later. Closures gathered pace under British Railways, and it is only recently that we have seen a few lines reopened.
The livery of the locomotives was royal blue, with crimson details, most notably the connecting rods. The coaches were of varnished teak until 1918, when it was changed to crimson. Although the B12 locomotive now kept on the North Norfolk Railway dates from 1928, after Grouping, the type was already in use in 1923, so it is acceptable to see her in GER colours. With the rake of Gresley quad coaches in varnished teak, which the NNR also possesses, the impression of what a GER train looked like makes a grand sight. The loco is currently painted in LNER apple green, which is more authentic but less visually striking.
The GER was slow to adopt bogie coaches, and even ‘modern’ 6 wheeled stock was late coming to passenger trains; there were old-fashioned 4 wheel coaches running on suburban lines until the end of the company in 1923. Until 1897 there were no bogie coaches on the GER, and no complete corridor trains until the dawn of the 20th century. The lack of corridor connections made long-distance travel less than ideal; the guard could not inspect travellers’ tickets while the train was in motion, and without a corridor there was no possibility of a dining car to serve the whole train. Even toilets could not be provided in non-corridor stock. This mattered less on suburban trains; the mainline express from Liverpool Street to Cromer, the Norfolk Coast Express, was the first to introduce corridor rolling stock in Edwardian times. The Norfolk Coast Express ran non-stop from London, avoiding Norwich via the Wensum Curve, to North Walsham; there it had to stop to take on coal for the last stage of the journey. Water could be taken on from water troughs. While the express continued to Cromer High Station, passengers could alight at North Walsham and take the stopping train to Mundesley and the Poppy Land villages of Trimingham, Sidestrand and Overstrand. The Edwardian conceit of the ‘Garden of Sleep’ made this part of North Norfolk the height of fashion during years leading up to the First World War.
Liverpool Street Station was opened in 1874 as the new London terminus on the GER. The old Shoreditch terminus became the Bishopsgate goods yard until it was almost destroyed by fire in 1964. The last remnants of Bishopsgate station were removed in the 21st century and a new Shoreditch station now occupies the site. It was also during the ownership by the GER that the current Norwich terminus was built, a few metres north of the original terminus. The old building still stands, now used as the local HQ for train crews.
The major lines in Norfolk were already completed by the time the GER was formed, but the route north from Norwich to Cromer was opened by the Great Eastern (although built by another company). Opened in 1874, this relatively late addition to the rail network might have been expected to be one of the first to close, but against all the odds it is still there. I think the regular freight service of North Sea gas petroleum concentrate from North Walsham may have helped save the line through the lean years of contracting railways. We are once again seeing brand new railways being built, rather than merely old ones being reopened. The new line across London, Crossrail, will reach out to Stratford which was once the site of the principal Great Eastern railway workshops. This enormous infrastructure project will provide through services from Shenfield in Essex on the Great Eastern mainline to Reading on the Great Western. Trains will run every few minutes throughout the day. The tunnels required under central London have already been completed and the opening is projected to take place in 2019.
The term Great Eastern is still used to describe the lines out of Liverpool Street, although the later LNER is consigned to history. It is nearly a hundred years since the Great Eastern Railway was merged with other companies to form the London North Eastern Railway, but the interest in this historic line seems as great as ever.