February 5, 2013 9.57 am This story is over 132 months old

Lincoln’s past: A tale of two crossings

No easy solution: Lincoln has had a long-standing affair with its level crossings — but they were much worse a hundred years ago.

There are few things in Lincoln which have gained as much notoriety and contempt as the level crossing on the High Street. It causes severe disruption and endless anger amongst residents of the city. It may surprise you, however, that this is not a fairly modern problem, but rather, has been plaguing Lincoln for a very long time.

Traffic waiting at the St Marks station level crossing in Lincoln in 1978. Photo: UK Railways 1970 Until Today

The arrival of the railway in Lincoln was not without some controversy. Various factions sought different solutions to the problem of Lincoln’s lack of railway links with the matter so heated that a riot broke out at a meeting to discuss the issue at the cattle market. Eventually, a route to Nottingham was decided, and St. Mark’s (then “Lincoln”) station opened in 1846 as the terminus of the line.

This was, however, the height of ‘railway mania’, a period of excessive growth in train travel. Soon, the city council approved plans for a loop of the Great Northern line from Grantham to run through the city. This meant the creation of a new station, Lincoln Central, in 1848. At the same time, St. Mark’s station had begun an expansion programme, aiming to extend it’s track to meet the Great Northern main-line east of the city centre.

This presented a massive problem to the city council. At the time all railways were completely separate entities: tracks, trains and stations were exclusive to the companies that ran them, meaning this left the High Street with the prospect of two level crossings within 200 yards of each other. The council had hoped the two stations could share a crossing, but this was opposed by the rail companies.

The city, therefore, sent the clerk to London to voice the council’s concerns about the disruption these crossings would have on the High Street. The rail chiefs, however, told the clerk there would be minimal disruption and that he should travel to Canterbury to see how a level crossing in a city centre operated. There, he was assured by the mayor and magistrates that the crossing would prove no burden at all. In fact, he was told, few would even notice it as it was estimated the road would be closed for roughly half an hour a day at most. Back in Lincoln, the clerk was equally assured by those extending the rail lines through St. Mark’s that the new crossing would prove even less of a burden, with only two trains a day expected. Concerns alleviated, the city agreed for the construction of the two crossings.

The promises by the railways were, of course, wrong. Traffic continually increased on the High Street, causing severe delays. One particularly extreme case shows just how bad the delays could be. In mid-August 1851, three trains were loaded with passengers and set off from Leeds to London via Lincoln to visit the Great Exhibition. At 11am that day, a train carrying nearly 1,000 passengers passed through the city. Two hours later, another pair of trains, each carrying nearly 3,000 passengers and of 80 carriages in length passed through the High Street.

While in the open country, these trains were able to travel at over 40 mph, around level crossings, law mandated a speed of 4mph for all trains. Pedestrians and carriages, therefore, were forced to wait while 162 train cars and engines passed at crawling speed across the street. One stuck at the crossing today, waiting for a seemingly endless cargo train to pass, can quite easily imagine the sheer frustration they felt.

The High Street today, as we all know, has only one crossing. While the council may have finally got its wish of a joint crossing (albeit over 130 years too late), we still are forced to bear the brunt of excessive rail traffic causing severe delays on the High Street; a problem with no easy solution for the citizens of Lincoln and one 165 years in the making.

Cory Santos is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Lincoln who specialises in the social history of Britain during the Second World War. Besides his main research focuses, he also enjoys local history and the interesting tales it often turns up.