During the 1890s the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway built its ‘London Extension’, more than 140 km long, from Annesley in Nottinghamshire through the centre of Nottingham, Loughborough and Leicester to Quainton Road in Buckinghamshire where it made a junction with the Metropolitan Railway whose tracks it used to gain access to a new terminus at Marylebone in the capital. The line opened to coal trains in 1898 and to passenger services the following year. Further projects created an alternative route out of London and a link at Banbury to the Great Western railway and lines to southern and western England. From 1958 services north of the London suburban area were reduced and finally ceased in 1969.
Railway enthusiasts in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire attempted to establish a heritage railway through a succession of trusts and companies. The first heritage train ran from Loughborough to Quorn on 30 September 1973 but many years passed before the project achieved a stable form of operation. There are now two organisations based in Loughborough and Ruddington operating different sections of the line, but it is planned that in due course the two will be joined.
The Great Central Railway based at Loughborough operates a 8.45 km line to what is now called Leicester North station which opened in 1990, just south of the former Belgrave & Birstall station. The line is now double track, unlike most heritage railways, and it is possible for trains to pass each other outside station limits, and to run intensive services, including historic replica freight trains, on special occasions. Most locomotives used on the line belong to trusts to private owners, or the National Collection, and have included representatives from all four of the great companies of 1923-48.The railway provides extensive educational facilities, and dining car trains are a popular feature.British Railways retained the track north of Loughborough to serve a military depot at Ruddington (now closed) adding a connection to the former Midland Railway near Loughborough station. Bridges were demolished leaving the so-called ‘Loughborough Gap’ of 500 m separating the retained line from the heritage railway.
The Great Central Railway (Nottingham) was originally a project covering other means of transport than railways. It now operates heritage trains over a 16 km stretch of track from Ruddington to Loughborough, part of which is used at other times by gypsum trains from the national network. It holds a particularly important collection of Great Central Railway carriages.
The Great Central Railway has opened a 2 km branch to quarries at Mountsorrel on which passengers services can be operated by diesel multiple units or push-and-pull trains. One object of the branch was to enable the construction of a shed near the quarry to accommodate ex-London & North Eastern Railway carriages owned by Railway Vehicle Preservation Ltd, but if the connection between the two railways at Loughborough is completed it is hoped to attract long-distance stone traffic from the quarry.