The East Lancashire Line

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Author and prolific photographer Martyn Hilbert presents a profile of the 29-mile Preston to Colne line in the heart of East Lancashire, highlighting its services, stations, and prominent structures, in words and pictures.

Having last called at the nearby Burnley Barracks station, Northern 142045 passes over Bank Top Viaduct running towards its next stop at Burnley Central with the 12.57 Preston to Colne service on September 27, 2018. The now Grade II-listed former chimney and engine house of Calder Vale Shed and Mill dominate the scene here and once formed part of a now demolished larger cotton mill complex that in the heyday of the Lancashire textile industry had 488 looms. The Class 142 units are also now consigned to history, having all been withdrawn from service. The ‘Pacers’ were once a regular sight on the East Lancashire Line.

All photography: Martyn Hilbert

The East Lancashire Line runs for just over 29 miles from the City of Preston to its current terminus at the former cotton mill town of Colne.

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With 16 intermediate stations along its route, the line serves a catchment of about 250,000 people, passing through pleasant scenery as well as being an integral part of the urban East Lancashire townscapes, with the Pennines never far away.

The East Lancashire route diverges from the West Coast Main Line at Farington Curve Junction, some 1.49 miles south of Preston station. On its way the route serves stations at Lostock Hall, Bamber Bridge, Pleasington, Cherry Tree, Mill Hill, Blackburn, Rishton, Church & Oswaldtwistle, Accrington, Huncoat, Hapton, Rose Grove, Burnley Barracks, Burnley Central, Brierfield, Nelson and Colne.

Since 1973 all signalling and movements have been under the control of the Preston Power signalbox. The route features several strategic junctions that connect it to other parts of the national network, enabling parts to be used by other services, both passenger and freight, while also allowing it to be used as a diversionary route for emergencies and engineering work.

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Colas Rail Freight 70809 passes through Bamber Bridge station, about to cross the old A6 trunk road, with 6E32, the 10.05 Preston Docks to Lindsey bitumen empties, on September 8, 2021. The Class 70 would travel along the East Lancashire route as far as Gannow Junction, near Burnley, before diverging away over the Pennines via Copy Pit summit and Hall Royd Junction on the Manchester-Leeds Calder Valley route.

Blackburn station is the hub of the East Lancashire Line, and with Bolton Junction to the West and Daisyfield Junction to the east, the three through platforms at the station sees eight stopping passenger train services an hour Monday-Saturday.

Since 2018, there has been a Northern DMU stabling facility at Blackburn King Street for the use of units working in the area, and this has eliminated many early morning and late night Empty Coaching Stock workings to and from Newton Heath TMD in Manchester.

East of Blackburn, the M65 motorway is never far away from the route, the two running alongside each other for some distance.

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156420 approaches Blackburn with 2N15, the 09.57 Preston to Colne service on November 4, 2021. Stopping services on the 29.1-mile East Lancashire Line are usually handled by a mixture of Class 150/156/158 DMUs.

At Accrington the line crosses the town (which is located in a valley) on an impressive 19-arch, 60ft-high stone viaduct that was built by the original East Lancashire Railway in 1847.

Between the small unstaffed stations at Huncoat and Hapton there was once a power station, colliery, and several brickworks, with the area rich in industrial heritage, although much of this is now long gone.

Crucially for the railway, there are proposals to construct a 22-acre rail freight terminal at Hapton that would be located between the East Lancashire Line and the M65.

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Linked with a Huncoat Garden Village development, this could be a turnaround in the fortunes for this once-busy route that has seen its fortunes decline following the rationalisation of lines and services in the 1960s and 1970s.

Beyond the station at Rose Grove (which once featured a locomotive shed, a gridiron and various sorting sidings), the East Lancashire route becomes single track beyond Gannow Junction. This junction is where the steeply graded cross-Pennine double track route to West Yorkshire, via Copy Pit, diverges.

The East Lancashire Line then descends from Gannow Junction through the small station at Burnley Barracks and passes over the lofty 14-arch Bank Top Viaduct, and at its eastern end of the viaduct is the station at Burnley Central, complete with its ‘modern’ station building that was constructed in 1965.

Beyond Burnley, at the town of Nelson, the station has retained its former Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway iron and glazed platform canopy, although only one side of its island platform is now in use. Just over two miles beyond Nelson, the line passes over Colne Valley Viaduct before reaching the single platform terminus at the one-time Lancashire & Yorkshire/Midland Railway joint station at Colne.

This once boasted three platforms and a substantial amount of railway infrastructure, including carriage sidings and goods handling facilities, although all that is now in the past and the railway layout at Colne was vastly reduced to a single platform arrangement in 1971.

Colas Rail 60085 heads East, passing through the empty island platform at Rose Grove, working the 08.55 Preston Docks to Lindsey bitumen empties on February 23, 2018. Just out of sight in the distance is Gannow Junction, where the Class 60 will bear right, leaving the East Lancashire Line behind, and where the locomotive would be starting the climb towards Copy Pit summit. With the M65 motorway out of sight behind the trees on the left of this scene, it is now difficult to image just how much railway infrastructure has vanished at this location – engine shed with coaling tower, Up & Down sidings, gridiron, platform loops, bay platform, station buildings, and signalboxes – all reflecting just how much the railway system has contracted in this part of the UK over the last 50 years.

Beyond the buffer stop at the end of line here, the railway once continued on the former Midland Railway route to Skipton, which was closed in February 1970.

Currently all stopping passenger services on the East Lancashire Line are operated by Northern and mainly utilise a mixture of Class 150/156/158 DMUs. Services between Preston and Colne are hourly in each direction and call at all the intermediate stations en route, with the journey taking about one hour and seven minutes end-to-end.

During the normal Monday-Friday timetable, the units in use on the line work some lengthy diagrams, which include Preston-Colne-Preston-Ormskirk-Preston-Blackpool South-Preston-Colne-Preston, and usually on any one day there are five different two-car units in use.

On summer Sundays there is a basic one-hourly Blackpool South-Preston-Colne-Preston-Blackpool South service frequency, which utilises a pair of DMUs coupled together. During the winter months, the Sunday service frequency on the line becomes two-hourly in each direction.

The East Lancashire route between Preston and Gannow Junction is also host to the hourly Blackpool North to York (via Bradford & Leeds) service in each direction that are usually operated by the Northern Class 195 CAF-built DMU fleet.

Blackburn station is also served by the hourly Rochdale-Manchester Victoria-Bolton-Blackburn-Clitheroe services in each direction and the Kirkby-Manchester Victoria-Todmorden-Accrington-Blackburn service, which normally terminates in Platform 3 at the station, making Blackburn quite a busy location, with a good variety of Northern DMUs on offer. On Sundays there are several Preston to Hellifield services giving access to the Settle & Carlisle line and the Yorkshire Dales.

Additionally, on several Sundays during the summer there has been a Blackpool North to Carlisle service operated under the aegis of the ‘Dalesrail’ organisation.

A traffic-free moment on the busy roundabout and junction of Royle Road & Active Way (A679) at Burnley, as 142048 passes over the first two arches of Bank Top Viaduct, working the 13.24 Burnley Central to Preston service on September 27, 2018. The now single platform station at Burnley Central is located immediately beyond the end of the viaduct, hidden behind the trees.

‘Dalesrail’ is closely linked with Community Rail Lancashire, part of which is the East Lancashire Rail Partnership, with both organisations publicising and creating initiatives (such as station adoption, festivals and special events) to raise the profile of the line in the communities it serves.

Until the early 1970s, the East Lancashire Line was busy with freight, in particular coal, but similarly with other parts of the UK, all of this is now in the past.

The remaining out-and-back freight workings along parts of the route include the Lindsey Oil Refinery to Preston Docks Bitumen (6E32/6M32) operated by Colas Rail and the Avonmouth to Clitheroe cement (6M90/6V82) worked by GB Railfreight. The Mountsorrel Quarry to Carlisle Yard ballast train (6C89), also operated by Colas Rail, traverses the same section of the route as the cement’s, from Lostock Hall Junction to Daisyfield Junction just to the East of Blackburn, along with the Wembley Yard to Irvine China clay slurry working (6S94), which is worked by GBRf.

150276 and 142062 arrive at Nelson with the 12.21 Blackpool South to Colne service on January 7, 2016. The route from Gannow Junction to Barkerhouse Road/Chaffers Siding was singled in 1986 and consequently the former island platform layout at Nelson now only has one operational face, on the North side. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway iron and glazed platform canopy has survived and the station is now part of a new bus interchange facility at street level.

Two regular weekday southbound workings off the Settle & Carlisle line via Clitheroe are the Carlisle Yard to Crewe engineers (6K05) and the Carlisle Yard to Chirk Kronospan logs (6K37), both of which join the East Lancashire route at Daisyfield Junction and diverge away towards the West Coast Main Line at Lostock Hall Junction.

The route is also regularly visited by charter workings, both steam and diesel-hauled, and the link to the Ribble Valley line and the Settle & Carlisle line at Daisyfield Junction is a useful and important connection and a diversionary route should the WCML North of Preston be blocked.

At Colne, at the eastern extremity of the East Lancashire Line, most of the trackbed on the closed 10-mile route to Skipton has remained intact and, crucially, when the A59 Skipton bypass road was constructed some years ago, the abandoned trackbed was bridged. Over many years, there has been an ongoing campaign by various local bodies including SELRAP (Skipton & East Lancashire Rail Action Partnership) to get the ‘missing link’ reinstated, although somewhat surprisingly the Colne to Skipton route was not included in the recently-published Department for Transport’s ‘Integrated Rail Plan’. Reinstatement of the long-closed line would create an additional West-East rail link.

Colas Rail 56096 and 56094 ease slowly through Accrington station with the 08.55 Preston Docks to Lindsey bitumen empties on December 12, 2018. Accrington once had a triangular station layout with an East and West connection to the steeply-graded East Lancashire Railway route to Bury, via Haslingden, Helmshore and Stubbins Junction, that closed in December 1966.

With the congestion of rail traffic through the Manchester area and the upgrading of the routes between Manchester and Leeds, the East Lancashire Line has plenty of capacity and opportunity for expansion, and it could one day have its fortunes revived as a strategic cross-Pennine route.

Against a classic East Lancashire backdrop of terraced houses with the Pennines lying beyond, Northern 156421 passes over Barkerhouse Road/Chaffers Siding level crossing as it exits Nelson with the 12.54 Preston to Colne service on May 21, 2019. The line was singled from here to Colne in August 1971. The level crossing is operated by treadles on the track, activated by the trains on a slow approach.

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