The Ely & St Ives Railway
Travellers enduring the ride between Cambridge and Ely on elderly Great Eastern Railway coaching stock or later LNER replacements in the late 19th and early 20th century, often complained of the monotony of the landscape through which they passed. This vast tract of treeless alluvial black fields, famed for the cultivation of root crops and stretching in each direction to the horizon, was part of the southern area of the fens. The fens were not, however, uniformly flat for there were several fen islands where higher land allowed settlements to develop above the flood plain. The magnificent Ely Cathedral was established on one such island and the edifice majestically appearing out of the mist on a dank winter morn or against the blue sky of a summer day. With all eyes on the splendid building little attention was paid to the single-track railway, which meandered away to the west from the main line, a mile or so south of the city. This line following a winding course between fen islands served a number of communities. After crossing the Old and New Bedford rivers near Earith, the branch railway emerged to join up with the Cambridge to March line a little north of the town of St Ives.
The Ely, Haddenham & Sutton Railway, was opened in 1866 and worked from the outset by the Great Eastern Railway. With the threat of infiltration into the locality by other embryonic railways it became imperative to counteract such competition and the EHSR with GER backing finally extended to St Ives in 1878. The re-titled Ely & St Ives Railway remained nominally independent until it was incorporated into the GER in 1898. Built essentially as a farmers line to get crops and cattle to and from local markets, passenger traffic was always of a secondary nature. In the years to World War I both passenger and freight traffic prospered but with the encroaching development of motor transport, and in particular local bus services from the early 1920s, a service of only a few trains a day could not compete – inevitably the wholly uneconomic passenger train service was withdrawn in 1931. Freight traffic continued to thrive, especially between June and October, when much fruit traffic was dispatched and then, from the mid-1920s, from October to January when every goods yard was full with wagons being loaded with sugar beet for forwarding to the sugar processing factories at Wissington, Ely and Peterborough. World War II brought additional military traffic and the line was used on occasions as a diversionary route for freight trains from the Midlands. Peacetime and the end of fuel rationing sounded the death knell and the central section of the route from Bluntisham to Sutton was closed in 1958 to leave truncated sections at each end. As road transport went from strength to strength so the operation of these short sections of line for dwindling traffic became totally uneconomical and the Ely to Sutton section closed in July 1964 with St Ives to Bluntisham succumbing in October of the same year.
The line was an essential link in the evolution of the fenland settlements before the coming of the internal combustion engine. The full fascinating story of the Ely to St Ives Railway from opening to closure is told here.
The first edition of this book was published over 30 years and consisted of just 44 pages - this vastly enlarged new edition has 176 pages and 158 images and is to A5 format.
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