A book for further reading is A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain - Volume 5 - Eastern Counties by D I Gordon and published by David & Charles in 1968. Sadly it is now out of print but the Cambridge extract has been copied here.
The Cambridge Region
Without a serious rival within 20 miles, route centre, river port and market, for many the natural gateway to the eastern counties, Cambridge was an obvious focal point for railway promotion, quite apart from its possible significance as an intermediate stage to the north. Anticipation of the Northern & Eastern in 1836 precipitated a whole range of projects including the Oxford & Cambridge and the Cambridge Transverse Railway (Bury St Edmunds to Market Harborough), and, after a period of relative quiescence, the pattern was repeated from 1844 with the sanctioning of the ECR extension from Newport to Brandon. In this second outburst of activity duplication and even triplication were implied in schemes that proposed direct links with Worcester, Oxford, Northampton, Bedford, Bury St Edmunds, Colchester, Harwich, Lincoln and Hull amongst many other places. A Cambridge Town Meeting of 19 November 1845, at which George Hudson, busily engaged in making friends for his 1846 ECR northern extension, was prominent, extended a wide welcome to many of the promotions, but, as was only to be expected, the vast majority of them failed utterly. Even so, on 30 July 1845 the ECR placed the town on a through route between London and Norwich, and by 1885 an extensive network had brought not only the GER but also the Great Northern, Midland and London & North Western into the town's station.
Freed from clogging dependence on King's Lynn and river transport in general, Cambridge was enabled to exploit its many advantages, to which were now added an abundance of cheap rural labour and the availability of national markets. In 1857 market facilities in the town had to be enlarged, and a £20,000 Corn Exchange was opened in 1876, reflecting extensive London trade; a £19,000 cattle market followed in 1885. Meanwhile two imponderables had been settled. Many had been hopeful that river and rail would complement each other, but in fact river trade disappeared almost completely within a few years and the 1851 Census showed that many families connected with the navigation had already left the town. The second matter was the apprehension of many in 1845 that the siting of the station a mile from the town centre (where land that was at the same time firm, undeveloped and cheap had proved unobtainable) might vitiate railway benefits; in fact the town grew towards the railway, the bulk of the new or expanded industries, including iron and brass foundries, brewing, malting, milling, cement making, bricks and tiles and a tobacco manufactory, being found between the station and the town centre. By 1901 the population was 47,731 and growing fast under the additional stimulus of agricultural depression. The 1961 total was 95,527.
The markets and the university are still the dominant features, but printing, scientific-instrument making (1881), both fostered by the university, chemicals, plastics and general and electrical engineering are amongst many important contemporary industries. The decreased relevance of the railways is shown in the considerable contraction of freight facilities in recent years (for example, the closure of the upper yard on 31 January 1961), but general merchandise levels are still high and monthly sales of agricultural machinery bring substantial rail traffic. During 1965, 1,425,211 passenger tickets were collected, and large numbers change trains there. London services load heavily and each day fourteen to Liverpool Street (the best in 74 minutes) and fourteen to King's Cross (the best in 81 minutes) are provided. Commuter traffic is growing and generally the area is moving into the London orbit, a trend that will be intensified if ever plans for electrification of either or both routes are implemented. When opened the station was described by the Railway Chronicle as a 'long, fiat and handsome brick building. . . consisting of a double series of arcades', one side enclosing the trains on the one and only platform, the other road carriages; Sancton Wood's main block survives today although in extended form. Within four months of the opening on 30 July 1845, local interests were pressing for a more central station or enlargement of the existing one and the provision of a branch to the town centre; the ECR was in fact prepared to include this last concept in an 1847 bill until the university objected to the disturbance of its calm. This was neither the first nor the last occasion on which the university had a decisive voice; it had counted a lot in the 1836 victory of the Northern & Eastern, had had much to say in the discussions and decision-making of 1845 and was to influence subsequent discussions on routes into Cambridge and matters affecting the station. Its power was sufficient to secure the introduction of certain curious restrictive clauses from 1844 into a number of local railway Acts, for example that of the Newmarket & Chesterford in 1846. No person was to be picked up or set down within 3 miles of Cambridge between TO am and 5pm on a Sunday except when a train was running late; moreover, university officials were empowered to enlist the co-operation of railway staff in identifying members of the university on the station, and if any such did not hold the degree of Master of Arts or Bachelor of Medicine or Civil Law could order the company not to carry him for 24 hours even if the fare had been paid. Any failure to comply or attempt at evasion (dropping passengers between stations was specified) made the company concerned liable to a £5 fine payable to Addenbrooke's Hospital or some designated charity. Although repeated in new Acts until at least 1864 these clauses were virtually a dead letter from the first, but it was 1908 before they were finally repealed.
During 1848, presumably while repairs were effected on the main platform, a temporary wooden island platform was erected on the up side at a cost of £273 18s 6d; precise dates are not known, but 1847 illustrations did not show it and an 1849 ECR report referred to it as 'now removed'. However, the ECR was finding difficulties in coping with increasing traffic and public feeling was growing strong against the inconvenience of a single platform, and so in 1850 a wooden island was restored. This soon became more unpopular than the former arrangement because of the very steep footbridge by which it was approached (and the dark subway for luggage), and on 16 November 1863 the GER removed it for good, partly to gain goodwill, at the same time extending the original platform to 1,200 ft.
Since then the basic principle has remained unchanged. A double platform bay has been added at each end (the first at the south end to accommodate services from the GNR'S Hitchin line) and the main platform, with a scissor crossing at the centre, is now, 650ft long handling down services at the north end up trains at the south. Twice since 1863 this layout has been threatened. In 1886 Parliament responded to local feeling by rejecting GER plans for a completely new £130,000 two-platform station, on the grounds that realignment of the Newmarket branch (a troublesome line curving over all the outside tracks within the northern platform limits) involved taking part of Coldham Common; it was in vain that the GER offered other land in compensation. In 1893 Parliament relented by allowing part of the common to be used for a new junction to provide an easier curve to the branch (this opened on 17 May 1896, the original section out of Cambridge then closing); but this time local feeling ran strongly in favour of keeping the highly individual layout of the station itself. There the matter has rested, apart from detailed alterations since 1908, such as the opening of two large signal boxes to replace the existing five and the installation of all-electric signalling between July and September 1926, the year in which the great increase in sugar-beet traffic led to the establishment of a new control centre in Cambridge. Other changes have included the closure of the GNR locomotive depot in January 1931 (an unstaffed 'turn-round' since 1923) and there-placement of the former GER depot (adjacent to the Station) by a new diesel depot at Coldham Lane opened in September 1958.
SOUTH AND EAST OF CAMBRIDGE
The main ECR line from London (Chapter V), opened on 30 July 1845, gave at best a circuitous approach to Norwich and for some years a means of shortening the distance was eagerly sought. The most important of these was the Newmarket & Chesterford, a £350,000 incorporation of 1846, with Robert Stephenson and Braithwaite as its engineers. Initially it was for a 163/4 mile main line from Newmarket to Great Chesterford, with an 81/2 mile branch from Six Mile Bottom to Cambridge, but in 1847 further powers were obtained for an extension to the Norfolk Railway at Thetford with branches to Ely and Bury St Edmunds. Cambridge, to be by-passed by through traffic, strongly opposed the scheme, as did the ECR, but their resistance was outweighed by public convenience and the enthusiastic support of Newmarket and the Jockey Club.
Financial and legal difficulties delayed the Cambridge branch and no immediate start could be made on the 1847 extensions, but the main line went ahead, opening to goods on 3 January 1848 and passengers on 4 April; through services to Shoreditch were offered, in times ranging from 140 to 170 minutes. At first the Newmarket (an abbreviated title taken in 1847) worked itself with six locomotives (appropriately named after famous race-horses), the ECR, hopeful of its collapse, having declined all offers to lease or purchase the line. In May 1848 assumption of Norfolk Railway working by the ECR removed one threat to the latter, but the danger remained that the Royston & Hitchin (see below) might still be tempted to extend to Great Chesterford, so allowing the GNR into the area. In fact the R&H much preferred the cheaper alternative of continuing to Cambridge, but the risk for Hudson was too great and in October 1848 the ECR took the Newmarket on lease. However, in the following February Hudson fell, and the ECR proprietors repudiated the agreement, although allowing the continuance of ECR operation at rates totally ruinous to the smaller concern.
In resentment, the Newmarket turned again to the Norfolk, still legally independent, arranging a joint committee and the diversion of all through traffic to the Newmarket line from Thetford, although this had so far not even been begun. Compelled to be more amenable the ECR offered the Newmarket proprietors the same terms as its own on condition that the 1847 extensions were abandoned. Before an answer had been returned the Norfolk finally surrendered to the ECR, total amalgamation being agreed. The Newmarket and the East Anglian both opposed this, but Parliament, while rejecting full union, gave retrospective sanction to a lease agreement between the two. A feeble threat to extend to Royston was the only response left to the Newmarket.
The company was, however, in no position to sustain this game of power politics. Race traffic alone was not enough and the ECR'S poor services and excessive charges had produced a perilous financial situation; the branch remained unfinished and even if funds could be found completion was deemed to rest on the GNR'S choice of a Cambridge terminal, the very possibility of which was itself extremely uncertain (see below). Traffic remained 'utterly inadequate' and working costs impossible to bear pended, being resumed only after negotiation of a fairer agreement with the ECR (from which stock was hired) and the election of a new board. The latter, with Cecil Fane in the chair, adopted a realistic policy. On 28 May 1851 agreement was reached with the ECR whereby on completion of the Cambridge branch the whole line, other than the Bury St Edmunds extension which was still to be undertaken, and for which further powers were obtained in 1852, would be taken over by the ECR at a guaranteed 3 per cent rental on the £350,000 capital, subject to a maximum ECR subsidy of £5,000 in any one year. With ECR help and by taking a line of rails from the main line the branch was completed on 9 October 1851; on the same day the 111/2 mile section of main line from Six Mile Bottom to Great Chesterford was closed entirely. Powers to dismantle this section were obtained in 1858.
The completion of the branch, followed on 1 April 1854 by the Newmarket's extension to Bury St Edmunds, established the link between Ipswich and Cambridge that was so important to the growth of both. The section west of Newmarket (for the overall pattern of services see Chapter VII) remained entirely rural, Fulbourne (with a large grain silo near the station) and Six Mile Bottom closing on 2 January 1967 when Dullingham became an unstaffed halt. As through traffic can be diverted via Ely total closure of this portion of the line is possible. Newmarket itself remains 'the Racing Capital of England', world-renowned for its racing (eight annual meetings) and horse-breeding, and with over half of the adult males in the 1961 population of 11,227 (5,160 in 1881) employed in connection with horses.
The original terminal station of the Newmarket & Chester-ford was a highly ornate structure, becoming a goods depot in April 1902 (used until 1967) when, at his own expense, Colonel McCalmont provided a handsome through station that ended the tedious necessity for reversal on to the Bury St Edmunds line; spoil from the hillside excavated to make room for this was used in railway embankments then under construction in north Norfolk. Race traffic used to be very heavy; in 1874, for example, trains run in connection with the One Thousand and Two Thousand Guineas included six departures from Bishops-gate and St Pancras (arriving as three), two first-class specials were used) from St Pancras, and an excursion from Norwich. In April 1885 a special station (Warren Hill) was opened at the east end of Warren Hill Tunnel (really a roofed-in cutting but with its single-track bore of 1,100 yd the longest tunnel on the GER) to relieve pressure on race days, but since 1945 special traffic has greatly declined and the station is now closed and the track lifted; the town station itself has been an unstaffed halt since 2 January 1967 and no effort has been made to replace the buildings on the up side destroyed by a recent fire.
Immediately east of Warren Hill a triangular junction gives access to both the Bury St Edmunds line and that to Ely. As Ipswich grew, a more direct approach to the north than that via Cambridge became an urgent necessity. Local traffic also needed better accommodation: as late as 1856 the Lark Navigation was still making £30,000 a year, although in winter as many as ten days could be consumed between Bury St Edmunds' and King's Lynn. The gap in the railway map left vacant by the failure of the Newmarket to build to Ely as authorised in 1847 was eventually filled on 1 September 1879 by the 131/2 mile long Ely & Newmarket, incorporated in 1875 with a £100,000 capital and successively worked, leased on a £5,000 annual rental (1 January 1888) and then absorbed (1898) by the GER. Local services, operated by diesel multiple-units from 3 November 1958 but withdrawn between Ely and Newmarket on 13 September 1965, were early supplemented by through trains such as the 'North Country Continental' and, in later years, other workings linking the midlands and north with Ipswich, Harwich, Colchester and Clacton. Considerable through freight also developed in connection with Ipswich and Harwich, but it was June 1938 before the LNER, stimulated by heavy traffic, particularly in green peas and perishable produce from Colchester and Ipswich to the north, doubled the 6 miles between Soham and Snailwell Junction. Above all the line is remembered for the events of the early hours of 2 June 1944 when the front wagon, containing forty 500 lb bombs, of a Whitemoor to Earl's Colne ammunition train caught fire near Soham. With incredible courage, Driver Gimbert and Fireman Nightall detached the blazing van and ran it forward in an effort to get it clear of the town area. At 1.43 am, however, it exploded in Soham station, killing Fireman Nightall and a signalman and badly injuring Driver Gimbert. As it was the station was destroyed and 700 houses badly damaged,. but the action of the engine crew, justly rewarded by the George Cross and LNER medal for both men, had undoubtedly saved a whole town from total annihilation.
Bisecting the Ely to Newmarket line at Fordham Junction was the 19 miles of single track from Barnwell Junction (Cambridge) to Mildenhall, opened to Fordham on 2 June 1884 and throughout on I April 1885. Built by the GER to stimulate local agriculture and foster other developments, this branch served a sparsely populated area already bounded by more important through lines. It came too late to save Mildenhall, in 1851 a prosperous river port of 4,374 inhabitants, from the decline occasioned by lack of a railway and agricultural depression; and for the greater part of its history the branch ran at a loss. In 1892 five daily services, one down being mixed, were provided, by 1953 only three. From 7 July 1958 railbuses were introduced to seek improvement on an adverse operating ratio of eight to one, but neither these nor the subsequent diesel multiple-units, nor a handful of daily journeys between Mildenhall and Ely and Newmarket succeeded, and on i8 June 1962 trains were withdrawn, to effect an annual saving of £13,615. A daily freight service continued from Cambridge (except at the three halts) until 13 July 1964, when all but the section between Fordham Junction and Burwell, where some light industry had developed and the population had grown to 2,734 in 1961, was closed entirely; this last section was closed on 19 April 1965. The giant air base at Mildenhall, largely responsible for the growth of civil population to 7,132 in 1961, had given the branch enhanced status in World War II, but afterwards Shippea Hill, between Ely and Norwich, often proved the more convenient station.
WEST AND NORTH OF CAMBRIDGE
Although supported by both universities the Oxford & Cambridge promotion of 1846 (73 miles of single track via Hitchin and Dunstable, planned by Locke) emerged from the Lords as nothing more than the 13 mile Royston & Hitchin, with an authorised capital of £800,000, a sum subsequently reduced. The GNR readily appreciated the potential of this for providing its own access to Cambridge and an 1847 Act sanctioned a lease on completion, although at the same time extension to a separate Cambridge station with a spur to the ECR was rejected. The same disappointment was encountered in 1848, although this time authorisation was obtained for continuation to Shepreth and a junction with the ECR's Cambridge to Bedford line, sanctioned in 1847 as one of Hudson's attempts to strangle future GNR traffic but not yet commenced. Meanwhile the ECR'S Shelford to Ware loop, another attempt to block the GNR, after being held over in Parliament from 1847 had been rejected at Standing Orders in 1848; an EGR proposal for a branch to a central Cambridge station had been dropped earlier.
The Hitchin to Royston section, double track as required by the Lords, opened on 21 October 1850 under a 6 per cent GNR guarantee (a level necessary to keep out the ECR and others), and was extended to Shepreth on 1 August 1851; overall the works had cost no more than £3,500 per mile. On the latter date the GNR inaugurated a service of five daily omnibuses between the trains and Cambridge (taking 40 minutes for the 9 miles), the fastest combined journey from King's Cross being 130 minutes by the 9.15 am northern express, but although fares were lower than on the ECR it is hardly surprising that the venture did not prove viable.
Although the R&H possessed reserve powers to build from Shelford to Shepreth if the ECR dallied unreasonably over the purchase of land, the latter prevaricated as long as it dared. In 1850, supported by the university because land required for the Botanic Gardens was threatened, it had little difficulty in causing the rejection of the independent Cambridge to Shepreth Junction: this, backed by the GNR, would have gone to a separate Cambridge terminal, but in 1851 the R&H not only put forward similar proposals but also, and this was the most alarming feature, sought a branch to the Newmarket Railway. The bill was defeated, the university objecting this time because the new line would go too near to St Peter's College, but meanwhile, the ECR, fearing to take further risks, had put the construction of the Shelford to Shepreth line well in hand, completing it on 1 August 1851. On 1 April 1852, an end-on junction having been laid and the GNR being glad to relieve itself of an unprofitable obligation of nearly £15,000 a year, the ECR assumed a fourteen year lease of the R&H, receiving the branch revenue and 60 per cent of that deriving from it south of Hitchin. Three daily services, subsequently four, with two on Sundays, were provided between Cambridge and Hitchin.
As the lease period drew on the GNR revived its efforts to gain entry into Cambridge. It was aided in this by the presence of the Bedford & Cambridge line. This was locally promoted in 1860, and between Sandy (where connection with the GNR was intended) and Potton took over the route of the private railway owned by Captain Sir William Peel (opened to freight on 23 June 1857 and to passengers in April 1858). The line began services, into the GER Cambridge station but under LNWR operation (a prelude to absorption in 1865), on 1 August 1862. This and the cordiality then existing between the GNR and LNWR allowed the former to exert pressures impossible to resist on the GER during 1864. Two schemes were advanced. One envisaged running powers from Shepreth to Cambridge, doubling of the track between Shepreth and the main line, use of the GER station and a 1 mile extension to a separate terminal; the other was to be an extension from Shepreth to the Bedford & Cambridge, 11/2 miles east of Lord's Bridge, with running powers from there to the outskirts of Cambridge, from where a 2 mile branch suffer, and the outcome was an 1864 Act effective compromise - full running powers to Cambridge station, where all facilities and a separate platform would be provided; double track capable of carrying express services was promised between Shepreth and Shelford by 31 March 1866, the last day of the lease, on the expiration of which the R&H would be returned to the GNR. Financial difficulties prevented fulfillment of this undertaking until 1867, a source of some bitterness to the GNR, which was also resentful of the condition of the track to Hitchin despite requirements laid down after inspection by its officers in December 1865. Feelings were not improved when, on 3 July i866, sleepers 'in the last stage of rottenness' and in any case too few contributed materially to a derailment near Royston in which two locomotive men were killed and nine passengers injured.
Even so the GNR, which finally absorbed the company on 1 July 1897, had introduced an express service between King's Cross and Cambridge minutes, then 90 down, 100 up) from 1 April 1866. By 1883 up journeys of 75 minutes were possible but GER acceleration ended the possibility of effective competition and the GNR, while maintaining good speeds (in 1898 there were six down and five up trains in times of 77 to 82 minutes), wisely determined to concentrate on the development of traffic at intermediate points as much as at Cambridge itself. This policy has generally been adhered to since, although in May 1932 five daily 'Cambridge Buffet Expresses' (originally 'Garden Cities Expresses'), were introduced, at first taking 82 minutes down and 77 up but from July 1932 taking 75 and 72 minutes respectively; they were suspended in 1939, but were restored on 6 December 1948, with four daily services in times of 82 to 90 minutes. These brought the route a popularity it has never lost; indeed, in the pre-war years the original three-coach formations had on occasion to be strengthened to as many as nine or ten coaches.
Harston was closed to passengers on 17 June 1963, but at Letchworth Garden City, Baldock (long a malting and brewing centre) and Royston there has been considerable residential and industrial growth. At Letchworth, the world's first Garden City, founded in 1903, regular passenger services were provided at a wooden halt from 15 April a goods depot was added 19 August 1907, and a permanent station on 18 May 1913. Population had grown to 25,511 by 1961 and many of its industries (principally engineering, printing, food preparation and the making of clothing and furniture) had developed alongside the railway. As late as 1965 Letchworth despatched 64,197 tons of freight in full wagon loads and 8,554 in smaller consignments, while the station issued 151,295 ordinary and 2,795 season tickets, collecting 168,015. Farther to the north-west Foxton is linked to the cement works near Barrington by a 11/2 mile branch line sanctioned by a Light Railway Order of 1920.
No comparable development has occurred between Cambridge and Sandy except for the settlement of Bedford workers in Potton. In 1955 the branch was selected for development as a major cross-country route that would link four main lines, those formerly belonging to the GER, GNR, MR and GWR, but although a flyover was actually built at Bletchley the proposals were dropped. Closure was foreshadowed in 1959 but averted by the introduction of diesel multiple-units in that year, and local hopes were boosted when the Beeching Report recommended no more than the pruning of certain intermediate stations. However, in December 1963 total closure was again mooted, an annual revenue of £102,200 being offset by expenses of £199,700. This was approved but while freight facilities were withdrawn on 18 April 1966 adequate alternative bus routes proved difficult to arrange, and through passenger trains did not cease until 1 January 1968. Passenger services now survive only between Bedford St Johns and Bletchley.
The line from Chesterton Junction, where until about October 1850 there was a station to serve what was a small market town with substantial river trade, and where now is a large permanent-way depot, to St Ives was authorised to the ECR in 1845 and opened on 17 August 1847. St Ives station was shared by the Ely & Huntingdon which opened from there to Godmanchester (Huntingdon) on the same day and over which the ECR had running powers. On 1 February 1848 the St Ives to March link (Chapter XI) was opened for goods, giving new significance to the Chesterton branch by virtue of through freight traffic, further intensified with the opening of the GN&GE Joint line in 1882. The local effect of the branch was to destroy the river trade of St Ives in corn , malt and coal and to bring the town, in 1850 still an important cattle market, firmly into the Cambridge sphere: so that, despite being the junction for four lines (that to Ely was the fourth) St Ives was arrested in growth and even in 1961 contained only 4,082 inhabitants. Agricultural depression was very severe in the area and the population of the St Ives Union declined by 1,180 in the decade to 1901 alone, but the branch did encourage extensive horticultural development around Cottenham, served by Oakington station, during the 1890s, and further fruit growing in the St Ives and Histon districts. In 1875 a small jam factory had opened at Histon, being deliberately sited alongside thc railway in case success justified subsequent expansion. It did, and in 1907, for example, the GER carried 14,800 tons of fruit and jam in connection with the factory, so earning £14,000. This, and the settlement of Cambridge commuters along the line, has allowed continuation of passenger services between Cambridge and St Ives on the 'basic' railway principle, conductor guards being employed since 6 March 1967, even though workings north of St Ives, including through services by diesel multiple-units (introduced from 3 November 1958) to March, Peterborough, Wisbech, King's Lynn and Hunstanton, were withdrawn on 6 March 1967. Until 15 June 1959 the branch also carried the Cambridge to Kettering service.
The Ely and Huntingdon (the Ely & Bedford until its aims were restricted in Parliament), was an 1845 extension of the Lynn & Ely (Chapter X) designed to link Lynn with the Bedford & London & Birmingham (to Bletchley, incorporated in 1845 and opened in 1846). It promised a 9 per cent return on a capital of £270,000, but was singularly ill-fated. Construction began in November 1846 on the St Ives to Huntingdon section at the direct insistence of Hudson, who was currently negotiating an ECR lease of the Lynn lines and as ever was primarily concerned to cut across GNR traffic streams, in this case by a junction with the projected Rugby & Huntingdon. The lease did not materialise but the 43/4 miles section was built at the fantastic cost of £130,000 per mile, a sum attributable in the main to the luxury of double track (later singled) and the series of heavy single-track wooden viaducts over the Ouse. Hudson had further insisted on an immediate start on the Lynn & Ely's Wisbech branch (Chapter ) would require diversion of E&H funds and, as happened, preclude completion to Ely. In this way he hoped to prevent a possible route for the GNR into Norfolk and at the same time leave the isolated E&H completely dependent on the ECR.
Separated from the main body of the East Anglian Railways (formed in 1847 by amalgamation of the E&H, the L&E and the Lynn & Dereham), the ECR had no option but to work the line. At first six daily trains were provided, but revenue was so poor that on 1 October 1849, by which time only one train was run, all services ceased. The EAR was reduced to using a horse-drawn tram which attracted the attention of the Railway Commissioners because it could not maintain the average 12 mph required by Gladstone's Railway Act of 1844. However, the folly of forcing a possibly useful line into closure and the contrary fear that the EAR might be leased by the GNR, which would then complete it to Ely, caused the ECR to resume freight operation and then, from 1 January 1850, two daily passenger services. In 1851 a GNR lease of the EAR (with access via Wisbech-see Chapter XI) did become a short-lived reality, but despite the new spur to the former's main line (Chapter V) the St Ives to Huntingdon section was virtually devoid of traffic, and when in 1852 it was returned to the ECR it was for some time used primarily as a siding.
The situation did not radically improve until 1 March 1866 when the Midland Railway, under an agreement of 26 June 1864 and having reached Huntingdon on 21 January 1866, commenced a Kettering and Cambridge passenger service via St Ives and Chesterton junction after freight had begun on 21 February. Further activity came after 1 May 1883 when the Huntingdon to St Ives section became the southern portion of the GN&GE Joint Committee's northern line leading to March, Lincoln and Doncaster (Chapter XI). In later years, although local traffic always remained poor, the line was recognised as a useful but secondary cross-country link, which by 1939 had thirteen daily trains (four of which were LMS services) each way. By 1953, however, the total was down to three (although in the 1950s a summer-Saturdays Birmingham-Clacton service came this way), and on 15 june 1959 the Kettering service ceased. Huntingdon East closed on 18 September of the same year and Godmanchester entirely on 4 June 1962.
The intention of linking St Ives and Ely was belatedly achieved in 1878 by means of a branch from Needingworth Junction on the March line. The first stage had been the incorporation in June 1864 of the £36,000 7 mile Ely, Haddenham & Sutton, opening under GER operation (that company had subscribed one-third of the capital) on 16 April 1866. Early traffic was thin, as third-class facilities were restricted to the Parliamentary trains and the normal return fare from Ely to Sutton was 2s at a time when local wages were under 10s a week. In 1876 powers were obtained by what was now renamed the Ely & St Ives to improve its prospects by an 81/2 mile extension to Holywell-cum-Needingworth with £60,000 additional capital. This opened on 10 May 1878 under a 999 year lease to the GER, agreed in 1876 and ratified in 1879, and finally was absorbed by it in 1898. Services were improved, but the area suffered badly in depression, with rentals around Bluntisham falling 40 per cent. The already sparse population generally declined, Haddenham falling from 2,103 inhabitants to 1,686 between 1841 and 1901. Local wages for agricultural workers were still no more than 12s a week at the turn of the century. Little significant development occurred thereafter and on 2 February 1931 the LNER withdrew passenger facilities, although half-day excursions to London were run at times until 1939. During the 1950s there were two annual trains, one each to Hunstanton and Yarmouth, from Bluntisham, Earith Bridge, Sutton and Haddenham. Sugar-beet, root crops and fruit long provided fair, although seasonal, revenue, but on 6 October 1958 Earith Bridge was closed and the track through the station lifted, the section to it from Sutton being used as a siding. Services from Ely to Sutton and from St Ives to the mill at Bluntisham remained until 13 July and 5 October 1964 respectively.
In 1845 the people of Ely were said to be 'almost in ecstacy at the idea of having a first class station in the city'; it may be added that the station in question was built on a marshy swamp and in fact was to cost the ECR £81,500, although on the whole this was a worthwhile investment. Besides the main line (1845), there were branches to Lynn (1847, Chapter X), Peterborough (1847, Chapter XI), Sutton (1866) and Newmarket (1879), and the station became a busy interchange point with much complicated marshalling of train portions, especially under the GER. On 1 October 1890 the West Curve was laid in to permit through freight running between the Norwich and Peterborough lines without reversal in the station. In later years this was used increasingly by through passenger services, particularly Norfolk coast holiday expresses, until in 1966 it reverted to its original function. Ely itself had reasonable cause for self-congratulation, for although river trade, after remaining 'tolerably brisk' into the 1860s, was whittled away, the market, with a new Corn Exchange in 1847, flourished and population grew from 6,825 to 7,713 between 1841 and 1901. The development of local fruit growing (which, like that of asparagus and vegetables, was largely the result of fast rail communication with London) led to a jam industry, agricultural engineering expanded, and in 1924 one of the largest beet refineries in the country was opened, handling 240,000 tons a year by 1933. Ely's 1961 population totalled 9,803. In 1966 the Cambridgeshire Farmers' Union signed a five-year contract with British Rail for the despatch of cut flowers and fruit from the city.
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