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Construction of the route involved some major engineering works, including three new major city-centre stations (Nottingham Victoria, Leicester Central and Marylebone) along with many smaller ones.

A number of new viaducts were constructed for the line including the 21-arch Brackley Viaduct, and viaducts at Braunston, Staverton and Catesby in Northamptonshire, one was built over the River Soar, along with two over Swithland Reservoir in Leicestershire, and one over the River Trent near Nottingham.

Instead it was intended to link the MS&LR's system stretching across northern England directly to London at as high a speed as possible and with a minimum of stops and connections: thus much of its route ran through sparsely populated countryside.

Starting at Annesley in Nottinghamshire, and running for 92 miles (148 km) in a relatively direct southward route, it left the crowded corridor through Nottingham (and Nottingham Victoria), which was also used by the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), then struck off to its new railway station at Leicester Central, passing Loughborough en route, where it crossed the Midland main line.

Avoiding Wigston, the GCR served Lutterworth (the only town on the GCR not to be served by another railway company) before reaching the town of Rugby (at Rugby Central), where it crossed at right-angles over, and did not connect with, the LNWR's West Coast Main Line.Watkin was an ambitious visionary; as well as running an independent trunk route into London, he also aspired to connect his larger railway empire to the rail network of France and had even begun a project to dig a channel tunnel under the English Channel, Watkin's Great Central Main Line was designed to a continental European loading gauge, more generous than the usual specification on British railway lines, and it is thought that Watkin's aim was to construct a line which, when connected to a future channel tunnel, would be able to accommodate larger continental rolling stock.From here, the route followed the existing Metropolitan Railway (Met R) Extension (which became joint Met R/GCR owned) as far as Harrow and thence along the (GCR owned) final section to Marylebone.The line crossed several other railways but had few junctions with them.North of Sheffield, express trains on the London extension made use of the pre-existing MS&LR trans-Pennine main line, the Woodhead Line (now also closed) to give access to Manchester London Road (now named Manchester Piccadilly).

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