The origins of our line go back to 1845 when the Norfolk Railway opened its line from Norwich Thorpe to Brandon linking up with the Eastern Counties Railway's line from Newport (Essex) through Cambridge and Ely to Brandon. This connected Norwich with London for the first time as today's direct route via Ipswich was not opened until four years later. In the Norfolk Railway's timetable there were four trains each way between Norwich and London via Ely and Cambridge with an extra journey in each direction between Norwich and Ely.
In 1847 the Eastern Counties Railway opened a line west from Ely to March and Peterborough. It was not until 1890 that a curve opened to the north of Ely allowing some trains to run between Peterborough and Norwich without calling at Ely station. Freight was the main beneficiary although over the years some holiday trains used this curve.
Through working between Norwich and London via Ely declined after the late 1950s. By 1961 diesel multiple units provided a local service between Norwich and Ely which fell just short of hourly. Most called at all stations and had connections for Peterborough at Ely. A local diesel unit service also ran between Ely, March and Peterborough with many running to and from Cambridge.
Later in the 1960s the Norwich to Peterborough line was the subject of economies seen on so many lines in East Anglia. Ticket offices were closed at intermediate stations (except Thetford, Ely and March) and passengers bought their tickets on the train. Hethersett and three fenland stations - Chettisham, Black Bank and Stonea - closed completely. Branch lines such as Wymondham-Dereham, Thetford-Swaffham and March-Wisbech also closed.
By 1974 British Rail was marketing the Norwich-Ely-Cambridge service as the 'Breckland Line' but there were also five trains a day between Norwich and Birmingham and four to Peterborough. In 1977 there were still five Norwich-Birmingham trains but in an attempt to speed them up they ceased to call at Ely, taking instead the avoiding curve to the north of the station. On the Birmingham service diesel unit working eventually gave way to locomotive hauled trains and in 1978 refreshment facilities were advertised for the first time on two return trips.
By the early 1980s the railways had plunged into a difficult period. Reports of widespread closure plans filled the press and the March-Spalding line did close. Economies were mooted such as closing the Ely-Norwich line overnight and singling part of the route whilst industrial action brought the network to a standstill. Passenger accommodation was removed from the 2315 Norwich to Liverpool Street mail train preventing a night out in Norwich using the train. Eastern Counties buses began a service between Norwich, Thetford and Cambridge but it was short lived.
It was still supposedly 'the age of the train' and Jimmy Saville's adverts publicised a Norwich-Peterborough away day return for just £6 while for the same price passengers at Brandon, Lakenheath and Shippea Hill could purchase a return in advance to London.
In the late 1980s some attempt was made to improve Cambridge-Norwich services by reducing the number of stops and extending trains to Yarmouth.
The big shake-up came in 1988 with the introduction of regular 'express' trains linking East Anglia with the Midlands, Sheffield, Liverpool and Blackpool. There were seven trains a day from Norwich to Birmingham and, for the first time, six trains a day from Norwich to Liverpool. All now called at Ely which opened up considerable scope for connections. These trains were two car sprinter units which were then new to the region. Refreshment trolleys were advertised. For a while these cross country services ran alongside stopping services operated by ageing diesel units until these were gradually withdrawn leaving the long distance expresses to maintain peak time stops at the smaller stations.
Under privatisation Central Trains took over Norwich-Peterborough services from the Regional Railways sector of British Rail. By this time services had been standardised with two distinct routes: Norwich to Liverpool and Stansted Airport/Cambridge to Birmingham, both operating via Ely and Peterborough. Anglia Railways, later 'one', provided a service from Peterborough to March, Ely, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.
In 2002 Anglia Railways introduced a direct service between Norwich and Cambridge following £9.2m funding from the Strategic Rail Authority. There were 15 journeys each way. The service was taken over by 'one' in 2004 as part of the new Greater Anglia franchise.
Further rail franchise changes in November 2007 saw the Norwich-Liverpool service pass to Stagecoach as part of its East Midlands Trains operation. At the same time the Stansted Airport-Birmingham service passed to Cross Country Trains.