On this historic day the first passengers travel on the resumed connection between the Bluebell Steam Railway and the mainline UK rail network, the culmination of 55 years of work by the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society.
The Bluebell Railway runs through some of the most beautiful countryside and bluebell woods in West Sussex and it has appeared in many films including The Railway Children, Downton Abbey and A Room with a View. Now, passengers will also be travelling across the monumental red brick viaduct which forms part of the new line extension into East Grinstead, from where regular mainline trains run to London.
The story starts over half a century ago when it was announced in 1954 that the line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction, near Lewes would close in 1955. The furious users and residents of the Bluebell Line used every means possible to stop the closure.
Long-time resident of West Hoathly, Susan Chitty, remembers how she and the other protestors sat on the track near the West Hoathly station and sang a protest songs led by Peter King, a local master joiner. His composition “They’re Closing Down Our Railway’ ran to 54 verses and described the valiant efforts made by Margery Bessamer to get the line re-opened.
This incredible lady, a Chailey resident, discovered after the initial closure that British Rail was required by an old Act of Parliament to run a ‘Statutory Line’ and demanded that the line be re-opened, which indeed it was. For a further 19 months British Rail ran services with trains stopping at stations mentioned in the Acts, but finally an act of Parliament repealed the Act and the line closed in 1958.
The Preservation Society was founded in 1959 exactly a year after the line closed. As well as making it their goal to get the line back up and running, the committee took advantage of the demise of steam to buy a number of steam engines that were still in use on the mainline and the society now has the largest collection of steam locomotives in the UK after the National Railway Museum.
As early as 1960 the Society opened a short section of track manned by volunteers near Sheffield Park, midway along the line. It was the first preserved standard guage steam-operated passenger railway in the world to operate a public service. By 1963 they had extended north from Sheffield Park to Horsted Keynes and by 1974 purchased West Hoathly Railway Station, taking their line still closer to the mainline station at East Grinstead.
The next breakthrough in the quest to reach the mainline came in 1985 when the society purchased the next station up the line, Kingscote, and embarked on an extension which involved re-laying track through Sharpthorne Tunnel (668m), the longest on a UK heritage railway. At the same time they gained planning permission to extend the line to East Grinstead.
But a huge obstacle lay in their way. Between Kingscote and East Grinstead lay a cutting which had been used by the East Grinstead Town Council as the municipal rubbish tip throughout the 1960s and 70s. To lay a track would mean removing thousands of tons of household waste. In addition, the negotiations for the purchase of the trackbed were extremely time consuming, and there were many times when it seemed to many to be a lost cause.
Once the land was purchased, the Society turned its attention to the 96,000 cubic metres of non-toxic waste that lay within the 500 m long cutting with an estimated removal cost of £5 million. The waste removal was partly financed by the Council and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. In addition the Society sold additional £1 shares in the railway and ran campaigns such as ‘A Tenner for the Tip’ and ‘A fiver for the Finish’ which succeeded in galvanising the final and much needed funds to complete the project.
A month of festivities are underway to celebrate the historic re-opening of the line, with steam trains leaving East Grinstead Station every 45 minutes over the coming days and many other one-off events planned over the next month. To The Bluebell Preservation Society – we salute you!
Useful Links: The Bluebell Preservation Society