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Bluebell Railway steams ahead across Sussex
2:30pm Saturday 16th February 2013 in News
In fewer than six weeks time, the once neglected Bluebell Railway line will finally rejoin the national railway route at East Grinstead. Neil Vowles and Ben Leo report on the 39-year campaign to rebuild the line and what the success of the project could mean for other lost lines in Sussex.
Steam railway enthusiasts are a passionate bunch at the best of times, but Bluebell Railway chair Roy Watt concedes there will be plenty of moist eyes when the E4 Class Locomotive number B473 pulls out of East Grinstead next month.
The Bluebell Railway will be running the first passenger carrying trains in and out of East Grinstead Station since 1958 on Saturday, March 23, to mark the end of a remarkable feat of fundraising and engineering.
The work to restore the line between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead has taken nearly 40 years and cost £4million, raised through grants and fundraising.
Organisers hope that by reopening the line, the increased accessibility to East Grinstead will provide a boon to the town and its tourist attractions.
Mr Watt said the railway had already been in talks with representatives at the Jacobean attraction Sackville College, the Felbridge Hotel and a local vineyard to explore ways of working together.
It is hoped that visitors could take the 52-minute journey from London Victoria to enjoy the railway and surrounding delights of rural Sussex.
Mr Watt said: “The Bluebell has nearly 200,000 visitors a year and if just a small fraction transfer and then get the bus into East Grinstead, then that will be a great boost for the town.”
The service will run daily every 45 minutes for the first three weeks, before temporarily closing for 15 weekdays between Kingscote and East Grinstead to allow further clearance of embankments.
Organisers had hoped to get all work done before the two week festival marking the opening of the line, but admit that snow and rain this winter has pushed them back by 12 weeks.
Mr Watt said the railway had hoped to be training drivers and guards by now, but the winter weather has delayed that.
The project has received admiring glances from even the Environment Agency for the way it has removed waste from the line, using trains instead of lorries and recycling where possible.
One of the toughest parts in creating the 12-mile line was clearing tonnes of household waste that had filled in the Imberhorne cutting.
Mr Watt said: “When that was filled in, people thought that trains would never come through there again.”
There is scope to expand the line further to Ardingly, but Mr Watt says that for the moment, the team are happy to ensure that the current line operates smoothly.
He said: “We are going to enjoy it for a couple of years and make sure we have a great product that people can see what we have done.
“But we have the track base from Horsted Keynes to Ardingly, so one day we will go west all being well.”
The restoration of the Bluebell Railway back to the national railway route retraces one of the train branches that used to spread over the whole of Sussex prior to Dr Beeching’s revolution and other rail cutbacks dating back to the 50s.
With trains increasingly being seen as a greener option to our unsustainable car usage, there is a growing clamour to open old routes.
Mr Watt said: “If you look up and down the country, quite a number of lines are reopening that were victims of the Beeching rationalisation.
“Looking at HS2, there was a perfectly good line from Marylebone up into the Midlands that was closed and now has been built over.
“A lot of these old lines are beginning to make sense.”
The Bluebell is one of four heritage railways in Sussex and by far the longest.
The other lines include the quarter mile track at Amberley, the one-mile long Volk’s Railway along Brighton seafront and the one mile Lavender Line near Uckfield.
While the first two are merely tourist attractions, there are those who think that the Lavender line could eventually form part of the solution to current overcrowding on south coast trains to London in the future.
Campaigners would like to see the old Uckfield to Lewes line reinstated along with its historic links to Brighton and the capital.
However, the scale of the project far exceeds that of the Bluebell|railway, with the reinstating of the Lewes to Uckfield section alone estimated to cost more than £140million.
On top of this would be extremely costly programmes to build a tunnel under the South Downs to connect with Brighton and link to an already overrun London network.
The line would also require far more costly specifications for track to allow national trains to run along them.
Campaign leader Brian Hart said: “The Bluebell project is very different to what we are trying to achieve, it’s a much smaller project compared to BML2.
“Bluebell is a really good project they have been pursuing for many years and it’s really great to see them get through to East Grinstead.
“Fifteen years ago, our members were saying which would be finished earlier, the Bluebell Railway to East Grinstead or us with Uckfield to Lewes, and obviously they have beaten us.”
The Government has proved with its proposed investment in the HS2 rail link between London and Glasgow that it is willing to back major rail infrastructure when a business case can be made for it.
Mr Hart said: “The Brighton mainline 2 will be more like the HS2 rather than the Bluebell Railway.
“The economic case for BML2 is stronger than HS2 because there is such demand for more capacity between the south coast and London.
“People are starting to wake up to what BML2 means, we’ve had more interest in the project recently than the last 20 or 30 years of planning the Lewes to Uckfield line.”
Indeed, the latest news from the campaign shows a chorus of cross-party support for the project.
Brighton and Hove City Council has now included the reinstatement of the Lewes to Uckfield line in its City Plan.
The move followed a Labour amendment to the 30-year planning blueprint.
Labour leader Gill Mitchell said: “The city needs a long term, permanent solution to reduce pressure on the existing main line that is so often out of action, sometimes for days at a time, and to expand rail capacity between Sussex and London.
"There is a very strong economic and strategic case for this that will not just improve the transport links between Lewes and Uckfield, but will create new connections to take the pressure off the Brighton Line.”
Conservative Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby also backs the proposal.
He said: “BML2 would provide a much-needed economic boost to the area and a much-needed alternative rail service for commuters, business and leisure travellers alike.
“This is an improvement that has long been awaited and it is time to make progress.”
Whether this support will be enough to convert sceptics at Network Rail and transport minister Norman Baker remains to be seen.
Rail passengers will be praying it won’t be a 40-year wait to alleviate the problems on their commute.
Mr Baker said: “My position on the BML2 is the same as it’s always been. I’ve been in favour of the Lewes to Uckfield proposals for 25 years now.
“It’s a sensible option that solves the problem of congestion on the Brighton to London route and it’s an option which is more achievable than BML2.
"It would be a cheaper way of diverting traffic away from a heavily used and unsustainable route. A direct line from Seaford to London will help ease traffic in the mean time.
“There’s nothing on offer that will change my mind. The BML2 is nothing short of controversial.”
History of the Bluebell Railway
It waS an 1877 Act of Parliament that gave the green light for construction of the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway (L&EGR).
The act was supported heavily by local landowners, including the Earl of Sheffield, and in 1882 the nine mile line opened under the management of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company (LB&SCR).
British Railways submitted a widely-contested proposal to close the line in 1954 and it was eventually closed in 1955.
It was however re-opened in 1956 following the discovery of a statutory clause in the original Act of Parliament that read: “Four passenger trains each way daily to run on this line with through connections at East Grinstead to London, and stop at Sheffield Bridges, Newick and West Hoathly.”
British Rail took the case to the House of Commons and a Public Inquiry followed in 1957. The transport commission persuaded Parliament to repeal the special section of the Act, and the line was finally closed on March 17, 1958.
On Mach 15 1959 a group met in Ardingly and formed the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway Preservation Society.
The 2012 blockbuster movie, The Woman in Black, used Horsted Keynes station as one of the locations for a railway scene.
What the people of Horsted Keynes think of the link to East Grinstead
Councillor Billy Dye, 52
“I think it’s marvellous news for the village. If it attracts visitors and day-trippers down from London for example it can only be good financially for our local businesses.
"It remains to be seen whether it will be used by commuters, I think perhaps it will probably only be used as a novelty day out but I’m glad the link is reopening all the same.
“I’m looking forward to welcoming people to our village for the first time and I trust our local shops and pubs will be more than happy to accommodate an influx of tourists.”
Richard Wallace, Chairman of the Green Man pub
“I can’t see why it shouldn’t be anything but good for our pub and the rest of the area, especially in the height of summer when families are looking for a good day out.
“I don’t think it will be used by commuters heading up to London though. It will probably be used just for the fun and experience of it. But we have enough space here in the pub to welcome visitors and I’m sure our locals wouldn’t mind sharing a pint with newcomers to the village.
“So yes definitely, it’s good news for us.”
“It’s a great achievement to hear the link is reopening. I’ve been a long-time supporter of the railway and to see it put to good use makes me happy. To be honest I don’t think it will make any difference financially to the area and I’m not convinced it is reopening to become a great business venture.
“But the railway’s popularity is still going strong and if there are people heading to East Grinstead via the new link then it will be for a day-trip experience as opposed to a regular venture.”
Marian Barnham, 69
“I’ve heard the news and I’ve already booked two places for the opening trip. It’s my mother’s 97th birthday next month and she was brought up around railways as my grandfather was a station master, so she should really appreciate it.
“The price of the tickets wasn’t too bad which was a nice surprise.
“If all goes well I don’t see why I won’t be using it to commute on later dates. My only concern would be the walk up to the station here in Horsted Keynes.
"It’s hazardous as there’s no proper path, but I doubt they’ll be doing anything about it.”
John Thraves, 64
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who’s not happy about the link reopening but my only concern would be the cost. Is it going to be a viable and affordable service for commuters or is it going to be a once-a-year thing used as a trip for the family?
“If the service is set at a fair price then maybe you will see people ditching their cars and hopping on the train to commute. Of course it’s a good thing but only time will tell if it’s going to be anymore than a day-trip service or an authentic route for travellers.”
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