Build it and they will come

The Bluebell Railway ran the first passenger-carrying trains in and out of East Grinstead Station since 1958

The first train out of East Grinstead arrives at Sheffield Park

First published in News The Argus: Photograph of the Author by

SOON after the Bluebell Railway had shut down in 1958, I went on a forlorn walk along the track somewhere near Sheffield Park with my stepfather.

It was a sodden, gloomy day and the deserted track brought home to both of us that the age of the train was over.

Railways had been the dominant form of transport in Britain for more than a century but they were suffering in the 1950s because of the unstoppable rise of the motor car.

There had been closures in Sussex before the Bluebell trains stopped running. The little line from Hove to the Devil’s Dyke expired before the Second World War. The charming rural railway through Midhurst stopped in 1955.

The really big closures were still to come, courtesy of Dr Richard Beeching who was asked by the Government to modernise the railways.

His recommendations affected every county. In Sussex the Cuckoo line through Heathfield and the Steyning line were notable casualties.

Yet by the time all these melancholy closures took place in the 1960s, something remarkable was happening in a small part of Sussex.

In 1960 the Bluebell line became the first preserved railway in Britain when trains ran again between Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes.

To many people the idea of running a steam railway from nowhere to nowhere just didn’t add up. Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes were small settlements hard to reach by bus and nowhere near a main line station.

Yet Bluebell pioneers, led by the indefatigable Bernard Holden, never gave up on their unlikely dream. The railway was a big success as historic locomotives were brought into the main depot at Sheffield Park.

Slowly the line was extended northwards despite the enormous task of removing tons of rubbish which had been dumped there in the belief that the track would never reopen.

At last it was connected to the main line at East Grinstead in 2013 and this has made a real difference to its finances.

This railway has just reported a rise in the number of visitors by 80,000 to 250,000 in the last year and an increase of £1 million in income.

The main line link means that many people can come down from London by train and move straight over to a ride on the preserved railway.

More intriguingly it also means that people living near the line can use it as a form of public transport rather than simply a treat.

They leave their cars at Sheffield Park, ride on the Bluebell Railway and take the main line train to London. This Christmas there will be a festive service for the first time for those who want to go Christmas shopping in the capital.

Could the Bluebell Railway be extended in the other direction towards the Brighton main line? It’s a lovely idea but I fear there are too many obstacles to overcome even for this determined crew.

Can other preserved railways be extended to serve regular passengers? The Spa Valley Railway at Eridge was part of the main line network until relatively recently but the task would again be daunting.

There are better prospects for the Kent and East Sussex railway which has been quietly expanding over the years but it does not have the pull of the Bluebell line.

A restored railway to the Devil’s Dyke would be a major tourist attraction. But there has been so much development on the former line between Hangleton and Hove that it would be impossible.

There would almost certainly be thousands of passengers in a restored Steyning line but roads and houses have been built on several sections.

Enthusiasts have lobbied for the Uckfield line to be reopened for almost half a century but the railway operators and The Government have never been keen.

There are other examples of tourist railways serving a dual role. One of them is just over the Sussex border with Kent.

There the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch miniature railway has played a role in taking hundreds of children to the local schools.

The idea of railways having a dual use makes sense financially as the Bluebell line is demonstrating. Once again it is leading the way and I hope others will be able to follow it.

There will be many people in Sussex who will find steaming towards London for work or shopping is a transport of delight.

Comments (1)

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7:18pm Fri 5 Sep 14

AGT999 says...

With regard to linking up with the main Brighton line, I think you will find this is the Bluebell's ultimate aim.
With regard to linking up with the main Brighton line, I think you will find this is the Bluebell's ultimate aim. AGT999
  • Score: 6
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