The Bluebell Railway is a heritage line running for nine miles along the border between East Sussex and West Sussex, England. Steam trains are operated between Sheffield Park, with two intermediate stations at Horsted Keynes and Kingscote, and then into East Grinstead. The line was set up for preservation in 1960 by with help from Bernard Holden MBE.
Stepney was the first engine to be rescued by the Bluebell Railway.
The railway is managed and run largely by volunteers. It has the largest collection of steam locomotives in the UK after the National Railway Museum, and a collection of almost 150 carriages and wagons, unrivaled in the south of England.
The Bluebell Railway was the first preserved standard gauge steam-operated passenger railway in the world: it opened on August 7, 1960, shortly after the line from East Grinstead to Lewes had been closed by British Railways. It also preserved a number of steam locomotives even before the cessation of steam service on British mainline railways in 1968.
In 1877 an Act of Parliament was passed to authorise the construction of the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway. The line was sponsored by a number of local landowners, including the Earl of Sheffield. A year later an Act of 1878 enabled the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway Company to acquire and operate the new line.
The line had six stations, but only the station at Barcombe was within walking distance of an existing village: the remaining five were in thinly populated areas. Chailey parish had two stations, one at Sheffield Park and the other at Newick and Chailey. It was customary at that time for a rural railway line that was supported by a private company or notable individuals to have stations sited in close proximity to the residences of its sponsors. Thus Sheffield Park station was built for the Earl of Sheffield, and Newick and Chailey for Newick Park and Reedens, the residences of two other sponsors. The other stations on the line were at Kingscote, West Hoathly and Horsted Keynes. A branch line ran from a junction at Horsted Keynes to Ardingly and Haywards Heath on the LB&SCR main line.
Significantly, the 1877 and 1878 Acts included a clause stating that:
Four passenger trains each way daily to run on this line, with through connections at East Grinstead to London, and to stop at Sheffield Bridges, Newick, and West Hoathly.
This imposed a legal requirement on the railway owner to provide a service, and it emerged much later that the only way to remove this obligation was to pass another Act of Parliament to rescind it.
After the passage of the 1878 Act, the new line opened in 1882, with the usual pomp and ceremony and a great deal of celebration. The whole line from East Grinstead was built to take double track, which was actually laid between East Grinstead and Horsted Keynes; however, south of the junction at Horsted Keynes the line was only single track with passing loops at the stations. Like a number of rural branch lines of that era, as well as conveying passengers a substantial quantity of local produce was transported: milk, farm products and coal, and timber to and from Albert Turner & Son, a local sawmill. Curiously, the only time Sheffield Park station received a substantial number of passengers was when Lord Sheffield entertained the Australian Cricket Team, with the inevitable match between them and Lord Sheffield's own team.
As early as 1954, and certainly long before Dr Richard Beeching became Chairman of the British Railways Board, the Branchline Committee of British Railways had submitted a proposal to close the section of line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction near Lewes. This was challenged by local residents, but eventually the closure was sanctioned in February 1955, and a closure date fixed for June 15, 1955 although the line actually closed prematurely on May 29 due to a rail staff strike. The ensuing battle fought between British Railways and the users of the "Bluebell Line" became infamous, as a result of four years of acrimonious argument which the transport users conducted in opposition to the Transport Authorities.
Shortly after the closure a local resident of Chailey, Miss Margery Bessemer, discovered in the wording of the 1877 and 1878 Acts the clause relating to the "Statutory Line", and demanded that British Railways honour this legal obligation and reinstate the services required by the Acts. On August 7, 1956 British Railways was forced to re-open the line, and so began the "Sulky Service", with the trains only stopping at the stations mentioned in the Acts. Meanwhile, in 1957 British Railways took the case to the House of Commons, resulting in a Public Inquiry.
Spring 1959 saw the formation of the Lewes & East Grinstead Railway Preservation Society, the forerunner of today’s Bluebell Railway Preservation Society. Its initial aim was to re-open the whole line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction, and to run it as a commercial service. This was envisaged as using a Diesel railcar, a two-car DMU, as soon as funds allowed. These plans came to nothing, for two reasons: firstly, the Society failed to purchase the whole line; and secondly, most local residents were not that interested. So in the interim, the re-opening of the section of line from Sheffield Park to Bluebell Halt just south of Horsted Keynes as both a steam railway and museum was planned and approved.
Present and futureEdit
The Bluebell Railway Preservation Society completed an initial extension from Horsted Keynes to Kingscote in 1994, which included re-laying track through Sharpthorne Tunnel, and is now working to reinstate the remaining two miles of line from Kingscote to East Grinstead.
Work has now started on the final northwards push towards East Grinstead, where the line will once again connect with the National Rail network. A major problem to be overcome is the former landfill site that fills a 30 ft deep cutting for part of the route. Some of the excavated clay has being taken south by rail to help fill the site of a removed viaduct and embankment on the old Ardingly spur. In January 2008 agreement was given to start the clearance of foliage on the section of the tip between Imberhorne Lane and Hill Place bridges. Work on removing some of the 300,000 cubic meters of rubbish by convoys of lorries was started on November 25, 2008. In Autumn 2008 work also started on site clearance work at East Grinstead in preparation for construction of the new Bluebell Railway station about 100yd south of the National Rail station. In July 2012, the Bluebell Railway originally confirmed that the extension to East Grinstread would be completed in September 2012. However, heavy rains during the summer season of 2012 caused a setback on the extension work. The Bluebell Railway decided for the extension to be completed in March 2013 and will open to the public in June. Despite the setbacks, the final section of landfill at Imberhorne Tip was removed on February 19, 2013, putting the opening of the extension back on schedule for March 23.
The Bluebell Railway has also purchased the trackbed of the abandoned line between Horsted Keynes and Ardingly. In the long-term future it is planned to rebuild this line to reconnect with National Rail, and thus gain access to the London to Brighton main line at Copyhold Junction. This will restore a bypass of the London–Brighton line which proved very useful in the past. There is also occasional speculation about long-term plans to extend south towards Lewes; but the removal of the road bridge just south of Sheffield Park station, the in-filling of the cutting and route under the A272 road, and the housing development that was built on the site of Newick & Chailey station makes this idea an unlikely prospect. Nevertheless the remaining undeveloped section of the line from Lewes to Sheffield Park has been safeguarded from development prejudicial to its use as a bridleway and footpath.
The stations have been restored to show different periods of the railway's life. Sheffield Park has been restored to a generally Victorian ambiance, as it would have appeared during the time of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway; Horsted Keynes tries to emulate the style of the Southern Railway; and Kingscote echoes the early British Railways period of the 1950s.
Between Horsted Keynes and Kingscote the line passes through the site of West Hoathly station, at the north end of Sharpthorne Tunnel. The West Hoathly station buildings and footbridge were demolished piecemeal between 1964 and 1967, and the site is now in the middle of a modern housing development, so remains closed in deference to the wishes of the local residents. The remains of the platforms and goods dock are still visible at the lineside.
From Kingscote the line then curves round into the ex-rubbish cutting, over the Imberhorne Viaduct and into platform 3 of East Grinstead.