The Bluebell Railway

On Saturday November 19 2005, I ventured down to the BlueBell railway in Sussex, the UK's first standard gauge preserved railway, that still proudly retains an all steam roster. Thanks to their excellent website, I was able to plan my day from the beginning.

I walked down to London Victoria, and caught a Southern Train to East Grinstead. The train went through Clapham Junction, where not only did one of the worst rail disasters in the UK happen, but where there were lots of foamers standing on the platform. I didn't realise how seriously the Poms took their trainspotting!

A number of people here asked me about the Tube bombings and whether I should use it. I had no qualms with regard to my safety, and indeed no qualms about the safety of the British rail system. I did ponder on the experiences of those who died or were injured in the bombings and disasters that have happened, especially as I passed through places like Clapham Junction. The risk of such an event is small, although the consequences are catastrophic. Many were amazed when I replied that I was more likely to die in a car crash than on public transport. I was fascinated by the resilliance of Londoners who appeared just to get on with life: which is what I intended to do!

The train was clean, and very fast, arriving to East Grinstead on time. The Bus was prompt and the journey - exciting. A large bus squeezing down tiny lanes at great pace pushing things off the road left right and centre. Better than a roller coaster ride at the Show. And very reasonably priced.

Kingscote is the current northern terminus, although work is happening to extend the line into East Grinstead. When I arrived, I was immediately reminded of a "preservation railway" in the Inspector Morse Series. Turns out a lot of filming happens at the Bluebell.

Ironically, and I don't wish to offend anyone, the whole railway looks like a giant Hornby set. Maybe it is a tribute to Hornby for the realism of its railway product.

I didn't have to wait long until the first train arrived, pulled by Bullied Pacific Blackmoore Vale, to take me to Horsted Keynes, location of the Bluebells Carriage Shop. I was meeting with Richard Salmon, who is a volunteer working in carriage restoration.

The Bluebell has a large undercover workshop, supported by some excellent equipment. On the day of my visit, the crew were working on some Metropolitan Railway rollingstock, some of the oldest items in the UK. Quality of the work is first class. These coaches have survived grouping, nationalisation and privatisation!

Interestingly, despite the age of these carriages, more that 100 years old, the Bluebell has had many items remade by the original manufacturers, with modern alterations and modern materials. Most of them are still in business! Even the pattern for the original seat fabric was still available.

Richard kindly showed me around, and spent time explaining how preservation in the UK works. Despite the size of the operation, nearly 25 times the turnover of one of the SA heritage railways (Bluebell spends more on imported Polish coal, British steaming coal is not available, than one of the heritage railways here takes in total income in a year), the Bluebell faces the same issues: Attracting and retaining volunteers, maintenance of track and rollingstock, regulatory compliance, and operational issues.

The Bluebell does employ a number of staff to support its operations. It has a membership of some 9000 people!

The later part of the day was spent in the loco workshops, where Colin Turner kindly spent his time talking with me about loco related issues. The Bluebell own a number of locos, but have leasing agreements with other preservation bodies who own a locomotive. The leasing arrangement is roughly that Bluebell get to run the loco, but have to maintain it in a serviceable condition.

The railway run a graduated age-based club (the "Stepney" and "9F") for young members, that introduces them to the workings of it over a number of years, structured so that as the kids come through, by the end of their time they are familiar with the operational needs of the railway, and with only minimal further training can participate in the day to day operations. The 9Fs were large freight locos (2-10-0) built by British Railways. 251 were built, including the "Evening Star" - 92220. Bluebell owns a 9F - 92240. Many of the later build steam engines were withdrawn from service well before their economic working lives had ended as BR rushed to modernise with Diesel - with some rather disastrous diesel designs being created.

Overall, my impression of the Bluebell is a heritage railway that is well managed, that coordinates its many elements well, and is actively planning for a future and the future. Its restoration work is of very high quality, and its track is no less than first class.

I managed, just, to catch the last train back to Kingscote. The guard was most gracious in holding the train whilst I did a mad dash, but also in talking further about his experience in working for the railway.

This is one hell of a railway. It sets a benchmark for other lines to meet. I look forward to another visit where I can spend more time riding their trains. This railway is worth travelling around the world to see, is very friendly and open, and easily accessible by public transport.

Thanks to Richard and Colin for taking time out of their day.

Signal box at Kingscote.

Signal Box at Horsted Keynes.

When I arrived here, I was surprised at the number of platforms. It turns out that there used to be another line that connected to Horsted Keynes.

The area was electrified (third rail) prior to closure, but despite the potential population growth, the government closed the railway. The electrified line, from Horsted Keynes via Ardingly to Haywards Heath, was closed in 1963, soon after the Bluebell was formed.

There is currently an electric set at Horsted Keynes - whether it will run here on three rail is up for discussion.

Richard explained that whilst there was a rush by BR to close the line, the Act that enabled its construction put restrictions on its closure - this contributed to the lines survival into preservation,

That is an electric switch machine in the fore-ground. As resources permit, infrastructure is being upgraded. Just as track is being upgraded, where resources permit, concrete is used over (West Australian) hardwood!

Saturday PM

The carriage crew are busy lacquering coaches. My photo isn't very clear, but there is a gas fired heater running the length of this part of the shed. As this part of the shed is a recent addition, the HSE required heating be fitted to the building.

It is well lit, well ventilated, and well set up.

At the far end is a frame for one of the carriages. The Bluebell sourced a body, and had to make up a chassis to fit. Because they modified an existing unit, it had to be assessed by an engineer from the Railway Inspectorate!

Sheets used to track work on a carriage under restoration.

A scissor lift - owned by the Bluebell - every heritage railway should have a couple.

Stepney is a veteran of the railway. Indeed she was built by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway and commenced working there shortly after is was constucted. The Bluebell own one of the locos used by the contractors to build the line (as part of the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway) in period 1877 and 1882, "Sharpthorn"

Stepney was built in 1875 as part of a total of 50 "Terriers", her sister, Fenchurch, also on the Bluebell is three years older.

This photo shows here on a "be a driver" course at Horsted Keynes.

Looking back to Kingscote - How British!

The only trolley I saw - A Wickham type 27 builders number 7509 of 1956. One of three Wickhams on the Bluebell.

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Uploaded February 2, 2006 Updated December 2008