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 aSouthern Train to East Grinstead. The train went through ClaphamJunction, where not only did one of the worst rail disasters in theUK happen, but where there were lots of foamers standing on theplatform. I didn't realise how seriously the Poms took theirtrainspotting!

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 toEast Grinstead on time. The Bus was prompt and the journey -exciting. A large bus squeezing down tiny lanes at great pace pushingthings off the road left right and centre. Better than a rollercoaster ride at the Show. And very reasonably priced.

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

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

I didn't have to wait long until the first trainarrived, pulled by Bullied Pacific Blackmoore Vale, to take me to Horsted Keynes, location of the BluebellsCarriage 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, thecrew were working on some Metropolitan Railway rollingstock, some of theoldest items in the UK. Quality of the work is firstclass. 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 bythe original manufacturers, with modern alterations and modernmaterials. Most of them are still in business! Even the pattern forthe original seat fabric was still available.

Richard kindly showed me around, and spent timeexplaining how preservation in the UK works. Despite the size of theoperation, nearly 25 times the turnover of one of the SA heritagerailways (Bluebell spends more on imported Polish coal, Britishsteaming coal is not available, than one of the heritage railwayshere takes in total income in a year), the Bluebell faces the sameissues: Attracting and retaining volunteers, maintenance of track androllingstock, regulatory compliance, and operational issues.

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

The later part of the day was spent in the locoworkshops, where Colin Turner kindly spent his time talking with meabout loco related issues. The Bluebell own a number of locos, buthave leasing agreements with other preservation bodies who own alocomotive. The leasing arrangement is roughly that Bluebell get torun the loco, but have to maintain it in a serviceablecondition.

The railway run a graduated age-based club (the"Stepney"and "9F")for young members, that introduces them to the workings of it over anumber of years, structured so that as the kids come through, by theend of their time they are familiar with the operational needs of therailway, and with only minimal further training can participate inthe 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 aheritage railway that is well managed, that coordinates its manyelements well, and is actively planning for a future and the future.Its restoration work is of very high quality, and its track is noless 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 oftheir day.

Signal box at Kingscote.

Signal Box at Horsted Keynes.

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

The area was electrified (third rail) prior toclosure, but despite the potential population growth, the governmentclosed 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 thefore-ground. As resources permit, infrastructure is being upgraded.Just as track is being upgraded, where resources permit, concrete isused over (West Australian) hardwood!

Saturday PM

The carriage crew are busy lacquering coaches. Myphoto isn't very clear, but there is a gas fired heater running thelength of this part of the shed. As this part of the shed is a recentaddition, the HSE required heating be fitted to thebuilding.

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

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

Sheets used to track work on a carriage underrestoration.

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

Stepneyis 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 theLewes 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 atHorsted Keynes.

Looking back to Kingscote - How British!

The only trolley I saw - A Wickham type27 builders number 7509 of 1956. One of three Wickhams on the Bluebell.

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Uploaded February 2, 2006Updated December 2008