Bluebell Railway - 55 years on for new line

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A fortnight ago, two pages were dedicated to mark the £11million Bluebell Line extension which had been completed, linking Sheffield Park and East Grinstead.

Back in a March 1988 edition, the paper reported on the first length of track being laid for the same extension.

“Transport Minister Paul Channon rode back to the future on the picturesque Bluebell Railway,” the paper said.

Adding: “History turned full circle as a vintage steam train hauled Mr Channon to the spot near Leamland Bridge, Horsted Keynes, where he ceremonially laid the first length of track in the line’s £2million extension north to East Grinstead.”

Mr Channon screwed a ‘gold’ bolt to secure the track to the sleeper and praised the energy and devotion of the Bluebell volunteers who had the hardest job yet to come.

The paper said: “British Rail have reserved a platform at East Grinstead station but it will be the year 2000 at the earliest before the first steam loco chugs back into town.”

From humble beginnings in 1959 three students called a meeting in Haywards Heath to proclaim thatBritish Railway’s decision to close the East Grinstead to Lewes ‘Bluebell’ line was wrong.

“No-one at that meeting could have dreamed that Bluebell trains would once more steam into East Grinstead,” the paper said.

It was in 1954 that the branchline committee of British Railways proposed closing the line from East Grinstead to Culver Junction near Lewes.

The decision was challenged by residents but the closure was agreed in February 1955, with the line closing on May 29 due to a rail stike.

A four-year battle between users and British Railways ensued.

Shortly after it was closed it was a Chailey resident who discovered that under 1877 and 1878 Acts of Parliament there was clause relating to a ‘Statutory Line’, and demanded British Railways reinstate services.

The clause stated: “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.”

On August 7, 1956 British Railways reopened the line, with trains stopping at stations mentioned in the Acts.

British Railways took the case to the House of Commons in 1957, resulting in a public inquiry. Later the Transport Commission was able to persuade Parliament to repeal the special section of the Act.

The line was finally closed in March 1958.

Extending to East Grinstead first commenced in 1974 with the purchase of the old station site at West Hoathly.

The track bed between Horsted Keynes and East Grinstead was sold by British Railways to more than 30 different land owners.

Back in the late 1950s, Bernard Holden, MBE, believed that the closed line would be reopened. It has taken five decades of working, planning, fund-raising by Bluebell Railway staff, members and hundreds of volunteers to turn his dream into a reality.

Bernard died aged 104 in October last year, meaning he never saw his dreams turn into reality - although he knew completion of the extension was imminent. He was a former superintendent and president of the railway at the time of his death.

The first train to use the track in almost 55 years was a Southern 473 locomotived called The Pioneer, with six green Southern coaches.

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