Saturday, 23rd March saw the Bluebell Railway open its long awaited extension into East Grinstead. Writes Clive Kessell
The celebrations took place in a snow storm as the first public train steamed southwards towards Sheffield Park. The new Bluebell station, slightly south of the recently re-built Southern station, has yet to be completed as a permanent booking office and platform shelters remain to be constructed.
People scurried for cover as the snow descended. Not quite what the Bluebell planned but a festive spirit pervaded in spite of the freezing weather. Those lucky enough to have tickets for the first southbound train gained the warmth of the steam heated carriages once it had arrived as empty stock, with Terrier class Stepney and P class Bluebell at one end and E4 0-6-2T number 473 at the other. With the Bluebell Railway Band playing Congratulations, the train departed amidst much cheering and waving of flags.
The event came 55 years after the final closure of the line in 1958. The East Grinstead–Lewes line had first closed in 1955 but an abnormality in the Act that allowed the line to be built, showed that closure had taken place illegally. BR had to reluctantly re-open the line with the minimum number of trains, finally getting the legal process sorted out three years later.
Such notoriety attracted the attention of enthusiasts and the section from Sheffield Park to Horsted Keynes re-opened in 1960 as Britain’s first main line standard gauge preservation society. After consolidation, the Bluebell announced in the early 1980s its intention to build back to East Grinstead and reopening in stages to Kingscote was achieved by 1994.
The last section however proved especially difficult as domestic refuse was tipped into the deep Imberhorne cutting after the track had been lifted. With all the modern environmental controls, removing this waste has been a huge challenge in terms of raising the money (around £4M), getting the necessary approvals and understanding the civil engineering tasks.
So began a fortnight of celebrations to mark this amazing reopening. The first northbound train to arrive at East Grinstead was the ‘Grinsteade Pullman’ hauled by U Class 1638 with those on board enjoying a sumptuous breakfast in the luxury of restored
Pullman Cars. Next to arrive was 9F 92212 on loan from the Mid Hants Railway on a service train.
An intensive train service was run every day in the two weeks preceding and after Easter. The station site at East Grinstead is somewhat cramped with only one platform and a run round loop being possible plus the end on connection to Network Rail.
A 20 minute interval service demands slick operation to get a train turned round quickly and back to Kingscote, where it will pass the next train. On the 28th March, a rail tour arrived from Victoria hauled by a class 66 diesel with two electro-diesels at the rear. This was a thank you to GBRF for their co-operation in running spoil removal trains as the cutting was being dug out.
Various trips to see local attractions and beauty spots during the two week period were arranged. Train passengers now get a birds eye view of East Grinstead as they travel over the magnificent Imberhorne Viaduct.
On Sunday, 7th April, a thanksgiving service was conducted in St Swithun’s Church with Bishop Alan Chesters from Blackburn giving the address and with the Bluebell Band giving partakers the chance to sing some rousing hymns, finishing with Sussex by the Sea.