Sussex sees first steam train on extended Bluebell Railway

Bluebell Railway
Image caption Chairman of the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society Roy Watts said the "great day" was the culmination of almost 40 years of work

The first steam train has run along the Bluebell Railway to East Grinstead in Sussex after an extension linking the line to the national network opened.

Previously, the nine-mile (14km) track ran from Sheffield Park to Kingscote.

Work to dig through a cutting and extend the railway by two miles (3.2km) - linking it to the main railway network at East Grinstead - cost about £4.5m and began in November 2008.

The opening came 55 years after the British Rail line was closed in 1958.

Bluebell Railway Preservation Society chairman Roy Watts said "the great day" was the result of almost 40 years of work; first steps to extend the line to East Grinstead were taken in 1974 with the purchase of an old station site.

Landfill site cleared

Image caption Thousands of tonnes of rubbish had to be removed from a cutting at Imberhorne

"The bringing of the line to East Grinstead has been the society's number one project for the past 40 years," he said.

The major obstacle to the project was having to clear the cutting at Imberhorne which had been used as a landfill site.

He said: "We always knew the last two miles would be the most problematic. This is the end of a very long journey. And so many people have looked forward to this day for so long, although sadly some people will not be there to see it."

Mr Watts said two of the railway founders, Bernard Holden and Martin Eastland, died last year.

The railway was the brainchild of four men, Alan Sturt, Mr Eastland, Chris Campbell and David Dalimore, who came up with the idea of creating the heritage line when they were students.

Founders' reunion

Their first meeting was chaired by Bernard Holden, a former manager with Southern and British Railways, after British Rail closed the Lewes-East Grinstead route in 1958.

Image caption The Bluebell Railway has three stations restored to different eras and a new platform at East Grinstead

Mr Holden later became the Bluebell Railway's president and all five staged a reunion during the extension project when they met at Sheffield Park Station in 2009,

"Out of the five founders there are now only three," Mr Watts said.

"But we hope to get them together in April."

Mr Watts has said the society will undertake further major projects in the future - after volunteers have had a rest.

The railway owns the track-bed from Horsted Keynes to Ardingly, and has said extending the line westwards is a project that could happen in years to come.

Now the heritage line has a connection to the national railway, it is possible to drive a steam train anywhere on the network providing it has enough water and coal on board, Mr Watts said.

Passengers will also be able to buy through tickets taking them across the country and along the steam railway on one fare.

'Nothing on this scale'

Network Rail is due to start selling those tickets in May or June.

Mr Watts said a number of preserved railways had been extended across the country, but so far there had been nothing on this scale.

Image caption The final piece of track marked the end of more than four years of work

Mr Holden's family were attending the official opening, Mr Watts said.

The society has kept Mr Holden as its named president for the opening of the railway line.

After he died last year at the age of 104, suggestions to honour his memory included a bronze bust, a plaque and an obelisk at the Imberhorne Cutting.

Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, and BBC news presenter Nicholas Owen, who is a volunteer at the railway, were also among the guests on the first scheduled daily service on Saturday.

Work to preserve the railway received backing from two Sussex councils, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and hundreds of volunteers.

As well as the heritage line, the railway has three stations which have been restored to different eras.

Sheffield Park, which is home to the museum and locomotive shed, is in the style of the Brighton era of the 1880s. Horsted Keynes is the Southern Railway period in the 1920s. Kingscote is in the style of the 1950s.

The Bluebell Railway's station at East Grinstead is new and at Platform 3 of the town's main railway station.

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