An afternoon on the Bluebell Railway

Yesterday I visited the Bluebell Railway in Sheffield Park, East Sussex, UK. It is one of the many preservation/heritage railways operating in Great Britain. It runs from Sheffield Park to Kingscote station through Horsted Keynes, about nine miles total. Currently an extension is being worked on that would connect the Bluebell Railway to the UK national rail system at East Grinstead, adding about two miles to the length of the heritage line. A Bluebell volunteer was hopeful yesterday that the extension would open in December 2012. This would be good news, since it is a bit of a bother to get to the railway by public transportation, particularly on week ends. Having said that here is a piece of advice: If one goes by public transportation it seems best to take the main line train to Haywards Heath station and than the 270 Metrobus line to Horsted Keynes. As I mentioned, on week ends the 270 bus schedule is a bit sparse, running only once an hour. So time your departures and arrivals carefully!

Sheffield Park station on the Bluebell Railway (Photo by Ralf Meier)


Contrary to popular opinion the line was not closed due to the infamous "The Reshaping of The British Railways" report published in 1963 by Beeching, but rather because even British Railways in 1955 just could not justify the costs of keeping the line open. Click here for a more concise history of the Bluebell Railway line.

Interestingly enough one of the main attractions of the Bluebell Railway are not just the various steam engines, but some wonderfully restored coaches from the late 1890's. These so called "Chesham Carriages" were built by the Metropolitan Railway and were in service until 1960. Four of these coaches have been restored by Bluebell volunteers. It appears these are now the oldest carriages still "in service" in the UK.

"Chesham" coaches on the Bluebell Railway (Photo by Tony Pears)

Of course only die hard railroad fans, or "anoraks", like my friend in London calls them, would be interested in railway carriages. Most ordinary folks come to see the steam engines. About thirty of the machines (roster here) are on the Bluebell Railway property, the oldest dating from 1872. The youngest being an industrial engine built in 1966. About eleven are able to be used in service, with another 7 or so being currently overhauled in the line's workshops.

Bluebell Railway Shop (Photo by Ralf Meier)

Frankly there is nothing like a steam locomotive. The sounds and smells of these machines are just captivating. Even the running gear ellicits curious looks and questions. I am old enough to remember steam hauled trains in my youth, but a casually overheard comment yesterday really pleasently surprised me: "I just love the smell of the steam engines!". Now this guy was in his late twenties, little girl and wife in tow. There is no way this young man could have experienced regular scheduled steam service. There seems to be hope for this hobby after all!

Having bought myself a "First Class" return ticket from Horsted Keynes to Sheffield Park I waited on the station platform for the train to arrive. It did in due course and I got in one of the First Class coaches. These are non-corridor, slam door type vehicles, quite plush.

First Class coach compartment on the Bluebell Railway (Photo by Ralf Meier) 

Immediately upon entering the compartment I was greeted with lots of sniffing and tail wagging, and made the aquaintance of Corey: 

We became inseparable friends. Well, at least until the end of the train ride when he was given a doggy treat by his master. 

The journey was quite genteel. The top speed is about 25 miles an hour. As the line is quite steep in places the two little engines had their work cut out for them. The huffing and puffing of the engines, cinders blowing into the carriage, the shrill sound of the whistles and the clickety clack of jointed rail. Well, this anorak was happy!

Bluebell Railway Steam Engines (Photo by Ralf Meier)

It was a rather short ride of course. Back at Horsted Keynes I got myself an ice cream cone and walked back to the bus stop for the ride back to the Haywards Heath main line station. 

The Southern Railway EMU for Clapham Junction was already waiting at the platform. Back to the reality of modern British railroading!

Class 377 EMU of Southern Railways (UK)

Here are some links with more information about the Bluebell Railway.

Operational locomotives: 

Line side signalling: 

Rail line extension:

Map of the railway line:

Here is a short video: