Published 29th February 2012
The 2ft 6in gauge railway at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park might be considered a not very well hidden secret. It is not hidden at all to those visiting the Zoological Society of London’s Bedfordshire animal collection, but perhaps overlooked as a heritage railway in its own right since its purpose is to carry people round the animal paddocks rather than operate in a conventional heritage railway environment.
The first steam-hauled passenger train at Whipsnade ran on 26 August 1970 - the railway being initially called the Whipsnade & Umfolozi Railway and renamed the Great Whipsnade Railway (GWR!) in the mid-1980s, so there is plenty of railway history in the Zoo’s grounds.
The steam locomotives which operate the line, Whipsnade’s own Kerr Stuarts 0-6-2T Superior and 0-4-2ST Excelsior, supported at the moment by privately owned Manning Wardle 0-6-2T Chevallier, which hauled that first 1970 train and returned to the Park following a major overhaul last year, are all one-time industrial locos. The trio used to work on the famous Bowater’s paper railway in Kent, part of which forms today’s Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway (where Excelsior’s sisters can still be found) and the passenger coaches at Whipsnade are based on ex-Bowater’s wagons.
This is some seriously beefy kit and a whole lot more than the average ‘pleasure ride’ in a park! You will also find some pretty interesting historic diesels at the line as well.
The railway is run by Kevin Edwins, a steam enthusiast from his young teens (probably earlier!) who has brought a special dynamism to the railway. The locos, track, carriages and railway surroundings have been spruced up, fettled and worked over with an eye for engineering excellence and fine detail to see the railway in its best shape ever.
Footplate experience courses are now available and Kevin tried running Santa trains at Christmas which were so successful they will continue in the future. He was also running the railway at the beginning of February, being rewarded with the rare opportunity of steaming through snow covered paddocks over February 11-12 – and we were there to photograph this unusual sight!
The accompanying pictures in snow were taken on February 11, together with a selection of images from the last couple of years to show what you are more likely to discover on a fine summer day!
The loco in use at the beginning of February was Superior. Excelsior was in the shed being reassembled after delivery of a new cab (every panel has been replaced) and will be sporting a slightly different livery this year, LNER apple green with white and black lining. When Excelsior is ready to return to traffic, the pony truck will be removed from Superior and sent to Alan Keef Ltd. in Herefordshire to be fitted with a new axle, axleboxs and roller bearings. Chevallier has received general winter attention and will be in action again later this season.
The writer of this report wrote a book covering the full history of the first 25 years of the railway a few years ago. The Whipsnade & Umfolozi Railway and The Great Whipsnade Railway by Cliff Thomas is still in print and available from The Oakwood Press, PO Box 13, Usk, Mon. NP5 1YS - price £9.95.