Published 25th June 2012
EPPING and SITTINGBOURNE lines re-open.
Neither were ‘new’ lines which opened in May, but both had been closed for differing reasons but were now celebrating their return to the heritage rail scene.
Although neither of the two railways involved, the standard gauge Epping Ongar Railway and narrow (2ft 6in) gauge Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway, are within the Greater London area, both look toward the capital as major market places and are easily reached via the M25 Motorway ring. Both are also easily accessible by rail.
The comparisons continue with both re-openings marked by a locomotive steaming through a celebratory banner strung across the tracks, and by a rather odd coincidence, both banners refused to split down the centre as anticipated but ended up being more brushed aside. No matter, both were great days blessed by fine sunshine!
GWR ‘Hall’ No. 4953 Pitchford Hall brushed aside the banner at North Weald station on May 24 to formally proclaim the Epping Ongar Railway as Britain’s newest steam heritage line. The ceremonial arrival took place on a specially arranged preview day for press and invited guests followed on May 25 by a gala celebration of the line returning to operation - and running steam over its metals for the first time in preservation. This was also the first regular operation of steam-hauled passenger services over the line since 1957.
A railway first reached Ongar in 1865 with the line eventually becoming part of the London Transport network. The section from Epping (which remains a Central Line station on the outer reaches of the Underground system) through North Weald to Ongar closed in 1994. The line always seemed destined to be the focus of a preservation effort, although the transition proved a shade rocky. The bottom line is that a DMU operation commenced in 2004 which continued until the end of the 2007 season at which point the line came under the sole ownership of Roger Wright.
A line was drawn under the previous period and a new approach adopted with the decision that no further trains would run until the railway had been transformed into a top rate steam and diesel worked heritage railway. The next four years saw a major refurbishment and infrastructure development programme undertaken.
That this was a railway to be taken seriously was underlined when No. 4953 Pitchford Hall and GWR Large Prairie No. 4141 were purchased from Dr John Kennedy in early 2012 to join ex-industrial Hawthorne Leslie 0-6-0ST Isabel (3437/1919) bought for the EOR in 2010 and the growing fleet of diesels.
When the May reopening date was set back in March there appeared plenty of time to finish off the last remaining works. Unforeseen then was the continued period of rain through April which disrupted envisaged timescales.
Aboard the reopening train, Roger Wright confided that two weeks earlier serious thought was given to postponing the event, but in the end it came together – just. Volunteers had been working to finish the upholstery of carriage seats being used by guests earlier that morning!
While the reopening train had the EOR’s No. 4953 Pitchford Hall at its head, on the tail was Hugh Shipton’s Pannier No. 6430 from the Llangollen Railway. When purchased, Prairie No. 4141 was in the latter stages of an overhaul at Llangollen.
Not being quite ready for the big day, 0-6-0PT No. 6430 was sent from North Wales instead. The day after the official opening more steam arrived in the form of Richard and Tony Goulding’s Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST 2199/1945, recently overhauled at the Colne Valley Railway.
The line operates from Ongar at its eastern end, past long-closed Blake Hall station, through North Weald to a present limit of operations near Coopersale in Epping Forest. Track remains in situ beyond, almost up to Epping station.
While there is virtually no possibility of the EOR returning to Epping station itself, the long-term ambition is to build a new platform at Epping with a footpath link to the Underground station. Meanwhile, a heritage bus provides a link from Epping ‘Underground’ station to North Weald, the journey being included in the price of a train ticket.
The line’s next steam gala (with diesels!) is set for August 25-27. For ordinary service details see www.eorailway.co.uk.
The 2ft 6in gauge Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway has a venerable preservation history being the surviving element of a once extensive industrial system serving the paper industry based around Sittingbourne and Kemsley Down. However, when the last train departed from Sittingbourne Viaduct station on December 26 2008 the line was facing the threat of complete closure following the issue of a notice to quit by its then landlord.
The line’s volunteers, supported by the preservation movement, refused to give up and following a change of landlord a new future started to emerge. After a two year total closure, trains began to run again from Milton Regis (Asda) Halt to Kemsley Down on October 23 2010 – but the iconic viaduct section into Sittingbourne remained out of action.
The great day for the return to its town terminus was set for April 6 only for the heartbreaking news with just days to go that ‘hazardous materials’ had been discovered adjacent to the railway and trains could not be operated.
With the problem resolved, three years, five months and one day after the last public train ran from the viaduct station, at 12.30 on May 27 Kerr Stuart 0-4-2ST Leader broke through (well, pushed aside and ran over) a banner at Sittingbourne Viaduct station proclaiming the Sittingbourne & Kemsley Light Railway was ‘Back in Town’.
As if the departure 30 minutes later of the reopening public train to Kemsley Down were not sufficient cause for celebration, the fact it was hauled by Leader added to the occasion – this was the first time in 31 years the loco, which has been undergoing a protracted overhaul, had hauled a public train.
The SKLR’s Kerr Stuart 0-4-2ST Melior and Bagnall 0-6-2T Superb will return to service later this year, possibly for the July 7-8 Steam & Beer Weekend. There will be an End of Season Gala Weekend over September 29-30.
The SKLR’s Sittingbourne Viaduct station is just a short walk from the town’s national network station.