Cliff Thomas

New heritage railway for London?

Published: 31st March 2015

Proposals for a new Royal Arsenal Narrow Gauge Railway have been unveiled

While not yet a done deal, the prospect of a new 18in gauge railway at the Crossness Engines Trust site in south-east London seems likely. The proposed trackbed has been identified and cleared of vegetation, a considerable amount of 80lb/yard rail (apparently heavy for a small gauge line, but the original Royal Arsenal line employed 75lb material) has been donated and delivered to the site with more (possibly sufficient for the entire line) to follow, sleepers have arrived and an existing building has been provided with water and electricity supply (although it still needs repairs to the roof) and earmarked to serve as the railway’s shed and workshop.

New Woolwich home for Woolwich

The possibility of a new railway being constructed at Crossness pumping station first came to the fore in 2011 when ex-Woolwich Arsenal 18in gauge Avonside 0-4-0T Woolwich arrived at the site under a 'restoration and operation' loan from the Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey.

The locomotive had originally worked at Woolwich Royal Arsenal. It subsequently formed the initial motive power for the Bicton Woodland Railway but when Bicton re-equipped its rail operation and offered the historic locos and stock for sale, Woolwich was purchased in 2000 by the Royal Gunpowder Mills. The original concept had been to construct an 18in gauge line at Waltham Abbey but a change of plan instead saw development of a 2ft 6in gauge railway, hence the transfer of the loco to Crossness with a view to it being returned to steam – for operation within sight of the Royal Arsenal.

The 1860s pumping station with its Grade One Listed buildings and preserved steam beam engines is on the site of Thames Water’s Crossness Sewage Treatment Works. Being a strategically important modern plant this makes general public access impossible and imposes limitations on the number of dates the preserved pumping station can be opened to visitors.

Thames Water and Crossness Engines Trust have been exploring the means of achieving increased access to the historic pumping station by paying visitors for some years. The answer is presented by utilising a historic railway trackbed and – potentially - a new narrow gauge line.

Old trackbed answer to access

Construction of the original sewage works between 1860 and 1865 was aided by the contractors building a two and a half mile long standard gauge railway across the marshes from Plumstead. The old trackbed survives, almost unimpeded, and offers the means of providing independent access to the pumping station. A new car park is being built at Belvedere Road for use by pumping station visitors with a surfaced footpath constructed on part of the old railway route to the pumping station site. The path has been designed to allow construction of a 700 yard narrow gauge railway alongside, incorporating a kink to provide a suitable location for construction of a station.

Detailed proposals are now being prepared. If these are approved by Thames Water an application for planning permission will be submitted. With there being no adjacent properties the feeling is that objections are unlikely. If all proceeds as hoped, the new line could be opened in 2016.

Although an application for a Heritage Lottery Fund grant to assist restoration of 0-4-0T Woolwich was unsuccessful, work has continued and (in terms of time) is rated as about 70-75% complete. However, some £50,000 does need to be raised to finance work which cannot be undertaken in-house at Crossness such as boiler repairs and production of new water tanks.

London steam centred on water

Considering the land area it covers and the size of the population the Greater London area is arguably surprisingly bereft of passenger-carrying heritage railways. Since the demise of the Southall Railway Centre some years ago there is no standard gauge railway operation within the M25 ring.

The two current steam-worked heritage lines (this heritage railway definition not including miniature gauge railways) are both 2ft gauge and, like the Crossness project, also linked to historic water pumping stations.

Kew Bridge Steam Museum (re-branded last year as London Museum of Water & Steam) started constructing a 2ft gauge demonstration line in the late 1980s to show how such railways served the water industry. Development continued in stages until it reached a length of some 300 yards round three sides of the museum in 1991. Steam worked for many years under various arrangements, in June 2009 its own new-build 0-4-0ST ‘Wren’ Thomas Wicksteed was commissioned and works the railway operation.

The Metropolitan Water Board Railway Society commenced running passenger trains on a new 2ft circuit of track, known as ‘The Hanworth Loop’, on a site adjacent to the preserved Kempton Great Engine House during 2013. Initial steam operations were handled by 0-4-0ST ‘Wren’ Thomas Wicksteed while the museum at Kew was undertaking extensive works preparatory to its re-launch which precluded its own railway operations. The railway now has its own resident steam locomotive, Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST 984/1903 Darent.

The present operation at Kempton is the first phase aimed towards achieving the society’s ambition of reviving as much as possible of the 2ft gauge railway which once linked the pumping station at Kempton to that at Hampton on the River Thames. Like Crossness, ‘The Hanworth Loop’ (as is the planned longer railway) is located on Thames Water land and cannot be routinely accessed by the public. Entrance to the site access road is controlled by a remotely operated security gate and visits to the railway, and/or the Great Engines, is only possible on Open Days (see for details) or by special arrangement.

LT branch to Essex

The Epping Ongar Railway stakes a realistic claim to being London’s standard gauge heritage railway, but it lies outside the M25 ring. The branch to Ongar was opened in 1865 by the Eastern Counties Railway (subsequently part of the Great Eastern Railway) and post-nationalisation the route became part of the London Transport network – but the fact is, today’s heritage line running from Ongar, through North Weald to a railhead in Epping Forest a little short of LT’s Epping station, lies wholly in Essex.

The railway had an ‘interesting’ birth as a heritage line, but a change of ownership in late 2007 heralded a new era and it was re-launched in May 2012 as a significant steam and diesel heritage line. Although it does not terminate (currently, there are extension plans) in Epping itself, a heritage bus service links the railway with Epping London Underground station.

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