Bluebell Railway is within sight of replacing all Dr Beeching's cuts. In a year it raises £1.1m from five miles of track and has great hopes for steam. Charles Darwent reports.
Bernard Holden, chairman of Bluebell Railway, rifles through the photographs on his desk and hands one over. It is of a railway sleeper dangling from the jib of a crane, obviously operated by the pouch-eyed figure beneath it: Paul Channon, former Transport Secretary. "Geoffrey Finsberg got him to do it for us," explains Holden, casually dropping the "Sir". "We have lots of interest from politicians. David Mitchell rang me up at home once to ask my advice on something or other. Of course" - a quick check on the station clock to see that the 3.40 up train is running to schedule - "he opened his mouth shortly afterwards about the Settle to Carlisle line, and Maggie got rid of him straight away." A steam train huffs asthmatically past Holden's window. It is all most peculiar.
Among the other, lesser subdivisions of humanity - the rich, the poor, the quick, the dead - is one that is inarguable: those who think of trains as evil necessities, and those (almost entirely male - Freudians take note) who see them as objects of romance. As Holden's photographs attest, this latter group is by no means confined to the cagouled wraiths who flit enigmatically about the ends of station platforms.
Quite apart from the three ex-ministers above, Bluebell Railway's chairman can point to a picture of at least one former Prime Minister - Harold Macmillan - standing on the plate of one of his company's steam engines. His following in the House of Lords includes Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who is acting president of what has been, since its first share issue in 1986, Bluebell Railway plc. Those of a cynical turn of mind might remark that Bernard Holden was considerably more successful in getting Channon to instigate a track-laying programme than was his opposite number at British Rail.
All of this seems doubly ironic because Bluebell Railway - five miles of track, meandering through Sussex south of Haywards Heath - owes its existence to another Tory government, that of Anthony Eden. In 1955 the spur branch from East Grinstead on the main London to Brighton line to Sheffield Park, situated precisely in the middle of nowhere, was axed due to lack of traffic. But not for long.
In 1956 a hawk-eyed local councillor - still referred to in awed Sussex whispers by Bluebell's staff as "Miss Bessemer from Chailey" - discovered that the line was subject to a special Act, requiring the Government to provide four trains along it, each way, every day. Miss Bessemer from Chailey pointed this out, forcefully. Eden's administration, doubtless fearing another Suez, quietly capitulated. While Kruschev banged his shoe and Dr Beeching lopped country branch lines with abandon, the good folk of Sheffield Park chuffed happily back and forth, from Horsted Keynes to West Hoathly, from West Hoathly to Kingscote, until even Miss Bessemer from Chailey had to admit defeat, and the line was closed in 1959.
It was in the following year that Bernard Holden, born in the station house at nearby Barcombe, seconded to the Bengal Railway during the war and working as an operating assistant at British Rail's HQ ("Two-twenty: two Marylebone Road," notes Holden, tersely, "otherwise known as The Kremlin"), called a meeting to save the East Grinstead to Sheffield Park line as a "living steam" museum. Thirty years on and Bluebell Railway's 30 engines pull over 200,000 visitors annually. In 1989 these same visitors spent over £1.1 million riding back and forth along just five miles of track, enough to make the average BR manager slaver.
This, if Holden has his way, is just the beginning. By the end of 1993, God and Bluebell Railway plc's latest £1.1 million share issue willing, the Bluebell line will stretch a further 15 miles to Kingscote, beyond which lies the ultima Thule of steam railwaydom, East Grinstead and the Victoria line.
There is much that is misleading about Bluebell Railway's cutesy name and general mien. To stand on Sheffield Park station is to enter a species of automotive time warp. Signal rooms contain meticulously burnished brass levers; slot machines and enamel hoardings proffer a distressing variety of cigarettes and chocolate; an item of rolling stock bears the alarming label "steam banana". One half expects to see Celia Johnson dabbing at her eye with a hanky.
Holden's business acumen has proved to be anything but cutesy, however, as Bluebell Railway plc's share issue prospectus bears witness to. "In the beginning", says the plc's own (not at all fat) controller, "we managed to negotiate a good deal with BR. First, a lease for £2,000 a year, so that we didn't need an initial capture structure. Then, in 1968, we got them to sell us the land and stations outright for £43,500. We already had £20,000, so we only had to find another £23,500 on mortgage. Two years later we'd cleared it."