UK: Bluebell Railway - the other BR. (2 of 2)

UK: Bluebell Railway - the other BR. (2 of 2) - Not only Holden's railway but also his business methods have, in other words, been resolutely pre-war. An abiding irony of the Thatcher era is that this means that they have both been smack up to date: expa

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Not only Holden's railway but also his business methods have, in other words, been resolutely pre-war. An abiding irony of the Thatcher era is that this means that they have both been smack up to date: expansions funded out of accrued capital on the one hand; a small, privatised branch of an unwieldy nationalised behemoth run as a skilfully niched business on the other. What is more, the railway's performance has been maintained in spite of vast logistical problems.

The first of these is that, since the rapine of Beeching (a name uttered with consummate distaste by the denizens of Sheffield Park station), Bluebell has had no railhead of its own. "Since they cut us off from East Grinstead in 1963 we've been stranded," says Holden grimly. "Eighty per cent of our customers have to travel to us by car" - an appalling irony for a firm whose ersatz motto is "Floreat Vapor". The five southern steam preservation societies have managed to ensure a steady stream of the hated internal combustion engines by joining in a marketing consortium, but, given these recessionary times, the idea of what Holden refers to as "us all fishing in the same water" has lost some of its appeal. Steam railways, like the Falkland Islands, need 50-mile exclusion zones if they are to work.

By far the largest problem for Bluebell Railways plc, however, has been that the heinous Beeching's cuts left it with a chain or two short of five miles of track on which to ply its trade. The railway's 200,000 passengers and their £1.1 million spend last year must mark something very like saturation point. Its answer to this problem has been to engineer an ingenious range of bolt-on extras to persuade the punters to part with their "money". In some cases the engineering and bolting on of these extras has been quite literal, with Bluebell's workshop turning out an impressive range of locomotive hardware for sale to fellow preservation societies as well as for its own use. (As with the rest of the railway's activities, much of its engineering work is done by steam-mad volunteers, among their number a British Airways 747 pilot: make of this what you will.)

The Sheffield Park station shop sold £212,000 worth of engine-bedecked tea towels and Thomas the Tank Engine memorabilia to locophiles and their locophilic offspring. Last year the same group munched its way through £315,000 worth of tea and gingerbread engines. Plutocratic steam enthusiasts host client dinners in Bluebell's restored 1930s Pullman dining car; affianced couples marry each other in its cabs, the coal painted specially white for the occasion. Another useful source of operating income comes from film and television companies, which invest £20,000 or so a year in having stars swirl romantically through the steam on Sheffield Park's platforms, talking in clipped tones of love and ration books. Bernard Holden's suggestion to a uniformed assistant that "Hercule Poirot will probably be looking for me later this afternoon" causes only passing disquiet.

In the end, however, Holden's real aim (an ambition as true to period as his ticket collectors' caps) is expansionist, as it must be if Bluebell Railway is to become more than a scaled-up version of a Hornby Double-O. Already BR plc - any acronymic resemblance to any other railway company is entirely coincidental - has managed by various forms of legerdemain to reacquire 80% of the original track-bed lost to it in 1963.

The glint in Holden's eye as he describes these various reacquisitions would warm the heart of a Victorian railway baron. One stretch was bought from builders, who had asked an impossible price but then had to sell during the 1976 slump for £25,000. ("We beat 'em down in two hours," growls Holden.) Others will come from previously uncooperative farmers "now that they're not getting EC money any more," suggests this arch free marketeer gleefully.

Bar one recalcitrant section just short of East Grinstead, the route to the main London to Brighton line is tantalisingly within reach. Quite apart from solving myriad logistical problems - getting a 30-ton, 50-foot class 9F loco-and-tender to mid-Sussex by road is both difficult, and, one senses, degrading - tapping into the main BR artery will vastly enlarge Bluebell's catchment area and market. Then it will have pulled off the singular coup of having reinstated its entire pre-Beeching track and service.

Does this mean a return to conventional commercial traffic for the mid-Sussex branch line? A real job for steam? Bernard Holden suggests, a little dolefully, not; then toys with the idea of "a Saturday shopping train from Sheffield Park to East Grinstead. To be commercial in the sense of running a commuter service would really call for an injection of government subsidy, though," says the chairman, "and that would take us right back to being British Railways."

Standing beside the gleaming olive flank of a giant Schools-class locomotive, such interventionist ideas are clearly anathema. Given present Conservative Party suggestions of a ritual disembowelling for British Rail, the day may come when Bluebell's pointedly retardiere operations seem bizarrely modern. Telephone calls from future Transport Secretaries do not seem beyond belief.

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