The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

7 January 2006

The Kent and East Sussex Railway
Donald Wilson
14 November 2005

For our November meeting we welcomed our host at Marylebone when the Station Manager, Donald Wilson, joined us to talk about the life and times of the Kent & East Sussex Railway. The K&ESR was a typical Col Stephens line, built and operated on a veritable shoestring. Taking advantage of the 1896 Light Railway Act, the railway had been built at minimal cost to open up the agricultural land between the SE&CR lines to Ashford and Hastings. Considering the economical building methods, it was remarkable that so many of the buildings were still around over 100 years after its 1900 opening. However, the use of ungated level crossings added to the difficulties in taking over the line from BR: indeed they refused to sell the final bit into Robertsbridge because of level crossings over two busy roads.

Once more in the search of savings, the rolling stock and motive power reflected what was available secondhand - resulting a variety of motive power. Fortunately, the railway was able to buy at low cost a number of LB&SCR "Terriers", displaced by inner London electrification, which served the railway well. This tradition continued in the early days of preservation as the yard filled up with a variety of locomotives belonging to members. Over the years an effort has been made to concentrate on a batch of 1950's built "Austerity" 0-6-0T, obtained from MoD in as new condition. These powerful tanks were ideally suited to the light rail, steep gradients and tight curves allowed by the Light Railways Act.

Donald illustrated his talk with photographs of the K&ESR in operation, then through the desolation following run down and closure by BR, to the restoration of services over a 40 year period. Passenger services were withdrawn in 1954 - long before Dr Beeching - and the line north from Tenterden to its connection with the Ashford line at Headcorn lifted. The line to the Hastings line at Robertsbridge remained open until 1961 for freight and summer hop picking specials. This connection to the Hastings line was later to cause BR a headache when they contracted to deliver an ex GWR railcar to Robertsbridge, overlooking the loading gauge restriction of the Hastings line! Immediately after final closure, efforts started to purchase the remaining line whilst the track remained in place. After a number of false dawns, the line had eventually reopened in 1974, but only from Tenterden to Rolvenden. In the following decades, the line has been extended in stages until, as a Millennium project, it opened to Bodiam exactly 100 years after its first opening. In an effort to minimise operating costs, the K&ESR had been amongst the first to use railcars; first steam then a petrol engined railbus based upon back to back Ford model T chassis. So it was appropriate that the first public service in 1974 should be operated by the GWR railcar.

To support the progress a number of marketing initiatives had been made. The railway was one of the first preserved lines to provide "Wine & Dine" trains - one of Donald's initiatives, to justify refurbishing the interior of a coach. Along with the Santa Specials, the "Wine & Dine" trains provide much of the railway's income. With the withdrawal of dining car services on much of the British railways, the K&ESR can be seen to be preserving this most pleasant aspect of railway tradition.

Another area where the K&ESR have been in the forefront has been the provision of facilities for wheelchairs. We were shown pictures of HM the Queen Mother as she inaugurated the coach in her capacity as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. Her special train, "The Lord Warden", was hauled by an austerity - it is not often that these ubiquitous industrial locomotives hauled a royal train, complete with headboard and appropriate headcode.

During questions the inevitable question of restoring the connection to Robertsbridge was asked. With two busy roads to cross, this will be very much dependent upon road developments in the area, particularly to the busy A21 London to Hastings road.

Phil Brown

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