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|Bridging the Gap: Rother Valley Railway - Mark Yonge|
|The cold weather had put several people off attending our February meeting, but ten were present to welcome Mark Yonge of the Rother Valley Railway. Mark gave a fascinating illustrated talk of the work to link the Kent & East Sussex Railway to the railhead at Robertsbridge and thus connect with the national network.
Mark started with a brief historical description of the origins of the line around 1900, as a Colonel Stevens light railway. This was built to serve the market town of Rolvenden which otherwise would suffer economically from its isolation. Ultimately the line extended from Headcorn to Robertsbridge, thus connecting two main-lines and having a total length of 24 miles. Its demise came only a few decades later as a result of road competition. As we all know, in 1961 the new K&ESR was formed and re-opened the part of the line between Tenterden and Bodiam as a preserved railway, reaching Bodiam at the turn of the Millenium. But the section from Bodiam to Robertsbridge is a gap which leaves the railway isolated from the national rail network. There have long been aspiration to "bridge the gap", but these were met by resistance in high places - even Rt Hon Barbara Castle refused to sanction the attempts, when the Robertsbridge bypass was being planned. The Department of Transport continued to resist until recently, when a glimmer of a more open approach started to appear.
In 1990/91 a new company, the Rother Valley Railway Company, was set up to pursue the extension. This is a completely separate legal entity from the K&ESR, whose objective is to secure the land and build the extension, and then wind itself up, selling the resulting asset to the K&ESR for a nominal amount - probably just £1. Even before the formation of the company, Mark had walked the route to confirm that there was nothing insurmountable which would prevent the completion of the extension. This gap of 3 miles looks relatively easy on the map, going through relatively flat countryside. However, there are three level crossings over busy roads and several bridges over water-courses, and all the track-bed had been sold to adjacent landowners.
The first objective was to extend the track from the current railhead at Bodiam. Orignially the owner was reluctant to sell and was very opposed to the extension of the railway. However, the property, comprising some 30 acres of land and a large house, came on the market. In stepped a beneficiary, who raised the money to buy the estate, separating the track-bed from the title deeds and then reselling the remainder at a profit, effectively securing the trackbed for the extension. This allowed track to be laid from Bodiam west towards the site of the first level crossing over the B2244, Junction Road.
Interestingly, the new land-owners of the adjoining estate are now very supportive of the railway and, while current agreement only envisages 12 trains a year running on this part of the track, Mark doesn't envisage much difficulty when the time comes to run a more intensive service once the extension is fully built. It's the old story - resistance to something new, but acceptance and support once things are operating.
Around 200 yards on from Junction Road there is Austin Bridge which was installed around Nationalisation and is in reasonable condition, probably suitable for restoration. The trackbed is mainly intact, traceable as a tree-lined path, between here and the Robersbridge bypass, the A21. This will be the major planning challenge with the road authorities, but Mark believes they can get agreement. The site of the crossing will be close to a roundabout, so traffic will (or should!) be travelling slowly. Train movements, however, will be relatively swift at that point and they envisage the barrier only being lowered for 45 seconds. There will be full-width barriers here and at the other two level crossings. Just after the bypass, the line will run over a small culvert, but the bridge here has already been demolished. The line runs across an open field to the next crossing at Northbridge Street. This road is now relatively quiet - it used to be the main road before the bypass - so a level crossing should not be too problematic. Following this is the land which the company has already purchased. Bridge number 6, immediately after Northbridge Street, will need to be demolished as it is in a poor condition. The company already hold a stock of bridge material at their Robertsbridge site, sufficient to rebuild these and the others on the line. Indeed, bridges 3 and 4 on the rest of the line leading to Robersbridge, have already been demolished and rebuilt with heavy-duty concrete abutments and steel deck. The first bridge out of Robertsbridge, bridge 1, has been restored as it was rebuilt at Nationalisation. When rebuilding the bridges, they uncovered some interesting archeological evidence of how Colonel Stephen's team went about their bridge-building work - not surprisingly it was cheap and chearfull, using random cast concrete blocks which also doubled up as scaffolding points.
There was a pinch-point at the entry to Robertsbridge station yard which necessitated the company buying some additional land on the town side. This has allowed them to have sufficient space for the platforms, running line and run-round loop. Network Rail are willing to allow them to make a connection to their engineer's siding - which actually used to be the original Rother Valley Railway platform. A new station building has been designed and is expected to be completed within two years. Mark showed us the photographs taken that month of the site clearing and foundation preparations - so there is no grass growing under the project's feet (literally!). There is also be a carriage shed and loco shed to be built. Track for the extension has already been sourced from London Transport and has, and will be laid by the K&ESR track gang. Assuming they can purchase the remaining land, it would be possible to complete the entire extension in two years.
During questions, we asked how they envisaged the service operating on the line. Mark felt that full length journeys would only be made on special events. However, there could be potential to run shuttles from Robertsbridge to Bodiam to connect with the K&ESR services or even in partnership with the National Trust to service visitors to Bodiam Castle.
We were all struck by how positive the outlook is for the extension and how enthusiastic Mark champions the project. He noted that now would be a good time to come and see it. A group from the Colonel Stephens Society did just that last year, using a vintage bus to take them to see the sights, and sample some of the local pubs in the area. Perhaps we ought to follow their example?