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Bluebell Railway - FAQ

(Frequently Asked Questions)


Q: Does the railway run every day of the year? A: The railway runs steam trains on about 3/4 of the days in each year. Full details are in the timetable.

Q: How much are the fares? A: Details of the train fares (and admission charges for those not travelling on our trains) are here.

Q: Is the railway open on days when trains aren't running? A: Yes, except on Christmas day.

Q: What are the opening hours? A: On days when trains are running (see the timetable for operating dates and train departure times) opening times are roughly half an hour before the first train until half an hour after the last. On other days (except Christmas Day), at Sheffield Park, the loco sheds, museum and shop are open between 11am and 4pm. The sales and information office is open 9am to 5pm, every day. Our "Bessemer Arms" Bar and Restaurant at Sheffield Park are usually open for lunch on these days as well. Just the same as any other visitor attraction, admission charges apply for access to the Railway's public sites. At East Grinstead, our "Grinsteade Buffet", toilets and travel centre are also open every day, open to anyone, not just visitors to the Railway.

Q: What facilities are there for the disabled? A: When visiting, we hope you will find that the railway is fairly "disabled friendly". Full details of the facilities are available on a separate web page. Amongst other facilities, we aim to have one of our wheelchair accessible saloons available on at least some of our trains each day that trains operate. Please ask the station staff to guide you safely across between platforms if you are unable to manage steps.

Q: Can I bring my dog? A: Dogs are welcome, and there is even a special ticket available for them. The upper part of the field at Horsted Keynes is a good place for them to let off steam, and information about walks in the area is available from the Ticket Offices. The only restrictions are the buffet/restaurant building and Golden Arrow Pullman Dining Train, for obvious reasons. However picnic style tables are available just outside the buffet at Sheffield Park. Guide dogs are most welcome, and travel free.

Q: What is your policy on smoking? A: The Bluebell has a strict No Smoking policy on all platforms, trains, in buildings etc. This policy extends to electronic cigarettes of any description. Smoking is of course still permitted outside the front of each station.

Q: Why is the entire railway No Smoking when the law only requires that of enclosed spaces? A: If we were selective about where we allowed smoking we would need a proliferation of large, conspicuous, modern no-smoking signs on every carriage door and loco cab, as well as lines/signs painted on station platforms (since the canopies are substantially enclosed, at least whilst trains are in the stations). These signs would rather spoil the vintage atmosphere! We had banned smoking on our trains a few years earlier, to reduce the fire risk, both on our trains and on the lineside. Not only is a complete ban much simpler, but, since smoking is similarly prohibited on all national rail stations and trains, we are also consistent with the public rail network.

Q: How do I get to the Bluebell? A: The Bluebell Railway is between London and the South Coast, in the beautiful Sussex Weald near the Ashdown Forest. Access by train is easy from London and Croydon since it is only a short walk between stations in East Grinstead. A variety of buses run to the railway, and free car parking is available to Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes. Full details of access to the railway are here.

Q: Can I drive a steam engine? A: Yes, join us as a volunteer, working through the grades from Cleaner, via Fireman and Passed Fireman to Driver.

Q: How long is the line? A: It is eleven miles from Sheffield Park to East Grinstead.

Q: How long is the tunnel? A: At nearly half a mile it is the longest in use on any heritage line in the UK. It's actually 731 yards long.

Q: How steep are the hills on the line? A: Whilst the steepest gradient is 1-in-55, the prevailing gradient is 1-in-75 - this is quite a challenge for the smaller engines, mainly because it is a climb several miles long, and is why most of our engines face north - i.e. up the prevailing gradient. A gradient diagram is available.

Q: Which steam engines are likely to be working when I visit? A: The Loco Roster shows the intended locomotives, but may be subject to change, and can only be a rough guide. Further information is usually available on the "Next Week's Services" page, but to confirm which locos are actually in use on the particular day of your visit, please phone our Information office that morning.

Q: Can I see the other locomotives? A: Our locomotive collection represents the largest collection of steam engines in the south of the country, and the best collection of locomotives which operated in the area. Most of the locomotives are accessible to visitors in the loco shed, or visible from there in the loco yard. Some can be seen elsewhere at Sheffield Park and Horsted Keynes. The locomotive workshops are not generally accessible, but this only accounts for usually three locos. A few others may be temporarily tucked away in out-of-the-way sidings, but the vast majority of the collection is there for our visitors to see.

Q: How many of the staff are volunteers? A: All the station staff, signalmen, drivers, firemen and guards, and many other staff carrying out restoration and maintenance. Our Trustees and Directors are also unpaid volunteers. We do also have a core of full-time staff, involved with administration, maintenance of the locomotives and carriages, and in catering, but many volunteers also help in these areas. If you would like to help, details are here. Out of a membership of around 11,000, about 800 are active as volunteers.

Q: How can children get involved? A: The Stepney Club is for children up to 8 years old, whilst the 9F Club enables 9 to 15 year olds to get more actively involved.

Q: What other attractions are there in the area? A: Quite a few. Details are here.

Q: Does "Thomas" visit the Bluebell? A: He has done in the past, but unfortunately the restrictions and costs imposed by the copyright holder proved too onerous. The Railway remains the home to "Stepney" and other locos which featured in his own book in the Railway Series.

Q: How many locomotives have you got? A: About 30 steam engines. See the Loco Stock List for details.

Q: Which engines are in working order? A: There is a page for the operational locos here.

Q: Why aren't they all servicable? A: Steam engines are expensive to maintain, and after an overhaul they can normally only run for another ten years before the insurance company insists that we dismantle them again to inspect and overhaul the boiler. We always have a range of different sized locos available for service to meet our needs.

Q: When can I see them all running together? A: We very rarely do this, since it is very expensive to do so. Some of the bigger special events days will have more locos working, but in fact it's not unusual to find four or five locomotives in steam on an ordinary weekend.

Q: Which is your most famous engine? A: A difficult question. "Fenchurch" became famous in the late 1950's and early 60's as the oldest locomotive running on British Railways, built in 1872. Our other Stroudley Terrier, "Stepney" became famous after the Revd. Awdry wrote a book about him, which also featured "Captain Baxter". "Stowe" is one of the Southern Railway's famous Schools class locomotives. SECR P-Class No.323 has become something of a celebrity, after many decades painted in 'Bluebell Blue' and carrying the name "Bluebell". We are also home to the sole survivors of many classes of engines; the only North London Railway loco, the GWR "Dukedog", LBSCR E4, SECR O1, C and H, Southern Q, the LSWR radial tank, the only surviving named BR Class 5 (No.73082 "Camelot"), and have projects to reconstruct a Brighton Atlantic and BR 2MT tank.

Q: Can I get the "Event Guides" in advance of Special Events? A: Yes, they are advertised on the relevant Special Events pages when they are available.

Q: Do I need special permission to take photos or videos? A: You may take photos/videos at any of the public areas at the stations. To take photos/videos along the lineside (not all parts of the lineside are accessible) you must obtain a lineside photographic PTS certificate, for which attendance at a Bluebell Personal Track Safety training session is required. You may take photographs for your private collection or the railway press whilst on our stations and in possession of a valid travel or station ticket, or from the lineside if holding a lineside permit. Commercial photography/videoing/filming is not permitted under these arrangements. If you wish to use such material commercially, or to arrange for specialised filming facilities to be available, please contact our office.

Q: Is the Railway a Museum? A: We are foremost an operational railway. We have a section of the railway which is an accredited museum, mainly to further the educational side. The railway's museum also maintains a large archive and photo collection some of which is available on-line, and there is an extensive museum display in the buildings on Platform 2 at Sheffield Park, significantly enhanced as a result of our HLF grant. We are planning to further enhance this side, with a records and research centre. In a way, of course, the entire operation is a "Living Museum" as well as an operational railway.

Q: What can the railway offer to schools? A: Phone or e-mail Sheffield Park to discuss what the railway can offer. Visits can be tied into the national curriculum.

Q: Can my Car Club hold a meeting in your car park or field? A: Phone or e-mail our office to discuss what the railway can offer. We charge the Bluebell Bonus rate for each car, which allows the driver unlimited travel, if they wish, on Bluebell trains for the day; all other car passengers may travel at the normal group fare.

Q: Didn't the Bluebell have a "no diesel" policy? A: Not as such, but until 2006 we were able to undertake all of our shunting using steam engines, and don't actually have enough space to accommodate or service main-line diesels. Since the family visitor comes to see steam, and the scene we re-create is from 1880 to the early 1960s, diesels wouldn't fit in very well in any case. The "policy" is that the Society will consider any request to bring in any item of rolling stock (be it a loco of any type, a wagon or a carriage) on its individual merits, taking into account its potential usefulness to the railway, how it will be maintained, and how it fits into our collection. For the removal of spoil from the Imberhorne Cutting on the East Grinstead extension we have needed to run daily spoil trains, and, whilst during 2005 we were able to hire in an additional steam locomotive to undertake the work, the lack of a suitable locomotive available for 2006-7 meant that we needed to hire a diesel shunter to undertake that job for a couple of years. In 2008 this loco was replaced by another similar one, also under hire, for shunting and since the removal of spoil on the extension was set to continue at a faster rate in the spring of 2009, we also had a short term hire of a class 73 and subsequently a 33. These hired locomotives are not part of the Railway's locomotive stock, and have not been rostered to haul any timetabled passenger services, except on a handful of days when a faulty batch of copper used in boiler stays throughout the UK caused the withdrawal of most of our steam engines for safety tests during mid-2013. Fortunately all our boilers had a clean bill of health once the tests were concluded. With the opening of the extension it is inevitable that diesel-hauled charters and maintenance trains will arrive from the national network, but again these would not be rostered to haul our normal timetabled trains. We have now replaced the 08 with an 09, again hired, but this time from a group of Bluebell members.

Q: What is so special about the Chesham Carriages? A: The coaches, built by the Metropolitan Railway in 1898-1900, ended up operating on the Metropolitan's "Chesham" branch, and when withdrawn in 1960 they were the oldest coaches running in the country. During the early and mid 1960s they carried most of our passengers on the Bluebell. These four coaches have been restored by volunteers to as close to their original condition as possible, and make a unique century-old train of matching "close-coupled" coaches. The web pages about the restoration of these coaches were the first such pages to be published on the Internet.

Q: Why do you have First Class tickets? A: Some of our visitors prefer to pay a little more to travel in greater comfort and seclusion, and we have some beautifully restored first class carriages. So again we are preserving and operating the railway in the same way as it did historically.

Q: Why are there "Third" class tickets? A: In the 19th century there were 1st, 2nd and 3rd class carriages (and even 4th-class at one time). The railway companies simplified things by abolishing second class (except on some special trains, such as international trains to the continent). In 1956 Third Class was re-named "Second", and is now known as "Standard" Class on the national rail network. We continue to use the old description, since it matches the way the coaches are restored to their original condition. There is more information about the development of the British railway carriage here.

Q: Are there discounted tickets for local residents? A: We have a local residents' "Friends Railcard", offering discounts for journeys on the Bluebell line - details here.

Q: Why does the Bluebell need wagons? A: Historically goods traffic was actually more important on this line than passenger traffic, so, since we are aiming to preserve the whole railway scene, we have to have goods trucks. We have a large collection of historic wagons, some of which have been restored, and run occasionally on demonstration trains. We also have a significant fleet of slightly more modern wagons which are used in the maintenance of the railway track. These are all listed in the wagon stock list.

Q: How is it safe to run trains in both directions on a single line? A: The signalling system we use is designed to prevent more than one train being on the "single line" at a time. The train driver must have a staff or token before entering the section of line, and the machine that issues these in the signal box at one end of the line is linked to the machine at the next signal box, and also with the signals, and so "blocks" the line to any other train. There is more detailed information available here.

Q: What is the speed limit on the line? A: 25 miles an hour. Whilst many of our steam engines would be capable of running much faster than this, there are many places on our line where the trains ran at this sort of speed in the old days.

Q: Do you have a turntable? A: No. The line is sufficiently short that the engines can run backwards in one direction. But they are always on the front of the train, even when the engine itself runs backwards. They use the loop at the stations at each end of the line to move from one end of the train to the other. With the opening of the extension to link up with the main line at East Grinstead we will want to be able to turn incoming locos, and so the installation of a turntable (probably at Horsted Keynes due to lack of space elsewhere) at some stage in the future is being considered.

Q: Can I dine on the train? A: Yes, our Golden Arrow Pullman Dining Train recreates the elegance of the 1920s, and our Lounge Car Service offers cream teas. Ploughman's lunches and children's parties can also be accommodatated

Q: Is there a dress code on the Golden Arrow Pullman dining train? A: Yes, the dress code is smart casual; no jeans or trainers.

Q: Can we get married at the railway? A: Yes, our Birch Grove Suite at Sheffield Park and a more intimate room on one of the platforms at Horsted Keynes are licenced for civil weddings, and we frequently also host wedding receptions, either in the Birch Grove Suite or on the Golden Arrow Pullman Train. Details are here.

Q: Is the Bluebell often used for TV and Films? A: Yes, we are often quite busy with filming, including more recently "Downton Abbey", "The Invisible Woman", "The Woman in Black" and "John Carter". The biggest film was the 2000 Carlton TV film of "The Railway Children", as well as many others including the BBC's "The Young Visiters", "Miss Potter", "Wind in the Willows", "102 Dalmations", Ken Russell's "Mahler" and "Lisztomania", "Station Jim" for the BBC, "Ruby in the Smoke" and countless others, as well as documentaries, pop videos and fashion shoots. Details here.

Q: Wasn't The Railway Children set in Yorkshire? A: The earlier film (1970) and TV (1968) versions were filmed in Yorkshire. However, the story in the book suggests that the location is not too far from London, and some people think it was set in Kent where Edith Nesbit spent much of her childhood. A study by the Edith Nesbit Society has identified five plausible locations all over the country. The very first (1950s) TV adaptations were also made in the South of England. However, given that the railway in the story is called the "Great Northern and Southern Railway", it was clearly not intended to be anywhere in particular!

Q: Which locations, locos and coaches were used in "The Railway Children"? A: All the details are on our web pages about the October 1999 filming of "The Railway Children".

Q: Is there scope for running a commuter service on the Bluebell? A: The line runs through a very sparsely populated area, so this is unlikely, even now we run to East Grinstead. People who live nearby do on occasions use our trains to visit East Grinstead.

Q: Will you be building a station at West Hoathly? A: We plan to investigate the possibility of a halt at West Hoathly. The planning permission for the extension currently prevents us from opening a station here, although if demand for a station came from local people, and the money could be found, it might be possible.

Q: Does the railway make a profit? A: The Bluebell Railway plc is a "Not for Profit" company. Any profit made is more than swallowed up by the restoration of more rolling stock, improvements to the railway and development of visitor facilities. All these aspects are also subsidised enormously by donations and volunteer labour from our members. We can spend any additional money we are given on worthwhile projects almost immediately.

Q: Who owns the railway? A: The Railway is a plc, with shares issued. The majority of the shares are owned by the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society, which is the democratic body of which we are all members. So you can share in this ownership by joining the society. There are about 11,000 members, and all the volunteers are members. In addition some of the shares are owned by individuals. Many members own a few hundred shares each, since share issues have been an effective form of fund-raising which helped finance the construction of the Northern Extension. No dividend is paid, so any profits remain to be spent on the railway.
Percentage of Bluebell Railway PLC shares held by Bluebell Railway Preservation Society: 73% (as of end 2012)

Q: Why isn't the railway a Charity? A: It's because of the way it developed, as a democratically controlled society, answerable to its members. A charity is answerable first to the Charity Commissioners, so would not be able to be controlled in the same way. In addition, a charity would be unable to hold shares in the Bluebell Railway in the way that the Society holds a controlling interest. However, there is a Charity, the Bluebell Railway Trust, which enables us to undertake projects for which funding would not otherwise be available, and enables donations towards suitable projects and bequests to attract Gift Aid or Inheritance Tax relief.

Q: Was the line closed by Beeching? A: No. The line closures (1955 and 1958 - see below) and re-opening by the BRPS all pre-dated the appointment of Dr. Beeching as Chairman of the British Railways Board (1 June 1961) and the publication of his "The Reshaping of British Railways" report on 27 March 1963.

Q: Why did the line close twice? A: The full story is on the history pages, but in summary the initial (28 May 1955) closure was found to be illegal, and so British Railways was grudgingly forced to restore a service. It was only after a public inquiry and a clause to repeal part of the the original Lewes & East Grinstead Railway Act was passed by Parliament that the line could be properly closed (on 17 March 1958). It was the publicity around the fight to keep the line open that led to the founding of our Preservation Society.

Q: When will the railway extend Westwards? A: We own the track-bed from Horsted Keynes to Ardingly, but this is a project for maybe 10 years time. The signalling and trackwork at Horsted Keynes have been designed and laid to accommodate the junction when the time comes. Any such development is also subject to obtaining planning permission, meeting other statutary requirements, and funding being available. It is accepted that the Railway must put its energies into the maintenance and development of the existing infrastructure for some years to come, now that the extension to East Grinstead is completed, before turning our attention westwards. But plans are being formulated, our options are safeguarded, including work towards reinstating the missing viaduct using second-hand bridge sections, a route agreed around the edge of the aggregates terminal, and space set aside for a Bluebell platform at Haywards Heath, although access to it would have to be via the main line. Further details of our plans are in the Long Term Plan on the Society's web pages.

Q: Could the line to Ardingly be re-electrified? A: This is something we have not ruled out. However, it would be very expensive, so it would probably require outside financial assistance since such a project is not core to the Bluebell's operation. In addition, there are safety issues which would have to be addressed, and which it might be quite a challenge to resolve.

Q: What about extending Southwards? A: The railway has current no plans to extend southwards, and there would be formidable difficulties in doing so (removed bridges, filled in cuttings, and many houses built across the route). It might also make the railway too large for the resources available for its maintenance. Having said that, no one can tell what the situation will be in 50 years time, and our current policy is support the protection of the formation of the old line for future generations.

Q: Why not apply to the Lottery? A: A Millenium Fund application for the northern extension was turned down. Six years of work led to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £2.875 million towards the Bluebell Railway's £3.9 million Operation Undercover and Museum project at Sheffield Park, but a further HLF application for the next phase of this programme (at Horsted Keynes) was subsequently turned down. We did obtain a small grant from the Big Lottery Fund, under the People's Millions scheme, for the restoration of a Victorian carriage which now provides wheelchair-accessible accommodation. For the East Grinstead extension we have used a variety of other fund-raising methods, starting with the 2008 share offer (now closed), the "Tenner for the Tip" and "Fiver for the Finish" schemes, and our 50th anniversary appeal. We are currently running a charitable Appeal, the current phase of which is "Keep up the Pressure", targeting fund-raising for our steam locomotive fleet.

Q: Why do you do it? A: We gain enormous satisfaction from the pleasure we are able to give to our visitors, and take a pride in a job well done. We also have a good social life on the railway. For many of us it's a chance to do something different at weekends from what we do in our work. Many of our volunteers are retired, and find the work stimulating. We all enjoy a challenge.

Q: Can I have some facts and figures about the railway for a marketing/tourism project? A: Some figures extracted from the Railway's published accounts for the 12 months ended 31 December 2012:

  Turnover:
        £2,984,906 (2011: £2,932,988; 2010: £3,160,657)
          (including fares and station tickets of £1,585,789 (2011: £1,552,241; 2010: £1,706,796);
           Shop and Bookstall: £278,740 (2011: £305,664; 2010: £351,670);
           Catering: £941,213 (2011: £962,691; 2010: £945,661))
  Average number of paid employees during the year:
        56 (2011: 54; 2010: 54).
  Publicity and Marketing costs:
        £91,512 (2011: £110,480; 2010: £85,248)
  Locomotive coal bill:
        £164,359 (2011: £181,673; 2010: £173,476)
  Maintenance of locomotives, rolling stock, track, signalling and other equipment and property:
        £485,085 (2011: £500,161; 2010: £464,006)
  Profit/Loss of PLC (after including donations, before taxation):
        Loss £118,653 (2011: Loss £45,158; 2010: Loss £7,526)
        NB: as a not-for-profit company, the aim is not to make a profit, and any profits are used for preservation activities.

  Donations and Bequests received:
        Society £58,901 (2011: £28,545; 2010: £30,298)
        Trust £1,489,506 (2011: Trust £1,303,702; 2010: £726,992)

If this page has not answered your question, try searching this web site, or E-mail: info @ bluebell-railway.co.uk.

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