IT is truly heartening in a year when we are commemorating half a century since the end of BR main line steam haulage, to see that mode of traction inching forward to reclaim yet more lost territory.
I first visited the Mid-Norfolk Railway 21 years ago, and while at that stage it ran over a comparatively short length and had only diesels on offer, the huge potential was clear.
It was typical of what we dubbed a New Generation Line, a breed of heritage railway operation which took off basically because a redundant line was available and reasonably intact. Unlike other lines in the heritage sector portfolio, such revival schemes did not have the benefit of being able to buy steam locomotives straight out of BR service, or even from the by-then-closed Barry scrapyard, and so would struggle to have instant mass tourist appeal, relying on second-hand diesel traction.
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However, despite growing up in the shadow of far longer-established lines, the Mid-Norfolk slowly but surely battled on to reopen all the way from Dereham to the main line link at Wymondham, and has in recent years regularly seen steam either visit or be hired in.
It is now turning its attention to its northern reaches, for long the domain of works trains or an occasional excursion. History was made with the first steam passenger train to Worthing Crossing, 3.8 miles from Dereham, a length long enough to be a heritage line by itself, and somewhat reminiscent of the 4.75 mile Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, which also marks its own 50th anniversary this year. The will is certainly there, and from what I have seen, the MNR has all the potential to take its place among the other big players.
Disappointing, however, has been the decision of the Heritage Lottery Fund to turn down a grant application for a National Railway Museum scheme for the second time in six months.
Over the past two decades, the Lottery has been one of the biggest benefactors to the sector, its strategically-placed grants making countless hitherto impossible projects possible.
Now, however, it has seen fit to refuse £9.5 million funding towards the NRM-backed scheme to build a new national-standard museum at Leicester North on the Great Central Railway, and to decline a £13.4 million grant towards the planned £50 million expansion of the York museum itself.
The 50th anniversary of the end of steam would have been the ideal opportunity to launch both these projects with major grant aid funding. The Leicester scheme would have provided a home for many National Collection artefacts at the end of a unique double-tracked heritage railway, in a central location well served by the road network and hugely accessible.
Expanding the York museum, a definitive hub of the sector, would have allowed it to go beyond showcasing its world-beating collection of historic locomotives and rolling stock, and have allowed thousands of documents and relics in its archives to go on display for the benefit and education of the public.
I recently visited the NRM’s marvellous Search Engine facility, now in its 10th year, and within minutes was able to hold a drawing (see page 23) of one of Richard Trevithick’s first locomotives, which of course kicked off the steam age. How many other world-class museums can offer such facilities?
The expansion programme would have allowed many more artefacts like this to have been exhibited. Not one trick but two seems to have been missed here by the Lottery, and I sincerely hope that in both cases alternative funding can be found, or we will all be the losers.
In the meantime, I must thank Lady Judy McAlpine for the magnificent and touching memorial service at Fawley Hill for her late husband, railway mega-benefactor Sir William McAlpine, with the many heartfelt speeches and readings from key sector members. Once-in-a-lifetime heroes of steam heritage like him are irreplaceable.
Robin Jones, Editor