IT IS always a privilege to witness those legendary pinnacles of preservation. Sadly, I was not present to witness the Ffestiniog Railway working on its Llyn Ystradau deviation, nor the rebuilding of a part-sectioned No. 71000 Duke of Gloucester to a condition wherein it ran better than in BR days, nor the opening of the National Railway Museum at York.
However, I was there for the dockside unloading of the two exiled A4 Pacifics at Liverpool for the Mallard 75 celebrations, and the completion, launch and first main line run of new-build A1 Pacific Tornado, and was on board for its 101mph run earlier this year.
On September 3, I added another great moment to my list, even though like those other spectators on the Nottingham Road bridge in Loughborough, I shivered throughout on a cold, late-summer evening.
Still, it was worth every moment to see the realisation of a dream which spanned four decades and now spans the Midland Main Line: the installation of the beams of the bridge which will one day link the Great Central Railway to the Great Central Railway (Nottingham).
Not only will the bridge create an 18-mile steam highway from the outskirts of Nottingham to those of Leicester, but will allow main line charters to run to and from Loughborough Central and Leicester North for the first time, and access the major new national standard museum to be built at the latter.
For many years, there has been the incessant “will it ever happen or won’t it” debate about the bridge, yet it took less than two hours to lift the beams into place.
Yes, it is only one component of the link project – a huge section of embankment now has to be rebuilt north of Loughborough Central for a start – but it is hugely symbolic and will undoubtedly provide the impetus for the raising and provision of the funds essential to complete the showpiece project, just as a new-build locomotive project boosts its credibility tenfold when the boiler is built.
The completion of the Bridge to the Future project will give an unprecedented boost not only to the GCR and the East Midlands tourist economy, but to the nationwide heritage sector as a whole.
It will demonstrate that ‘missions impossible’ can be made possible, and will highlight the major benefits offered by heritage railways to local authorities across the country: it will offer practical hope that other obstacles can be overcome given the will, such as the missing A6 bridge, which could take Peak Rail into Bakewell and hopefully beyond.
The installation of the Loughborough bridge may well herald a new golden age in the sector, with other railways now forging ahead to achieve major goals.
Already this year, we have seen timetabled Swanage Railway trains run to Wareham, and next spring we will be able to ride on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway into Broadway.
The Llangollen Railway is making steady progress on its new town centre station in Corwen, and even the much smaller Mid-Suffolk Light Railway is now expanding out of its long-time confines to pastures new.
It is now nearly 20 years since I entered railway journalism to the jibes of those who labelled enthusiasts and volunteers as ‘anoraks’, yet these people have shown time and time again that a far more accurate description is “achievers”, for yet again, despite the years of national austerity, railway preservation has proudly shown itself to be the art of the possible.
Robin Jones, EditorEnjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.