Time for a reality check over the Rother valley

Much interest has been renewed in railway history by the ground-breaking appearance of Rocket on home territory in the Great Festival of the North. However, there appear to be those in the south of England who have taken a trip on a ‘rocket’, not one of a George or Robert Stephenson variety, but one which has conveyed them to ‘another planet’, probably one light years beyond our solar system.

Imagine the uproar in Minehead, Pickering or Porthmadog if an announcement was made their local heritage line would be no more. Remember the huge drop in trade suffered by traders in Bridgnorth a decade ago when flash summer flooding closed the Severn Valley Railway for several months?

Fact – heritage railways are brilliant if not essential for the economies of the local communities lucky enough to have them. It is not just the passenger numbers – how many tourists divert to a locality just to look at and photograph a heritage railway, one of the greatest free shows on earth, and then spend their money in the local shops, pubs, restaurants and garages?

All this seems to be lost on one south coast tourism chief, who despite her employers’ support for the project, has publicly criticised the linking of the Kent & East Sussex and Rother Valley Railway, which would at a stroke open up the immense commercial benefits to Tenterden and surrounding villages, and which would then once again be accessible from London by train.

Her opposition to the scheme, which I find absolutely astonishing, comes despite figures that predict
a £4 million annual input to the local economy at the creation of 75 jobs once the railways are joined together.

Look at the latest passenger figures on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway since it opened its dream extension into the tourist magnet of Broadway on Good Friday – a whopping 52% up on the same period last year. Critics might say the railway is merely tapping into a thriving visitor centre, but no – local traders are already reporting an increase in business away from the railway as a direct knock-on effect.

On August 15, Chinnor was spring-boarded on to the rail tourism map. After many years of trying, the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway (CPRR) opened into a main line interchange platform and connection at Risborough, and there is already talk of through steam specials from London to Chinnor. What I would give to now own a store in that village, with the prospect of 500 or more visitors with wallets at the ready decanting into it for a few hours.

GWR prairie No. 5526 departs from Platform 4 at Princes Risborough with the official opening train to Chinnor around 12.30pm on August 15. ROBIN JONES

The CPRR now boasts it is the nearest rail-connected heritage line to London. I wonder if that tourism chief ‘down south’ will be watching the multiple benefits this link will bring in the years ahead, and learn a lesson or three?

On a different track, I have been delighted by the many events over the country organised to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of British Rail main line steam haulage.

However, for me one of the best of them was the one I enjoyed from my study chair, not on the lineside.

When the Great Central Railway held the second of its end-of-steam weekends, focusing on 1T57, the ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’, The National Railway Museum streamed an expert running commentary from the footplate of the named star of August 11, 1968 – No. 70013 Oliver Cromwell – on its Facebook page!

I found it thrilling to watch all the well-known scenes on the line whizz past while the operation of the locomotive from the cab was demonstrated to viewers.

Ingenious in its simplicity and effectiveness, it left me wondering why more heritage lines don’t make better use of freely accessible and cheap internet technology like this? Sadly, too many websites I found in the beginning to be impressive are often now stale, and not updated sufficiently to be of much use.

Anyway, well done NRM for this one!

Robin Jones, Editor

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