1. ITV Report

Bluebell steams ahead

Bluebell Railway this morning. Photo: ITV Meridian

Volunteers behind the running of a rural heritage steam railway had their long-held dream of seeing it extended to the national rail network realised today.

The Bluebell Railway had previously only run for nine miles from Sheffield Park in East Sussex to Kingscote.

But campaigners have fought for decades to extend it to the market town of East Grinstead, West Sussex.

Following a 39-year project costing £11 million in total and 55 years after the line was closed by British Railways, the first steam trains ran to and from Sheffield Park and East Grinstead since 1958 today.

Laying a two-mile track linking the steam railway with the mainline track was the final and most difficult hurdle for the project which in itself cost more than £4 million and was completed earlier this month.

With a blow of the whistle and wave of the flag, the first train which left East Grinstead for Sheffield Park this morning was formed of 1920s/30s Southern Railway carriages and was hauled by the E4 Class Locomotive.

Hundreds of people turned out to witness the departure as a band played tunes including "Congratulations" and passengers on board were served a champagne breakfast.

The Bluebell Railway's fund-raising director, Roger Kelly, said: "I have a feeling of elation and emotion, partly because lots of people who should have been here aren't here.

"We are so grateful to all the people who helped with the fund-raising. Without all the donations that they made, today simply wouldn't have been made possible."

Today marks the start of a two-week long festival celebrating the opening of the extended line, which began in 1974 with the purchase of the old station site at West Hoathly.

Major obstacles have been overcome during the intervening 39-year period, including raising the millions needed to fund the extension and clearing an area once used as a local tip.