Wisbech and March Bramleyline

Wisbech and March Bramleyline

The Wisbech and March Bramley Line is an embryonic heritage railway based in the town of March in Cambridgeshire, England, that aims to reinstate services over the disused railway line linking the town with Wisbech.

Historical background

The passing of the Wisbech, St. Ives and Cambridge Junction Railway Act 1846 (c.ccclvi) authorised the construction of two lines from March railway station: a 7.8 mile line to Wisbech which was reached by an almost straight north-easterly route across The Fens and a line south to the market town of St Ives. The double-track line to Wisbech was the first to open on 3 May 1847 followed by the St Ives line nine months later. The Wisbech line was taken over before completion by the Eastern Counties Railway and then by the Great Eastern Railway in 1862. Coldham was the only intermediate station between March and Wisbech, the latter being served by a new station constructed in the town centre and named "Wisbeach". It was to last until 1863 when it was resited south and later renamed Wisbech East upon nationalisation of the railways to distinguish it from the Midland and Great Northern's Wisbech North station. The railway development in the area was completed in March 1848 with the opening of a single-track 9.5 mile extension from Wisbeach to Watlington Junction.

Although not recommended for closure in the Beeching Report of 1963, the series of lines around Wisbech were gradually closed from the 1960s onwards. Coldham station was the first to be closed in 1966, followed by the March to Watlington and March to Wisbech branches in September 1968. The line between March and Wisbech remained, however, open to freight traffic - namely steel coil for the Metal Box factory and occasional parcels, coal and pet food trains from Nestle Purina until Summer 2000. The line was singled in March 1972 with the lifting of the down rails.

Early preservation attempts

Plans to open to line as a passenger service have been discussed for many years. In 1974, "WAMRAC" (the Wisbech And March Railway Action Committee) was formed with the intention of reopening the Wisbech line to passenger traffic. The committee never achieved this goal, although on 1 July 1984, along with RDS (Rail Development Services), the WAMRAC organised the last ever passenger train from Wisbech. This was a special train consisting of a Class 47 loco and ten British Rail Mk2 coaches, which ran from Wisbech to York and Scarborough.

State of the route

Wisbech East Station was lost to redevelopment following closure in 1968 and the station site is obliterated by a housing development dating from 2001.

The track now ends at Weasenham Lane crossing following the removal of the rails from the level crossing in 2005. Beyond this point, the old Wisbech East Goods Yard (acquired by Nestle Purina from Railtrack in 1995) was last used in 2000. Three years after the last pet food train from Wisbech, the remaining three sidings were lifted. The whole yard area now forms the factory and car park extension.

As for the single track, owned by Network Rail, it is still connected to the National Rail network via Whitemoor Junction near March. New signalling was installed at the junction during late 2007 for the benefit of outward bound engineering trains from the re-opened Whitemoor Yard, once the second biggest freight yard in Europe during World War II and now a stabling point for engineering trains.

Wisbech and March Bramley Line

Genesis

The Wisbech March Railway Trust was formed on 22 October 2003 by Wisbech businessman Peter Downs following an initiative he had raised at meetings of the local Chamber of Commerce. In response to a question as to how more visitors could be attracted to The Fens and Wisbech in particular, he suggested reinstating the railway line, an idea which met with some amusement at the time. Downs nevertheless began making enquiries within the railway industry as to the future plans for the disused line which had seen its last freight service in 2000. An article was published in the local press to drum up support and a meeting was held at which five supporters attended and elected Downs as Chairman. The railway's name was chosen after the large quantity of Bramley apples that used to be carried by rail from the area.

Proposed route

From a new temporary station named "March North" located next to Elm Road crossing near Whitemoor Junction a run-round loop would connect to the Wisbech line. A passing loop would also be installed at a new Coldham station situated on the site of the former down (Wisbech) platform, and a run-round loop between Newbridge Lane and Weasenham Lane crossings are intended. The new Wisbech East station will be next to Newbridge Lane crossing, the closest to the original site that a new Wisbech station can possibly be built. Two shuttle bus services are being proposed as well, linking both towns' heritage railway stations with their respective bus stations.

Progress to date

Setbacks

Initial progress was slow but by April 2005 campaign membership had grown to 94. However, in March 2006, the group's Membership Officer resigned at short notice following the Annual General Meeting. Although personal reasons were cited for his decision, it later transpired that he was seeking the resignation of Peter Downs so that he could be elected in his place as Chairman. Downs refused and Brian Baylis was elected Membership Officer. Struggles to obtain funding from members led to Peter Downs' resignation in June 2007 and his replacement by Brian Baylis.

The project has the support of Fenland District Council which sees it as promoting tourism and economic regeneration. However, in December 2007 the Council refused the Bramleyline's application for £20,000 funding on the basis that the project had "no business basis" and "no practical outcome". The Council advised the group to prepare a business plan and offered to help it secure alternative funding.

Track clearance

The Bramleyline Track clearance team first started vegetation clearance work at Coldham in July 2006 and continued until late 2007. As of the first Sunday of March 2008, the team re-started track clearance work with a vengeance close to Whitemoor Junction and each Sunday (weather permitting) are slowly working back towards Wisbech, and in doing so making good progress despite limited volunteer help. Full track clearance is required so as to carry out a thorough inspection of the track infrastructure. This is required as the branch line was last maintained to a basic freight standard (15 ton only) in the early 1970s following the lifting of the Down main rails into Wisbech.

Rolling stock

In February 2005 the Bramleyline group purchased five ex-InterCity Gatwick Express BR Mk2f class 488 coaches, comprising a rake of four first class and one club class vehicles. Numbers 8209 and 8313 were stabled in March railway station sidings. A public appeal raised £2,500 to move the coaches to March. Locomotive haulage was to have been supplied by Class 73 electro-diesels - two locos topping and tailing the five coaches until loops had been installed on the branch.

Following vandalism to the coaches, it was announced in November 2007 that the coaches would be sold. They were later purchased by the New Zealand-based Ocean Beach Railway in May 2008. Brian Baylis assured members that no loss had been made upon the coaches' sale.

Network Rail lease

The extant Up line from Wisbech is still owned by Network Rail although it has now been officially closed to all traffic since mid-2007. The Bramleyline Heritage Railway are in talks with Network Rail about taking over the line on a 99-year lease for the purposes of restoring it for tourist trains. Only when the lease for the branch has been agreed by Network Rail will the Bramleyline be able to carry out full track repair and renewal, including replacement of rotted wooden sleepers, etc. One in four, or one in five wooden sleepers along the length of the branch have degraded badly and need replacing. The track renewal work would still have to be approved by HM Rail Inspectorate for passenger trains run again between Wisbech and March.

The group initially struggled unsuccessfully to obtain funds from members to finance the lease, the first year's rent and legal fees, leading to the resignation of Peter Downs as Chairman. Since the appointment of Brian Baylis, funding has improved. Funds from the sale of the Gatwick Express coaches will be put towards the cost of the lease.

External links

References

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