The Three Bridges to Tunbridge Wells Central Line was a railway line running from Three Bridges (on the Brighton Main Line) in West Sussex to Tunbridge Wells Central in Kent via East Grinstead in East Sussex, a distance of . Opened in 1855, the main section of the line was a casualty of the Beeching Axe and closed on 1 January 1967. The remaining section to Tunbridge Wells closed on 6 July 1985, although this has recently reopened under the auspices of the Spa Valley Railway.
By the mid-nineteenth century East Grinstead, then a small market town, found itself excluded from the development of the railway network in the south-east; the nearest town, Godstone, was connected to the South Eastern Railway's (SER) London to Dover line, whilst the London and Brighton Railway's (LBR) Brighton Main Line had linked in Three Bridges as well as the supposedly less important towns of Haywards Heath and Horley. As the town began to lose custom to places with railway facilities, the East Grinstead traders began to clamour for a connection; some landowners and gentry pushed for an extension from Godstone, whilst others were in favour of a branch line from Three Bridges. In 1845 the SER and LBR promoted rival bills for lines through the town, but these both came to nothing: the local townspeople withdrew their support for the SER proposal once it moved the terminus of its line from London Road to a point outside East Grinstead where St Margaret's Junction is now situated. The LBSCR's bill was passed; however, due to a sudden economic crisis this scheme was abandoned.
The EGR's bill received royal assent on 8 July 1853 and passed into law as the East Grinstead Railway Act (c.lxxxviii). It authorised a single track line covering a distance of . Before the Act was passed the route underwent a late change necessitated by a landowner's objections: a Mr J.H. Wilson who occupied "The Grange" in Crawley Down. He refused to allow a station on his land and demanded the line be deviated through a tunnel. The EBR's directors were not willing to go to the expense of building a tunnel, and so it was agreed that the route of the line would be changed to deviate through what was to become Grange Road railway station.
By September 1854 the works had advanced sufficiently for the ECR's joint company secretary, Mr W. Pearless, to report that "rapid progress" had been made and that nearly all the necessary land purchases had been made. Only Mr Wilson of The Grange was stubbornly refusing to part with his land and required the matter to be taken to arbitration under the Lands Clauses Consolidation Act 1845. Before the arbitrator Wilson demanded £5,500 compensation, but only received £1,400. The EGR's engineer, R. Jacomb Hood (also the LBR's chief engineer), confirmed the progress of works: only three cuttings remained to be completed, a public road bridge needed to be built and only of permanent way was ready.
Mid-May 1855 saw last minute works on the line before the scheduled inspection by the Board of Trade's Lt.-Col. George Wynne on 22 June. The station at East Grinstead was in its final stages and the line from Three Bridges was ready. Wynne found no fault with the line, requiring only an undertaking from the EGR to the effect that the line would only be worked by a single engine.
Initial passenger services consisted of six trains each way on weekdays, with two services on Sundays. Total journey time was 20 minutes each way. A passenger wishing to catch an onward connection to London could take the first train from East Grinstead at 06:55, but had to wait 43 minutes in Three Bridges for a connection which would arrive in London at 09:15. The last Down train was the 18:00 service from London which would connect with a service from Three Bridges scheduled to arrive in East Grinstead at 19:40. A 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive No. 22 was built in 1855 to work the line and remained in service until 1866. The fare up to London was six shillings for first class travel, and three shillings for third class.
The LBR - now the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LBSCR) - went ahead with its purchase of the line in January 1865, a sum of £53,000 being paid to the EGR which was not, however, enough for the EGR's shareholders to have their capital back in full.
As with the initial connection between Three Bridges and East Grinstead, the impetus for an extension to Tunbridge Wells came from local landowners who, as early as 1855, had enquired as to the possibility of an extension east. The East Grinstead, Groombridge and Tunbridge Wells Railway Act (c.ccvii), passed on 7 August 1862, authorised this extension and a company of the same name oversaw the scheme. Just one year previously, the Brighton, Uckfield and Tunbridge Wells Railway Act (c.clxxiv) had been adopted, sanctioning an extension of the Wealden Line from its terminus at Uckfield to Tunbridge Wells. Construction works were already underway.
As with the first section between East Grinstead and Three Bridges, the extension would be single tracked throughout except at a re-sited East Grinstead station. The station was to be relocated north at a lower level to enable the line to pass under London Road. The old station would then become a goods yard.
John Watson & Co. of 47 Parliament Square was chosen as the line's contractor, with the LBSCR's F.D. Bannister as engineer. The construction itself was not straightforward; a deep cutting had to be driven through the Fair Field, with brick-lined tunnels under College Lane and Lewes Road (). Powder was used by the contractor in the digging out of the cutting and a navvy, a James Bourne, was killed on 11 April 1865 when, following an explosion, he was buried up to his neck in the clay which was thrown up. His was not the only death in the line's construction, the Tunbridge Wells Gazette reported on 9 September 1864 that a man had died following injuries sustained when he was run over by a wagon on the line near Withyham. The storage of the powder by the contractor also raised other problems. Locals complained when the powder was stored in a wooden shed near a school in East Grinstead and the contractor was fined two shillings by East Grinstead magistrates in April 1865.
By March 1866 the line still had not been opened and questions were raised as to how much longer it would take. As reported in the Sussex Express, "nearly everyone in the town [of East Grinstead] is now looking anxiously for news about our new line, which is to make this town a large city and the centre of attraction to all this side of the Thames." In fact, the line was still incomplete and Groombridge station remained unfinished by June.
Believing nevertheless that the line ready for inspection by the Board of Trade, the LBSCR agreed that its Captain J.H. Rich would carry out an inspection on 24 July, with a view to possibly opening the whole section to the public from 1 August. However, Captain Rich found defects and refused to authorise the opening. He objected in particular to the incomplete signalling and interlocking, as well as the inadequate platform fencing along the whole of the line and an ungated level crossing at Brambletye Farm. A second inspection was carried out on 22 August and again Captain Rich refused authorisation. The locking apparatus at East Grinstead was still incomplete, two sidings had to be trapped, clocks were to be provided at all stations and Brambletye Crossing was to be equipped with ordinary field gates. A third inspection was arranged for 13 September and on this occasion the line was passed fit for opening. It did not, however, open on the day planned by the LBSCR, Monday 17 September, as insufficient time had been allowed for the Board of Trade to consider the undertaking provided by the LBSCR as to how it was to operate the line (by staff and ticket), and the opening was postponed once more.
Initial services were poor: only six services per day were laid on, with one fast train in each direction. Only two trains each way ran on Sundays. The entire length of the line was , making for a journey time of 55 minutes (assuming an all-stations service).
On 24 October a cheap excursion ran from Tunbridge Wells to Brighton with about 420 passengers on board.
The single track extension of the Wealden Line from Uckfield to Groombridge was opened on 3 August 1868 and six trains began to run each day between Tunbridge Wells and Brighton. These, plus the four to and from Three Bridges, led to the Groombridge - Tunbridge Wells section being extensively used, and eventually double-tracked by January 1872. On 24 January 1876 a short connecting link between Tunbridge Wells Central and the Hastings Line was opened, allowing through running to that line via Tonbridge. Four trains provided by the South Eastern Railway began to run daily.
On 2 February 1869 the LBSCR held their half-yearly board meeting at which the state of its finances was discussed. It was remarked that fifteen years previously the company had been a profitable enterprise but, as a result of ruinous expenditure on useless lines, that was no longer the case. The East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells line was one such unprofitable line: despite having invested approximately £174,046 into its construction, the return was, by the half-year ending 30 June, only £3,033. This was against a train mileage of 23,555 with working expenses of 3 shillings per train mile, resulting in a loss of £500.
Nevertheless, increases in traffic from January 1874 led to general service improvements, with notably the introduction of a 09:00 service to London from Tunbridge Wells. From July 1877 another London service was introduced, a fast train leaving Tunbridge Wells at 10:00 to arrive at London Victoria at 11:30, with stops at Groombridge and Withyham (for first class passengers), and then at Forest Row, East Grinstead and Three Bridges.
In May 1882 a third re-modelling of East Grinstead station was completed. The new station, less conveniently-sited to the west of its predecessor, was made necessary by, first, the arrival from the south of an extension of the Lewes and East Grinstead Railway (L&EG) on 1 August, which was followed on 10 March 1884, by an extension from the north of the Croydon, Oxted and East Grinstead Railway (CO&EG). The L&EG would approach the Three Bridges line from the south at a right angle and the CO&EG would make an end-on junction with it (later known as "St Margaret's Junction" after a nearby Anglican convent). It proved impossible to accommodate the L&EG in the existing East Grinstead station as the enlargements and modifications entailed would mean buying out the adjoining Stenning's timber yard, which the LBSCR refused to contemplate. The new station was arranged on two levels: the higher equipped with two island platforms serving four tracks on the Three Bridges line, the lower a double line two-platformed station set at a right angle to the L&EG. A sharply curving spur line (later known as the "St. Margaret's Loop") would enter the high level station from the CO&EG, requiring a deviation of the Three Bridges line on its western approach to the new station in order to ease the sharpness of the bend. The new station was officially opened and the old one officially closed from 15 October 1883.
From April 1884 the Grove Junction section linking Tunbridge Wells Central and Tunbridge Wells West was used as part of a through route by the South Eastern Railway which ran two services a day to and from Charing Cross and Eastbourne via Tunbridge Wells and Heathfield. The LBSCR had allowed the South Eastern running rights over its section rather than having it lay its own connection. A non-stop service from Tunbridge Wells reached Eastbourne in 67 minutes.
During this period the LBSCR was once again experiencing financial difficulties and traffic, poor in 1882, was worse still the following year. This time services were not cut back, even expanded so that, by January 1884, seven daily services ran between Tunbridge Wells and Brighton, plus two goods services on Fridays. Furthermore, a private siding was brought into use for Imberhorne Farm between East Grinstead and Grange Road on the north side of the line. Traffic began to pick up again by 1887 coinciding with the opening on 1 October 1888 of the Oxted and Groombridge Railway: a direct line from Oxted to Tunbridge Wells via Edenbridge which would join the Three Bridges line approximately to the west of Withyham. The 13 extra daily services brought by the new connection led to the doubling of the section between the junction with the new line, Ashurst Junction, and Groombridge. It also led to the installation of a second (island) platform at Tunbridge Wells Central.
In May 1894 the line between Eridge and Uckfield was doubled allowing an improved service between Tunbridge Wells and Brighton of 11 services per day. Around the same period, improvements were carried out at stations along the line. At Tunbridge Wells West new waiting rooms and a platform canopy were installed and a new four track engine shed was built at the west end of the station, opening in 1891. A platform extension, new bay road, railway cottages, a cattle dock and a new 33-lever signalbox were also installed.
Quadrupling of the Brighton Main Line in 1909-1910 led to Three Bridges station being largely rebuilt, leaving the East Grinstead bay platform and the Down main platform largely untouched, but relocating the locomotive shed to a different site. Around this period services on the Three Bridges line reached their peak with eight Down trains and nine Up trains through the whole line, three workings from Three Bridges to Forest Row, three from East Grinstead to Three Bridges, and one in the other direction. Two Up and Down trains used the St. Margaret's Loop. In 1912 fares were 4s 11d for a third class return from East Grinstead to London (rising to 8s 10d in first class) and 5s 5d for a third class return from Tunbridge Wells to London (rising to 10s in first class). Cheap day tickets up to London were sold on Wednesdays on the 09:36 via Three Bridges for 5s first class, 3s 6d third class.
The opening to traffic of a spur at Withyham on 8 June 1914 marked the last track development in the line's history. Although it had been built as a siding at the time of the opening of the CO&EG, it had only been used until then for the storage of locomotives. The spur's opening allowed through-running from Brighton and Eastbourne to London without having to pass through Groombridge. New 35-lever and 20-lever signalboxes were provided at Ashurst Junction (where a trailing connection was added in 1906) and at Birchden Junction.
The post-war period was to prove more challenging for the LBSCR with the national railway strike in 1919, followed by two coalminers' strikes in 1920 and 1921 which resulted in reduced levels of service far worse than anything seen during the war. Problems were also experienced with the Oxted Tunnel south of Woldingham which led to services being diverted through the Three Bridges Line. It was only in 1922 that services began to creep back to their pre-war levels.
The outbreak of the Second World War brought service cutbacks, only four trains ran each way over the whole length of the route. Services were withdrawn that were never to be reinstated such as the 17:08 from London Bridge to Forest Row via Horley.
BR rejected calls to improve the timetabled passenger services which were little better than they had been during the war. It argued that traffic was too light to justify additional staff costs at stations and that, in any event, there was a half-hourly bus service as well as trains up to London via Oxted. The last daily passenger working was therefore the 2050 from Three Bridges.
The new timetable concentrated on key points at Oxted, East Grinstead and the Ashurst-Groombridge-Birchden triangle. It also introduced the concept of a regular hourly service. Off-peak services now departed Victoria for East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells at 8 minutes past the hour, and from Tunbridge Wells for Victoria at 47 minutes past the hour. A push-and-pull service worked the section from Tunbridge Wells via Edenbridge, connecting at Oxted with London trains. A push-pull service was also introduced between Three Bridges and East Grinstead, also providing connections on the main line in both directions. London trains were scheduled to cross in the High Level for a few minutes each hour, ensuring that at a certain time each hour all three trains were together in the station. At Groombridge connections were made with Brighton and Eastbourne services.
Although this timetable brought in some marked service improvements, it had two key weaknesses. First, the East Grinstead-Groombridge section was too well-served often by lengthy trains, as a result of the need to service steam locomotives at the Tunbridge Wells depot. The small village of Groombridge saw four services an hour to Tunbridge Wells. This caused considerable losses and when diesel units began working the section, it was possible to terminate most at East Grinstead. Second, East Grinstead Low Level fell into disuse with most services passing through the High Level.
Passenger numbers were held back by the state of the trains which, as pointed out by the East Grinstead Observer, were as slow and as dirty as ever before, with "ill-lit, time-expired" rolling stock. There had been plans to introduce diesel-electric trains for a few services from March 1962 but, owing to the rundown of Eastleigh Works, production was behind schedule. When eventually eight 3-car units were introduced on 18 June, they were not sufficient to run the line resulting in the older steam services being kept in service. The new diesels prompted complaints from passengers who, although welcoming the extra seating capacity, objected to the lack of corridors and lavatory accommodation, as well as the large number of initial mechanical failures on the units.
In preparation for the anticipated closure, BR began reducing services. The 08:47 Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge service now started at East Grinstead at 09:38, and the 17:06 Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge service was replaced by an East Grinstead to Victoria working at 17:49. The 18:31 London Bridge - Forest Row service was cut back to East Grinstead, but the 18:48 Victoria to East Grinstead was extended to Forest Row. The push-and-pull shuttle service between East Grinstead and Three Bridges was reduced to peak-hours only.
The proposed closure prompted a further revision of the timetable with effect from 6 January 1964. Most London trains now only ran to East Grinstead Low Level, and services to Tunbridge Wells operated every two hours. The Oxted - Tunbridge Wells working was diverted to Lewes, effectively cutting off Tunbridge Wells from the Oxted Line. Only seven Down services now ran beyond East Grinstead: 09:09, 16:48 and 17:49 Victoria to Tunbridge Wells, 18:48 Victoria to Forest Row, and 21:09, 22:09 and 23:09 Victoria to Tunbridge Wells. In the other direction, there were only three services: 07:25 Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge, 08:27 Forest Row to Victoria and 15:53 Tunbridge Wells to Victoria. The changes hit Forest Row, Tunbridge Wells West and Groombridge particularly badly. From Forest Row passengers had to make their own way to East Grinstead, whereas at Groombridge and Tunbridge Wells, connections to London were only to be had via Tunbridge Wells Central in the crowded Hastings Line services. From 15 June a new 17:38 direct service from Oxted to Tunbridge Wells was, however, introduced.
On 13 July 1964 Beeching's own 18:10 service from Victoria to East Grinstead had to be diverted via Three Bridges (as did the 17:49 Victoria - Tunbridge Wells) as a result of a train failure at Sanderstead, proving that the condemned line did in fact have its uses. It was reported that the Three Bridges Line was losing £59,300 per year: costing £84,900 to run and bringing in £25,600. BR insisted on treating the line as a whole which overlooked the fact that its western branch from Three Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells was much shorter than the loss-making eastern branch. Although Grange Road and Forest Row were both bringing in £5,000 per annum and could be maintained, the other stations (Rowfant, Hartfield and Withyham) could sensibly have been closed as the traffic there was practically nil.
Early in 1965 the South Eastern Transport Users' Consultative Committee reported to the new Labour Ministry of Transport that hardship would be caused by the closure of the line. Pending the Minister's decision the last steam service departed Three Bridges on Friday 11 June 1965 at 18:07 and arrived in East Grinstead at 18:36; the last Tunbridge Wells - Eastbourne steam service was on 14 June.
After a delay of more than eighteen months, the Labour Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, announced in September 1966 that the line from Three Bridges to Groombridge would close. Despite the outrage provoked by this decision, she refused to meet with a deputation from East Grinstead Urban District Council which was told that it was impossible for the Minister to withdraw her irrevocable consent to closure. No reference was made to the objections raised at the public enquiry, nor to the construction of 3000 houses near Crawley Down or the growing traffic congestion in East Grinstead. The decision had also been taken on the basis of figures drawn from when the line was worked by steam locomotives, the losses would presumably have been smaller with the new diesel units. Finally, it was still clear that the Three Bridges - East Grinstead section was well-used during peak-hour periods.
Some additional bus services were laid on for Monday-Friday peak periods, notably route 438a calling at East Grinstead, Felbridge, Crawley Down and Three Bridges. Existing bus services at other times proved slow and indirect, and became little used with people preferring to buy a car instead.
From 2 January no further trains used East Grinstead High Level or the St Margaret's Loop and goods spur so these were closed, together with the goods yard whose freight facilities were withdrawn from 10 April. Lifting of the track began in late 1967.
Following the closure the various station buildings were sold off and in some cases swept away. This was the fate of Grange Road, the site of which is now covered by shops and housing, and by Forest Row which was sold to a club for £4,000, and is now part of a light industrial development. The redundant East Grinstead High Level station was demolished by BR in 1970, it had been used by passengers as a short-cut to the Low Level station and, following passenger complaints, BR was obliged to provide a footbridge to reinstate the short-cut.
The trackbed to the east of Station Road in East Grinstead to the Lewes Road tunnel was taken over by the A22 road as a relief road, with the two tunnels being opened out. The station's goods yard area was also eaten up by the A22 which carved a path running parallel with Railway Approach. This required the removal of the locomotive shed which was demolished in 1976 despite the efforts of the East Grinstead Society which had attempted to raise funds for its preservation as a drama and arts workshop.
The site of St Margaret's Loop is now a designated Site of Nature Conservation Importance having developed into a natural woodland and wildlife corridor containing many mature trees and, due to its inaccessibility, is largely undisturbed home to a prolific bird and wildlife population.
On 10 July 1979 the section between Three Bridges and East Grinstead was opened as a public footpath and cycleway known as the Worth Way. In 2006 Mid-Sussex District Council floated the idea of constructing a wide concrete tunnel under the trail carrying a relief road for East Grinstead over the line of the trail. This scheme was thankfully shelved in 2007 when its estimated costs of £157m (representing £60,000 per East Grinstead dwelling) made it unviable.
Linking with the Worth Way at East Grinstead is the "Forest Way", another public footpath and cycleway which runs as far as Groombridge..
The line from Groombridge to Tunbridge Wells West remained open until 1985, although in its latter years passenger services were confined to a shuttle service between Tonbridge via the single line connection to Tunbridge Wells Central and Eridge, although the station's depot provided rolling stock for services on the Uckfield and East Grinstead - London (via East Croydon) lines meaning there were plenty of empty stock moves early and late in the day.
Following a total lack of investment for decades, it was discovered in the early 1980s that the track and signalling needed to be replaced. British Rail, at the time carrying out an upgrade of the Tonbridge to Hastings Line which planned the removal of Grove Junction, decided that the costs of keeping the line from Eridge to the Central station open and undertaking the works, some £175,000, did not justify the outlay. It therefore announced closure of the line (including Groombridge and the West station) from 16 May 1983. The Secretary of State for Transport rubber stamped the decision with effect from 6 July 1985, although it did not actually close until 10 August when the depot at the West station was shut.
The campaign received a set-back in the early 1990s when Tunbridge Wells Borough Council gave planning permission for the construction of a large supermarket complex on the site of the by now derelict goods yard. While the 1891 locomotive shed and station building were protected as listed buildings, the remaining area of the site was obliterated, including the goods shed and signalboxes. However, the planning permission was subject to the condition that the developer pay for restoration of the station building and engine shed.
In 1996 the North Downs Steam Railway relocated from Dartford, where it was experiencing vandalism problems, to the Spa Valley Railway. It established a base in the locomotive shed alongside which a new platform was built from where services began running to Groombridge in August 1997.
In 2007 Spa Valley Railway marked the tenth anniversary of the re-opening of the line by transforming Groombridge into a busy interchange station with trains arriving or departing every 15 minutes. The funds raised from this event went towards the "Return to Eridge" appeal to raise £500,000 for the extension to the Uckfield mainline at Eridge. The heritage railway hopes to open the line to Eridge by Summer 2008.
Replying to these suggestions, the Council noted that whilst "reinstatement of public transport services along Worth Way was the most common suggestion made", the only means of transport it would consider along that corridor would be a relief road. As mentioned above, this suggestion provoked outrage among local residents and was withdrawn. Nevertheless, the Council rebutted other public transport suggestions. Trams, it argued, are unsuitable as they "are generally used for solving urban problems where origins and destinations are contained within a specified area". As for a new railway line, this was evidently out of the question: "Improvements to rail services to London have recently been introduced by Southern Railways and it is doubtful that further service improvements could be achieved in the short term."
On 25 July 2007 the Council agreed a mixed development of 2,500 homes would be constructed to the west and south west of East Grinstead. To facilitate this development a "comprehensive transport package" was agreed which entailed an A264 to A22 relief road. No reference was made rail connections.