Full Steam Ahead!
PUBLISHED: 10:04 31 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013
In this February/March issue, we step back to the 1950s to look at the story behind Bodmin and Wenford Railway - Cornwall's only standard-gauge, passenger-carrying steam railway
Bernard Cole steps back into the 1950s to look at the story behind Bodmin and Wenford Railway - Cornwall's only standard-gauge, passenger-carrying steam railway
Can you still remember standing in the carriage doorway, the trackside trees sliding past the open window, coal smuts in the air and that peculiar-smelling fusion of steam and hot oil carrying on the breeze? Prior to the mid-1960s, when cars were fewer and railway lines criss-crossed the land, this was the universal experience for the train-travelling public. But today, under the onslaught of electrification, diesel technology, air travel and the motor car, the experience is altogether different.
When the railway was still king, the earliest days of the 20th century saw a huge rise in the number of tourists coming into Cornwall on the back of coal-fired steam trains puffing their way from up-country to the best parts of the 'Cornish Riviera'. Though the trains have now been erased by history and progress, the smells, sights and sounds of the steam railway still evoke fond memories and a nostalgia for days long gone. But have they really gone?
Just take a stroll along the country lanes between Bodmin Parkway main-line station and Boscarne Junction on the River Camel and you're likely to catch a glimpse of steam rising through the trees or pick up the whisper of a train whistle on the wind. Your eyes and ears haven't deceived you. It's probably the 134-year-old Beattie steam loco pulling a couple of equally old carriages filled with passengers along the 13 miles of track owned and run by the Bodmin and Wenford Railway (BWR).
Getting to this point hasn't been an easy journey for this shining example of determination and gritty ingenuity. British Rail was still using the line from Boscarne Junction through to Bodmin for carrying freight until its closure was announced in 1983. A sad day for some perhaps, but others saw it as a golden opportunity. If the line could be bought from British Rail, it could be developed into Cornwall's only standard-gauge steam railway. And so the Bodmin Railway Preservation Society was formed in 1984 to save the line.
The Society's first task was to raise the £139,600 needed to buy the six miles of line from Bodmin Parkway to Boscarne Junction via Bodmin General station. Following the issue of a share prospectus and a great deal of help from North Cornwall District Council, the funds were soon raised and the line secured.
After two years of unrelenting work, 1 June 1986 saw the Line's first Open Day when a small steam loco fired up in the yard at Bodmin General. But it wasn't until Easter 1987 that the railway was able to offer its first rides to the public, and even then they were only within the confines of the station. It was to be another two years before the Department of Transport authorised a passenger-carrying service, and the very next day a steam-hauled passenger service commenced on a mile-long section of line out of Bodmin General station.
Some six months later, the first passenger trains ran into Bodmin Parkway, though because of the need for track work at the station passengers could not disembark. With a deal of enthusiasm and hard work, the problems were soon resolved and on 17 June 1990 the first passenger train for more than 22 years steamed out of Bodmin General station on its way to Bodmin Parkway, full to capacity.
Today's BWR is Cornwall's only standard-gauge railway providing a fully timetabled, steam-hauled, passenger-carrying service, and is justifiably proud of one of the county's major visitor attractions. Maintained and operated by an army of volunteers and a small team of dedicated full-time staff from its headquarters at Bodmin General station, the BWR draws on its own expertise and labour to keep the wheels turning. Between them they undertake every aspect of operating and maintaining the railway, from cleaning the stations and selling tickets to running the shop and buffet, and carrying out the essential functions of ticket inspector, fireman, driver and guard. They even look after the track and signalling systems as well as maintain, repair and restore all the carriages, wagons and locos.
At his desk in the period '50s booking office at Bodmin General station, general manager Roger Webster was quick to point out that from relatively humble beginnings, the BWR has become a major player in Cornish life and tourism. "We have 11 full-time staff," he said, "and over 800 volunteers, 60-70 of whom are active at any one time. We also attract around 50,000 visitors a year who generate some £1.2m of additional income for Cornwall's economy. With no recourse to financial grants, all our income is raised through ticket sales, special events and sales from the buffet and shop."
Breakout: "We have 11 full-time staff and over 800 volunteers, 60-70 of whom are active at any one time"
Open throughout the year, the BWR works hard at keeping the money coming in. 'Special' trains are incredibly popular, with services tailored to special dates in the calendar. This year in February and March, the Valentine's Night and Mothering Sunday specials are already attracting bookings, so reserve your ticket early as 'standing room only' isn't a service offered.
Funds are also needed to keep the ambitious development programme on track. Last November, BWR opened a new £150,000 covered carriage shed at Bodmin Parkway to house 12 coaches from its collection of historic rolling stock. Also, in February the Bodmin Parkway platform was extended to accept five-coach trains and thus handle more passengers. Even more ambitiously, BWR is hoping to extend the line from Boscarne Junction to run alongside the Camel Trail into Wadebridge. A controversial plan perhaps but one that already has the early support of local authorities, Sustrans and Friends of the Earth. To progress the plan further, BWR is now about to commission the necessary financial, engineering and environmental studies.
Far more than a collection of committed enthusiasts, the BWR is in every respect a working passenger-carrying railway. Operating to a strict timetable - its trains are never late - and providing a service that complies with all safety requirements, its collection of classic engines and rolling stock operating out of authentically restored 1950s stations and sidings, continues to draw visitors from far and wide.
If BWR and its committed supporters keep steaming ahead, the future looks even more promising. "We may be a heritage steam railway where people can sample the delights of years gone by," said Roger Webster, "but to survive we need to keep in the public eye and keep moving forward. As far as we're concerned it's always an open throttle and full steam ahead!"
Bodmin and Wenford Steam Railway, General Station, Bodmin, PL31 1AQ. (0845 125 9678, www.bodminandwenfordrailway.co.uk
There are 13 miles of track on two branch lines from Bodmin General station.
Allow two hours for travelling on both lines.
Several steam and diesel engines are based at Bodmin, the oldest being the fully working Beattie 2-4-0 built in 1874.
The workshops are open for viewing.
Woodland walks, historic houses, places of interest are within a short walk of stations and halts.
Halts and stations are at: Boscarne Junction (alongside the Camel Trail); Bodmin General (in the town centre); Colesloggett Halt (a 40-minute walk to Cardinham Woods); Bodmin Parkway (a 45-minute walk along the rhododendron-flanked carriage drive to Lanhydrock House and Gardens (National Trust).
Children's fares are available. Bicycles and pets carried free.
Through tickets to BWR are available from main-line booking offices and local bus operators. Combine the bus and train and leave the car behind.
There is a licensed Buffet Car on most trains. A railway shop and buffet at Bodmin General station is open all year round. BWR also runs the buffet on the main-line station at Bodmin Parkway.
The Dining Car trains hold special themed trips throughout the year such as Steam, Beer, Jazz, Murder Mystery and Disco trains (where there is even a dance floor). First-class cuisine is served in First Class dining coaches with wood panelling, table lamps and curtains. Contact BWR for details.
Limited free car parking at Bodmin General station.
Comprehensive guide book available.