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‘Golden' Gala weekend celebrates past, present and future of railway

Famous locomotive guests, the return of steam favourites and a passenger link with the national rail network at Robertsbridge for the first time since the 1960s were the amongst highlights for the Kent & East Sussex Railway (K&ESR)'s 50th Anniversary Gala at the weekend (Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd June) which saw visitor numbers soar to levels not seen since before the pandemic.


The weekend started with a special event at Robertsbridge Junction on Friday (31st May) to mark the latest milestones in extending the line from Bodiam. This included the dedication of the restored turntable by Lord Peter Hendy, Chairman of The Heritage Railway Association, and the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the K&ESR and the Rother Valley Railway (RVR) for the future operation of the extended line.

Photo (left to right) Mike Hart OBE, Chairman of RVR Limited; Simon Marsh, Chairman of the K&ESR and Gardner Crawley, Chairman of the RVR Heritage Trust. Photo: Robin Coombes

At the same event GB Railfreight-owned Class 73 128, a historic British electro-diesel locomotive, was named ‘Kent & East Sussex Railway: 50 Years of Heritage 1974-2024' in honour of the golden anniversary. This replicated the 1991 naming of a previous Class 73 which no longer exits. The 1960s rail transport icon was also unveiled in a restored historic livery, developed in collaboration with GB Railfreight (GBRf) and railway heritage experts to match its original Network South East colours.

Back to the future

The official start of the Gala on Saturday was marked by a commemoration of the 1974 opening ceremony at Tenterden Town Station. The re-enactment was performed by representatives of the past, present and future of the line, watched by special guests, including the Mayors of both Ashford and Tenterden and K&ESR members and volunteers who had been present at the original opening and for the 40th anniversary.

Photo (left to right) Tony Hocking, founder of the original Kent & East Sussex Railway Preservation Society; Gardner Crawley, Chairman of the RVR Heritage Trust, and volunteer K&ESR fireman Sarah Taggart perform the commemoration ceremony applauded by K&ESR Chairman Simon Marsh. Photo (digitally enhanced): Robin Coombes


Like the original ceremony, performed on 1st June 1974 by William (later Lord) Deedes the MP for Ashford, the locomotive given the honour at the platform was a Terrier - ‘Knowle' - which was returning to the K&ESR fleet for the first time in two years.


Bearing the original opening event head board and supported by another returning loco Hunslet Austerity ‘Hastings', ‘Knowle' then replicated the first passenger train service of 50 years ago.

The missing link

For the first time a K&ESR Gala extended all the way to Robertsbridge with RVR opening the Robertsbridge Junction site to the public to see its progress, including the newly commissioned locomotive turntable in operation.

As the physical line extension has yet to be built, a ‘rail replacement bus service' ran between Bodiam and Robertsbridge Junction so that passengers embarking at Tenterden could travel to Robertsbridge on one ticket, while passengers starting their journey at Robertsbridge could buy a ticket to travel onto the K&ESR for the first time.


A shuttle train service also enabled passengers to ride along a restored stretch of line not used since 2013. This was hauled by visiting iconic locomotive BR Pacific No. 70000 ‘Britannia' and ‘tailed' by the newly renamed Class 73 128 ‘Kent & East Sussex Railway'.

Busy and successful

To deliver the busy two-day timetable, alongside the K&ESR home fleet the Gala line-up included U Class 31806 visiting from the Swanage Railway, courtesy of sponsorship by Rapido Trains, on its first visit to both the K&ESR and Kent, and British Railways Standard 4 locomotive 76017 which is staying at the railway until the end of the year.

As well as all the train action, there were also numerous attractions at stations along the line including: music from brass bands, rock choirs and a Homewood School band, local craft and charity stalls, model railway traders and Morris dancing.

Speaking at the conclusion of the Gala, K&ESR General Manager Robin Coombes said: "I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you for making our 50th Anniversary Gala a fantastically successful event. The success is a testament to the hard work and dedication of all our volunteers and staff, who have put in countless hours behind the scenes."

"Looking forward, our mission remains steadfast: to preserve our rich history, embrace the present, and pioneer into the future. With projects like the completion of the missing link between Robertsbridge and Bodiam, we are committed to growing and evolving while staying true to our roots."

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