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Suffolk: Middy seeks major boost to press ahead with expansion

12:00 12 April 2014

Driver Colin French and fireman Zac Bond at the Mid Suffolk Light Railway.

Driver Colin French and fireman Zac Bond at the Mid Suffolk Light Railway.

These are exciting times at Suffolk’s only standard-gauge steam railway as it prepares for major developments on three fronts.

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The Mid Suffolk Light Railway, which is based on the former Brockford station (confusingly in the village of Wetheringsett), is pressing ahead on three fronts as it consolidates a nationally-growing reputation.

The Middy has been operating steam trains on 400 metres of track since 2002 as it tries to recreate the atmosphere and operating style of a light railway before and during the Second World War.

It uses hired-in locomotives to pull authentic historic carriages on the line – but it is looking forward to a future when it can run its own train on a longer line into the Suffolk countryside.

There are three elements to its expansion plans.

It hopes to extend the running line by a further 600 metres to give it a 1,000-metre run with a small halt at the other end of the line.

This would give visitors a longer journey and give them a better taste of what life on a light railway was like.

It hopes to restore its own locomotive, a Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0 saddle tank engine that has not steamed since it was retired by British Sugar in 1970.

Volunteers expect the cost of the restoration to come out at £100,000 and to take five years – but once completed they will not have to rely on other locomotives to provide their power.

Finally the railway hopes to build an engine shed at Brockford to enable working locomotives, and carriages, to be stored out of the elements.

The Middy opened in 1902, but had the dubious honour of falling into receivership even before the first trains ran!

It operated until 1952 when, unable to compete with road traffic, it closed and the track was soon ripped up.

It was one of a number of light railways built across the country which mainly served rural areas where agriculture was an important industry.

Light railways were built to the standard gauge – their trains could continue on the main line. However they were built with minimal engineering, little ballast and followed the contours of the land more than main lines.

Therefore their trains, and the engines that pulled them, were lighter than on main routes – and their speed was restricted to 25mph.

The Middy ran from Haughley Junction (where the Cambridge route leaves the main line) to a field between Laxfield and Cratfield.

It was supposed to have run through to Halesworth, and to have a branch running from Kenton to Westerfield through Debenham, Helmingham and Otley – but these were never built after the money ran out.

The busiest days for the Middy were during the war when it served US airbases at Mendlesham and Horham – these are commemorated in the “Middy at War” event over the May Day bank holiday weekend every year. This year’s event should feature a fly-past by the only British-based Lancaster bomber that is still airworthy.

The Middy achieved national recognition in 2012 when it won the Heritage Railway Association Interpretation award for its work recreating its original atmosphere.

John Stark, from the Middy, said the recognition was important – but had to be seen as a step along the way to its development.

He said: “We aren’t going to ever be a large preserved line, but we do want to be able to really recreate what the Middy was all about and we are the only steam standard-gauge railway in Suffolk.”

The recognition has led to the railway successfully securing the loan of the original Kenton station sign that became part of the National Railway Museum collection after the 1952 closure.

The Middy held an open day earlier this month to show itself off to council leaders, local MP Dr Dan Poulter and the media in a bid to attract more visitors in advance of its 2014 season.

It gave visitors the chance to take to the footplate of its borrowed steam locomotive Wissington, and to hear what is planned for the future.

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