Historic railway line through Leiston could be restored to become major tourist attraction
- Credit: Archant
It’s been more than 40 years since trains last ran to and from the engineering works in Leiston.
Today the route of the line can still be found, tucked away at the back of a pub and between houses, and occasional tell-tale signs still exist.
In one place there is a former rail crossing gate and a cast-iron post, while in the Engineers Arms’ car park a section of rails can be seen, and in another place setts in the road mark the track bed.
But now the rail line could be restored – and steam trains could be once again running along its length through the centre of the town.
The Leiston Works Railway (LWR) group has applied for planning permission to reinstate the line, which was abandoned in the late 1960s, to run between Buller Road and Main Street to connect with the award-winning Leiston Long Shop Museum, once the home to the foundries of Richard Garrett & Sons Limited.
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Members of the LWR have been negotiating for some time to take over the land – some of which is in the Leiston conservation area – on which the track once stood.
Parts have been unused for decades and have become overgrown with vegetation, with some tipping of unwanted household items.
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The remainder was incorporated into the garden and car park of the pub.
The group’s aim is to rebuild the line and to run railway vehicles drawn by horses or locomotives, including the historic steam shunting locomotive Sirapite, which was used on the railway from 1929 to 1962 and which has been restored to working order at the Long Shop.
The Sirapite would be able to pull a brake van, about to be restored by LWR members, allowing visitors to experience an industrial railway for themselves.
Hoopers Architects, for the LWR, said the scheme would include educational written, graphic and oral information for visitors.
The company said: “The essence of the proposal is to replicate the works railway as it appeared in the first half of the 20th Century and to run trains along it, initially on approximately 15 days a year as an educational heritage attraction.
“A single ballasted railway track of standard 4ft 8 ½in gauge and consisting of wooden sleepers and bullhead rail will be laid approximately centrally along the length of the site. There will be no earthworks, embankments, cuttings, bridges, viaducts or tunnels.”
Leiston town councillor Colin Ginger said: “It could be a big asset to the town and bring a lot of people here – families and children – to use the railway and really enjoy this attraction. That would be good for the economy of our town.”
Suffolk Coastal council will make the decision on the project – and at the same time has received a separate application from landowner and developer Seaprop Ltd for six homes on a former paddock and part of the pub garden at the rear of the Engineers Arms in Main Street.
Although the two plans are not connected, they are described as being “in tandem” because the railway runs through the site. The railway land is to be given to the restoration project free of charge and in good faith. However, the rail line will be very close to properties and on those days when it is in use alternative arrangements will have to be made for parking and road access to the homes.
With regard to the housing, Hoopers Architects said at a public consultation event, residents had been supportive of the plan and concerns voiced had been addressed.
The company said: “The site comprises previously developed land in the centre of Leiston, highlighted by the local plan as preferential for development. The council have highlighted a shortfall in housing, therefore the council should be considering housing proposals such as this favourably.”
Leiston Town Council, though, has recommended refusal of the homes, though it supports the rail project. The council felt “very strongly” it was “a complete over-development which would have been unacceptable even if it had not been in the middle of the town’s conservation area”, removing an important green space.
Mr Ginger said: “The two plans are closely connected although they are separate. I just hope it does not go belly-up for the railway project if the homes do not get permission.
“This is a conservation area and one of the houses is just about shaving the railway and another is so close to the pub people will be able to watch those in the house having breakfast. It is too much development.”
Councillor Susan Geater said: “I personally don’t think the homes will enhance the area and it will be a great shame to lose that open space at the back of the pub. There could be an access issue on event days, too.”
Leiston’s rich industrial heritage
The railway line from the Garrett works to the branch line that ran between Leiston and Saxmundham was in use for more than a century.
Built in 1859, the private standard gauge railway line was constructed by Richard Garrett and Son as an expansion of its business – enabling raw materials and finished products to be transported between the company’s two sites and the main railway network.
Suffolk Punch horses pulled the wagon until they were replaced in 1929 by the steam shunting engine Sirapite.
Garretts’ engineering works had existed in the town since 1778, finally closing in 1981, when the remaining part of the Town Works site was turned into the highly successful Long Shop Museum.
The museum’s collections tell the story of the Garrett family, its draftsmen, engineers and craftsmen who designed and made a huge range of engines, tools, vehicles and machines.