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Golden Gala celebrates railway's past, present & future


6thJune 2024 

‘Golden' Gala celebrates past, present & 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 50thAnniversary Gala at the weekend (Saturday 1stand Sunday 2ndJune) 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 ofThe 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: Lord Peter Hendy and Huw Merriman, Rail Minister and former MP for Bexhill and Battle, moving visiting locomotive 'Britannia' on the re-dedicated turntable. Photo by Alison Miles.

Signing Memorandum of Understanding 

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 by Robin Coombes.

Loco naming
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, no longer in existence, to celebrate the extension of the line to Northiam. 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.

The naming ceremony was performed by John Smith, CEO of GB Railfreight. Alongside him were three former directors of Network South East who were involved in the original naming in 1991, and Steve White, Managing Director of Southeastern plus representatives of the K&ESR Board. 


Naming Class 73128 Kent & East Sussex Railway

Photo (left to right): Steve White, Managing Director, Southeastern Railway; Allan C Baker, former Director of Network South East South Eastern Division; John Smith, CEO GB Railfreight, the owners of Class 73 128; Geoff Mee, former Managing Director of Network South East South Eastern Division (holding a model of Class 73); Chris Green, former Network South East Director; Derrick Bilsby K&ESR Trustee. Photo by Robin Coombes

Back to the future
The official start of the Gala on Saturday was markedby acommemoration 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 40thanniversary.

Commemoration of 1974 opening ceremony

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

Like the original ceremony, performed on 1stJune 1974 by William (later Lord) Deedes the MP for Ashford, the locomotive given the honour at the platform wasa 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

Looking to the future at Robertsbridge Jctn

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 byvisiting iconic locomotiveBR 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 includedU 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.

U Class 31806 Photo Caroline Warne

As well as all the train action, there were also numerous attractions at stations along the line including: music from brass bands, rock choirs, 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."


For further information please contact:

Alison Miles, Press Officer, K&ESR 07900 691116

About the Kent & East Sussex Railway:The Kent & East Sussex Railway is a renowned heritage railway based in Tenterden, Kent, UK and operates as an educational charity. Built by Holman F Stephens, it was the first light passenger railway in Britain in the early 20thcentury and is today one of Britain's most loved and original heritage lines which celebrates the 50thanniversary of reopening in 2024. With a rich history spanning over 120 years, the K&ESR offers visitors an authentic steam and diesel-powered railway experience through 10½ miles of Wealden countryside in the beautiful Rother Valley, a designated National Landscape (formerly known as Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Staffed almost entirely by volunteers, the railway prides itself on preserving railway heritage, operating a diverse range of locomotives, and providing a unique glimpse into the golden age of rail travel.

About the Rother Valley Railway:The Rother Valley Railway is a registered charity restoring the historic railway between Robertsbridge and Bodiam. Retaining where possible the original features of the line,and using recovered equipment and materials, RVR will re-create a rural light railway to modern standards of operation. Funded by charitable donations, when complete, it will be handed over to K&ESR to run the trains.
About GB Railfreight:  Founded in 1999 and headquartered in London, United Kingdom, GB Railfreight (GBRf) is one of the fastest growing companies in the rail industry, transporting goods for a wide range of customers across the country. With a workforce totalling more than 1,400 staff from across the UK, GBRf's customer focus won the acclaim of the sector, achieving the Freight and Logistics Excellence award at the Rail Business Awards 2024. For more information visit: