Chairman's Message: Provisional Reopening Date
19 June 2020
Dear friends, colleagues and members,
I hope you’re all well and your family and friends are continuing to stay safe. Since I wrote to you at the start of June a lot has happened across the world and our country. We’ve seen protests in support of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, the daily number of deaths from Coronavirus continues to fall and the first major breakthrough in the fight against the virus has been discovered in the form of a low-dose steroid. Alongside this, it’s pleasing to see some of the lockdown restrictions are starting to be eased and the talk of tourist attractions starting to reopen is also very encouraging, especially as attractions such as zoos and gardens have already reopened.
So, how has the Bluebell Railway been preparing to reopen? The generosity of our members, shareholders and others has meant our appeal target of £300,000 has been met and exceeded and now stands at more than £325,000. This is a fantastic achievement and thank you to all those who have contributed. This success, plus a review of other funding sources, has allowed the Board to produce a very detailed financial model for the remainder of 2020. This model includes all the reopening costs, predictions on revenue for the remainder of this year and a detailed review of all costs. Using this model alongside several other measures the Board have taken, I can now proudly announce a provisional reopening date of Friday 7 August 2020.
As you know this also happens to be our 60th anniversary and what better way to celebrate that milestone than to reopen for business. I’m also pleased to announce that the first train on 7 August will be for members only and pre-booked on a first-come, first-served basis. We will release details in due course.
Our phased reopening will start on 7 August and for the foreseeable future we will run at weekends only. This will allow us to gauge the potential demand, take small steps and follow the Government guidance. Having carefully reviewed what we can offer and taking into account the layout of our station sites, our service trains will run from Sheffield Park to Kingscote only (not stopping at Horsted Keynes). East Grinstead Station will remain closed due to the restricted nature of the station site and to adhere to social distancing rules.
In addition to this we plan to run three or four dining trains per day, with our daytime services starting at Horsted Keynes and our evening services starting at Sheffield Park. This avoids any potential conflict between our public trains and our dining customers at Sheffield Park. As we take these small steps, all of the above will remain under constant review and should public demand be there, we will add further trains mid-week starting on a Friday and working backwards.
To provide the public with the very best offering while also complying with the latest Government guidance, our service trains will be formed of compartment stock. Compartments will be sold as a whole and all tickets will be pre-bookable – our intention is to have these available for purchase about two weeks before the reopening. There will be no ‘turn-up-on-the-day’ ticket sales available on any services for the rest of the year.
In line with other transport bodies and following best practice, face coverings will be required to travel on our services. This includes travelling on dining services although coverings can then be temporarily removed while eating. All our carriages and station environments will receive an enhanced cleaning regime including door handles. The Railway’s priority will be on providing everyone with a safe and enjoyable day out.
At Sheffield Park we will have dedicated entry and exit lanes for our customers. In line with Government guidance, the Bessemer Arms at Sheffield Park, Horsted Keynes buffet and Kingscote kiosk will remain closed. Our SteamWorks! exhibition and museum at Sheffield Park will be open to the public employing a one-way system. Our catering services will be provided via a take-away service from the Bessemer Arms which can be pre-booked when purchasing tickets and our shop will be open with social distancing in place.
All of the above does remain provisional at the moment and dependent on Government advice and guidance, in particular about the next phase of easing lockdown which we’ll be watching carefully. As our plans move from provisional to confirmed, we will keep you updated, but I felt it was important to share with you the Board’s thinking and current plans.
The above sets out what we plan to do but how do we get there? As you’ll all appreciate, there is a huge amount of work to complete to prepare the railway for reopening. Tasks such as ‘Fitness to Run’ exams across our locomotive and rolling stock fleets, line-wide structures and track inspections, testing of our signalling & telecommunications systems, re-stocking our catering outlets and reopening our Sales & Marketing office. Our staff and volunteers are key to making this happen and from the middle of July, our safety critical staff and volunteers will return in a phased manner. This will allow the critical work to take place as outlined above, while volunteers such as our ‘Friends’ groups and others across the railway will also return to support the reopening.
As we progress throughout August and into September it’s our intention to incrementally increase our staff and volunteer input but again, in line with the Government advice and guidance at the time. The Railway will contact volunteers to ascertain their individual personal circumstances and availability so that they return when they are able to do so.
The Board, BRPS and Bluebell Railway Trust all look forward to us fully reopening and our dedicated staff and volunteers returning as soon as possible.
A large part of our reopening plan has also focused on the remainder of 2020, including reviewing all those events in the calendar. These events will remain under review and at the moment we still hope to offer something special in October as well as our Christmas service.
I hope this has given you an idea of our thinking and further announcements will be made as our plans are confirmed. Finally I’d like to thank you all for your support and patience. For now stay safe and I look forward to seeing you all very soon.
- Chris Hunford, Bluebell Railway plc chairman
When is the Bluebell Railway reopening?
We have provisionally set Friday 7 August for the resumption of public train services.
Why have you chosen that date?
It gives us enough time to make all the necessary preparations for welcoming visitors back safely to the Bluebell Railway. The date is also our 60th birthday and so it seems appropriate to celebrate the anniversary by running steam trains again.
What preparations are you carrying out?
Some staff and volunteers will be brought back ahead of the reopening. They will ensure the railway is fully operational and safe for visitors.
We will continue to follow Government guidelines on the easing of lockdown and the reopening of businesses.
What safety steps will be taken before reopening?
We will inspect the track, ensure all our trains are fit to run and confirm that our signalling apparatus is functioning correctly. We will also tidy the stations so that they look sparkling and gleaming.
We will also run some test trains (known as “ghost trains”) without passengers to refamiliarise our staff with their duties and ensure the services are safe for the public.
How often will you run trains?
Our phased reopening will start on 7 August and for the foreseeable future we will run at weekends only. This will allow us to gauge the potential demand, take small steps and follow the Government guidance.
Should public demand be there, we will add further trains mid-week starting on a Friday and working backwards.
How many trains will run when you reopen?
We are working on a provisional timetable of three services each day. The departure and arrival times will be spaced out to allow people to board and leave the trains while maintaining social distancing.
Will there be any dining trains?
Yes, in addition to the three service trains, we plan to run three or four dining trains per day covering breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner. All pre-booked catering for either our public, breakfast, lunchtime or afternoon tea dining trains, will be placed in the compartment or at your reserved table before you arrive.
For our evening dining train, your pre-booked three course meal will be pre-plated and delivered to your table by one of our catering staff.
What are the departure and arrival stations?
Having carefully reviewed what we can offer and taking into account the layout of our station sites, our service trains will run from Sheffield Park to Kingscote only (not stopping at Horsted Keynes) and then return to Sheffield Park.
The daytime dining services will start at Horsted Keynes and travel to Sheffield Park and back. Our evening dining services will start at Sheffield Park and travel to Horsted Keynes and back. This avoids any potential conflict between our public trains and our dining customers at Sheffield Park.
What about East Grinstead station?
East Grinstead station will remain closed for the time being because of the restricted nature of the station site and to adhere to social distancing rules. We will review the operation after reopening and eventually hope to restore the full working between Sheffield Park and East Grinstead when it is safe to do so.
How can I buy tickets for the trains?
All tickets will have to be pre-booked online before the day of travel. We will not be selling tickets on the day from our booking offices.
When will tickets go on sale?
Tickets won’t go on sale until our sales team has returned to work. This won’t be until mid-July at the earliest so the first tickets are likely to be available about two weeks before the planned reopening.
We will announce when tickets are on sale. Please check our website and social media channels for the latest information.
Please do not telephone the sales team for now because there is no-one currently answering the phones.
What tickets will I be able to buy?
Our trains will use carriages with compartments rather than open carriages. This will ensure passengers can maintain social distancing by sticking together as a family, group or household.
We will be selling tickets for an entire compartment (of eight to 10 seats) rather than individual seats. We believe this will provide passengers with the necessary reassurance that they are able to travel safely on our services.
Note: the first train service on Friday 7 August will be reserved for members of the Bluebell Railway Preservation Society. All our other services on that day and future running days will be available to the public to book.
Will passengers with reduced mobility be able to travel?
Unfortunately, for the time being our carriages will not be able to accommodate people in wheelchairs because we do not yet have the coaches available to handle this facility. We hope to be able to reintroduce this facility as soon as we are able to do so after reopening so please bear with us.
What steps are you taking to ensure cleanliness at the Bluebell Railway?
We will introduce an enhanced cleaning regime so that all the trains are cleaned ready for use. We will pay particular attention to door handlesand other parts which people might touch.
We will also enhance our regular inspections and cleaning of our toilet facilities and would encourage all visitors to follow the guidance on handwashing and take personal hygiene measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
What facilities will be open at the stations?
In line with Government guidance, the Bessemer Arms at Sheffield Park, Horsted Keynes buffet and Kingscote kiosk will remain closed for now. Our SteamWorks! exhibition and museum at Sheffield Park will be open to the public employing a one-way system. Glass surfaces will be regularly wiped and sanitised.
Catering will be provided by a take-away service from the Bessemer Arms which can be pre-booked when purchasing tickets. There will be no on-board catering facilities.
The shop at Sheffield Park will be open but with social distancing measures in place to allow customers to visit while keeping apart from other people.
What changes will there be at the reopened Bluebell Railway?
At Sheffield Park we will have dedicated entry and exit lanes for our customers. Please be patient and show respect to other customers and to our staff and volunteers. Please follow the signs for your route to the platforms and around the station. We will also have volunteer guides on hand to help you find your way around.
Do I need to bring anything with me?
In line with other transport bodies in England and following best practice, face coverings will be required to travel on our services. This is part of the Government’s compulsory regulations for passengers travelling on trains.
We do not wish to put anyone off from travelling with us and hope people will appreciate the measures are part of ensuring a safe and enjoyable journey for everyone. This step is alongside the social distancing rules and hygiene advice.
Visitors should bring their own face covering. A face covering is different from the full-scale surgical-grade face mask and can be made at home. In addition, it would be advisable to bring your own hand sanitiser and wipes if you wish to use them on your journey with us.
Face coverings will be required for all travel including dining trains and can then be temporarily removed when eating.
Why are face coverings necessary?
Face coverings are an extra measure to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. They provide reassurance and some protection for our staff and other passengers during your visit even when keeping apart. Since 15 June, it is the law that people must wear a face covering when travelling in England on a train.
You can read more about face coverings here.
Can I visit on days when there are no trains running?
No, the railway will be closed to visitors on non-running days for now. We will review the situation and announce any changes.
Are these plans confirmed?
All of the above remains provisional at the moment and depends on Government advice and guidance. The situation is dynamic and subject to change. We will continue to monitor announcements about tourist attractions and heritage railways. As our plans move from provisional to confirmed, we will keep you updated.
I have an existing booking for a dining train which was booked and paid for before the lockdown. What happens to my booking?
We will in due course contact all customers who have bookings for services which have been cancelled and supply them with a voucher. Vouchers will be redeemable for rebooking and will be valid until 31 May 2022.
How long has the Bluebell Railway been closed?
The railway closed on Friday 20 March. The last public trains ran on Sunday 15 March.