With the Rushden Historical Transport Society having recently submitted a planning application for the extension of its short running line towards Higham Ferrers, this is an ideal opportunity to look at one of the less well-known preservation schemes in Britain.
The origins of the project date back to 1984 when the Rushden Historical Transport Society took out a lease on the long disused railway station at Rushden from Northamptonshire County Council. A transport museum opened two years later but in 1987 the station was threatened with demolition. This was, however, prevented and in 1996 the society acquired the station from the council. Following this a short section of line was laid and, as the Rushden, Higham & Wellingborough Railway, the line operates over about one mile of track towards Higham Ferrers, the original terminus of the ex-Midland Railway branch. The railway’s ultimate aim is to see as much of the branch restored as possible, with services terminating in the disused bay platform at Wellingborough station. Between Rushden and Wellingborough a bridge over the A6 has been removed; this will require replacement should the railway get close to achieving its aims.
In terms of locomotives, the line currently has two operational steam locomotives. These are an Andrew Barclay-built 0-4-0ST, No 2168 Edmundsons, which was originally built in 1940, and the Aveling & Porter 2-2-0WT No 9449 The Blue Circle, which was built in 1926. In addition, there are two other steam locomotives that are non-operational: these are a second Andrew Barclay 0-4-0ST and a Bagnall 06-0ST, No 2654 Cherwell, which was built in 1942 and which is awaiting a major restoration as and when funds become available.
In addition to the steam locomotives, there are also two Class 31 diesels, Nos 31206 and 31289, both of which are operational, and a Sentinel four-wheel diesel-hydraulic, which dates to the early 1960s. There is also one of the Class 121 diesel railcars, No 55029 (departmental No 977968), which is in Network Rail yellow and dates originally to 1960.
The background to the branch line to Higham Ferrers was that, in the late 19th century, the traders, predominantly in the boot and shoe industry, found that the existing railway facilities were inadequate and sought to get improvements. The Midland Railway promoted a line from Irchester Junction, to the south of Wellingborough on the main line towards London, to Raunds, on the line from Kettering to Huntingdon, via Rushden and Higham Ferrers. An Act permitting construction of the route was passed on 25 July 1890. Freight services opened through to Higham Ferrers on 1 September 1893 and passenger services commenced on 1 May the following year. The line was constructed as single track from Irchester Junction to the terminus with a loop at Rushden. Although the line was constructed a short distance beyond the terminus at Higham Ferrers, the route was never completed through to Raunds. There was only a single intermediate station — at Rushden — and this opened with the line. Between 1 July 1902 and 1 October 1910, the terminus was known as Higham Ferrers & Irthlingboro’.
In April 1910 there were 13 return workings per week day from Wellingborough to Higham Ferrers & Irthlingboro’ with one additional service on Saturdays. There was no service on Sundays. In all a single journey over the 5¼ miles took generally about 12 minutes. By the summer of 1947 the service had declined; there were now 10 return workings per day with an additional service on Saturdays; there was still no service on Sundays.
As with a number of lines, the 1950s witnessed a decline in traffic as private car ownership increased and the proximity of the ex-LNWR station at Irthlingborough, on the Northampton to Peterborough line, cannot have helped. As a result, passenger services over the branch were withdrawn on 15 June 1959. Although timetabled passenger services were withdrawn, holiday trains during the town’s holiday fortnight continued to operate on Saturdays until 1964
Freight facilities were withdrawn from Higham Ferrers on 3 February 1959 and from Rushden on 1 September of the same year. On 3 November 1969, the final traffic over the route, iron concentrate, was transferred to Twywell on the line from Kettering to Thrapston. Until the transfer, this traffic had generated some 1,500 tons of freight per week over the branch. Following closure, the line was lifted. The yard at Rushden was subsequently used as a highways depot whilst the station building was used as a factory.
Whether the Rushden, Higham & Wellingborough Railway succeeds in its aim of one day recreating the 5½-mile long route in its entirety only time will tell; the planning application, if approved (and there is strong local opposition), will, however, see the prospect of trains once again operating over the section from Rushden to Higham Ferrers some 50 years after the last freight trains operated.
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