the North Norfolk Railway




The North Norfolk Railway, which runs for about 5 miles between Sheringham and Holt, is an example of a preserved or heritage railway. The stations and signals, as well as the trains, are of a traditional design. Even the advertising boards have posters from another era, selling products that no longer exist. The concept is broader than just steam trains, visiting the railway is really like entering a time-warp. The line was officially closed in 1964, but was soon brought back to life by train enthusiasts. The North Norfolk Railway (NNR), also known as the 'Poppy Line', is staffed mostly by volunteers. They must be putting in a great deal of effort to keep everything going. Today the modern railway network runs as far as the seaside resort of Sheringham, and is separated from the NNR by only a few yards. From next year a restored level crossing over Station Road should join the NNR back to the main network, making it easier for other preserved engines to visit.

The age of steam was coming to an end when I was born in 1968. The previous generation however, would have grown up riding steam trains, in an age when every town had a railway station and few people owned cars. I can understand the sentimental appeal of steam for them. But there is more to steam trains than that. The locomotives look and sound wonderful. They make such good photography subjects - and they may not be around for much longer. Only one steam loco has been built in the UK since 1960 - the Peppercorn A1 class Tornado. In a few decades these engines might be confined to museums so now is the time to record them at work.

summer on the Poppy Line

The image above, 'summer on the Poppy Line', gives a feel for the railway and the landscape it crosses. Norfolk is a fairly flat county but there is a line of hills called the Cromer - Holt ridge, which geologists have determined is a terminal moraine. During the last ice age this was the southern extent of the glaciers which swept rocks along as they advanced and deposited them here. On a hot day in August it's hard to imagine those glaciers. From the high ground of the ridge, on Kelling Heath, I have a view over the railway and the fields out to the sea. Steam locomotives seem to complement the traditional farmed landscape that is typical of most of England. Unfortunately modern trains do not, and the routes also have overhead electric cables making the situation even worse. Sadly the modern railway is something to be cloned out.

The engines themselves also make fine subjects. They often look better in black & white, since the steel has no color of its own. I'm not using b&w here to create an 'old-fashioned look', which I regard as a rather silly idea. My perspective is that the modern photographer has an opportunity to record in color what historic photographs of steam railways could only record in b&w, so we can add something of value provided of course color is the right medium for a particular shot.

The locomotive below is a 'small prairie' type tank engine, dating from the 1920's, pictured as it leaves Weybourne station. The dark metal needed some work in Photoshop, dodging the highlights until they approach the white point.

tank engine and arches

campaigning for railways

While photographing Weybourne station I watched a delivery of coal being unloaded - from the back of a lorry. This of course is not the way the railways used to operate - coal would be transported by rail from the mines which were all connected to the national rail network. It's not the NNR's fault because, as I was saying earlier, the railway is not connected to the network for want of a level crossing.

The decision to close most of the branch lines, like the Poppy Line, in the 1950's and 60's is still being argued about. The closure of those unprofitable branch lines, campaigners point out, failed to recognise their value in feeding passengers and freight into the main lines. Put another way, if the rail network reaches your starting point and your destination then you might use it - if it doesn't then you will use the roads instead.

There are campaigns to reopen dozens of routes, not just for steam trains of course, but as a modern alternative to the roads. The planners of the 1960's probably didn't foresee the congestion and pollution caused when everyone uses their own private vehicle. The rail campaigners, backed by environmentalists, are now starting to get some attention. Here are some facts :

 * rail is between 4 and 7 times more energy efficient than road per tonne of cargo

 * an average freight train carries the load of 50 HGVs

 * rail is about 6 times safer then road measured by deaths per passenger mile

Looking at these figures it's hard to see why the rail infrastructure, with its straight level routes constructed with enormous effort to cover the whole country, has been so neglected. for photography