The Norfolk Orbital Railway is a community railway project in Norfolk, UK, undertaken to improve transport facilities in the region. It is also known as the Holt, Melton Constable and Fakenham Railway company (HMC & FRC). This independent organisation was formed in order to link the area’s existing railway lines to the rest of the UK’s National Rail network and help generate revenues for all partners involved in the project.
The Norfolk railway lines were closed in 1959 during Dr Beeching’s (British Railways chairman) infamous railway reform. The closure was an attempt by the UK Government to cut costs, as British Railways was incurring huge losses. In the 1950s, the UK population increasingly travelled by road, and there was an increase in goods being transported by road instead of rail. As a result, the unprofitable and less frequently used railway lines and stations were closed down.
During that decade (1950-1960) approximately 4,000 miles of railway lines (25% of routes) and 3,000 stations (50% of all stations) were shut down.
The Norfolk Orbital Railway aims to reconnect with the National Rail network at Sheringham and Wymondham. This involves use of the county’s two heritage railways – The Mid-Norfolk Railway and the North Norfolk Railway. It also includes restoration of the former Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway Line between Holt and Fakenham.
The project will link Sheringham, Holt, Melton Constable and Fakenham. It will further connect with the proposed extension of Mid-Norfolk Railway from Dereham to Fakenham. The completed rail network will then form a circular orbit in the Norfolk area.
The Norfolk Orbital Railway project was first considered in 2007. On 21 March 2010, the line from Sheringham to Holt was connected by an occasional-use level crossing. The crossing is a milestone linking Norfolk with the National Rail network. The work on the crossing was completed in two days by volunteers with an investment of £200,000 using hired equipment and engineers.
The North Norfolk and Mid-Norfolk railway lines
The North Norfolk railway line is an 8km-long heritage line running between Sheringham and Holt. It passes through Weybourne and Kelling Heath. It is being used for running heritage services like excursions and freight transportation. Currently, Platform 2 at Sheringham and Holt stations are being used for this line.
The Mid-Norfolk Railway is a 11.5km-long line owned and operated by a charitable trust. It reopened in 1997 as a tourist line. It is also known as the new-generation heritage railway and is the longest heritage railway in the UK. It starts at Wymondham and passes through Yaxham, Thuxton and Kimberley Park before ending at Dereham. It operates mainly at weekends – and on some Wednesdays and Thursdays – from February to the end of December. In addition to passengers, the line carries commercial freight and is also used by the British army to transport equipment.
Infrastructure – the Bittern Line
The National Rail network line from Norwich to Sheringham is known as the Bittern Line. It is connected to Holt by the North Norfolk Railway.
The track bed and the original Holt station site are now being used as a bypass. The track, which was abandoned in 1959, runs directly through Melton Constable.
The Melton Station site is now owned by an industrial estate and the platform has been converted into a telephone exchange. The station throat has been levelled out and restored for agricultural use.
A section of the track bed near Fakenham has been lost due to quarrying, so the line now diverts through Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park instead.
The route from Fakenham to County School is part of the proposed Mid-Norfolk Railway. The line from County School to Dereham is intact, while the line from Dereham to Wymondham is currently being operated as a heritage service.
Rolling stock – heritage locomotives
The Norfolk Orbital Railway doesn’t own any rolling stock. It will be made up of an assortment of heritage locomotives, from Britannia Class to old industrial tank engines owned by the rail companies involved. It will use standard gauge tracks on the Mid-Norfolk Railway and North Norfolk Railway heritage lines.
The first locomotive at Sheringham Crossing – after an absence of 48 years – was the Oliver Cromwell.
The Mid-Norfolk Railway uses heritage stock, such as the 50019 Ramillies, the 56040 Oystermouth, and Hunslet 0-6-0 saddle tanks, which are currently in private ownership.
The North Norfolk Railway uses diesel, as well as steam locomotives.