Journey that began 60 years ago ends for Norwich railways stalwart
A journey that began more than 60 years ago is soon to reach the end of the line for one well-known Norwich railwayman.
How times have changed on the trains
When Chas Bellchamber began working in 1951, rail travel was on the cusp of major change.
Just three years earlier, the “Big Four” private operators had been nationalised to form British Railways, later to become British Rail.
The change initially boosted passenger numbers, but increased competition from road haulage had put profits at risk by the mid-1950s.
As the network fought to compete, money was invested in the replacement of steam engines with diesel and electric rolling stock, in a bid to tempt cargo back from the roads.
But with profits dwindling, government funding was reduced and cuts made across the country, culminating in the “Beeching Axe” – a report by Dr Richard Beeching which led to the closure of many rural branch lines and secondary routes.
Haulage volume and passenger numbers declined steadily until the late 1970s, though the introduction of high-speed inter-city trains in the early 1980s sparked a renaissance and increased investment.
Between 1994 and 1997, British Rail was privatised by John Major’s Conservative government and divided into 25 franchises, with the promise that passengers would feel the benefit of the improved service.
Passenger numbers have risen steadily since, and in 2010 reached their highest level for 90 years.
The age of steam may have passed, but the great British love affair with the railways continues.
Inheriting his father’s great passion, Chas Bellchamber joined the railways in 1951, shovelling coal in the steam engines that fired his imagination.
In the 61 years since, Chas, 77, has been guard, driver, goods yard shunter, conductor and finally a ticket examiner – and handed on a love of life on the tracks that has seen his sons and grandson follow him into the job.
Together, Chas, his father, Sidney, sons John and David, and grandson Devin have completed nearly 180 years of service on the railways.
Yesterday, he was given a surprise welcome at Norwich station by friends, family and colleagues from Greater Anglia, and presented with a cake decorated with a conductor’s whistle and fobwatch.
At the end of the year Chas, a grandfather of six and great-grandfather of three, will hang his hat up for good, bringing to an end a career that began in a more romantic age of rail travel.
“I loved the steam engines – they were the good old days,” said Chas, of Rugge Drive, Eaton.
“That’s why I joined the railways in the first place. I miss my old steam engines.
“In those days, the engine was alive. You could have about 140 failures and it kept going – these days you have one and you stop.”
His love for the railways was sparked by his father, who spent 40 years driving steam trains on the Great Eastern Mainline between Norwich and London. “You can still see the old steam engines around – though not the ones I used to be on,” said Chas. “They still come into Norwich sometimes, like the Oliver Cromwell, the old 70013.”
During his time working from King’s Cross, Chas was a regular on the Mallard, the fastest steam train in the world, though he admits it “became an old rattle-cart” after its record breaking run.
He had stints as a train driver himself, before becoming a conductor and ticket examiner, where he learned every trick in the book to snare fare-dodgers.
“I know all the tricks of the trade,” said Chas. “Even if they get past me once, I tell them that I’ll get them next time.
“The oldest trick is to hide in the toilet to avoid the ticket inspector. I remember one journey when I found five people hiding in the same toilet.”
Giving up a career that has become a way of life will be tough, but he hopes this retirement attempt will last longer than his previous effort – when he realised he missed the job too much and returned just months after leaving in 1999. Chas said he is now looking forward to spending more time with Sheila, his wife of 53 years, and watching his grandsons play cricket.
Andrew Goodrum, customer services manager at Greater Anglia, praised Mr Bellchamber’s love for his job. “I think it’s safe to say we could get Chas to do most jobs in the station, and he would get on with it well,” he said.
“Being part of the railway is like being part of a family. Chas has a level of experience and a huge pride in his job, his enthusiasm, no matter what the time of day, is remarkable. It’s a fantastic achievement in this day and age to have reached 61 years in the job.”
Even in retirement, Chas expects to still be a regular at the train station. “It’s not something you can just give up that easily,” he said. “It’s a way of life.”