Rail groups on track to complete Norfolk Orbital Railway
Born from the Industrial Revolution, it was a system that, in its heyday, helped bring to life Norfolk's countryside for tourists and commuters alike.
But with so much of the county's railway hacked away in the 1950s and 1960s, are plans of adding a link back into the region's broken chain just a dream?
The vision for a reborn orbital railway line was launched in 2000 by a band of enthusiasts keen to revive axed branch lines and connect preservation railways with the main network.
Built in the late Victorian era, the importance of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway – whose original route forms the northern section of the proposed circular route – is emphasised by co-director of Norfolk Orbital Railway, David Bill, who claimed it 'opened up the tourism industry' and made Cromer and Sheringham the towns they are today.
'But by the early sixties the government of the day turned its back on the railways and was looking for ways to cut back the system,' he said.
'The cuts in Norfolk were deep and savage and at one point the plan was to wipe everything out.
'A group of us tried to save what we could and put a tremendous amount of effort in to saving the Sheringham to Weybourne, and then to Holt, line – we succeeded.'
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The group's aim is to create a circular route taking in Norwich, Cromer, Sheringham, Fakenham, Dereham and Wymondham.
Currently the biggest missing piece of the jigsaw is between Holt and Fakenham and while the Bittern Line, North Norfolk Railway (NNR) and Mid Norfolk Railway (MNR) have already gone some way to restoring the loop, the missing links remain between High Kelling and North Elmham.
Under the orbital plan the heritage NNR would extend to Fakenham to meet a lengthened MNR stretch from Dereham to Wymondham.
The circuit would then be completed at Wymondham to join back up with the main line to Norwich.
And despite critics querying the high price tag, the project was given real impetus in March 2010 when 100 yards of track was laid at Sheringham to connect the NNR with the commuter service on to Cromer and Norwich.
The next stage for the NNR is to take the line from its current stop a mile outside Holt into the town centre, alongside the A148 bypass to Common Hill.
Co-director Trevor Bailey said: 'We now have signed an agreement which will allow us to purchase the privately-owned land – if we can raise the money – and the county council would like to sell their portion of the land to us.'
It is expected to cost between �200,000 and �250,000 to secure the land, which would pave the way to re-instating the track – and the group has already launched an appeal for donations.
Mr Bill said the only way to move the 'very expensive exercise' forward would be through private donations and although 'worthwhile', estimated the project would cost millions and take many years to complete.
'When you look at the NNR now you see one of the most successful, original initiatives you could have imagined, which brings in thousands of tourists every year,' he said.
'If we had not started our group all these years ago and instead listened to our critics, then we would not be seeing the 150,000 visitors we now see each year – there wouldn't be one. We have every reason to argue for it.'
The orbital team claim that engineering and public surveys carried out confirm the project is feasible but Mr Bill admitted there will still be challenges.
'Once we acquire the land in Holt there will be difficult engineering works to carry out to bring the land to a state where the track can be laid,' he said.
'Times have moved on – the system that now operates on the NNR and the MNR is different to what works on network rail. The technology has changed. There are solutions to this but there are barriers also – you cannot put right overnight the destruction of 40 years ago. The ability and potential is there, it's just one huge challenge.'
Mr Bill also emphasised the importance of making a commuter line a reality to bring the railway 'back to its original purpose'.
Echoing that ethos, Richard Ellis, chairman of Norfolk Tourism and Visit East Anglia, said: 'If it becomes a reality, it could be a tourism attraction in its own right as well as a boost to those visitors who want to access our wonderful destination without resorting to using a car.
'Thus it would boost sustainable tourism in the county as well as potentially being an additional tourist attraction in its own right.'
Mr Bill added: 'Our view is that as the tourist trade expands it will be appropriate to reintroduce a regular service to commuters, shoppers and schoolchildren.
'We need to be putting right the damage that should never have happened in the first place.'
To support the appeal, send donations to The Holt, Melton Constable and Fakenham Railway Co, The Railway Institute, Melton Constable, Norfolk NR24 2DA.
Anyone interested in finding out more about the project can visit www.norfolk-orbital-railway.co.uk.
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