A train-mad youngster who gave all his pocket money to save the steam railway he loves has waved the green flag to see off the first train as the line reopened.
Six-year-old Alex Venton blew the whistle as the popular Bluebell Railway in Sussex began running trains again after a 20-week closure.
Alex and his family were special guests of the railway as a token of thanks for his contribution to the plea for financial help during the shutdown.
He has been keen on trains since the age of two and is a member of the Bluebell Railway’s club for juniors. The not-for-profit railway launched an emergency appeal in March to provide enough money to recover from the closure and retain key heritage skills in the area.
Alex’s mum Sophie Venton said: “He read about the appeal in the railway’s newsletter and said, ‘Can I give the money from my money box?’.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you want to?’ because he had been saving up for a new coach for his trainset but he insisted he wanted to help.”
He then offered all his saved pocket money which came to £6.10 and Sophie topped it up to £20 as a donation to the railway.
The family, from Petworth in West Sussex, were given a VIP behind-the-scenes tour of the railway’s locomotive workshops and interactive exhibition area before taking a ride on the line.
Trevor Swainson, Bluebell Railway funding organiser, said: “We were touched that Alex had emptied his money box because he loves trains so much and particularly his concern that the railway might struggle as it comes out of lockdown. We have had more than 2,500 donations to the appeal but it is stories like Alex’s that are particularly heart-warming and it makes us realise just how special the Bluebell Railway is to so many people.”
Passengers and staff were at the railway’s headquarters at Sheffield Park station in East Sussex to see Alex perform his duties at the reopening ceremony on Friday (7 August) which coincided with the Bluebell Railway’s 60th birthday. The first train was fully booked within 10 minutes of tickets going on sale.
The birthday celebrations included e-greetings cards recorded during lockdown by railway enthusiasts and transport organisations including actor and TV presenter Sir Tony Robinson, TV presenter and Bluebell Railway volunteer Nicholas Owen, toy manufacturer Hornby and the London Transport Museum.
The railway’s appeal has raised nearly £400,000 so far which was enough to allow it to reopen but it is still asking for donations because of the continued uncertainty over coronavirus.
The Bluebell Railway opened as a preserved passenger railway on 7 August 1960 and was the first heritage line of its kind in the UK. It has 11 miles of track running from Sheffield Park in East Sussex to East Grinstead in West Sussex.
It is known as “The Line to the Stars” because hundreds of films, TV programmes, music videos and advertisements have used its period stations and trains as a backdrop. The list includes Downton Abbey, Poirot, Muppets Most Wanted and The Woman in Black.
In order to reopen and show that it was Covid-secure, the railway produced a video to highlight the special measures which have been put in place to observe social distancing and health protection. Actor Martin Clunes, who visited the railway for filming in 2014, narrated the video.
The Bluebell Railway has adapted its services and is running trains with separate compartments as well as special dining trains with prepared food. All tickets have to be pre-booked online.
Further details of the Bluebell Railway’s services at www.bluebell-railway.com
The emergency funding appeal is at