Narrow Gauge Railways on Orford Ness
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Military activities began on Orford Ness in 1915, when the Armament and Experimental Flight of the Royal Flying Corps (later known formally as the Aircraft Armament and Gunnery Experimental Establishment) set up a flying field in the King’s Marshes.
Supporting the operations around this airfield until well after the Second World War, a network of industrial narrow-gauge railways were laid, leading from the jetty facing Orford across the Ore to the airfield, across Stony Ditch to access munitions and bomb storage on the shingle, and to connect to the newer facilities such as the Bomb Ballistics Building.
As the shingle proved to be a valuable building material, further track was laid along the shingle to bring this material to a number of construction sites around the “island”. Indeed, a light railway was the most convenient way to transport large amounts of materials on this loose, soft terrain. In the 1960s, further railway lines were put down in the northern part of the Ness to transport almost 300’000 m3 of shingle to Slaughden and Aldeburgh to reinforce seawater defences damaged in floods.
The first locomotives used on the Orford Ness were two petrol driven Baguley 040PM locomotives, starting in 1918. These were similar to the engines used on the battlefields in France and plied the Orford Ness network until the late 1930s, when they were replaced, perhaps surprisingly, by four Orenstein & Koppel RL1c diesel locos from Germany. They were hard at work, supporting the needs of the RAF activities on the airfield, throughout the Second World War and beyond.
In the mid-1960s, the O&K locomotives were withdrawn and their duties transferred to five Motor Rail Simplex diesel locomotives operated by the Department of the Environment. Unlike their predecessors, three of these historic Simplex locos were preserved for future generations. They can be admired in Suffolk museums and two are still being used to this day, drawing tourist trains at the East Suffolk Light Railway in Carlton Colville near Lowestoft. The history of all Locomotives used on Orford Ness railway can be found here.
The nature of narrow-gauge railways was to provide a flexible means of transport, easy to install and remove. On Orford Ness, almost the entire rail network was taken up in the 1970 when it was no longer needed. Unfortunately, the sole surviving reminders of this infrastructure, critical to the success of operations on this remote location, are a short section of track and the former engine shed near the jetty.
Click here for the full article by Olaf Kirchner on the extent of the narrow-gauge railways on Orford Ness, and a flavour of their activities over more than half a century of operations.