Booming Bittern Line is tracks ahead

North Norfolk's community railway has laid the tracks for rural services as figures reveal branch line's across the country are booming.

Small scale services have seen passenger numbers rocket - with some almost doubling - in the past four years and the success is being pinned in part to the rise of the 'staycation' with more Brits holidaying at home.

The Bittern line has not had such a sharp increase but those behind the service believe the line is ahead of the pack as it was achieving the increase in numbers other railways are now enjoying a decade ago.

And there are calls for its services to be expanded as its growing popularity continues.

Since the community rail partnership began running the 30 mile stretch from Norwich to Sheringham passenger numbers have increased by a whopping 200pc.

Operator National Express East Anglia said the service was 'ahead of the game' as it and partner groups had worked hard to promote it.

Spokesman Peter Meades said: 'A lot of the work that was initially done to raise the profile and increase the numbers of people using the line has already been established in this part of the world.'

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Figures released on Friday by the Association of Train Operating Companies revealed the highest growing lines across the country, which put the Truro to Falmouth service in Cornwall at the top after it increased passenger numbers by 22pc in the past year.

But Robert Simmons, chairman of the North Norfolk Tourism Forum, said this kind of increase was being achieved by the Bittern line 'ten years ago' and the work of the partnership has 'stood us in good stead'.

He added: 'People are seeking more environmentally friendly means of getting about once they have arrived somewhere, and if you're staying in north Norfolk it's very handy to be able to get a train into Norwich to do shopping.'

Named after a rare bird native to north Norfolk the Bittern line was launched in 1997 and is now run by a community partnership, which includes representatives from a number of groups and public bodies, including Broadland District, Norwich City and North Norfolk District Council.

Ted Gadsden, partnership chairman, said the line was 'exceptional' among other community services as it was not just a popular route for tourists and holidaymakers.

He said: 'It's a lifeline in an area that has no motorways so that makes it very important and the people who use it are mainly commuters and school children.

'It also reduces social exclusion because it's extremely difficult if someone doesn't have a car or can't drive.'

Mr Gadsden thought there was a strong argument for expanding the service by introducing more trains and longer carriages as the line does suffer from overcrowding, particularly during peak rush hour periods and when Norwich City are playing at home.

'I think there's justification (for expansion). The passenger numbers have increased because certainly the 7.45am train is always overcrowded. But we don't ever seem to get more than two carriages.

'We're pressing for this but there seems to be a shortage of rolling stock.'