After the grouping of the railways in 1923, the post-World War 1 economy allied to the growth of the road haulage and unrestricted competition from buses resulted in the first significant closures of railway passenger services.
Despite this, there were a number of lines that were opened during the period; amongst these was the Southern Railway’s branch to Fawley in Hampshire. Moreover, unlike many of the other lines that emerged during this period (such as the Great Western’s Wombourne branch in the West Midlands), the line to Fawley is still part of the National Network.
Although there had been proposals as early as the 1860s for the construction of a line from the London & South Western main line at Totton along the west side of Southampton Water it was not until 10 November 1903 that the LSWR obtained powers under the 1896 Light Railways Act for a branch to Fawley.
However, despite the powers being obtained the LSWR was in no hurry to construct the line, partly as a result of local opposition to the plans. It was not until after World War and the start of the construction of a new oil refinery that the railway once again dusted off plans for the line and, as a result, the Totton, Hythe & Fawley Light Railway was granted a Light Railway Order in 1921.
It was not to be under the LSWR that the line was completed. However, as in 1923 the company was subsumed — along with the London, Brighton & South Coast and South Eastern & Chatham railways — into the new Southern Railway. The 9½-mile long branch line finally opened throughout on 20 July 1925. Apart from the passenger terminus at Fawley, beyond which the line stretched into the oil refinery, there were two intermediate stations — Marchwood and Hythe; a third, Hardley Halt, was opened on 3 March 1958 to serve oil workmen’s trains. This did not appear in public timetables and was to close, before the withdrawal of timetabled services. On 5 April 1965.
In the summer of 1939, there were three workings per day in the down direction each weekday from Totton to Fawley, with four in the up direction. The majority of services worked through to and from either Southampton Terminus or Southampton Central stations. There was no service on Sundays. Trains were allowed about 30 minutes for a single trip along the branch. The majority of locomotive workings along the branch were handled by either ‘02’ class 0-4-4Ts or ‘Jubilee’ class 0-4-2Ts although ‘L11’ class 4-4-0s could also be found in use.
Situated just to the south of Marchwood station, a short branch was constructed during World War 2 to serve the new military dock at Marchwood. The new harbor was constructed in 1943 primarily to aid the logistics required for mounting the Allied invasion of Europe (D-Day of June 1944). It was also to prove of immense strategic use during the Falklands War of 1982. The dockyard itself remains active and is used by the ships of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary; in addition, there is an increasing amount of commercial traffic generated by the port. The dockyard it served by an internal railway system. Although never carrying a regular passenger service, there were occasions when trains carrying naval reservists traversed the branch, such as on 17 May 1954.
After the war, the line, along with the rest of the Southern Railway became part of British Railways (Southern Region). During the 1950s locomotives allocated included ex-LB&SCR Class E6 0-6-2Ts with ‘Z’ class 0-8-0Ts being used to haul the oil trains. From 1952 BR Standard 3MT 2-6-2Ts appeared to replace the ‘E6s’ whilst ex-LSWR Class M7 0-4-4Ts were also employed.
Following Dr Richard Beeching’s examination of the finances of British Railways publishing in his Reshaping report in March 1963, the Fawley branch seemed safe. It was not listed in the report for either closure or service modification; despite this, however, proposals for its closure were put forward and passenger services were withdrawn on 12 January 1966. There were a number of reasons why the line lost its passenger services; increased car ownership amongst those employed in the refinery and other local industries being the most notable. Public freight facilities were withdrawn on 2 February 1967.
Following the withdrawal of passenger services, the line was retained to serve the ESSO oil refinery at Fawley; this facility has grown over the years and the site now encompasses the location of the passenger station in Fawley. For a period in the 1960s Class 9F 2-10-0s were employed on the traffic from the refinery. The survival of the line has led to it being considered for possible reopening.
Detailed proposals first emerged on 16 June 2009 when the Association of Train Operating Companies announced an examination into the possibility of restoring passenger services. The plans envisaged reopening to Hythe initially with the possibility of an extension to Fawley if agreement with ESSO could be reached over the construction of a new station. Services were to be operated by the South West Trains franchise and a new station added at Totton West.
These plans were further developed and, in late 2013, the GRIP3 report on the line’s reopening was made public. This showed that security issues precluded reopening to Fawley but that a half-hourly service operated by DMUs could operate from Hythe calling at the new station at Totton (called Houndsdown in the report where a loop was to be installed to permit freight and passenger trains to pass).
In January 2014, however, Hampshire County Council decided again progressing the project citing a perceived poor value to money business case. There were also concerns that the costs required to support the rail link might result in the reduction of support for the existing Southampton to Hythe ferry and for local bus services.
Whilst the reopening project seems dead for the moment, HCC has committed to an ongoing review of the situation should circumstances change.