Swanage heads for Wareham

Swanage station in 2012.
Published Mon, 2015-12-07 11:45

News that the Swanage Railway will launch its through services to Wareham next summer means that, after more than 40 years, it will be possible for travellers to reach the south coast resort by train from the national network.


Swanage station in 2012. © Andrew Bone and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons License

The Swanage Railway is not the first to operate regular services over the national network — the North Yorkshire Moors Railway has been successfully operating from Grosmont to Whitby for a number of years — and it won’t be the last, with lines such as the West Somerset Railway (with its link to Taunton) actively examining how to gain access to a main-line station.
There are, in addition, a number of lines that offer interchange facilities with national network stations — the Strathspey into Aviemore, the Keighley & Worth Valley into Keighley, the Mid-Hants at Alton, the Spa Valley at Eridge and, most recently, the Bluebell into East Grinstead, for example — whilst others have their own stations close to national network stations — such the Severn Valley Railway at Kidderminster and the North Norfolk at Sheringham. Moreover, it is possible to obtain through tickets from the national network to stations on a number of these preserved lines.
A generation ago, there was a distinct ‘them’ and ‘us’ attitude between preservation and the then nationalised railway industry, but the increasing professionalism of many of the preserved railways and the increased willingness of those involved in providing services over the national network to see preservation as complementary means that the barriers have been reduced.
Many of today’s successful preservation schemes started out from a desire of the local community to save a threatened railway and to offer regular services to the community. The Keighley & Worth Valley, for example, believed that it could offer a regular commuter service for residents along the line and acquired rolling stock suitable for that purpose. In reality, however, at the time these hopes proved impractical but some 50 years on from the K&WVR’s preservation it’s not farfetched to contemplate the possibility of providing a public service, if only to relieve the congestion on the roads between Keighley and Oxenhope.
The desire for a main-line connection is one that has been a feature of many preservation schemes over the years; some were lucky that such a connection was inevitable given the location of the line, even if irregularly used, but for others — like the Swanage — it was an aspiration. The sad thing about a number of schemes — most notably, perhaps, the Llangollen whose route to the east and a connection through to Ruabon is severely compromised — is that these lines are destined to be isolated: able to offer tourist services over the preserved section but of little practical purpose in providing any form of public service. Ironically, their mere presence may compound the problems of traffic congestion that a line linked to the national network might help to eliminate.
For the Swanage Railway, the reopening through to Wareham represents the successful outcome of a 40-year campaign firstly to save the line and then restore services over its full length.
Backed by the London & South Western Railway, the 10¼-mile long branch from Worgret Junction to Swanage was originally authorised by an Act of Parliament of 18 July 1881. The Swanage Railway opened, with one intermediate station at Corfe Castle, on 20 May 1885 and was operated from the outset by the LSWR. The Swanage Railway was formally absorbed by the LSWR following an Act of 25 June 1886, although this effectively formalised an arrangement from 1881 when the larger company had taken on the Swanage Railway’s debts.
Initially the passenger service consisted simply of local services to and from Wareham, where a relocated station better able to act as the interchange opened on 4 April 1887. However, by the late 19th century, the fashion for seaside holidays saw Swanage develop as a resort and through services from London were instituted. In 1910 there were 10 return workings per weekday over the branch, with a single journey taking just over 20 minutes from Wareham to Swanage. There were an additional one down and two up services on Thursdays; one of the latter departed from Swanage at 9.45pm offering a connection into Waterloo at 3.35 — ideal for the early birds! There were two return workings on Sundays. By 1931 the service had increased on weekdays to 13.
As part of the LSWR, the Swanage branch passed to the Southern Railway in 1923 and to British Railways (Southern Region) in 1948. By this date the majority of passenger services were in the hands of steam-operated push-pull sets, with the through coaches shunted onto the service train at Wareham.
Unlike a number of other routes that closed after 1963, the Swanage branch was not one of those listed by Beeching. However, in 1967 the Labour government, with Barbara Castle as Minister of Transport, undertook a further review of the railway industry and identified a number of further unremunerative branches for possible closure — including the Swanage branch. The line had been dieselised in 1966 using Class 205 DEMUs and further rationalisation was to follow with the withdrawal of freight facilities from Swanage on 5 October 1965.
It was originally proposed that the line be closed by September 1967; however, opposition and problems in providing a replacement bus service led to a ruling that the line should remain open. This was, however, over-ruled by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Peter Walker, and passenger services were withdrawn from 3 January 1972. This resulted in the complete closure of the line south of Furzebrook Sidings, with the section from Worgret Junction to Furzebrook being retained for freight traffic. This was used initially for the movement of ball clay but was subsequently to be used for the shipment of oil from the Wytch Farm development.
Although formed in May 1972 to preserve the line, the Swanage Railway Society faced considerable problems. British Rail initially wanted to sell the Swanage station site to developers before agreeing to sell it to Swanage Town Council, an organisation that initially wanted to demolish and develop the site itself. Moreover, Dorset County Council saw the disused trackbed as a potential route for the construction of a bypass for Corfe Castle.
Gradually, however, the tide turned in favour of the society and, in 1975, it gained limited access to the station at Swanage. A short section of line became operational in 1979; this was extended initially to Herston Halt and, in 1988, to Harman’s Cross. The line was extended north through Corfe Castle to Norden, where a park and ride station was established, in 1995 before a connection was eventually made with the national network at Furzebrook. In 2002 a through service ran for the first time over a temporary connection when a Virgin Voyager ran through to Swanage. Later in the decade a permanent connection was installed; this was first used on 10 May 2007.
In 2010, Dorset County Council and Purbeck District Council voted £3 million over three years to fund in part the work required at Worgret Junction to permit the operation of the through services from Swanage to Wareham; it is the completion of this work by Network Rail that now permits these services to operate from the summer of 2016.
Some 44 years after regular services last operated and after many years of struggle, Swanage has reclaimed its railway connection; with other schemes in the pipe-line, let’s hope it’s one of many that we will be able to celebrate in the future.