Turning the clock back to the future

It is certainly ironic that in the same year that we are holding many excellent events to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of steam traction on the Southern Region, one of its most picturesque seaside branches has been reopened throughout for regular passenger traffic, albeit operated in the first instance by diesels.

Full credit must go to two or more generations of Swanage Railway revivalists, who started out by running short industrial diesel-hauled trips over a few hundred yards of relaid track, and now have every inch of the 10-mile LSWR branch in their hands.

The services are being run on behalf of the Purbeck line by ‘Jacobite’ operator West Coast Railways, which successfully launched the North Norfolk Railway’s main line diners to Cromer last summer.

The ‘normal’ scheduled services now running between Swanage and Wareham are, in the first instance, part of a two-year grant-funded trial. However, there will many watching to see how it all pans out. Will more local people use the train to travel, and link in with main line connections at Wareham? Will the services bring in more tourists? How much will it benefit the local economy? Will it ease traffic congestion on local roads?

Regarding the last aspect, the Swanage Railway is a past master, for the opening of its Norden
park-and-ride station back in the Nineties performed a mini transport revolution on the Isle of Purbeck, which has the disadvantage of being crossed by only one main road, the A351.

Visitors to both the beach at Swanage and Corfe Castle found that it was far easier to park up and take a steam train than drive round and round at peak periods looking for somewhere to park. Beeching saw that mass car ownership would render many branch lines unprofitable, but he never foresaw the day when the same branch lines could work wonders to alleviate a worsening situation. If the numbers from the Swanage-Wareham stack up, that would do much to pave the way for similar rail reopenings.

To my mind, relinking the South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh to the Dartmoor stannary town of Ashburton would be an excellent place to start. There are already plans afoot to link Tenterden and the Kent & East Sussex Railway to the main line at Robertsbridge, and I believe that a short westwards extension of the North Norfolk Railway from its Holt terminus at Kelling Heath into the vibrant town of Holt itself would also bring multiple benefits all round. A regular main line service running on to the West Somerset Railway, even if it meant changing trains at Bishops Lydeard, could be a phenomenal boost to the local economy, especially at a time when foreign holidays are costing more and we don’t know what Brexit holds in store for us. And just look at what the Bluebell Railway’s northern extension has done for East Grinstead.

Anyone who has visited Hunstanton on even a dull summer day will be aware of the notorious tailbacks of several slow-moving miles along the A149 to King’s Lynn, so the new group campaigning for the rebuilding of the railway between both towns is guaranteed of my full support, and no doubt that of many other visitors to this part of Norfolk.

Such ventures should not be required to pay their way down to the last penny, but should be considered by the powers that be in the context of the far wider picture.

Swanage and its enlightened financial backers are now blazing a trail for others to follow. Here is a big chance for revived railways to show just what they can offer.

Robin Jones, Editor

Enjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.