Full steam ahead as Swanage Railway emerges from lockdown

Services on Swanage Railway are set to resume following the easing of Covid restrictions, having stoically survived a turbulent year of lockdowns and financial loss.

Covid-safe steam trains, featuring assigned and socially distanced seating, are to restart between Norden, Corfe Castle and Swanage on Monday 12th April 2021.

The Swanage Station shop is also to reopen along with all other non-essential shops in the town.

Swanage Railway entrance
Swanage Railway shop

“Detailed work has gone into our planning”

Swanage Railway chairman, Gavin Johns said:

“The Swanage Railway has a great part to play in giving people a wonderful day out in the Isle of Purbeck – whether it’s to visit Swanage and the beach, Corfe Castle and its magnificent ruins or simply to walk and enjoy the fresh air in the beautiful countryside.

“The safety of our passengers and staff is always our prime concern and detailed work has gone into our planning for the Swanage Railway’s reopening.”

For the last two weeks, staff and volunteers have been undertaking refresher training courses and working hard to get the locomotives and carriages ready to safely greet passengers.

Swanage Railway guard carriage

The essential kit for a train guard now includes hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes

Swanage Railway carriage and Trevor Parsons

Swanage Railway’s passenger services director, Trevor Parsons

“It’s taken a lot to return the railway to full operation”

One of Swanage Railway’s volunteer signal men and guards is Trevor Parsons who moved down to Dorset when he retired. He’s also a trustee and Swanage Railway’s passenger services director. He said:

“It’s taken a lot to return the railway to full operation – to bring everything back to life, so we can welcome visitors again. The Covid regulations also mean a lot of extra work with cleaning the carriages, the hand gel, face masks and the antibacterial wipes but our priority is to make people feel safe.

“We’ve spaced out the seating so one group won’t be near another one and we have the original sliding windows in the carriages, which are great for proper ventilation. However I’m really looking forward to when all the restrictions are lifted and we can get on with running trains without social distancing!”

Locomotive at Swanage Railway
Paul McDonald at Swanage Railway

Swanage Railway deputy operations manager, Paul McDonald

“More people involved in getting the trains running than you probably imagine”

Taking responsibility for the smooth running of the train service is deputy operations manager, Paul McDonald. He’s worked in the rail industry since 1956, when as a 15 year old lad he started his first job as a cleaner on the locomotives at Bournemouth depot.

He then progressed to a fireman and then a driver. Rather than retire, he has just continued to work at Swanage Railway, doing the job he loves. He said:

“There’s more people involved in getting the trains running than you probably imagine. We have about 35 employees to ensure continuity and they are mainly in manager roles. On top of that we have about 500 regular volunteers.

“Just to run one train we need at least a driver, a fireman, two guards and a signalman at each station – Swanage, Corfe Castle and Norden. However it’s a seven day a week operation during the summer, so we have to have a carefully worked out rota to cover shifts from six in the morning through to the end of the day.

“Most of the best jobs like driver, go to the volunteers but myself or another manager have to cover for those roles if someone can’t make it. We are always keen to welcome more volunteers.”

Swanage Railway rain and driver
Signal room at Swanage Railway

Volunteer signalman, Robin Sinsbury

Resourcefulness and tenacity of the volunteers

It’s partly down to the resourcefulness and tenacity of the volunteers that Swanage Railway has survived the coronavirus pandemic and the forced closure of the service, losing thousands of pounds a month through three lockdowns.

Even while it was not operating, the running costs of the railway have still been in the region of £46,000 a month, despite furloughing most of its staff.

A fundraising campaign was launched in June 2020, backed by two films about the railway called SOS – Save Our Service has brought in an amazing amount of money, raising over £360,000.

This, combined with successful National Lottery grant applications, means that the railway has been able to keep going until it starts receiving regular income from passengers again.

Swanage station 1975
ANDREW PM WRIGHT COLLECTION

Swanage Station in a derelict state in 1975

Swanage Railway has shown great resilience over the decades

However it’s no surprise that Swanage Railway has managed to survive this latest crisis, as it has shown great resilience over the decades.

Initially it took 40 years to get permission to build the railway in the first place. The 10 mile track from Swanage to Wareham was eventually opened in May 1885.

But despite many objections, British Rail closed the Swanage branch line in January 1972. The track was ripped up and Swanage Railway Station became derelict.

In July 1975 Swanage residents voted overwhelmingly in favour of restoring the railway and giving the newly formed Swanage Railway Society a one-year lease of the disused Swanage Station buildings. From 1976, a team of volunteers worked tirelessly to restore the site.

Swanage-station-first-day-14-Feb-1976
ANDREW PM WRIGHT COLLECTION

Swanage Station on the first day that the volunteers from the Swanage Railway Society took over its running on 14th February 1976

Create a bypass for Corfe Castle

Four years later the Swanage Railway Society faced another obstacle when Dorset County Council purchased the six miles of abandoned trackbed from Swanage to Norden, with a plan to use part of the route to create a bypass for Corfe Castle. This would have meant the end of the chance to restore the track in its entirety.

In 1986, fortunately for the railway, Dorset County Council changed its road plans and by summer 1990 train tracks were relaid up to Corfe Castle Station, although passenger services didn’t start until 1995.

However the real goal was to connect the Swanage branch line up to the main line at Wareham and to run passenger services. This was finally achieved in 2017, when a 60-day trial diesel train service took place. A 90-day trial service was all planned for 2020 but then Covid struck and all plans were derailed.

Having survived the pandemic so far, it’s hoped that the trial will be rescheduled for 2022, with the possibility, depending on its popularity and economic viability, of introducing a full train service between Swanage and Wareham, over the following years.

Swanage Station on 14 Feb 1976
ANDREW PM WRIGHT COLLECTION

Swanage Station in 1976

Swanage Railway Station

Swanage Station, 45 years later in 2021

“The railway is really important to the town”

Paul McDonald added:

“Running a service up to the mainline from Swanage is my real passion. Back in 1975, when there was the referendum and an overwhelming majority of Swanage people voted yes to restoring the railway, absolutely no one thought it would take this long!

“The railway is really important to the town and especially now after such a hard time. It’s estimated that in a normal year, it contributes about £15 million to the local economy. When our trains are full, 400 people come off the train at Swanage and most will head down the road and buy a cup of tea and a bun – any of the traders will tell you that!”

Further information

To book tickets and view the new train timetable visit the Swanage Railway website

More about becoming a volunteer is also on the Swanage Railway website

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