Steam rally helps Swanage Railway get visitor numbers back on track

While other heritage railways continue to struggle after the pandemic, Swanage Railway’s recovery plan seems to be working with a bounce back in visitor numbers boosted by special events.

The Roads to Rail steam rally from Friday 28th to Sunday 30th June 2024 attracted record crowds with the organisers running out of wristbands due to the unexpected high numbers.

Roads to Rail steam rally Norden 2024
Andrew PM Wright

With the dramatic backdrop of Corfe Castle, the steam vehicles are a sight to behold

“Absolutely fantastic”

The event in a field at Norden near to Corfe Castle featured up to 50 traction and miniature engines, steam rollers and showman’s engines, as well as fairground rides, trade stalls, food stalls, bar and live music.

Now in it’s fourth year the steam rally was a feast for the eyes with so many old engines to admire, accompanied by the evocative heritage smell of burning fossil fuel.

One of the event organisers, Patrick Cattle who lives in Swanage, said:

“The Roads to Rail steam rally has been absolutely fantastic this year and the weather has been kind to us. The numbers coming through the gate have been amazing, with us even running out of wristbands each day.

“We have exhibitors coming from places like Exeter and members of the public from Herefordshire, as well as lots of people travelling down from North Dorset.

“The big draw all weekend has been the T3 on the pad, which has allowed lots of people to go up onto the Victorian footplate – there’s always been a queue, whenever I’ve been past.

“And of course many have bought combined tickets allowing them to travel along the railway, hauled by both the diesel and steam locomotives, as well as visiting the showground.

“It’s a real unique experience to see the locos, as well as the steam vehicles – the steam powered tractors, landrovers and even the magnificent combine harvester – what a sight that must have been back in the day when it was out working in the fields bringing in the wheat.

“Every year the event is improving with more exhibitors and it looks like we will be back next year – I don’t think we have a choice given this year’s success!”

The John Deere combine harvester – a real piece of farming history

Swanage Railway Roads to Rail rally 2024

The new and the old – the funfair provides extra entertainment at the showground

Always something interesting going on

Swanage Railway has focussed on creating special events throughout 2024, to ensure that there is always something interesting and different going on over weekends and holiday periods.

Kicking off 2024 was the Winter Warm Up which saw steam and diesel locomotives in action as well as a recreation of a traditional freight train travelling through the Purbeck countryside.

This was followed by a community weekend showcasing the work of the railway’s volunteers and offering locals half price tickets.

The Victorian weekend in March 2024 was a trip back in time starring Swanage Railway’s newly restored T3 steam locomotive built in 1893. While the popular Diesel Gala and Beer Festival returned for a 17th year with a special preview day marking the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

Victorian weekend at Swanage Railway
Andrew pm wright

A trip back in time over the Victorian weekend

D-Day 80 plaque Swanage station
Andrew PM Wright

Remembering D-Day 80 years on at Swanage station

“Won the first battle but not the war”

Swanage Railway Company commercial director Robert Patterson said:

“It appears that our strategy to focus on special events has paid off and the Roads to Rail event has played its part in achieving that success.

“Although we are only half way through the year, our business recovery plan is on target and we are hoping to achieve in the region of 200,000 visitors in 2024. This would see us returning to similar levels of visitor numbers as in 2018 – which was a good year.

“We seem to have won the first battle but not the war, as we know we have got to keep on offering attractive days out.

“We’ve got more family events coming up including Dinosaur Experiences, Swanage Carnival Fireworks Specials, Murder Mystery evenings, a special visit from the TV character Bluey and The Polar Express will be making a return visit for Christmas.

“And for 2025? Well we may have a very special VIP who likes marmalade sandwiches but nothing has been confirmed yet, so keep that under your hat!”

Further information

More Roads to Rail photos

Roads to Rail steam rally Norden 2024
Andrew PM Wright

Side by side – a steam vehicle and locomotive is a rare sight

Roads to Rail steam rally Norden 2024
Andrew PM Wright

From the huge to the minature, it’s good to get your hands on an old engine!

A bit of Essex in Dorset – the classic Ford tractor

Interesting old trucks invented way before a ULEZ was ever dreamt of!

Roads to Rail steam rally Norden 2024
Andrew PM Wright

Traditional funfair attractions to keep everyone amused

Tractors that were once left to rust in farmers’ fields are now collector’s items

More experiences planned for Swanage Railway including Prosecco Cream Teas!

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