Swanage Railway facing ‘dire’ times as passenger numbers fall

Following a gloomy summer which saw passenger numbers down by 25 percent compared to 2019, the heritage railway in Swanage is hoping for a boost over Christmas as its popular Steam and Lights service returns for a third year.

The business interruption due to Covid restrictions, the cost of living crisis, the doubling in the price of coal, as well as the suspension of the steam train service due to the fire risk over the hot summer have all led to a ‘perfect storm’.

Robert Patterson from Swanage Railway

Chair of Swanage Railway Robert Patterson says the situation is dire

“We are facing considerable challenges”

Speaking to Swanage.News, chair of Swanage Railway, Robert Patterson said:

“I’m going to use a four letter word – ‘dire’. The situation we find ourselves in isn’t out of kilter with similar railways or businesses, but we are facing considerable challenges.

“Our railway business model is currently based on mass transit – passengers turning up at the station and jumping on a train but it’s becoming increasingly clear that, quite rightly, people are becoming more choosy about what they spend their money on.

“We’ve got to give them a quality experience for their money and run services more tailored to passenger needs.”

Swanage railway's steam and lights train
Andrew PM Wright
Swanage railway's steam and lights trains
Andrew PM Wright

There will be more events like the magical Steam and Lights service which provides an unforgettable experience

The popular Steam and Lights service returns for December

The special Christmas Steam and Lights evening service, which starts from Saturday 3rd December 2022, is a very popular experience and ticket sales are going well.

First introduced to Swanage in 2020, the journey on the steam train covered with brightly coloured lights and passing through festively decorated stations has proved, in previous years, to be a sellout success.

This year there’s also the option to book a seat in the newly refurbished Devon Belle Pullman Observation Car. Not only do guests get a great view of the lights and Corfe Castle from the large picture windows but champagne and canapes, served by a Pullman attendant, are included in the price.

During the day, Christmas lunch trips in the dining carriage are also available from Saturday 26th November 2022 and extra dates have been released to meet the demand.

It’s a three hour, steam hauled journey through the Purbeck countryside while enjoying a traditional festive lunch with all the trimmings.

Extra dates have been laid on in respose to the demand for Christmas luncheons this year

Pullman carriage at Swanage railway

The newly refurbished Devon Belle Pullman Observation Car provides the luxury experience with champagne and canapes

“I also want us to be more connected to the local community”

Robert added:

“We have to offer a heritage experience and we’re looking to organise a special event once a month over the next year as well as looking at teaming up with City Cruises to offer a combined rail and boat trip round Purbeck.

“The Devon Belle Pullman Observation Car is really special and ideal for hiring for wedding receptions and special occasions, so we’re looking to promote that.

“I also want us to be more connected to the local community, offering schools more opportunities to visit and encouraging more local people to feel that Swanage Railway is part of Swanage.

“In order to make this work, we will have to reduce the number of trains, running the limited blue timetable for most of the time and having more trains on a yellow timetable for special event weekends.

“Over the last year our trains were running on average 70 percent empty, and with coal now costing around £405 a tonne compared to last year’s £176 a tonne, we just can’t afford to continue that. It is a perfect storm”

34070 Manston loco at Swanage
34070 Manston loco footplate at Swanage

After years of restoration, the locomotive Manston is back on the tracks at Swanage with a new boiler ticket and will be one of the locos for Steam and Lights

Long held ambition to reconnect the Swanage branch line

Alongside the heritage train service, Swanage Railway still aims to achieve the long held ambition to reconnect the branch line to the mainline at Wareham.

Closed in 1972 by British Rail, the track of the 10 mile branch line between Swanage and Wareham was ripped up and took volunteers some 30 very long years to relay it. Currently, trains are only allowed to run from Swanage to Norden, a few miles short of Wareham.

Just before the Covid pandemic struck, Swanage Railway was poised to run a trial diesel service over 90 days along the fully relaid track between Swanage and Wareham in 2020 but that had to be scrapped.

Flying Scotsman at Swanage Railway
Flying Scotsman at Swanage Railway

The visit of Flying Scotsman to Swanage Railway in October 2022 proved a success but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the reduction in the number of passengers during the summer

Aiming in 2023 for trial service between Swanage and Wareham

Hopes were raised that the 90 day trial might go ahead in 2022 but with too much uncertainty it was postponed again. Now the intention is to run the trial service from Thursday 6th April 2023.

This is not a small undertaking and there are financial risks. It’s taken 50 years of hard work and the dedication of numerous volunteers to get to this point.

With Purbeck only too aware of the lack of transport routes, brought home recently by the unreliability of the ferry service, a rail route between Swanage and Wareham looks even more essential.

However the economic environment, when the trial services were first planned pre-Covid, is a lot more challenging now.

Andrew Goltz carrying out renovations at Swanage Railway Station in 1976

Work started in 1976 by the Swanage Railway Society to restore the Swanage Station and the track

Swanage railway station 1975

Swanage Station in 1975 with the rail track removed

First visit to Swanage Railway in 1966

Robert’s first visit to Swanage Railway was in 1966 when he came on holiday with his family. It was the last week of steam locomotives, with British Rail replacing them with diesel powered cabs. He returned in 1972 as a 14 year old and saw that the whole branch line had been shut down.

Robert said:

“Running the railway at the moment is like re-engineering a plane while in flight, going through a storm, with only 30 minutes of fuel left.

“However I’ve witnessed the closure of the Swanage branch line before and I’m determined it won’t happen again.”

Further information

  • More about Swanage Railway and to book tickets for Srteam and Lights go to its website

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