Crisis at Swanage Railway as £450,000 survival fund is launched

A second fundraising appeal in three years to save Swanage Railway has been launched due to rising operating costs and declining passenger numbers, alongside management changes and a costcutting exercise.

The Save Your Railway appeal to raise £450,000 was launched on Tuesday 7th November 2023 with the aim of keeping the railway running through a bleak winter before the main trading season returns in spring 2024.

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The T3 563 on her way out of Swanage station on the first of many trips
ANDREW PM WRIGHT

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Survival on a knife edge

Swanage resident Frank Roberts, who has been a volunteer at the railway for almost 40 years, has just taken over from Gavin Johns as chair of the Swanage Railway Trust. Gavin Johns is now chair of the Swanage Railway Company which runs the heritage line on behalf of the trust.

Previously, when lockdown was first announced in March 2020, the railway trust was forced to appeal for £360,000 saying that survival was on a knife edge – but now the situation is even worse.

While passenger numbers have shown signs of recovery since the Covid years – 141,000 people have travelled the line in the first 10 months of 2023 – they are still well below a figure of 202,000 customers in 2019.

And throughout 2023, when tourist spend was depressed by a wet summer and rapidly rising prices, Swanage Railway has also been hit by inflation, which continues to increase operating costs of coal, oil and other services.

ANDREW PM WRIGHT

Chair of Swanage Railway Trust Frank Roberts has taken over from Gavin Johns

A challenge and an opportunity

Newly appointed Swanage Railway Trust chair Frank Roberts said:

“We are well aware that the cost of living crisis is affecting very many people but every pound donated to our Save Your Railway appeal will help the Swanage Railway.

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the Swanage Railway has found it challenging to attract more passengers while also trying to reduce strong inflationary and economic pressures.

“We have also had to carry out the expensive upgrade and overhaul of a Victorian metal girder bridge, carrying the Swanage Railway over a road near Furzebrook at the western end of our heritage line.

“To increase income, we will be making the Swanage Railway a more commercial visitor experience while also maintaining our heritage train business. It’s a challenge as well as an opportunity to shape the Swanage Railway for the future.”

ANDREW PM WRIGHT

The Swanage Railway footplate crew are among 450 volunteers who help keep the railway running

Looking for more willing volunteers

For the year ahead, the Swanage Railway Company aims to reduce operating costs by £350,000 by reviewing its services, while also working on initiatives to attract more visitors to Purbeck during 2024.

Necessary measures will be taken to make Swanage Railway more efficient and effective, but still want to drive passenger numbers up, which means looking for more willing volunteers with relevant skills and experience.

At present, Swanage Railway Trust has a national membership of 4,000, with another 450 people who volunteer their services in a variety of operational, maintenance, restoration and commercial roles so that the steam trains can run.

ANDREW PM WRIGHT

A £450,000 appeal is needed to keep Swanage’s heritage trains running

“We have to change our business model”

Frank Roberts said:

“The longer term survival of the Swanage Railway depends on a positive and quick response to our call to arms. The bottom line is that we have to change our business model.

“A number of things have happened over the last few years that we all know about, but our income is not what it was and we have to put in place some substantial cuts to make sure that we are in a better place.

“For decades past, the trust has loaned the company money to survive through winter as it’s a very seasonal business, and for years that worked very well.

“But there has been a big drop in income since 2020, primarily due to the Covid pandemic, and now the company isn’t able to pay back the loan for the overheads until later and later into the year.

“Unless we address our costs, this isn’t going to change. We have had a nine per cent rise in passengers this year, which is good, it’s growing, but it’s not fast enough.

“Our cash flow has dropped through the floor – last year, the company made a loss. This year, the company will make a loss and unless we fundamentally change the way we operate or have a massive windfall of income, we are not going to survive.”

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“Reviewing our train services”

By default, the stock, infrastructure and assets of Swanage Railway are very old – 70 years for the carriages and 120 years for the oldest locomotive – and they take a lot of money to look after.

On the 10 miles of branch line, there are two bridges over the River Frome to maintain and railway banks which are steadily moving even without the added threat from strong winter storms.

Frank Roberts added:

“Many other heritage railways are going through the same problems, as are other businesses, we are not alone. But we are lucky – we have a beach at one end of the line, a castle in the middle and the Jurassic Coast close by, so we have a lot going for us.

“We may have another increase in passengers next year but we have to be doing more, we can’t count on just getting by as we used to.

“We are reviewing our train services, whether we are running trains at the right time, we are trying to reduce costs while also massively increasing our income without spending too much.

“We do have ideas, we will need to be running a special event every month next year, and find new ways of appealing to families, not just enthusiasts.

“We have done cream teas this year for the first time which have produced a very encouraging income, fish and chip suppers, our Purbeck Piddler specials with curries and ale from the Dorset Piddle brewery – and we have many more ideas lined up for 2024!”

building work at Swanage Railway

Swanage Station and the branch line was controversially closed by British Rail in 1972 but was saved by volunteers. Can it be saved again?

Further information

  • Donations to Save Your Railway can be made online or cheques can be sent to the Swanage Railway Trust, Station House, Swanage, Dorset, BH19 1HB marked Save Your Railway Appeal.
  • Volunteer at Swanage Railway by registering interest on its website or by contacting the Swanage Railway volunteer recruitment and retention officer Lisa Gravett on 01929 475212 or email iwanttovolunteer@swanagerailway.co.uk

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