Swanage Railway scraps plans for regular rail service to Wareham

Despite years of battling to reinstate a branch line service between Swanage and Wareham in Dorset, Swanage Railway has dashed any hope of running trains up to the mainline for the foreseeable future.

The much longed for passenger service was trialled in 2017 and 2023 but rather than building on the concept, the plans are now being scrapped unless the railway receives a financial subsidy, like other rail companies operating on the main network.

Wareham Mayor and Swanage Mayor Tina Foster on First day of Swanage Railway trial service to Wareham 2023

The first day of the trial service in April 2023 saw the mayor of Swanage Tina Foster travel by train to meet and shake the hand of the then mayor of Wareham Malcolm Russel

Long held ambition dashed

Swanage Railway runs trains hauled by heritage steam and diesel locomotives between Swanage and Norden and this will continue.

But the long held ambition to provide a regular passenger service for commuters, school children and shoppers up to Wareham and to bring holidaymakers down to Swanage, is not going to happen.

Chair of Swanage Railway Trust Frank Roberts said:

“While our trial heritage train service on the busy Network Rail main line into Wareham was operationally successful, it did not deliver commercially and any future service to Wareham would require a subsidy so it could operate. We appreciate the disappointment this may cause to people in the Isle of Purbeck.

“Operating on 90 selected days between April and September in 2017 and 2023, the 2023 trial heritage train service to Wareham was operated against the background of the government underwriting reduced price £2 tickets for bus journeys in England.

“The Swanage Railway’s important connection with the national railway network at Worgret Junction – a mile west of Wareham on the main line from London – enables excursion trains from anywhere in the country to run to Corfe Castle and Swanage; bringing several hundred passengers on each train and much needed business to the Isle of Purbeck.

“During the two-year trial, our Wareham train ticket prices reflected the additional costs of running over the national railway network into Wareham while not detrimentally affecting the fare structure of our important steam and diesel heritage train services between Norden, Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross, Herston and Swanage.”

Swanage railway station 1977
Andrew PM Wright Collection

Young volunteers started the journey in 1976 to reinstate the Swanage Branch line by relaying the railway tracks

Volunteers fought for 50 years to reinstate the service

The ten mile branch line between Swanage and Wareham was opened in May 1885, but with the increasing popularity of the car in the 1960s, the use of the rail service declined. Despite strong objections, British Rail terminated the train service from Swanage to Wareham in January 1972.

Six months later, British Rail started to rip up the track to the anger of residents including the local MP at the time, Evelyn King. In just seven weeks, six and a half miles of track had been sold for scrap.

After three years of campaigning by railway enthusiasts and the local community – and following a referendum among Swanage residents in 1975 – the town council gave the Swanage Railway Society a one year lease of the disused terminal station. The rebuilding process began in 1976 and sections of track started to be relaid.

Over the last 50 years, volunteers have fought to bring the line back to life – relaying the tracks, building new stations, developing the infrastructure, maintaining the railway and in 2014, linking up with the national railway network.

End of HSTs Leeds to Swanage railtour
Andrew PM Wright

While a regular passenger service won’t now go ahead, events like bringing the High Speed Train to Swanage from Yorkshire, which happened in September 2023, will still be possible due to the reinstated connection at Wareham

“A heritage railway is growing increasingly expensive”

Now the ultimate aim looks unlikely to be realised, however the heritage tourist attraction will continue to operate.

Frank Roberts added:

“Our popular heritage train services between Norden and Swanage carried more than 150,000 passengers in 2023 with the Swanage Railway contributing more than £15 million a year to the local economy.

“Operating, maintaining and developing a heritage railway is growing increasingly expensive and I would like to thank our passengers for their continued and valued support which helps to preserve our important railway heritage for future generations to enjoy and learn from.”

Class 117 heritage diesel train at Corfe Castle
Andrew PM Wright

Swanage Railway passes through spectacular scenery with views of the crumbling ruins of Corfe Castle

“Worked so hard to put the infrastructure in place”

Frank also paid tribute to those who made the trial Swanage to Wareham service possible. He said:

“I would like to thank our dedicated and professional staff and volunteers who worked so hard to put the infrastructure in place so the Swanage Railway could operate its two year trial heritage diesel train service to the main line at Wareham in 2017 and 2023.

“My grateful thanks are also due to our valued and appreciated partners and stakeholders – local councils, Network Rail, South Western Railway – previously South West Trains – and the government’s Coastal Communities Fund – for their enduring commitment, help and assistance in enabling our two year trial heritage train service to Wareham.

Rail Minister Huw Merriman at Swanage
Andrew PM Wright

Government minister of state for rail, Huw Merriman (second from right) visits Swanage Railway in August 2023 but now financial support is required if a regular service is ever to get back on track

“We will continue to lobby the government”

The Purbeck Community Rail Partnership, comprising local councils, businesses and rail organisations, has been working since 1997 to reinstate a regular rail service between Swanage and Wareham.

Reacting to the latest news, the chair of Purbeck Community Rail Partnership and Swanage town councillor Mike Whitwam said:

“We are very disappointed that Swanage Railway will not be running a regular service between Swanage and Wareham for the foreseeable future. For the dream to become a reality, there clearly needs to be substantial financial investment from an outside source.

“As an organisation committed to improving the Purbeck transport infrastructure for local people, we will continue to lobby the government for the revenue support that’s desperately required by Swanage Railway to provide a much needed regular passenger service.”

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