Half a century after the Swanage Branch Line was controversially scrapped, a hard fought campaign to fully reinstate the rail service between Swanage and Wareham in Dorset has taken a major leap forward.
Since the closure by British Rail in 1972, volunteers have stoically relaid the track, restored the signalling and brought the picturesque stations along the branch line back into operation.
The first day of the 90 day trial service between Swanage and Wareham via Corfe Castle
Investment of £5.5 million from key stakeholders
Now, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from Tuesday 4th April to Sunday 10th September 2023 – a total of 90 days – rail passengers will be able to travel from Wareham, all the way to Swanage and back.
Currently the heritage railway service only runs between Swanage and Norden, several miles short of connecting to the mainline at Wareham.
The trial service operates using two heritage diesel trains that have been restored and upgraded for the Swanage Railway by specialist contractors, paid for by a £5.5 million investment from key stakeholders, which also went to provide the infrastructure to reconnect the branch line to the main line.
Peter Frost as a 13 year old, rode on the last British Rail train in January 1972, pictured, second from left
Peter Frost today, the first driver conductor on the first 90 day trial train service
A passion from a young age
The driver conductor on the first train on Tuesday 4th April 2023 was Peter Frost from Swanage, who as a 13 year old, travelled on the last British Rail train from Swanage to Wareham in January 1972.
He grew up in Corfe Castle, living with his parents and sister at the Greyhound Hotel and had a passion from a young age for the railway, riding in the cabs when he could. He said:
“After so many years, here we are. There was a trial service to Wareham in 2017 and it was hoped that it would also happen in 2018 but that was shelved due to cost. I think we should have bitten the bullet then and gone ahead with the trial back then.
“However, getting this far now has been achieved by a pioneer spirit – it’s a stepping stone to providing a full heritage service to Wareham and beyond. It’s not just the £5.5 million that has been invested but people have invested their lives in getting this branch line reconnected.”
In 1972, the last British Rail train to travel the Swanage Branch Line was driven by Jonny Walker, who Peter Frost says inspired him to become a train driver
Mayor of Wareham Malcolm Russell (left) shakes the hand of conductor guard Trevor Parsons (right)
“First trip to Wareham with our own Swanage Railway diesel units”
The conductor guard on the first day of the diesel train service to Wareham, was Trevor Parsons who is also chair of the Swanage Railway Company. He said:
“This is our first trip to Wareham with our own Swanage Railway diesel units. Back in 2017 we had to hire them in.
“It’s taken a lot of work to get them operational, as heritage trains do literally take a lot of tender loving care! Six years later, it’s certainly a step up from the previous trial to be using our own units.”
Travelling all the way through from Wareham station…
…to Swanage station
A timetable for tourists
The new timetable for the service has been drawn up to favour visitors travelling down in the morning to Dorset by train, transferring at Wareham and then completing the journey by rail to the tourist hot spots of Corfe Castle or Swanage.
On operational days, the first train will depart Wareham at 11.19 am and the last train will leave Swanage for Wareham at 4.20 pm – giving visitors the opportunity to spend around four hours in Swanage or Corfe Castle. The first train to depart from Swanage to Wareham each day will be at 12 noon.
This timetable has disappointed many Swanage residents who want a proper commuter service to get them to work in Poole, Bournemouth and beyond.
However it’s the cost of the train trip that has left some reeling. The adult return fare of £25 between Swanage and Wareham is prohibitive for those commuting daily.
Linking Swanage and Wareham. The Mayor of Wareham Malcolm Russel and Mayor of Swanage Tina Foster shake hands
Chair of Swanage Railway Trust, Gavin Johns “in a positive state of mind”
No government subsidy
Swanage Railway is operating this trial service without a government subsidy unlike other train operators on the main rail network, which makes it more expensive.
Chair of Swanage Railway Trust, Gavin Johns said:
“The pricing is determined by the heritage steam service and the operating cost. Discounts are available. But what is really needed for the future is financial support to reduce the fare price – all the options are on the table.
“We’re doing this trial to test the service. We’ll then gather all the data and then discuss the next steps with key stakeholders like Dorset Council. As a charity we don’t have the resources to service the full cost.
“I do believe there will now always be a service to Wareham, but the question is how often will it run and that is part of the discussions we are going to have.
“I am in a positive state of mind over the future of Swanage Railway and its finances, with more special events planned and heading into the summer season but that’s not to say it won’t be a challenge.”
Restoring the historic branch line journey between Swanage and Wareham caught the imagination of the media including BBC South
First time in 51 years that it’s possible to buy a through ticket to Swanage
Swanage Railway has worked closely with South Western Railway to ensure the smooth integration of the branch line operation with the mainline at Wareham.
From the end of April 2023, tickets for the Swanage Railway’s Wareham service will be available from South Western Railway enabling passengers to buy a ticket all the way through to Swanage.
This will be the first time in 51 years, since the British Rail closure, that such a main line ticket facility for train travel to Swanage has been possible.
The team from South Western Railway. Left to right: Regional development manager Andrew Ardley, Senior regional development director Phil Dominey, Station manager for Wareham Bryce Hunt, Communication apprentice Matthew Parkinson and Chief operating officer Stuart Meek
“We will give it a concentrated push!”
Travelling on the first train, South Western Railway’s chief operating officer Stuart Meek, whose grandfather was born in Swanage, said he was hugely hopeful that the trial service would be a success. He said:
“Just being here you can see how great Swanage Railway is. It’s bouncing back from Covid and just look at the views – you can see Corfe Castle and there’s also Swanage to visit.
“South Western Railway has a long history of supporting Swanage Railway and we are encouraging further working together. The point is, we can really play our part by offering the through tickets and by publicising the service – we will give it a concentrated push!”
It’s acknowledged by Swanage Railway that fully restoring the Swanage Branch was never going to be an easy task and not everything can be achieved immediately.
The hope is that this trial is a start and further progression and improvements to the service will be made incrementally over the years.
The restored three-carriage heritage Class 117 diesel multiple unit
- The timetable, fare prices and tickets for the trial heritage diesel train service between Wareham and Swanage are available from the ticket offices at Swanage station and Corfe Castle station or via the Swanage Railway website
- Train tickets will be available from South Western Railway from the end of April 2023