Nearly 40 years ago, in January 1972, British Railways closed the railway line between Swanage and Wareham in Dorset, taking up the track in just seven weeks. Since then, a group of enthusiasts, now known as the Swanage Railway Trust, has worked tirelessly to relay the track, rebuild railway buildings and re-open the line for business.
On Saturday, May 2, the first train since 1967 ran from London Victoria to Swanage, marking the culmination of a project that has taken 500 volunteers 30 years to complete. ‘The atmosphere was electric,’ said Swanage Railway Trust chairman Mike Whitwam. ‘Nearly 400 people travelled on the train, and thousands more lined the tracks. The whole weekend was absolutely superb. Very nostalgic and emotional.’
The train was pulled by Dorset Coast Express Tangmere, Southern Railway Bulleid Pacific steam locomotive No 34067, which was built in the 1960s and is named after a West Sussex Battle of Britain airfield. It hauled 12 carriages, and, on May 3, ran to Eastleigh in Hampshire to be turned using the railway triangle there. This ensured Tangmere was facing London for the journey to London Waterloo on May 4, the first time that a steam-hauled passenger train has run from Swanage to London since June 18, 1967.
The project has involved laying 880 60ft-long track panels weighing a total of 3,000 tons. The track is composed of 1,760 rails, 22,000 wood and concrete sleepers carrying the rails and 17,600 tons of stone ballast to support the track. Tangmere’s arrival meant that there were four Battle of Britain class locomotives in Swanage at the same time, the others being Manston, currently in operational service at Swanage, Squadron and Sir Keith Park, both at Herston Works.
‘The aim now is to run a daily service between Swanage and Wareham,’ explained Mr Whitwam. ‘The track is ready and connected to the mainline at Wareham, but the signalling facilities need to be updated from the 1950s semaphore system to the current computer interface. We estimate that it will cost about £2 million–£3 million.’
Network Rail is scheduled to upgrade Wareham in 2012, and the Swanage Railway Trust hopes to raise the necessary funds by that date, so that the extra work can be done in time for services to resume in 2013. The project has received the support of Transport Minister Lord Adonis and Lord Faulkner, chairman of Parliament’s Railway Heritage Committee, who visited Swanage recently. Lord Adonis said that the proposal to reopen services was ‘highly credible’.
Such is the passion and professionalism of the Swanage Railway Trust, the goal does not seem unattainable, and passengers will soon be able to view the imposing bulk of Corfe Castle from the fully restored railway.
For more information, visit www.swanagerailway.co.uk. Images: Andrew P M Wright