If you had stood among the disused and desolate remains of Swanage station in the summer of 1975 and someone told you that the branch line to Wareham through the beautiful Purbeck countryside could be brought back to life, you would probably have laughed in their face, writes Andrew PM Wright.
You would have had good reason – seven miles of track lifted back to just east of Furzebrook three years before, council plans for a by-pass on the overgrown trackbed at Corfe Castle and a boarded-up Swanage station that could be demolished at any moment for a car park, shops, pub, hotel, fire station and health centre.
The Purbeck-stone engine shed was falling down, the turntable pit was filled with earth and rubble and the large goods shed was marooned in a sea of gravel and grass. The 1938 station canopy had been stripped of lead and glass with the main platform demolished with pedal boats, buses and coaches parked where packed trains once arrived and departed.
Now, 37 years later, the award-winning Swanage Railway has been rebuilt and connected to the national railway system near Furzebrook.
And thanks to a £1.47 million grant, the Swanage Railway is reinstating a community rail service from Swanage and Corfe Castle to the main line at Wareham, with the support of councils and Network Rail.
Opened in 1885 after almost 40 years of trying, the Swanage branch line took just seven weeks to lift during 1972 – and 30 years to relay. Last year, almost 200,000 passengers were carried between Norden park and ride, Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross, Herston and Swanage.
Although the Swanage branch was not featured in the Beeching Report in 1963, British Rail announced the line would close in 1967. Objections from residents and councils and problems with a replacement bus service delayed this until 1972.
More than 30 years of work began at Swanage station in February, 1976, when the volunteers gained access to the boarded up and disused buildings. It was only in the spring of 1977 that permission was given for the first track to be laid.
Steadily, the buildings were restored and the tracks relaid at Swanage using a hand crane. In 1979, the first public ‘push-pull’ trains ran the few hundred yards from a temporary scaffolding platform under the Northbrook Road bridge to behind the engine shed with the ticket price 10 pence.
By 1980, the track had been relaid back into the main platform at Swanage and the new operating season saw the first steam locomotive brought into service.
Trains ran from Swanage station the few hundred yards to behind the engine shed until 1984 when operations were extended a mile to Herston. A halt with a run-round loop was built so the trains no longer needed to be ‘push-pull’ operated.
In 1986, a major obstacle to the extension of the Swanage Railway was eliminated when the county council voted that Corfe Castle station should again be used as a railway and not demolished for a by-pass. Trackbed clearing and track-laying work continued and in 1987 trains started running to the one-and-a-half mile point near New Barn.
During 1988, Dorset’s first new station in more than 50 years was built at Harman’s Cross – three miles from Swanage. With the increased length of line, most of it at a steep climb, ex-industrial saddle tank steam locomotives were dispensed with and ex-British Railways varieties were hired in. The first public trains ran up to Harman’s Cross in 1989 after the station was officially opened by BR Southern Region general manager Gordon Pettitt.
Corfe Castle was reached in the summer of 1991 with the site of Norden Station and the future park and ride being reached in 1992.
The first passenger train ran to Corfe Castle and Norden in 1995. Such was the success of the park-and-ride principle – people leaving their cars at Norden and taking the train to Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross, Herston and Swanage, that the car park had to be extended – twice.
Meanwhile, 1999 saw the start of the final one-mile, track-laying push from Norden to the national railway system at Motala. On January 3, 2002 – 30 years to the day since British Rail closed the line – the Swanage Railway’s tracks met those of Network Rail with a permanent connection installed and approved at Motala in 2006.
The first signal box was opened at Harman’s Cross in July, 1997. Swanage followed in March, 2003, and Corfe Castle’s signal box was re-opened in February, 2005, with trains passing at the station for the first time since 1972. In 2012, Transport Minister Theresa Villiers opened a rebuilt Corfe Castle signal box – a copy of the 1885 original. A tribute to everyone involved in their creation and restoration, all four signal boxes have won coveted national awards.
The Swanage Railway shows what the human spirit can achieve against all the odds – political, financial, technical and logistical. Almost 200,000 travelled almost 1.8 million miles last year and more than 40,000 cars used the Norden station park-and-ride facility.
The Swanage Railway operates around 2,800 trains a year over 250 days with 31,000 train miles completed. The Swanage Railway benefits the local Purbeck economy to the tune of more than £2 million thanks to around 400 volunteers supported by a team of permanent staff.
For details of train services and special events visit www.swanagerailway.co.uk, and anyone wishing to become a volunteer should call Mike Whitwam on 01929 475212.