History

By Andrew P.M. Wright
Swanage Railway official photographer and press officer.

To look at it now, you would never believe that the Swanage Railway has been rebuilt from nothing since 1976 – after almost seven miles of the line was demolished in 1972.

The volunteer-led heritage railway that you see today has been the work of several generations of dedicated railway and community volunteers.

Now contributing more than £15 million a year to the Isle of Purbeck economy, the Swanage Railway was demolished in just seven weeks and it took volunteers 30 years to relay it.
 
The ten-mile branch line from Wareham to Corfe Castle and Swanage was opened in May, 1885, after 40 years of campaigning by businessmen in Swanage.

Running the main London to Weymouth line south of Wareham, the new branch line through the Isle of Purbeck brought tourists to Corfe Castle and Swanage.

The new railway also enabled ball clay and Purbeck stone to be exported out of the Isle by train while coal – for domestic heating as well as gas production in Swanage – could be brought in by train.

The Swanage branch line thrived from the 1880s to the 1940s but increased car use in the 1950s saw train passenger numbers start to decline.

British Rail wanted to close the branch line from Wareham in 1967 but objections from councils and the public delayed the axe until 1972.

The last train ran from Swanage to Corfe Castle and Wareham on the evening of Saturday, 1 January, 1972.

The summer of 1972 saw almost seven miles of track – from Swanage back to Corfe Castle and beyond to near Furzebrook – lifted.

After several years of hard campaigning, the fledgling Swanage Railway Society was given a one-year lease of the disused station at Swanage by the town council.

A small party of volunteers moved in to start restoration work on the station buildings in February, 1976, with the first tracks being allowed to be laid in 1977.

The summer of 1979 saw the newly formed Swanage Railway Company run its first passenger trains over a few hundred yards of track at Swanage station using a small diesel locomotive and a 1940s carriage.

As it was slowly rebuilt, everything needed to rebuild, operate and maintain the railway had to be brought in by road.

Train services were extended to the one-mile point at Herston, on the outskirts of Swanage, in 1984, with the line being further extended another half mile by 1987.

Until the mid-1980s, one and a half miles of the abandoned and overgrown railway trackbed through Corfe Castle was one of the routes for a proposed and long-awaited bypass for the village.

But a public inquiry before a Government inspector ruled that the Swanage Railway should be allowed to be rebuilt through Corfe Castle.

In 1989, train services were extended to the three-mile point at Harman’s Cross while the track was laid a further two miles to Corfe Castle and half a mile beyond that to Norden where a station was built in the early 1990s.

Train services were extended to Corfe Castle and Norden during the summer of 1995 with the late 1990s seeing the track extended a further mile to link up with the national railway network near Furzebrook.

After the line to Corfe Castle Swanage was closed and demolished in 1972, British Rail ran oil, clay and gas trains to Furzebrook – on the remaining three-mile stub of the branch line – until 2005.

A signalled connection between the Swanage Railway and the national railway network near Furzebrook came into use from 2007 with the first excursion trains running from London to Corfe Castle and Swanage during 2009.

The summer of 2017 saw the Swanage Railway run a 60-day trial diesel train service from Swanage and Corfe Castle to the main line at Wareham.

The volunteer-led Swanage Railway is managed by the Swanage Railway Trust, a registered charity, with the train services and retail activities operated by the Swanage Railway Company which is the trading arm of the Trust.

The Swanage Railway Trust has a national membership of 4,000 people with 450 people regularly volunteering their services on the Swanage Railway in a variety of operational, maintenance and restoration roles.

Winning several national awards, the rebuilding of the Swanage Railway shows what the human spirit can achieve in achieving the seemingly impossible – the phoenix has risen triumphantly from the ashes.