Almost as soon as the Swanage Railway closed in January 1972, a railway preservation society was set up to try and restore the service for the now-isolated Dorset community.

Finally, 45 years on, the branch line connecting Swanage and Corfe Castle with the South Western main line at Wareham has been reinstated. Sadly, many of those that took up the challenge all those years ago were unable to see their project realised.

For the next two summers, Swanage Railway will operate a trial diesel service on the line, which will connect to South West Trains services at Wareham. If it proves popular, regular passenger services could return to the line.

The restoration of the line began just a few months after it was closed by British Rail with the formation of the Swanage Railway Society. It was one of many routes lined up for closure as part of the post-Beeching cuts.

The society’s challenge was made more difficult when British Rail tore up a northern section of the line near Furzebrook. But, bit by bit, the society’s dedicated volunteers have been bringing the line back to life.

Reconnecting the Swanage branch line to the national rail network has cost £5.5 million – paid for with a £1.8 million grant from the government’s coastal communities fund, £3.2 million from Purbeck District Council and a £500,000 legacy donation from BP.

What the Swanage Railway Society has done, with the support of South West Trains and Network Rail, is evidence of the role heritage railway associations are playing in bringing regular passenger services back to communities as well as boosting local economies. Swanage Railway, which carried 211,000 passengers last year, claims the line is worth £14 million a year to the Purbeck economy.

ENCOURAGING START

June also saw the reopening of Hayles Abbey Halt station between Toddington and Winchombe – a station which hasn’t seen any passengers for 57 years.

The chairman of the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway Trust, which helped fund the project, said it was a ‘wonderful example of what can be achieved by volunteers’. The line will be served by request by Great Western Railway diesel services and the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway.

Passengers will need to remember to tell the guard if they want to get off at Hayles Abbey Halt and passengers planning to catch a train from the station will have to flag it down but it is a victory for community rail nonetheless.

Mark Woolley, secretary of the Swanage Railway Trust, said the passenger numbers recorded in the first week following the line’s reopening were ‘encouraging’.

‘We are of course closely monitoring the take up and are carrying out customer surveys as part of our marketing strategy.

‘For example, last Thursday (June 15) the first train was as good as full with up to 50 passengers waiting for tickets by 10.30. On the last train of the day a gentleman got off the previous SWT mainline service down train, and purchased a ticket to Harmans Cross having flown in from Hamburg.’

HELPING OUT HERITAGE

A report produced by the All Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail in 2013 tried to put a figure on the national economic value of Britain’s 100+ heritage railways, estimating that they were worth just shy of £250 million a year to the country – although this figure was only given as a rough calculation.

The report made a number of recommendations, which it felt would create a healthy environment for heritage railways to operate. These included making the planning process less complicated and restrictive, encouraging the introduction of more ‘public tourist services’ on heritage lines and calling on heritage railways themselves to look at how much more effectively they could market their offering online and through social media.

Says Mark, ‘From our perspective, there has been progress on the key recommendations contained in the report. For example, we benefit from permitted development rights within the boundaries defined in the original 1885 Act of Parliament that authorised the building of the Swanage Railway.

‘We also have an excellent working relationship with the local authorities in fulfilling a key public transport objective. This can obviously be a good influence in respect of other heritage railways although, to date, I don’t believe that there has been any change in primary legislation.’

MUGS AND POCKET WATCHES

Sometimes the economic value of steam comes from the popularity of locomotives themselves. Visitors rushed to the National Railway Museum in York to see the Flying Scotsman following its £4.2 million restoration. The famous engine even has its own line of merchandise, with fans able to purchase their own Flying Scotsman T-shirt, mug or pocket watch.

The nationwide tour that followed also had a big impact on the heritage railways Flying Scotsman visited. The East Lancashire Railway recorded its highest visitor numbers since the railway reopened in 1987 thanks in no small part to the engine.

But there is one particular challenge that heritage is wrestling with that the mainstream industry can relate to. Another issue highlighted in the parliamentary report was the demographic challenge which could make restoration projects like the Flying Scotsman all but impossible to carry out in decades to come and derail the positive influence of the heritage rail movement.

Concerns had been expressed about how a rise in the pensionable age would affect volunteer numbers in the future and how the increasingly complex training requirements for safety critical roles could put potential volunteers off. However, the report also looked to the positive. It gave examples of heritage railways partnering with training providers and suggested there was a healthy number of young volunteers coming forward.

HERITAGE SKILLS TRAINING ACADEMY

In 2013, Severn Valley Railway (SVR) launched its own pilot training programme: the Heritage Skills Training Academy (HSTA). The pilot programme is now coming to a close but SVR is confident about the future of the scheme and hopes to recruit another two apprentices in 2018. SVR received around 50 applications for each apprenticeship place offered and it has self-funded the majority of the £21,000 a year cost per apprentice – although any donations are welcome.

Apprentices at the HSTA learn the skills required to maintain and further restore the railway’s rolling stock fleet and infrastructure while studying for NVQ Level 2 and 3 qualifications in mechanical engineering. SVR’s apprentices have even been able to carry out contract work for other heritage railways.

There’s enough evidence to suggest that heritage railways remain relevant to the modern network. Ardent railway enthusiasts, like those in Swanage, who refuse to give up on railways, even when others have, seem to be as important now as ever.

Written by Marc Johnson