A well-oiled machine
Peter Booton finds out how Swanage Railway stays on track
Published in March ’14
The main line public railway service between Wareham and Swanage was closed by British Rail in January 1972 and a few months later part of the track was lifted. In May of that year a group of enthusiasts formed the Swanage Railway Society with the intention of re-instating an all-year round passenger service on the line for the benefit of the local community.
In 1975 the Society was granted a licence to use part of the Swanage station site and four years later the first short section of track was re-opened. The line was then gradually extended to reach Norden, a distance of 5½ miles, in 1995. Thirty years after the line ceased to operate, the final section of track was laid up to the Network Rail boundary in 2002 and a temporary connection made which allowed rail traffic to pass between the main line and restored line. Following the eventual establishment of a permanent connection, the first public passenger service from London Victoria arrived at Swanage on 1 April 2009.
Today, Swanage Railway carries around 200,000 passengers annually and is one of the most successful and popular heritage lines in this country. It is managed and developed by the Swanage Railway Trust, a registered charity with some 4000 members and run by volunteers. The steam and diesel trains are operated by the Swanage Railway Company and all profits are used ‘to develop, improve and extend the heritage line’. Swanage Railway is the largest employer in the area and contributes around £10 million to the local economy. In the 2013 Poole Tourism Awards it received an accolade in praise and recognition of its investment and effort which ‘significantly increases’ the numbers of visitors to Poole and the surrounding area.
As present-day main line railway operators will be only too well aware, maintaining an efficient and cost-effective service that runs on time in widely varying weather conditions can be something of a logistical nightmare. Although the distances travelled by trains on a preserved line and the number of passengers conveyed are considerably less than those on the main line, the operating parameters, commercial aspects and duty of care to its users are little different. Preserved lines, though, have the additional complication of using and maintaining out-dated trains and rolling stock from an earlier era. In the case of Swanage Railway, it re-creates the style of a 1950s to 1960s branch line. Of the five ex-British Rail steam engines operating on the railway, the oldest is Drummond M7 no. 30053, built in 1905 for the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), which worked on the Swanage line for more than fifty years. The stock also includes several diesel multiple units (DMUs) and 20 to 25 carriages in regular service.
Strict maintenance schedules for a locomotive’s coal-fired steam boiler must be adhered to for safety and insurance purposes. An inspection involving a pressure check of a boiler has to be carried out every twelve to fourteen months. Additionally, every ten years a boiler has to be taken out of its frame for a full investigation and a major overhaul – an operation that can cost in excess of £100,000. Regular maintenance, though, helps to reduce the amount of work needed at this stage. Swanage has very little in the way of maintenance and storage facilities for engines and rolling stock, with only a small engine shed and an old goods shed. For a small branch line these would have been all it needed as any major works were carried out at a larger and better equipped regional railway centre. To make up for its lack of facilities, Swanage Railway leases a suite of buildings at the Purbeck Business Centre, located just off the A351 Victoria Avenue near the centre of town. Unfortunately, as yet, there is no rail link to the buildings and so engines and rolling stock to be worked on there have to be transported by road. Ancillary pieces of equipment, such as signals that require painting or repair, are also dealt with at the site. Heavy repairs, though, are carried out by outside contractors.
Inevitably, daily running costs are a major consideration, particularly when steam engines use around two tons of coal per day at a cost of £200 per ton! The actual quantity of coal used varies depending on a number of factors, including the quality of coal used, how the driver operates the engine and how heavy is the load (carriages and passengers) being pulled. Weather conditions also need to be considered and can influence the choice of which engines are used on a particular day. Richard Jones is the General Manager of Swanage Railway and he pointed out to me that weather conditions affect visitor numbers, with overcast days often being the busiest on the railway as people tend to head for the beach when the sun shines.
Before joining Swanage Railway as General Manager in April 2013, Richard worked at the Bodmin & Wenford Railway in Cornwall. He says that his long involvement with heritage railways began at the age of fourteen as a volunteer. Since then he has trained as a guard, signalman and fireman before qualifying as a driver in 1989. He admits that for him the attraction of railways is the three S’s – ‘sight, sound and smell’, and adds, ‘It is essential to love your job’.
Swanage Railway’s operating schedule is one of the most intensive of any preserved line in this country, with trains providing a service every forty minutes between 10.00-6.00 during the peak summer holiday period, as well as an evening diesel service.
In August alone the railway usually carries around 50,000 passengers. There is also the Wessex Belle dining train, which operates some seventy times a year, and special events including a Diesel Gala in May, a Grand Steam Gala & Transport Rally in September, and the Santa Specials, which attracted 9000 people in 2012.
The railway continues to operate during the winter months, but with a reduced service between November and March when charters, driver experience courses and engineers’ trains take to the metals. Diesel and steam-hauled charters from the main line network visit Swanage up to ten times a year and can bring in as many as 450 visitors to the town on each occasion. Not surprisingly, Richard Jones is justifiably proud of the important part Swanage Railway plays in boosting the local economy.
In addition to employing some 45 permanent members of staff, the railway relies on an enthusiastic and willing team of around 450 volunteers to carry out various duties, including serving in the shop, manning the catering facilities, selling tickets and driving the trains. All have received training for the work they do. New volunteers are always welcomed, but Richard advises potential applicants that they mustn’t mind early starts and late finishes, heat, getting dirty, and hard work which could involve shifting several tons of coal! Training is carried out by existing, qualified members of staff. For example, a guard starts out as a porter, getting to know people and how to operate a train safely. A trainee guard learns the rules and basic rudiments of railway operation and safe working practices. A signalman also starts as a porter to get the feel of the job before becoming a trainee under the guidance of a trained signalman. There are three signal-boxes on the railway, and so trainees learn first on the least complicated box before moving on to the others.
Drivers and firemen start as cleaners, learning about the structure of the railway and the parts of an engine. Then, subject to availability and the necessary aptitude to take on a ‘safety critical job’, a successful applicant progresses to trainee fireman with the opportunity to clean an engine, fire it with coal and assist the driver by keeping a watchful eye on the all-important steam pressure of a locomotive’s boiler. Then, after becoming a fireman, and following recommendation from a senior driver, the next step is to learn how to drive an engine under supervision. There is an exam to pass, too, involving a practical assessment, medical, and technical questions about an engine’s capabilities. After a driver has qualified, regular competence assessments are carried out by traction inspectors. There is no set time-scale for learning as trainees invariably work part-time. For around fifty days during the peak summer period, invariably four pairs of engine crews are needed daily.
Under sixteens are also encouraged to volunteer, and are known as SYGnets (from Swanage Youth Group), and given an opportunity to channel their enthusiasm into a range of supervised activities on the railway.
One of the biggest challenges Swanage Railway faces in the future is not just how to get more people to travel on its trains, but how to encourage them to stay longer at the railway once they have arrived. Plans are afoot to ensure that visitors to the railway enjoy ‘a great day out’ by broadening the appeal of special events to all ages – Peppa Pig was a popular new introduction for children in 2013. Other possibles are the introduction of exhibitions and things to do, as well as refreshments, at each station. The Purbeck Mineral and Mining Museum at Norden, which opened to the public in May 2013, has proved to be a successful new venture. So too has the transfer of the existing buffet car from platform 2 at Swanage station to nearer the street entrance and the creation of a new picnic area alongside. This has made the catering facility more visible and accessible to the public, with the bonus that platform 2 now has a versatility of use.
Swanage Railway certainly promises more exciting developments in the future and its long-term success will be thanks to the dedicated team of staff who continue to ensure that it runs as a well-oiled machine. ◗
❱ The author would like to thank Richard Jones and Andrew PM Wright for their assistance with this piece. For more details, visit www.swanage-railway.co.uk