Coronavirus: Swanage Railway's future 'on a knife edge'

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Steam train at Corfe CastleImage source, Andrew PM Wright
Image caption,
Swanage Railway began running steam trains on its line in 1980

The future of a heritage railway rebuilt by volunteers over the course of 30 years has been left "on a knife edge" by the coronavirus crisis.

Dorset's Swanage Railway, which has been run as a tourist attraction since the 1990s, closed when lockdown came into force.

It said the pandemic had "created the most urgent and potentially devastating challenge" in its history.

So far, an emergency appeal has raised £185,000 of a £360,000 target.

Many other heritage railways across England have found themselves in a similar position, including West Somerset Railway, East Lancashire Railway, North York Moors Railway, South Devon Railway and Bluebell Railway in East Sussex.

Media caption,

The first timetabled passenger service ran along the full 10-mile line in 2017

Swanage Railway would normally cost £200,000 a month to run.

The firm said it had reduced this to £46,000 by furloughing staff and mothballing the railway, but it still needed to cover maintenance costs.

The original line from Swanage to Wareham was closed by British Rail in 1972.

Volunteers rebuilt the 5.5-mile (8.8km) stretch from Swanage to Norden over three decades and have been running it as a tourist attraction since the 1990s.

In 2017, it reconnected with the mainline and the first timetabled passenger service ran along the full 10-mile line for the first time in 45 years. The railway had been working to make the trials a regular service.

Image source, Andrew PM Wright
Image caption,
Although staff have been furloughed and the railway has been mothballed, maintenance costs still need to be met
Image source, Dr Neil Clifton
Image caption,
The original Swanage to Wareham line was closed in 1972

The company described the effect of lockdown on the attraction as "survival on a knife edge".

"The Covid-19 pandemic has created the most urgent and potentially devastating challenge in its history," it said.

Chair Gavin Johns added: "We've spent more than 45 years recreating it and over 200,000 people a year use it.

"The summer season, which makes up 60% of our annual £3m income, is absolutely essential and with that loss we are having to focus on reducing costs to ensure it can survive over the next year."

Image caption,
Volunteers have been running the railway as a tourist attraction since the 1990s

Although it has not yet made any decisions he said the company was looking at the cost of hiring locomotives, coal, rents and salaries.

John and Julie Trott, from Poole, have volunteered at the railway for 22 years and said they would be "very sad" if it was to close permanently.

"We were brought up with steam trains and seeing all the children on the platforms in the summer with their buckets and spades reminds us of our childhoods," Mrs Trott said.

Mr Trott added: "Some of the volunteers travel hundreds of miles, including from Birmingham, to work here."

Nicky Crowley, who has donated to the appeal, said: "I love seeing the railway each year we stay in Swanage."

Another fan, Bev Beldon-Brown, said: "I took my children on here lots of times when they were young, even the Christmas train... Now some of my children have taken their children on there. We can't lose the train, we just can't."

Speaking about the difficulties faced by other heritage lines, Swanage Railway said: "We are all faced by the same situation and we admire the efforts of our fellow friends and volunteers across the country."

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