Steam and nostalgia at the Swanage Railway

Engine 34028 passing the 'Token' as they leave Swanage Station

Engine 34028 passing the 'Token' as they leave Swanage Station - Credit: Archant

Swanage Railway is a hugely popular tourist attraction that is really going places but it would be nothing without its army of volunteers who keep everything on track

Andrew Hext on platform patrol at Corfe Castle

Andrew Hext on platform patrol at Corfe Castle - Credit: Archant

Swanage had exported Purbeck and Portland stone by sea for centuries but, when the line from Wareham to Swanage opened in May 1885, it was taken out by rail. Eighty-seven years later, the final train left Swanage for Wareham on 1 January 1972, and the line fell eerily silent. But the same year, Birmingham University student Andrew Goltz and a group of enthusiasts started the Swanage Railway Society, little knowing that some 40 years later it would be one Dorset’s most popular tourist attractions.

Fireman Nathan Au shovelling coal into 80104's firebox

Fireman Nathan Au shovelling coal into 80104's firebox - Credit: Archant

Swanage Railway runs both steam-hauled and diesel trains, but throughout August it’s all about steam and nostalgia. As the trains puff pass the dramatic ruins of Corfe Castle, which inspired Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Castle, passengers almost get a sense of being on a Famous Five adventure. Not surprisingly August is the railway’s busiest time of year.

Driver Keith Martin and Fireman Nathan Au

Driver Keith Martin and Fireman Nathan Au - Credit: Archant

Swanage Railway, which doesn’t receive any regular grants, now has an annual turnover of £2 million with all profits being ploughed back into the heritage railway’s development and extension. A recent £1.5 million grant from the Coastal Communities Fund is earmarked to support a 50 day trial service to and from Wareham by 2015, expanding to 90 days in 2016. The new signal box opened at Corfe Castle last year is part of the controlling section to Norden Station with its park-and-ride facilities. Beyond Norden, the track to Wareham will be controlled by Network Rail.

Peter Sykes

Peter Sykes - Credit: Archant

Volunteers are the life-blood of Swanage Railway, and there are endless opportunities for railway fans to get involved. There are physical jobs like laying track, working with the locomotives, carriages or signalling, but there is also lighter work in administration, publicity or fundraising, catering or helping in the Swanage shop, tending station gardens, working at Corfe Castle museum or Norden’s new Clay Mining Museum. They are also looking for someone to train volunteers to oversee educational visits for school parties.

Aussie signal man John Alexander in Corfe Castle's smart new signal box

Aussie signal man John Alexander in Corfe Castle's smart new signal box - Credit: Archant

Let’s meet some of Swanage Railway’s dedicated team of volunteers…


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Grand Steam Gala

This annual event takes place at Swanage Railway from Friday 6 September to Sunday 8 September. In a packed timetable, visiting steam locomotives will be running alongside the Swanage-based locomotives. Alongside this is a Vintage Transport Rally at Harmans Cross with a display of vintage road transport as well as evening entertainment, bar and refreshments. More details can be found on the railway website. Other popular events at Swanage Steam Railway include Evening Dining and Sunday Lunch on board and, leading up to Christmas, the hugely popular Santa Special trains are packed with children, their parents and grandparents visiting Santa (30 November – 24 December).


Patrolling the Platform

Standing on Norden Station platform, resplendent in gold-braided cap and long black frock-coat, is Andrew Hexton. Affectionately known as the ‘Fat Controller’, a character in the Thomas the Tank Engine books, Andrew’s managerial career included local government, a butter factory, a milk-processing company, and Thruxton Racing Circuit. He is also vice-chairman and Clerk of the Course for Gurston Hill climbs and sprints at National Grade A level. Formerly an enthusiastic caver with Shepton Mallett Caving Club, Andrew discovered the ‘Hext Series’ of caves, which are named after him.

On his first visit to Swanage in 2008, Andrew overheard somebody waxing lyrical about Swanage Railway and, believing Swanage Railway was a miniature railway, applied to become a volunteer. When he realised this was the real deal with proper engines he started on board the trains as a travelling ticket inspector (TTI) and then progressed to training other TTIs before setting up the new ticketing system at Swanage Station. He passed the ‘Track Competency Certificate’ and, offered the choice between driving trains and operating signalling equipment, he chose the Signalmen’s Course. After nine modules and nine practical sessions, he gained his Signalman’s Certificate in April 2011.

After passing the Pilotman’s examination, Andrew is designated to travel between stations as the single-line railway ‘safety key’ should the safety equipment breakdown. Andrew makes the 100 mile round-trip from his home in Salisbury three times most weeks, leaving home about 7.45am and returning by 8pm.


On The Footplate

At only 21-years-old, Nathan Au has been volunteering since he was 15. I caught up with him on the footplate of the 1954 Standard 4 British Railways steam engine 80104 where he was working as a Fireman. “I worked with passenger services and catering before following the prescribed route for potential Drivers,” says Nathan, who lives in Eastleigh. “I started as Engine Cleaner and qualified as a Fireman in 2011.”

Nathan’s voluntary work at Swanage Railway, and his experience of working as part of a team, helped to secure him a Rail Technology Apprenticeship with Siemens of Northam, the rolling stock maintenance company. He is now studying on day release for his HNC Certificate and works most weekends at Swanage Railway, as steam engine Fireman and as Second Man on diesels.

Nathan is one of the railway’s sixteen Trust Directors and, being single, with no reins on his volunteering, says “I’ve got it made.” But that also means that over the six trips a day Nathan has to shovel 2 tons of coal from tender to boiler!

Another young footplate volunteer is Alex Atkins from Poole, who fills the water tanks and collects and returns the single-line track safety ‘tokens’ at check points. Alex joined Swanage Railway’s 11-16 Group when he was only 11. From September, he will be reading History at Exeter University. He’s convinced that being a young volunteer, “used to working with old people”, as he puts it, helped his application.

Driving the train with Nathan and Alex is Kevin Martin, a dead ringer for Hairy Biker Si King. Kevin joined Swanage Railway 23 years ago, and his son is a qualified driver with South West Trains. Kevin travels 130 miles each way from Oxted in Surrey to drive both steam and diesel trains one weekend a month and for Swanage Railway’s Diesel and Steam Galas.


From Footplate to Catering

Jovial Peter Sykes’ father was a railway signalman but, when he started work in 1967, Peter chose a career in finance and accounting at a solicitors in Enfield, Middlesex. As a child, Peter enjoyed many family summer holiday steam trips to Swanage when holidaying in Ringwood. He joined the original charity, the Southern Steam Trust, in 1972, creating and editing Safety Valve the members’ magazine. “In those days, everybody was a general volunteer, it was all hands to the plough,” he smiles. “I helped to lay the first piece of track at the wreck of Swanage Station.”

As an Operations Department member for over 30 years, Peter has driven everything including ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and the ‘Flying Scotsman’. He also gave talks about Swanage Railway to groups and societies in London and the Home Counties.

Finance not being as exciting as train-driving, Peter left the solicitors in 1999 and joined West Anglia and Great Northern Railway as a trainee Train Driver at Kings Cross depot, taking over 36 exams during his 12 months training. After taking early retirement in 2008, he moved to Swanage, where he continued to drive trains before becoming a member of the Marketing Group. Peter represents Swanage Railway on local and national Tourism Groups and Boards, and now enjoys working as a catering assistant, at least one weekend each month, on the buffet coaches at Swanage and Norden.


The Restoration Man

Pete Yates joined Swanage Railway in 1966, the year he retired to Swanage after working for Jaguar Cars and G.E.C. in Coventry. He started in catering, then as a Porter before moving into carriage restoration. Pete works on woodwork, upholstery and pipe work in the carriages most weekends. When we met him at Corfe Castle, he had already restored much of the First Class carriage’s classic wood panelling, and was upholstering the first and third class carriages of the Southern Railway 1950s coach which carried Sir Winston Churchill to London for his State Funeral.


Swanage Railway Facts

The railway employs 44 paid staff, and about 450 volunteers.

The restored line runs about 3000 trains a year carrying more than 250,000 passengers. Its busiest month is August when it carries 26% of the year’s passengers.

Swanage Railway is the only public transport serving Harman’s Cross.

A new service to and from Wareham is expected to be trialled by 2015.

Volunteer jobs range from track and engine maintenance to train driving, signalling, catering, PR and tending the station gardens.


Get Involved

There are plenty of opportunities for new volunteers to join Swanage Railway, whatever you age or sex. For more information,visit or contact Volunteer Liaison Officer at Swanage Station, or call 01929 475212 for an application form. They would love to hear from you.

All Aboard – A Taster Experience

If you would like to savour the thrill of driving and firing a stream locomotive under then book a Taster Experience. The 90 minute session includes the chance to share the driving and firing of a steam locomotive. For diesel fans there is a Diesel Taster experience. Find more details on the website