Basingstoke to Wareham is 96 miles on the direct route via Southampton Central, but take a new summer Saturday “seaside special” and the distance becomes exactly 150 miles, while the journey time increases from around one hour 40 minutes on the main line to almost four hours!
Two years after previous franchisee South West Trains took the welcome and innovative step of launching a summer Saturday service from Basingstoke to Weymouth via Yeovil Junction and Yeovil Pen Mill – with bargain fares of £5.00 return from places in Dorset like Gillingham and Tisbury – South Western Railway has not only revived that service this year, but has gone one better.
Not only is it running the seaside special to Weymouth, by extending the 07.22 from Basingstoke to Salisbury service, so that it continues on to Yeovil and Weymouth (10.31), but the five-coach train is then divided into two separate services. While a two-coach set makes a trip to Yeovil Junction and back, the other three-car set heads for Wareham at 10.38 and then onto the Swanage Railway as far as Corfe Castle.
The diesel set makes a total of three round trips between Wareham and Corfe Castle, before finally departing at 15.45 and returning to Weymouth. Here It is re-united with the other unit to form the 16.24 return seaside special via Yeovil Pen Mill (17.38) and Yeovil Junction (17.54) that then runs all the way to London Waterloo (20.19).
Fares are once again very attractively priced – with day return fares from Dorset stations to Weymouth still just £5.00 return, or £10.00 return to Corfe Castle, while from Weymouth and other stations on the main Bournemouth line, there is a day return fare to Corfe Castle of just £5.00.
Sampling the new service on the second Saturday of its operation (2 June) it was heartening to see the significant level of passenger traffic it was already attracting. There looked like more than 30 joiners at Salisbury, around 20 at Gillingham and well over 40 people at Sherborne, including a middle-aged stag group bound for Weymouth, sporting specially designed T-shirts.
At Basingstoke the train is advertised as a service to Maiden Newton, presumably to avoid confusing passengers who might be wanting a direct service to Weymouth, but by the time it has reached Salisbury the ultimate destination of Corfe Castle is showing on station display screens.
After Salisbury progress is rather sedate, with a scheduled 20-minute wait at Gillingham to pass an up train, and then another stop of almost 20 minutes at Yeovil Junction, where passengers were invited to alight from the train and buy refreshments from the station buffet.
Once the seasiders had left at Weymouth and the front two-coach set had been detached, the three-car set (159003 in SWR livery) becomes the first ever service to stop at both Dorchester stations, and was “full and standing” by the time of our on-time arrival in Corfe Castle at 11.37 – four reversals and exactly four hours and 15 minutes after we had left Basingstoke!
Apart from the obvious popularity of this new service – a three-car set looks unlikely to be sufficient to cope with peak summer loadings – it was also very pleasing to be welcomed on the platform at Corfe Castle by a group of Swanage Railway and SWR worthies, amongst whom was SWR Managing Director, Andy Mellors.
This new service proves how a preserved railway and a network operator can successfully work together and bring large numbers of extra leisure travellers to the notoriously congested Isle of Purbeck, without clogging up the roads.
With the added bonus to SWR passengers of a specially discounted “add-on” fare from Corfe Castle to Swanage being sold on the train by Swanage Railway staff, it looks like a win-win for all concerned. Not to be missed!