Returning to the 5¼-mile Lymington branch line this weekend, almost a decade after the end of heritage traction, I was interested to see how the designated community railway had fared in the absence of the slam-door stock that had made it an enthusiast mecca from 2005 until May 2010.
When the two 3-CIG slam-door units were finally stood down there were not sufficient electric units to replace them, so the line is worked from Mondays to Fridays by a Class 158 diesel unit and only sees electric traction at week-ends, when services are in the hands of a Class 450 Desiro unit.
Despite providing a convenient connection with the Wightlink ferry to Yarmouth at Lymington Pier, passenger traffic on the branch never seems particularly heavy. Indeed, a local rail expert once told me that when the Swanage branch had closed (in 1972) a mistake had been made, and that it was actually the Lymington line that was meant to have lost its passenger service.
A look at the most recent ORR passenger headcounts for the two branch stations confirms the relatively modest level of traffic. At Lymington Town there was a slight increase in numbers, from 255,144 in 2015/6 to 264,886 in 2016/7, but that still only means an average of around 500 passengers a week, or just over 70 people a day, with about half that number again (2016/7: 128,578) using Lymington Pier.
Spread that average daily passenger count of little more than 100 across no less than 33 weekday round trips (27 on Sundays) and it is not hard to appreciate why the average service along the line carries little more than a handful of passengers.
But that does not tell the whole story. On the day of my visit, Saturday, 11 August, there were more than 60 passengers aboard the 10.57 departure from Lymington Pier, pictured here.
Around half of them alighted two minutes later at Lymington Town, but I would be amazed if many of them had tickets for the journey.
Lymington Town station retains a charming heritage feel, with an attractive 1860-vintage station building that seems to be well maintained and furnished with memorabilia by the community partnership, and a single platform that is adorned with green Southern Region “totem” signage and period lighting.
Another feature to look out for is the remaining platform of the former Ampress Works Halt, just north of Lymington Town. It closed in 1989, but following the development of a business park nearby, has been the subject of re-opening efforts in recent years.
This is an interesting line to travel and, apart from views of the New Forest and its wild ponies, has an interesting history. Besides being home to the last slam-door trains, it was also the last steam worked branch line in Britain. The final service on 2 April 1967 was hauled by Ivatt 2MT 2-6-2 tank engine 41312, which survives to this day as one of the Watercress Line’s working fleet.
Similarly the two 3-CIG units that worked the branch both survive in preservation, with blue and grey liveried 1497 Freshwater – seen in these photos during its final week of service – now at the Mid-Norfolk Railway and green-liveried 1498 Farringford – pictured below – at the Epping-Ongar Railway.
Given the self-contained nature of the line, and the fact that its passenger traffic is overwhelmingly made up of leisure travellers, it seems a missed opportunity not to try to replicate the success of the 2005-10 period and to find some suitable heritage 3rd rail traction to run on the line – at least at weekends.
For more about the Community Rail Partnership, go to http://www.lymington-brockenhurstcrp.co.uk