A year after its experimental summer Saturday services to Corfe Castle were heavily blighted by RMT industrial action, this year’s resumption seems to have got off to a pretty dismal start.
Despite their huge popularity, the entire timetable was cancelled without warning on Saturday (6 July) apparently due to train crew shortage, so ruining a planned day out to Weymouth or Corfe Castle for many hundreds of intending passengers.
This summer’s service runs from 25 May until 7 September and is meant to see a direct train run all the way from London Waterloo (06.35) to Corfe Castle in exactly five hours, reversing no less than four times on the way at Yeovil Junction, Yeovil Pen Mill, Weymouth and finally Wareham.
The Class 159 unit, which detaches from another set at Weymouth, makes three round trips to Corfe Castle (departing Wareham at 11.17, 13.12 and 15.12) before finally returning at 15.45 and making its circuitous journey back to Waterloo via Weymouth and Yeovil, before finally reaching the capital at 20.19.
What makes this service particularly appealing is the range of cheap promotional fares being offered to Corfe Castle from places as far afield as Salisbury £14.00 day return), as well as Yeovil (£12.00), Weymouth (£10.00) and Dorset stations from Dorchester to Bournemouth (£7.00).
Railcard discounts apply to all these fares, so a day return from Salisbury is only £9.25 (with any railcard) and from Bournemouth is just £4.60, with an added bonus that up to two children can travel free with each adult. Once on the Swanage Railway there is a discounted adult return fare of £10.00 for anyone wanting to travel on to Swanage.
Talking to a group of other would-be passengers at Wareham station, from as far afield as Derby, it was clear that special Corfe Castle returns were still being sold, even after it had become clear that the entire day’s service had been cancelled.
The booking clerk at Wareham had no knowledge of why the services had been cancelled, and it was only after two separate calls on station help points at Southampton Central and Wareham that I was able to tell other intending passengers that a replacement bus would take us to Corfe Castle.
Even then, and with many concessionary bus pass holders opting for the scheduled service (which was refusing to accept train tickets), the hastily summoned replacement bus only took us as far as the Norden park and ride site (pictured below), some distance north of Corfe Castle.
What had struck me last year as a major PR coup for SWR that generated a huge amount of goodwill and proved how a franchised operator and heritage railway can work together seems to have turn into a PR disaster that will have left huge numbers of deeply disgruntled people wondering why they try to travel by train.
These SWR services (if they actually run) come as the seemingly interminable wait goes on for the return from Arlington Fleet Services in Eastleigh of the heritage Class 117/121 diesel multiple units which the Swanage Railway plans to use on its own services from Wareham to Swanage.
In an update last month (25 June) the Swanage Railway Company declared: “Extensive testing is being undertaken on the units to make sure they meet all the requirements to safely and reliably operate on the mainline. Senior members of Swanage Railway Company staff are in regular contact with Arlington staff and frequent site meetings and inspections are taking place.
“Pending the granting of a mainline passenger licence to us by the ORR, we are holding discussions with a third party licensed train operating company on the possibility of operating the DMUs to Wareham on a limited number of days sometime later in 2019 using suitably qualified Swanage Railway drivers and guards.”
For a rather different perspective on the Corfe Castle SWR Saturday specials, an account of my 2 June 2018 visit is here: https://railwayworld.net/2018/06/03/slow-way-round-swr-to-corfe-castle/#more-2097
The Swanage Railway SWR shambles did at least mean I could take time on the main line to photograph Merchant Navy Class 35018 British India Line as it approached Holton Heath (above) with the Railway Touring Company’s Bournemouth Belle special from London Victoria to Weymouth.