Railways in Dorset

Railways in Dorset

The first Dorset railway was the Southampton and Dorchester, by way of Wimborne. This line was one of the ‘Railway Mania’ schemes which got their Acts in 1845; and unlike many it was successfully completed (at first as a single line) in 1847. It joined the already finished London and Southampton Railway, and so gave through transport from Dorchester to the capital. Another 1845 Act, backed by the Great Western, was for i the Wilts, Somerset, and Weymouth Railway: but this was less fortunate. The collapse of the Railway Boom found this line with its tunnels and awkward gradients far from finished, and work on it came to a complete stop till the G.W.R. took it over in 1850 and eventually opened it in 1857. Weymouth thus had to wait ten years after Dorchester for its trains, and for lack of them it temporarily lost the Channel Island packet service to Southampton.

The Dorchester-Southampton line had in the meantime become part of the London and South Western Railway, and this company engaged with the G.W.R. in a struggle to capture the traffic of the South-West. The Great Western at this time was operating the seven foot gauge, which complicated matters further. Both put up schemes for Dorset-Exeter lines in 1853, the G.W.R. from Maiden Newton and the South-Western from Dorchester, but both fell through. The old L.S.W.R. line at Dorchester South can, however, still be seen pointing hopefully westwards; and when an agreement was made for the South-Western to build a loop to the Weymouth line and exercise running powers over it, the station remained in its old place — with the peculiar result that all trains had to back into it as into a siding. This odd procedure went on till the inevitable collision occurred in 1877, after which new platforms were made to allow down trains to pass right through. Use of the Dorchester-Weymouth line by standard gauge trains meant laying a third rail, and in return the L.S.W.R. were obliged to lay an equal distance of third rail eastwards from Dorchester in case any broad gauge trains wished to visit Winfrith Heath. None ever did, and after rusting for years the third rails were taken up. The Dorset branch of the Great Western in any case changed to standard gauge in 1874. The Dorset Central Railway began as a branch from the main South- Western line at Wimborne to Blandford, and was soon afterwards extended up the Stour Valley to meet the Somerset Central at Bruton in  1862. These two lines amalgamated in 1875 to form the Somerset and! Dorset Joint Railway, which survived the Amalgamation of 1921 largely because it was under the joint control of the South-Western and Midland Railways. In 1866 a loop was built to connect it with the Salisbury—Yeovil line at Temple Combe.

In the early days of railways Bournemouth hardly existed, but as it grew in importance new tracks were laid to approach it in each direction; from Christchurch and Poole. Not till these were linked up in 1888, and the Hole Bay curve built north of Hamworthy five years later, could the main London line be diverted from Wimborne to run through Bournemouth as it does today.

The extension from Weymouth to Portland in 1865 was a direct result of the development of the Naval Base, and the further line to Easton was mainly intended for quarry traffic: both are now. closed to passengers? Another victim of road transport has been the single-track Abbotsbury” branch from the Weymouth line at Upwey, disused in 1952 and now dismantled.

By 1862. nearly every important market town in Dorset – with the notable exception of Shaftesbury – had its railway, but Swanage and Lyme Regis were still served only by horse conveyance from the stations at Wareham and Axminster. The route to Swanage did not present serious engineering problems, and it was opened in 1881: but that from Axminster to Lyme was so difficult because of hills that it was not taken in hand till the beginning of the present century.

There was little industry in Dorset to benefit from the railways, but they had a considerable influence in helping the change-over to dairy farming by providing quick transport for milk. They also helped the market towns on their lines to grow at the expense of those not so fortunate; and they opened the seaside resorts to the mass of late-Victorians who could, for the first time, afford a summer holiday. Travelling time between Dorchester and London was cut from I4 hours (by coach) to four, and later to three.