With 99% of deliveries of crude oil to the ExxonMobil oil refinery at Fawley being by sea, deliveries of small quantities by rail ceased last year. This is leading to the potential for the Fawley branch, as least south of Marchwood, being closed. Since passenger services on the Fawley branch were withdrawn in 1966 the amount of housing on the western bank of Southampton Water has increased considerably, particularly in recent decades. Consequentially road traffic in the area, especially to and from Southampton, can get very congested. During peak periods this is leading to very extended journey times. There is therefore considerable interest from local communities of having passenger services on the branch, now being popularly referred to as “The Waterside Line”, being restored. In 2013 Hampshire County Council investigated this, but the case fell a fair bit short of meeting Network Rail’s investment criteria. As part of increasing awareness of the threat to the closure of the line and to show support for restoration of passenger services the Three Rivers Community Rail Partnership chartered Hastings Diesels Limited’s unit to run three shuttles between Southampton Central and Fawley on Saturday 13th May. As can be expected from the enterprising HDL, rather than run between St. Leonards and Southampton ECS they seized the opportunity to run it as the “Fawley Forrester” railtour from and to Hastings, inclusive of one return trip on the branch.
If the train had been lightly loaded prior to Southampton, crowds surged on at platform 4 for the first shuttle. The train left on time with some passengers standing. At Totton many more joined the train, resulting in the certain cars being crush loaded. However, after about ten minutes the crush thinned out with very few standing. Maybe they found seats further down the train, or other cars were then more heavily loaded. However, this was not a train packed full of railway enthusiasts but of local residents, including many multi-generational families, out to experience a trip on the branch, some seeing their houses as the train passed, and to show their support for re-introduction of passenger services. Something verging on a carnival atmosphere prevailed. In addition to those travelling on the train, many others were observing from the trackside at suitable locations or at stations. Mobile phones came into play with passengers communicating with family and friends lineside about the train’s progress, and following waving as they passed they soon received photographs and videos of it passing. What became abundantly clear was how passionately “Waterside” residents need and want a train service.
The tour only went as far as the Network Rail – refinery boundary, and different loop tracks at Marchwood and Totton Yard were taken on the way out and back. On the way back of the first sortie the train came to an unplanned halt before Marchwood due to the branch of a tree being across the track. The train may have dislodged it on its way down. Removal of said branch only took a few minutes and the train was on its way again, the time being made up by a shorter than planned stop in Totton Yard, so arrival back at Southampton Central – platform 1 – was on time.
The tour left Hastings with power car 60116 “Mountfield” (the one with a full yellow front) leading. With reversals at Redhill and then Woking it was oriented the same way down the branch and HDL did not have to deal with the unit being turned by the tour. A Fawley Forrester headboard was carried on this end throughout, power car 60118 “Tunbridge Wells” (the one with a small yellow warning panel) carrying a small St. Leonards Railway Engineering Ltd/HDL board throughout. The train ran mostly to right time, never more than a four minutes adrift. However, on its last leg back to Hastings it failed in the vicinity of (but not in) Grove Hill Tunnel Tunbridge Wells due to the failure of a brake pipe. This caused 10-15 minutes delay whilst it was fixed, resulting in two Southeastern services being revised so they could get back on time on their diagrams. The brake pipe failure was the result of a piece of foliage had becoming lodged under the train, which may or may not have been related to the incident on its first trip down the branch. Certainly the unit received some body-side grazes from the abundant lineside vegetation.
Thanks to Colin Duff for the report and photographs.