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2007 Members Weekend


Brief history of railways in the Basingstoke area


A railway linking London and Southampton was first suggested in 1825. The proposal was revived in 1831 and the Act of Parliament for the London and Southampton Railway was passed on 25th July 1834.


The initial idea in 1831 was for a ‘Southampton, London and Branch Railway and Dock Co’, the branch in the title being a route from Basingstoke to Bristol via Newbury and Devizes.  The route of the Southampton line through Basingstoke was chosen as it would reduce the construction cost of the Bristol line.  A bill for the Basingstoke to Bristol Branch was put forward in 1835 as an alternative to the Great Western line from London to Bristol.  The GW route was accepted and the L&SR route rejected.  This started the long lasting competition between the two companies.  If the initial idea had not incorporated the Bristol branch, the line to Southampton might have gone through Alton instead!


Construction started fairly quickly, but progress was slow.  The line from Nine Elms to Woking was opened 21st May 1838 and to Shapley Heath (near Winchfield, 6 miles short of Basingstoke) on 24th September 1838.  On 10th June 1839 the lines were opened to Basingstoke and from Southampton to Winchester.  The final link between Winchester and Basingstoke was finished on 11th May 1840, thus completing the whole route between London and Southampton. It remains a straight, easily graded, main line noted for its earthworks.  At the time the railway opened, Basingstoke was a market town of some 4000 people.


In 1839, powers were obtained to construct a line from Bishopstoke (Eastleigh) to Gosport.  However, the residents of Portsmouth objected to the town being served by a company that included the name of their rival port of Southampton.  To overcome this objection, the same Act allowed the name of the London and Southampton Railway to be changed to the London and South Western Railway.


The next phase of railway development at Basingstoke centred of the desire of Newbury to be linked into the railway system.  Newbury missed out on both the proposed L&SR branch to Bristol and the GWR main line to Bristol. The LSWR proposed a line between Basingstoke and Newbury.  At the same time the GWR proposed a line from Pangbourne.  Both bills were referred to the House of Commons and they accepted the LSWR route and rejected the GWR one.  However the Lords reversed the decision and this became another source of conflict between the LSWR and the GWR.


In 1845 the Berks and Hants Railway was incorporated to build broad gauge lines from Reading to Newbury and Reading to Basingstoke.  It was opened on 1st November 1848 and had its own station and engine shed in Basingstoke located near to platform 5, the bay platform currently used by First Great Western trains to Reading.  Basingstoke became a broad gauge/standard gauge interchange station.  This was a costly operation, and both government and commercial pressure forced the extension of the standard gauge line that had been built from Birmingham to Oxford in 1852 to be extended by a mixed gauge track via Didcot and Reading to Basingstoke.  This created the link between Southampton and the Midlands avoiding London which is still a main route today.


The LSWR opened the line to Andover in 1854, extending to Exeter in 1860.  This line diverges from the Southampton line at Worting Junction, about three miles west of Basingstoke.


In 1871, the LSWR approached Basingstoke town council about building a new carriage and wagon works in the town.  No agreement was reached and the works were eventually built at Eastleigh instead.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, much effort was expended by the L&SWR to handle the growth in rail traffic.  The provision of four tracks from Clapham Junction to Worting Junction where the up Southampton Line passes over the Salisbury line was completed by 1907. The building of the present day station at Basingstoke also dates from this period.


In 1902 approval was given for a low pressure air controlled pneumatic signalling between Woking and Worting Junction.  This came into use in 1906 from new signal boxes at Basingstoke East and West.  It was converted to electro-pneumatic operation in 1914 which remained in use until re-signalling as part of the Bournemouth electrification scheme, which was completed in 1967.  A further re-signalling and track renewal; project was undertaken this year (2007).


The next phase of railway construction in the Basingstoke area came after the passing of the Light Railways Act in 1896.  The Basingstoke and Alton line was authorised under this act in December 1897 and opened on 1st June 1901.  The line never had much traffic and it was closed in 1916, during the First World War, and the track was removed and sent to France.  In the 1920s there was local pressure for the line to be reinstated and track was re-laid by the Southern Railway and the line reopened in 1924 with just three trains a day.  The railway was finally closed in 1936.  It was used several times for filming , most notably for “Oh, Mr Porter!”


Two other railways were constructed in the area:


Whilst not directly affecting Basingstoke, the competition between the LSWR and GWR for the Southampton ocean liner traffic in the late 19th century saw several competing and blocking lines constructed, e.g. the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway, which for financial reasons eventually reached Southampton by means of running powers on the LSWR main line from Shawford Junction, south of Winchester.  The DNS line proved to be a useful route in the Second World War and passing loops were extended to cope with the increased traffic.  The line was used, prior to closure in the 1960s, by oil trains between Fawley and Birmingham.  The LSWR also built a cut-off from Hurstbourne on the Salisbury line to Fullerton on the Andover to Southampton line, but this closed as a through route in the 1930s.


The final railway construction in the Basingstoke area was the 1.5 mile branch to Park Prewett Hospital.  The opening date is uncertain, but it was in use for the construction of the hospital between 1913 and 1916.  It was out of use by 1948 and abandoned in 1954.  It was more of a long siding than a branch.


The LSWR along with the LBSCR and SECR were grouped to become the Southern Railway in 1923.  Basingstoke remained a moderate size market town and was served mainly by semi-fast and stopping services, the Bournemouth and Exeter expresses mostly passing through non-stop.  The electrification from Sturt Lane Junction (near Farnborough) to Basingstoke, Southampton and Bournemouth in 1967 brought about a substantial increase in train frequencies and commuter traffic to London, and Basingstoke itself was developed as an overspill town for London.


The current train service is intensive.  In the weekday off-peak period there are six fast trains per hour to and from London (one not stopping at Basingstoke), from Southampton, Salisbury and Portsmouth.  In addition there are two 'stopping' trains per hour to Waterloo starting from Basingstoke, two First Great Western local trains to Reading, one Virgin Cross Country train per hour from Bournemouth to Reading / Birmingham, and currently one SWT train most hours to Brighton via Eastleigh and Havant.


The types of train mostly to be seen at Basingstoke are class 159 (Salisbury and Exeter Services), and 165 (Basingstoke to Reading Services) DMU's, class 444, 450 Desiro EMUs and Virgin Voyagers.  Freight trains are mainly Class 66 hauled container and infrastructure trains from the Southampton line.  There are also occasional steam hauled excursions bringing locomotives such as 850 Lord Nelson, 35028 Clan Line and 34027 Taw Valley to the Weymouth and West of England lines.


Turning now to the Mid-Hants Railway - The Watercress line:


The railway reached Alton on 28th July 1852 as an extension of the Guildford to Farnham branch, itself opened in 1849.  The first station at Alton was on the site of the current station car park.  In 1861 the Alton, Alresford and Winchester Railway (or Mid-Hants Railway) was authorised to extend the line to Winchester Junction.  It was opened on 2nd October 1865 under a working arrangement with the LSWR.  It was taken over by the LSWR by an Act dated 1876 although it was not vested into that company until 1880 or 1881.  The extension to Winchester resulted in a new alignment (there is a bend on the approach to Alton from the London direction) and a new station was built at Alton.


Electric trains reached Alton in 1937 as part of the Southern Railway's Portsmouth electrification scheme.  Cross platform interchange was available at Alton onto steam push-pull services to Winchester, and also onto the Meon Valley line to Fareham.  Hampshire DEMUs began to be used on the Winchester line in 1958 providing a much improved hourly service on weekdays and Sundays between Alton and Southampton.  Usually 2 car units were used to cope with the steep gradients instead of 3 car units working elsewhere in Hampshire.


During the Bournemouth line electrification in 1965-67 the Mid-Hants line was used for diversions of the Waterloo to Bournemouth trains at weekends.


The Winchester to Alton line was closed by BR in February 1973 despite having a good level of usage and being relatively economical to work - latterly there was only one passing loop at Alresford.


A private company, the Winchester and Alton Railway Company was formed by local business people with a view to reopening the whole line with a regular commuter service.  One problem was that the Alton trains did not have independent access to Winchester and it would have been necessary to construct a station at Winchester Junction, some two miles north of the city, as BR would not have allowed a private service to run on the busy main line.  A share prospectus was issued, but the sale of shares was only partly successful, and insufficient money was raised to purchase the whole line.  As a result the company purchased the track from Alresford to Ropley as well as the trackbed from Ropley to Alton.  BR lifted the track from this section and also from Winchester Junction to Alresford.  A further obstacle on reopening the whole line was the building of the M3 motorway which severed the trackbed between Itchen Abbas and Winchester Junction.


The first section of the line to be reopened was between Arlesford and Ropley on 30th April 1977.  The purchase of the trackbed to Alton proved fortuitous as the track was relaid to Medstead and Four Marks (the station re-opening on 28th May 1983), reached Alton on 25th May 1985 and a link into BR re-established.  Because of the numerous watercress beds around Alresford and the previous transport of the watercress by train, the private railway adopted the title of 'The Watercress Line'.


In Southern Railway and in BR days at Alton platforms 1 and 3 were electrified and used by trains to Waterloo.  Platform 2 was used by trains to Winchester and the Meon Valley service to Fareham, with cross platform interchange onto the electric trains.  Now the Mid-Hants Watercress Line trains use platform 3 at Alton, where there is a run-round loop, and South West Trains use both platforms 1 and 2.  Alton station was attractively repainted a few years ago in Southern green and cream colours.


The trackbed of the Meon Valley line can still be seen on the left hand (south) side just after crossing the main road about one mile from Alton.  At the same point (Butts Junction) is the trackbed of the line to Basingstoke, closed in1936?, but a short siding was retained until 1960 to serve a hospital.


The Mid-Hants (Watercress) line is famed for its steep gradients - 1 in 60 from Alton to a summit just before Medstead and Four Marks station, then falling at 1 in 80 through Ropley to Alresford.  The line acquired a nickname amongst railway staff of 'going over the Alps'  The steep gradients mean that the current Mid-Hants Railway needs to use large locomotives for its services, and there is less of a 'branch line atmosphere' found on other preserved railways.


The railway has long recognised that it cannot just be a preserved line run by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, and that to survive and prosper it must cater for the tourist and family leisure market.  The annual calendar has various special events days and weeks, and our visit to the line coincides with the start of 'Wizard week' when special services run during the school half term holiday.