This hugely popular park attraction plays an important part in Poole’s heritage and has entertained generations of locals and visitors for nearly 70 years.
The Railway was opened in 1949 by Southern Railway Limited owner George Vimpany, who had been operating a railway at Southsea since 1933, later adding others at Stokes Bay and Bognor Regis. Sadly, the only one to survive to present times is Poole Park.
The 10 ¼ inch gauge track measures approximately half a mile in length and still encircles the larger of the Park’s freshwater wildfowl lakes, although plans are now underway to extend the track.
History in the making…
After World War Two, Poole’s councillors were keen to develop the town’s tourist industry and welcomed Mr Vimpany’s proposal to move the Southsea trains to Poole.
As recorded in Keith Guy’s book Poole Park Railway: The First Fifty Years 1949-99, Whitecliff and Sandbanks recreational grounds were considered as possible locations. Poole council felt it should invite other operators to submit their proposals for a railway but it was Mr Vimpany’s company, Southern Miniature Railways, that won the tender.
The decision came despite objections from one resident of nearby Orchard Avenue, who wrote to the Echo claiming to speak for “a vast number of the residents of the borough”.
The resident claimed building the railway would be an act of vandalism and that a funfair would surely follow, with all “the hideous cacophony associated therewith”.
Laying of the 10-and-a-quarter inch track started in late 1948. The line ran for around half a mile, circling the larger freshwater lake. Building the line required a licence from the Ministry of Supply because of restrictions still in place after the war.
A bridge for was built between the two sections of lake, replacing a footbridge which had been destroyed by a German bomb during the war. Poole council supplied ballast and built the station and engine shed.
The first passengers climbed aboard on Saturday, April 9, 1949, with locomotive 1001, Vanguard, at the head of the train, driven by Mr Vimpany.
The mayor, who was not there for the opening, had been the only member of the council’s parks committee to vote against setting up the railway.
A ride cost a shilling for an adult and sixpence for a child. It was an immediate success and trains ran until 9pm in summer as it was not unusual for people to wait up to an hour for a ride!
Petty vandalism was an occasional problem from the earliest days. The town clerk believed that pupils of Poole Grammar School, then sited just outside the park, were among the culprits, and duly wrote to the headmaster. Another letter complained that pupils sometimes hung onto the railway carriages while cycling alongside.
In 1960, a diesel engine, D7000 was built, with the chassis and body made at the park’s engine shed and the gearbox and engine fittings at Longfleet Engineering Works.
Poole gained a turntable after another Mr Vimpany’s Bognor railway closed in 1957 to allow for a Butlin’s holiday camp.
After 1965, steam trains were no longer in daily use, but occasional weekend steam events continued until 1970. In 1969, passenger numbers reached an amazing 180,000.
In 1975, a legal officer at the Civic Centre spotted a previously unheeded clause in the original licences. It turned out the operator was obliged to enclose the railway track with a 3ft fence. The condition had never been enforced and the legal department said it should be.
However, the council’s chief amenities officer objected, saying a fence would cut off all public access to the lake and interfere with the natural habitat of the water fowl. The council’s amenities and recreation committee agreed and said the clause should be left out of future licences. After all, the operator was indemnified in case of accident anyway.
Passenger numbers were falling in the late 1970s and in 1979, the business was transferred to the partnership of Geoff Tapper and Brian Merrifield. Around the same time, Joe Entwhistle, familiar to thousands as engine-driver, retired.
Mr Tapper left the partnership in 1990 but Mr Merrifield continued developing the railway, replacing a lengthy stretch of the track and building a store at the back of the engine shed. He also bought a steam engine, Arthur, for occasional use.
At the end of the 1980s, a draft council report on the future of the park recommended closing the railway to make way for a new road, but the idea was dropped.
The railway played a part in the Two Ronnies’ adventure By the Sea, transmitted on Good Friday, 1982. The sequence featured Ronnie Barker crammed into in a tiny railway carriage with a woman as large of frame as him. The standard 2ft wide carriages could not accommodate them, so Geoff Tapper built a carriage 2ft wide at each end but 3ft in the middle.
Another comedian to make use of the railway was Alexei Sayle, who was seen on the train in his Alexei Sayle’s Stuff series in the early 1990s.
In 2005, ownership of the railway was transfered to Chris Bullen, who added to the Poole Park amenities until 2015 with events including a Santa grotto with live reindeer.
In March 2015, a carriage overturned and Poole council closed the railway for five weeks while it waited for a report by a specialist engineer, which concluded malicious damage had been the most likely cause.
In November 2016, the operating tender once again came up for renewal and Poole Council accepted submission of tenders from the previous operator, other miniature railway operators, local business people & The Friends of Poole Park.
The tender was eventually awarded to The Friends of Poole Park following their presentation of a different operating methodology and vision for the future of the railway. Since it’s inauguration in 1948, the railway had been run as a private business by a sole operator. As a charity, The Friends of Poole Park proposed a significant change to the operational structure and instead of managing the railway as a commercial venture for singular benefit, proposed the creation of a community venture.
Going forward, the venture will be a social enterprise where all the proceeds from the railway will be redirected back into the railway and beyond that, into Poole Park initiatives for the benefit of the local community.
from July 2017 The Poole Park Railway will be operated by volunteers comprised of local residents and railway enthusiasts. The railway will essentially be operated by the community for the community.