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  • Andrew P.M. Wright

Volunteer who set up Swanage Railway signalling school retires after 31 years of dedicated service


Photograph: Andrew P.M. Wright

A volunteer who set up the Swanage Railway’s first signalling school – and helped ensure the safe operation of its trains as a signaller and signal box inspector on the Purbeck heritage line - has retired after 31 years of dedicated service.


Alan Greatbatch – aged 68 and from the Branksome area of Poole in Dorset - became a Swanage Railway volunteer in 1991 when he set up a school, on the heritage line, to train the first signallers ahead of the first signal box being built.


In 1991, the Swanage Railway only ran passenger trains on three miles of line from Swanage to Harman’s Cross and the first signal box would not be brought into operation until 1997. There are now four signal boxes that have been built on the heritage line.


Growing up in Poole, Alan’s 44-year working career was spent on the main line railway as a signaller between Brockenhurst and Dorchester, a signalling manager and a mobile operations manager after he joined British Rail at Bournemouth station in 1971.


That was when British Rail ran freight trains to Wimborne and West Moors, via Poole and Broadstone, and when there was a branch line from Maiden Newton down to Bridport in west Dorset. Alan retired from Network Rail at Bournemouth in 2015 as a mobile operations manager.


As a volunteer signalling inspector on the Swanage Railway for 20 years, Alan visited the heritage line’s signal boxes every week to see the signallers and sign the train register which records all train movements and is the official record of a signal box


Alan said: “I am very proud of what we have achieved on the Swanage Railway over the years in rebuilding the line against the odds. I am one small cog in a massive machine and without all the other people, it would not have happened.


“I volunteer on the Swanage Railway because I enjoy it, I believe in it and because of those original determined campaigners who battled against the odds to be allowed to rebuild the line and then worked so hard to slowly rebuild it.


“The most enjoyable part of my job has been seeing people achieve their dream of becoming a signaller which involves training and sitting an exam every two years. Being a signaller is enjoyable because you are keeping our train passengers safe.


“If someone had told me in 1967, when our beloved steam engines stopped hauling trains in southern England for British Rail, that in 2022 I would be in a mechanical signal box pulling semaphore signals for steam engines I would not have believed it but that’s exactly what we are doing on the Swanage Railway which is fabulous.


“The past 31 years have flown by – I don’t know where the years have gone. It has been a challenge but also fun and I have worked with many good people,” he added.


During his 31-year volunteer career on the Swanage Railway, Alan has signalled thousands of trains between Norden, Corfe Castle, Harman’s Cross and Swanage as well as trains from the national railway network on to the award-winning heritage line.


Robert Patterson, chair of the Swanage Railway Company - which runs the trains for the Swanage Railway Trust - said: “I would like to say a very big thank you to Alan for his important contribution to the development and safe operation of the Swanage Railway across more than 30 years. Alan is a credit to the Swanage Railway because he epitomises its spirit of dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism and enjoyment.”


Swanage Railway Trust chair Gavin Johns explained: “Over the years, Alan has helped to train, mentor and examine more than a hundred signallers and he has been an excellent role model and example to our team of volunteer signallers in their training and continuing development as they signal trains safely and efficiently.”


At a special gathering to mark his retirement – attended by Swanage Railway volunteer signaller colleagues past and present - Alan Greatbatch was presented with a framed photograph showing him at work signalling trains in Corfe Castle signal box.


While leaving the operational side of the Swanage Railway, Alan is not leaving the heritage line completely – he is now a volunteer with the award-winning Swanage Railway Trust museum based at Corfe Castle station.


The Swanage Railway welcomes new volunteers and anyone interested in finding out more should contact the Swanage Railway volunteer recruitment and retention office on 01929 475212 or email iwanttovolunteer@swanagerailway.co.uk.


Story and photograph by Andrew P.M. Wright,

Swanage Railway official photographer and press officer.

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