The Mid Hants Railway started life in October 1865 as the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway and was intended to connect the existing lines at Alton and Winchester and provide an alternative route between London and Southampton.
The line was 17 miles long through an agricultural area with only Alresford as a town of any size on the route and was used not only for transporting locally produced watercress, from which it has derived its name, but also became particularly important during both World Wars for transporting military traffic between the army town of Aldershot and Southampton.
Initial services were operated by the LSWR (London and South West Railways), running between Guildford and Southampton. In 1880 they took a 999 year lease on the line with the option of purchase. This was executed in 1884 when the LSWR acquired all the assets of the Alton, Alresford & Winchester Railway. This continued until 1923 when the line became part of the Southern Railway and subsequently British Railways in 1948.
In 1937 the line from London to Alton was electrified which meant that the Mid Hants line was no longer part of a through route. Steam services virtually ceased and the line became a backwater. However, diesel engines took over in 1957, the service improved considerably to once per hour; and passenger business picked up. Although the line survived the initial Beeching report, electrification of the London to Southampton line again impacted the viability of the line and in 1967 closure notices were published.
John Taylor, deputy clerk of Winchester Rural District Council, led a major campaign to retain the line. Despite objections and arguments about the economics, the line eventually closed in February 1973.
The line, from Alresford to Alton, was subsequently purchased from British Rail in 1975 and through the hard work of the volunteers the first trains ran in May 1977 from Alresford to Ropley. The new company, based on volunteer staff, then re-opened the remaining line in stages, with the extension to Medstead & Four Marks in 1983 and final section to Alton in 1985.
Operation as a preserved heritage railway has now taken place for 40 years, longer than its life under British Railways. The operations are under the control of the Mid Hants Railway Ltd (previously the Mid Hants Railway plc), whose major shareholder and supporting charity is the Mid Hants Railway Preservation Society Ltd (MHRPS). Interestingly, most of our engines on the line came to us from a scrapyard in Barry where they had been sent by British Rail during the period of 1962-68 and have been skilfully restored to their former glory for use on our line by our volunteers.
Find out more about the line’s history, our stations and how things work.