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The South Western Main Line is a railway line from London Waterloomarker to Weymouthmarker on the Dorsetmarker coast, in the south of England. It is a major railway which serves many important commuter areas, as well as the major settlements of Southamptonmarker and Bournemouthmarker. It runs from London through Surreymarker, Hampshire and Dorsetmarker.

It has many branches, including the lines to Readingmarker (see Waterloo to Reading Line), Dorkingmarker, Guildfordmarker, Portsmouthmarker, Kingston-upon-Thamesmarker, as well as the West of England Main Line which shares the line from London to Basingstoke. Together with these, it forms part of the network built by London and South Western Railway, which today is mostly operated by South West Trains. Network Rail refer to it as the South West Mainline.

Many sections of the line are relatively high-speed, with large stretches cleared for 100mph running. The London end of the line has as many as eight tracks, but this narrows to four throughout most of the London suburbs and continues this way until Worting Junction near Basingstokemarker, from where most of the remainder of the line is two tracks. A couple of miles from the Waterloo terminus, the line runs alongside the Brighton Main Line, both lines pass through Clapham Junctionmarker. Consequently, Clapham Junction is the busiest station in Europe (and one of the busiest in the world) by railway traffic.


See London & South Western Railway

Several companies had proposed building a faster link from London to the South Coast around Southamptonmarker, which would have provided not only a route for transport but an important link in the event of war. At the time, Southampton was smaller than the nearby port of Portsmouthmarker, but since Portsmouth's harbour was already used due to naval operations, Southampton was chosen as it had plenty of space for development.

An engineer had proposed the building a canal, but this was turned down due to being far too expensive. In 1831, a group of businessmen met together to discuss the possibility of a railway. As well as the line to Southampton, the company was also interested in building a line from halfway down their route towards Bristolmarker via Newburymarker and Devizesmarker. The company called itself the Southampton, London & Branch Railway and Docks Company.

The chosen route to Southampton was far from direct, as the route had been directed through the small market town of Basingstokemarker where the Bristol line would have left, and it missed major towns such as Guildfordmarker and Altonmarker which would have been major revenue sources if the route had been more direct.

However, another company, the Great Western Railway also proposed a more direct route to Bristol, which stopped at several major towns, whereas the Southampton railway was mostly rural apart from the county town of Winchestermarker. The GWR was approved so was the Southampton railway (now unable to build the Bristol line) soon after. Despite the Bristol plan being made redundant, the company did not change its route. From then on, the Southampton railway and the Great Western Railway were often in competition with each other.


The first section to be opened was from Nine Elms, the LSWR's first London terminus in the suburban parish of Batterseamarker, to Wokingmarker (then named Woking Common) on 21 May 1838.

The remainder of the main line followed over the next two years:
  • Woking to Winchfieldmarker (Shapley Heath): 24 September 1838
  • Winchester to Southampton: 10 June 1839
  • Winchfield to Basingstoke: 10 June 1839
  • Basingstoke to Winchester: 11 May 1840. This last section was the most difficult on the route with an initial climb to Litchfield Tunnel and a ten-mile down-grade to Winchester.

Branches and extensions

To Portsmouth

The line proved successful, and it was not long before the company, who renamed themselves London and South Western Railway due to their new plans, decided to expand. In 1848, the railway was extended from the Nine Elms terminus to the new station at Waterloomarker in the centre of London.

In 1865, another line was built from Guildford to Portsmouth which was more direct than the existing route.

The Mid Hants Railway

The original line proved far from direct. A secondary route had been planned via Guildford, Farnham and Alton from Woking to Winchester, which was more direct and served some other towns. This was built around the 1850s. The current route of the line from Brookwood to Farnham via Aldershotmarker was built in 1870. The Guildford route was later closed.

The railway was often nicknamed 'The Watercress Line' due to the fact many communities on the line grew watercress. Although National Rail services only operate as far as Alton, a preserved line operates between Alton and Alresford known as the Mid Hants Watercress Line. The final section between Alresford and Winchester is closed, as is unlikely to open due to housing and the M3 motorway built across the trackbed.

To Salisbury and Devon

A line was built from Bishopstoke (now Eastleighmarker) to Salisbury, then another was built from Basingstoke via Andovermarker and became the first part of the West of England Main Line. The line ran via Yeovil to Exeter, then onwards via the north of Dartmoormarker to Plymouth (the GWR ran on the opposite side of Dartmoor).

The South Western Railway often contested with the Great Western Railway over trains to Devon, although the Great Western Railway's line from Reading to Taunton was later preferred by British Railways over the West of England Main Line.

The Southampton and Dorchester Railway

The Southampton and Dorchester Railway was also formed and built a line from 1845 to 1847 from Southampton to Dorchester. At the time, it avoided Bournemouthmarker which was at the time barely a village, and ran via towns such as Ringwoodmarker before reaching Dorchester. The line was originally planned to continue towards Exetermarker, but this never came into effect. In 1865, the railway was extended south to Weymouthmarker, the current terminus of the line. Later, as Bournemouth was developed as a seaside result, a line was built to run via Bournemouth, which became the main line. The Ringwood line was later closed by the Beeching Axe.

Rival and long distance Lines

The L&SWR railway's biggest rival was the Great Western Railway who had originally cut the L&SWR's plans by building the line to Bristol. The both companies built several railways from their own networks into each other's territory.

In 1848 the Great Western Railway built a branch from Reading to Basingstoke. At first, this was a fairly quiet railway which terminated at a separate terminus to the L&SWR's mainline station. However, when the rival company adopted standard gauge, a link was constructed between the two lines. This later became used for a freight route from Southampton to the Midlands via Oxford. Following the closure of the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway, this route became used by long-distance services from Bournemouth to the Midlands.

Another line was built in 1873 from Didcot and Newbury to Southampton (the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway). Originally, L&SWR ruled out allowing the line to use its own track, but after it fell into financial difficulties, it ended up joining the main line south of Winchester. The line also proposed building a line from Reading to Portsmouth via Basingstoke and Alton, but the L&SWR found a cheaper solution for building the first stretch from Basingstoke to Alton by using a light railway. The Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway stopped the Portsmouth line from being built at the expense of being unprofitable and short-lived.

Major settlements on route

The main towns served by the route, starting from London, are:



Between London Waterloo and Clapham Junction, the line has as many as 8 tracks, with four pairs of tracks. It crosses beneath the Chatham Main Line where the Brighton Main Line runs alongside it on the southern side. At Clapham Junctionmarker, some of these tracks leave on the Waterloo to Reading Line and the remaining tracks are reduced to 4. The Brighton Line, which also has 4 tracks, separates from it shortly afterwards.

The four tracks have a pair of "slow" tracks to the east and on the western side the two "fast" tracks. This arrangement continues to north of Wimbledonmarker where a flyover transfers the northbound slow line across the fast lines, leaving the inner tracks being used for the fast services and the stopping services using the outer tracks. This arrangement continues to Worting Junction, just after Basingstokemarker. Many stations on this section had island platforms which have since been removed - this is evident with wide gaps between station platforms such as at Winchfieldmarker and Farnborough marker. The island platforms survive at Eshermarker and Walton-on-Thamesmarker, with the latter covered in weeds.

The line continues as double-track to Winchestermarker but expands to 3 tracks through Shawfordmarker station with one up platform and fast and slow down platforms. There are 4 tracks from Shawford to Eastleighmarker. The line from Romseymarker via Chandler's Fordmarker trails in just north of Eastleigh which is also the junction for the Fareham line. The line returns to double track until St Denysmarker where the West Coastway Line trails in. At Northam the original route to Southampton Terminus carries on south towards Eastern Docks and the main route curves west to enter a tunnel and then Southampton Centralmarker Station.The line remains double-tracked most of the way to Weymouthmarker, but there is a single-track section between Moreton and Dorchester Southmarker which constrains capacity. [106517]


The suburban portion of the line, as far as the Pirbright Junction (for Alton), was electrified (750v DC third rail) by the London & South Western Railway and its successor, the Southern Railway, prior to World War II.

The main portion of the line to Southampton and Bournemouth was electrified in 1967. From then until 1988 trains on the Bournemouth to Weymouth section operated a push-pull system. One or two 4TC units would be propelled from London to Bournemouthmarker by a 4REP unit, controlled from the leading 4TC cab. At Bournemouth, one or both of the 4TCs would continue over the unelectrified line to Weymouthmarker hauled by a Class 33/1 diesel locomotive. Trains from Weymouth would follow the same procedure in reverse: the Class 33/1 locomotive would propel the 4TC unit(s) as far as Bournemouth (controlled from the 4TC leading cab). There the 4TC(s) would couple to the waiting 4REP which would then power the whole formation to London, leaving the Class 33 locomotive at Bournemouth.

Electrification was extended to Weymouth in 1988 and saw the introduction of the new Class 442 'Wessex Electric' trains. These were withdrawn by February 2007, Class 444, Class 450 and Class 455 units are now used.


The majority of passenger services are currently operated by South West Trains. There are intercity services, which run as follows (Monday-Saturday off-peak):

Intercity and regional

  • 2 trains per hour from Waterloo to Weymouth, of which:
    • 1, departing Waterloo at xx35 and Weymouth at xx03, calls at Woking, Winchester, Southampton Airport Parkway, Southampton Central, Brockenhurst, Bournemouth, all stations to Hamworthy, Wareham and Dorchester South. This journey takes 2 hours 38 minutes.
    • 1, departing Waterloo at xx05 and Weymouth at xx20, calls at Clapham Junction, Basingstoke, Winchester, Southampton Airport Parkway, Southampton Central, Brockenhurst, New Milton, Christchurch, all stations to Bournemouth, Poole and all stations to Weymouth. This journey takes 2 hours 55 minutes.
  • 1 tph to Poole, departing Waterloo at xx39 and Poole at xx50, calling at Clapham Junction, Farnborough Main, Fleet, Basingstoke, Winchester, Shawford, Eastleigh, Southampton Airport Parkway, Southampton Central, Totton, Ashurst New Forest, Brockenhurst and all stations to Poole. This journey takes 3 hours 16 minutes.
(By changing trains, passengers can achieve a faster journey time. To reach Totton and Ashurst New Forest from London, passengers should take the xx05 and change at Southampton Central; to reach stations between Sway and Pokesdown inclusive passengers should take the xx35 and change at Brockenhurst. In the other direction, passengers should change at Southampton Airport Parkway to arrive at London earlier.)
  • 1 tph to Portsmouth Harbour, departing Waterloo at xx09 and Portsmouth Harbour at xx54, calling at Woking, Farnborough Main, Basingstoke, Micheldever, Winchester and Eastleigh, before branching off to serve the Eastleigh to Fareham line. This journey takes 2 hours 14 minutes.
  • In addition CrossCountry operate 1 tph from Bournemouth to Birmingham and such points as Manchester and Nottingham departing Basingstoke (for Bournemouth) at xx10 and Bournemouth at xx45, calling at Winchester, Southampton Airport Parkway, Southampton Central and Brockenhurst. It takes 1 hour 5 minutes to travel on this train between Basingstoke and Bournemouth.
  • Also, the section between Basingstoke and Waterloo is supplemented by trains serving the West of England Main Line. Trains leave Waterloo at xx20 and xx50 and leave Basingstoke at xx27 and xx54. The xx50s and xx27s run fast on the SWML, calling only at Woking, and the xx20s and xx54s are slower, calling at Woking and Clapham Junction. Both types of service take 47 minutes to reach Basingstoke.


There are also many commuter services serving London. Those of note are:
  • 2 tph between Waterloo and Basingstoke. These depart Waterloo at xx12 and xx42 and Basingstoke at xx24 and xx54 and call at Clapham Junction (xx12s and xx54s only), Surbiton, Walton-on-Thames, Weybridge, Woking and all stations to Basingstoke. This journey takes 1 hour 16 minutes.
(By changing trains, passengers can achieve a faster journey time. To reach stations between Brookwood and Hook inclusive, passengers should take the xx20 or xx50 and change at Woking. In the other direction passengers from Hook and Winchfield on the xx24 should change at Fleet to arrive at London earlier.)
  • 2 tph between Waterloo and the Alton Line. These depart Waterloo at xx23 and xx53 and Brookwood (where they join and leave the SWML) at xx16 and xx46 and call at Clapham Junction xx53s and xx16s only), Surbiton, West Byfleet, Woking and Brookwood before continuing down the Alton Line. It takes 43 minutes for these trains to reach Brookwood.
(By changing trains at Woking, passengers in Brookwood can arrive at London earlier.)
  • 2 tph between Waterloo and Woking. These depart Waterloo at xx20 and xx50 and Woking at xx03 and xx33 and call at Vauxhall, Clapham Junction, Earlsfield, Wimbledon, Surbiton and all stations to Woking. This journey takes 48 minutes.
  • 2 tph between Waterloo and Hampton Court. These depart Waterloo at xx06 and xx36 and Hampton Court at xx24 and xx54, calling at Vauxhall, Clapham Junction and all stations to Surbiton before continuing down the Hampton Court Branch Line. This journey takes 36 minutes.
(By changing at Surbiton, passengers can arrive in London earlier.)
  • There is also a service between Romsey and Salisbury via Southampton, using the Eastleigh to Romsey Line and part of the Wessex Main Line as well. Trains originating from Salisbury travel to Romsey, then call at Redbridge and all stations to Eastleigh, where the train leaves the SWML to return to Romsey. This train runs hourly.

External links


  • ISBN 1 85260 508 1
  • ISBN(no ISBN)

  • ISBN 0 906520 97 5
Image:SWT 442402 at Poole 2005-07-16 07.jpg|A 5Wes on the South Western Main Line at PoolemarkerImage:Class 442 emu crosses Holes Bay 2005-07-16 01.jpg|A 5Wes on the South Western Main Line at Holes Bay

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