NEXT year sees the 100th anniversary of an ambitious project that would have changed the face of public transport in the Solent area.

The soaring number of passengers catching trains to Lymington and then boarding ferries to the Isle of Wight sparked calls for a rail link under the sea.

In 1905 the South Western and Isle of Wight Junction Railway obtained parliamentary consent for the proposed new line.

It would have left the Lymington branch at Passford and headed south through Pennington to the coast, where it would have disappeared into a two and a half mile tunnel.

But the £500,000 scheme was hit by a series of delays and was never revived after the First World War.

Had the tunnel been built it would have become the main route for holidaymakers heading to the Island. The Lymington ferries would have stopped running and the town's original line would almost certainly have closed.

The story is told in Route and Branch, a major new exhibition about the history of rail travel in the New Forest.

Visitors to the popular St Barbe Museum in New Street, Lymington, can study dozens of photographs and documents detailing the development of train services in the district.

The first line was funded by Charles Castleman and a group of businessmen who decided to provide a service between Southampton and Dorchester.

Hopes that the railway would go straight across the Forest were quickly dashed.

The builders had to avoid valuable timber inclosures and land used by Commoners for grazing their animals, and the twisting route resulted in the line being dubbed Castleman's Corkscrew.

It went via Totton (known as Eling Junction until 1859), Lyndhurst Road (now Ashurst), Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst, Christchurch Road (later Holmsley) and Ringwood.

The line opened on June 1, 1847, but was single track until the late 1850s.

A branch line from Brockenhurst to Lymington Town was built in 1858 and extended to Lymington Pier in 1884 to serve the ever-increasing number of people using the cross-Solent ferries.

But the most important railway in the area was the Brockenhurst to Christchurch line - part of the first direct service from London to Bournemouth.

The track crossed difficult terrain and took two years longer than expected to build. The first contractor went bankrupt because of the expense, but the route finally opened in 1888, with stations at Sway, New Milton and Hinton Admiral.

Milton Station was opened nearly a mile from the village centre and was quickly surrounded by new buildings that sprang up on former farmland.

The growing community was dubbed "New" Milton, the name by which it has been known ever since.

The advent of the railways resulted in huge social and economic benefits and their arrival in the Forest was generally regarded as good news.

But coaching companies went out of business and roadside inns saw a dramatic drop in their trade. The new lines also proved dangerous places for children, animals and railway workers.

Gatekeeper Charles Shave was crossing the track at Ashurst in 1878 when he slipped on the frosty rails and was killed by a train.

Route and Branch runs until December 4. Admission is £3 and the museum is open from 10am-4pm.