By Underground to Shanklin

By Underground to Shanklin

This year was the 50th anniversary of the Isle of Wight’s ‘underground’, an anniversary that appears to have been missed! There may have been local celebrations however the news archives at the British Library had nothing on record. Instead the 150th anniversary of the line was celebrated in 2014. The 2016 anniversary of 50 years on the nearby steam railway (1966-2016) wasn’t forgotten and featured in the press! That was the occasion when the Isle of Wight steam railway moved its stock (under its own power) from Newport to Havenstreet. This post is an update with stuff on the new Class 484s.

The post commemorates the Island Line’s 50th anniversary, hence some pics from my archives of the line in 1974 and 1989 as Ryde Rail plus briefly the first days of the new class 483 trains. It was posted rather late because I couldn’t find some of my older Island Line photographs but not only that it was that very copy of Railway World that was missing!

That magazine article, as I deemed, was to be somewhat central to the article otherwise ultimately the post would never be finished. In early November 2017 I found the magazine by chance right at the back of a pile of books thus this is a late November post celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Island Line!

I took a great interest in the introduction of the 1938 tube stock (Class 483s) on the Island Line however it was clear they were just were not going to make it cos they couldn’t cope with the line’s track geometry. It meant a stay of execution for the older stock hence this post is more about the 1924-27 tube stock or as they were known, the 485/486 VECTIS units.

Ryde St Johns Road station in January 1974 on my first ever visit.

The ‘new’ electrified Isle railway in its early days still made for an impressive line despite the closure of the lines to Newport/Cowes and Ventnor. Intensive summer services featured trains every twelve minutes, there were full track layouts, every platform and track was in use, and perhaps more importantly, in everyone’s mind there was a still extant possibility to return trains to both Newport and Ventnor.

The first two pictures are of the line in January 1974. This was my first ever visit to the isle. Compared to the summer it was a very dull and cold day in January. I found a quite sleepy line just waiting for the next influx of summer visitors wanting to make their way to the seaside resorts of Sandown and Shanklin.

The line heading out of Shanklin temptingly towards Ventnor. January 1974.

In those days the line towards Ventnor was part electrified as far as the first overbridge south of Shanklin. This section was regularly used as a shunt in the summer when the line ran its very intensive 12 minute interval services with seven car units in operation.

Many seem to think the shunt and up line were practically never used. These were – as my picture shows – even in the winter months! The up line could only be accessed from the headshunt, even just for simply stabling trains. The up platform was used during the summer months in the line’s early years. I have a picture showing passengers waiting for a train to enter the up platform from the shunt. This example of two VECTIS units at Shanklin is from Flickr. The invectis website advises use of the headshunt ceased after March 1979.

On this first visit in 1974 I managed a brief detour by bus to Ventnor and found the site of the old station. It had gone, replaced by new industrial units. Amazingly the signal box still stood though quite dilapidated.

The Railway World published an article in 1967 written at a time when it seemed every single un-remunerative rail service in the country was being shut down. Amazingly the Island line wasn’t and that flew in the face of Beeching. Yes most of the Isle of Wight’s railways had gone but the Ryde to Shanklin section was given a new breath of life and that was most unusual.

G. Kichenside’s ‘By Underground to Shanklin’ Railway World May 1967.

Geoffrey Kichenside’s Isle of Wight Album had just been published by Ian Allan Ltd so he was the natural choice to write this article on the island’s newly updated railway. He gives his view of the new line but laments the passing of the old:

The Ryde-Shanklin line is but a pale shadow of the old Island railway system which was always very much a family concern because of its isolation from the mainland. There was always an air of timelessness even though the summer Saturday timetable demanded precision timekeeping. Now much has changed; gone are the O2s, the LBSCR and SECR coaches and much of the operating interest of a branch type line. Now we have the more austere Underground electric trains, and just under 8½ miles of line. But the Island railway still retains its own character. Many of the staff are still there and becoming familiar with their new equipment; drivers for example learned the hard way that cab doors are much lower than on the O2s!

This was a time when automated tube trains in London had begun, certainly on the Hainault loop and the soon to open Victoria Line. The Hammersmith (District/Piccadilly) had begin LT’s first ever large scale testing of automatic ticket barrier gates, following an earlier experiment in 1964 at Stamford Brook. Yet despite it being a modernisation of sorts, the Island Line would stay in the mechanical past. That was evidenced by the fact the signalling was clearly – at least for a London tube train – of very ancient origin!

The Ryde-Shanklin line’s semaphore signalling and track diagram 1967.

One surprise of the newly reinvigorated line, according to Kichenside, was although its operations were focused upon trains between Ryde and Shanklin, it retained an office and staff at Newport for the purposes of parcels distribution. Presumably these relied on road transport from Ryde as the line there had now been closed!

Unit 042 (4VEC unit) arrives on the island 1966. The narrow boarding ramp gave a few hair-raising moments! Source: Twitter.

Unidentified Class 485/6 Vec-Tis unit in Argyll Street en route from the ferry to Ryde St. Johns Road, 1966. Source: Twitter.

BR Southern Region poster featuring the new electric services 1967.

It may come as a surprise that some of the VECTIS units actually ran in service still complete with ‘London Transport’ visible on the sides of the carriages! The old corporate identity hadn’t been rubbed out, simply painted over yet the lettering underneath stood proud. An example is this picture of an unidentified unit at Brading in 1974.

Even in the first the days of Network South East the by now quite ancient trains still had excitement and there was the semblance of a fully fledged railway. The repainted trains and rebranding of the services as Ryde Rail at least worked and gave hope.

The ‘new’ 38’s arrived in the newer NSE livery but soon were adorned with pictures of dinosaurs – fun for the kids but apt for a railway faced with the threat of extinction. Rationalisation of the double track section between Brading and Sandown initially didn’t do terrible harm as the 485/486s were able to easily maintain a 20 minute service using the new Sandown loop.

The Island’s Dinosaur line! A nice touch but somewhat ironic in view of the trains’ ageing nature.

The 483s just couldn’t do it. They swung all over the place as I remember too well. On some sections they had to crawl to prevent the very violent swinging they were susceptible to, with two sections in particular near Rowborough giving the most notable of these violent jerks. Timekeeping became problematic and staff much preferred the old stock. The 483s were used very lightly whilst the 485/86s continued to provide sterling service.

483 001 (003 at rear) seen at Ryde Pier Head 24 November 1989.

Ideally a half hour service would have helped with generous recovery times and enabled the older stock to be scrapped – but with track rationalisation and the one passing loop, the line had now been designed specifically for a 20 minute interval service and anything else just wasn’t going to fit. Although large scale scrapping of the old stock had begun at Sandown, that was put on hold for a while because the old trains were needed more than ever to maintain the service.

Pruning the line’s infrastructure may have helped to keep costs down but its ultimately done the overall image a huge disfavour with lopsided train times. Not only that any notion of getting trains back to Ventnor (which would have helped create a more balanced service) was dealt a huge blow with the first part of the old line out of Shanklin being converted to a road! Totally disappointing.

The old order on the Island Line at least provided a distraction from these great disappointments. The 1924/27/34 tube stock had many delights. Interior fittings, lights with shades, strap hangers, and builders plates etc as the following pictures show. The trains’ clerestory roofs were another feature immediately recognisable as a signature of the old classic style of tube trains.

What a title! Some cars had The Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Co Ltd. Birmingham.

This one is easy! Cammell Laird & Co Ltd.

Some of the carriages purchased for the line were built by the Union Construction Ltd. This company built a substantial number of 1927 tube stock. As the above pictures show, Metropolitan Carriage and Cammell Laird too were builders of the original tube stock.

486 031 despite its more modern front look (pictured below at Lake in May 1989) was a reformed unit from 1985 and known as the vintage set. This compromised the best historic features still to be found of the stock and this train was a regular performer on the line. Very unusually the motor driving car at the Shanklin end of this set was given a name and known as Indomitable.

A couple of VECTIS units (built 1927/34) had a more modern front look. This is 486 031 at Lake.

Tube trains came to the Isle of Wight almost by accident. Originally a batch of tube stock was bought at nominal scrap value from London Transport in 1965 as the Southern region wanted to retain a shuttle train service on the pier to connect with the ferries. The rest of the line would close. The section from the pier head to St Johns Road would be electrified and serve a bus station there for onwards journeys.

In that same year, the Minister of Transport, Mr Fraser, rejected the proposal to close the line southwards to Shanklin and replace it with buses. This early purchase of tube trains that year ensured a further batch could now be procured for what would be a substantially modernised line. The Government made a capital expenditure of half a million available for the purpose of electrification.

The VECTIS units originally ran in either three or four carriage sets and were often marshalled into lengthy seven car sets. These were later reformed into five and two car units. The 485/486s should have all gone by 1990, however the last sets ran in 1992. This was in part due to their ability to hold the track better and sustain timekeeping – which essential for keeping the then 20 minute line frequency. This was something the 483s couldn’t do very well.

VECTIS unit running alongside the post-war housing estates at Shanklin. Summer 1989.

Of the eighteen class 483 units (nine train formations) that came to the island, at least three have now been scrapped (002 and 003 at the time of writing – 2017.) A couple are kept for spares. This leaves technically four sets to work the line, but the actual availability, given the difficulties of spares, is problematic. Currently (Nov 2017) its said just three are available.

The newer 483 stock had its merits but hasn’t exactly given the line a huge re-invigoration. The trains constitute a glorified shuttle service with very uneven intervals that offers two trains twenty minutes apart then a gap of forty minutes before those two services once again! Most trains are simply a pair of carriages thus conveying an impression there is little desire to give much in terms of passenger capacity and comfort not only that in the summer these Class 483 two car trains get terribly overcrowded at times – just like the tube!

In my view I much preferred the 485/86 tube stock which at least had serious character and rode the tracks so much better than the 1938 stock. I remember the very first days of the 1938 stock. After just one single trip on the 1938 stock it was apparent ride quality was appalling. Even the drivers didn’t like the awful motion these gave and most were left in the sidings at Ryde depot until a solution could be found to stop the trains’ violent track hunting. Ultimately I preferred to wait for services that constituted a train of 1923/24/27 stock and this made me appreciate these veterans even more.

.Class 485 041 has just left St Johns Road and is heading towards Ryde tunnel 1989.

The 485/86 units really worked their armatures hard and one could especially feel these seven car trains muscling their power especially heading south. They certainly had much go whilst the 483s didn’t – and that in large because the 483s couldn’t stomach the track quality on the island. The best place to sit on the 485/486s was of course in the front carriage, right next to the motor compartment and the power dispensed by these units upon leaving either Brading or Lake stations in a southbound direction can be described as stupendous. The weight of the trains meant these would be powered practically almost into Shanklin station itself – from Norton Common (midway between Brading and Sandown) the line is on an almost rising gradient.

One other issue for the newer 1938 stock was that the track laid in 1966/67 came in 55 foot lengths. That was the maximum size that could be conveyed on the ferries of that time. This meant the track was somewhat less rigid considering the shale formation but that was not so apparent until the 483s entered service. During testing these had been run on the mainland railways where much longer sections of rail combined with properly selected ballasting no doubt gave the 483s on test a most satisfactory ride quality.

To resolve somewhat the issues the line faced with the awful ride quality of the 1938 tube stock, a rail tamper machine was shipped over to the Wight for about a week in the early 1990s. This worked overnight possessions to sort the track’s dreadful state and make the rails’ overall geometry more consistent. This drastic measure at least enabled a few more 483s to begin work as both ride quality and timekeeping could be better maintained.

Two VECTIS units at Sandown station in 1989. 

In regards to the state of the track, the district engineer responsible for the line once called the entire route between Ryde and Shanklin his “40 mph siding!” (see The Future of Island Line – Options Report.) That is essentially what the track was. It used 55 foot lengths of rail suitable for sidings and beach shingle as a base. As I have now reiterated a number of times, the 483s were just no match for this.

In short I had been so terribly excited that the 1938 tube stock would be working on the island, but those early experiences proved very disappointing. It was indeed an embarrassment to be sat in a brand new Class 483 and be thrown all over the place, and the train driver having to go very slowly because this bit or that bit of track on the Island line simply sent the class into mass convulsions.

VECTIS unit at Los Altos Park, Sandown, amid the Isle of Wight scenery. October 1989.

In the late 1990s, I revisited the island to see how the 483s were by then progressing. I spent a few days at Shanklin and sampled the 483s at various times of day and night, including the last turns at night (which involved a train to Ryde Pier Head and back down to Esplanade and then getting a bus from there back to Shanklin) it was interesting to see how the 483s performed at various times of the day which indeed constituted a difference. By then the track’s stability had got so much better and I was able to see how the 483s performed under different conditions. They were by now a most appreciable replacement stock for the Island Line.

The important aspect however was their flexibility and the need to add extra units where necessary and this gave the line a good image. A drop in passenger numbers was soon reversed and this increased. However given the current state of the line and lack of train capacity numbers or people using it has once again dropped within the last eight years. This chart from Wikipedia shows the rise and fall in the line’s patronage since 1997. The Class 483s perhaps brought a brief period of full stability and reliability in services which soon proved rather futile as a dearth of spares and parts forced more and more units out of service – with many being scrapped. Apparently the sea at Ryde was less kind to the 483s!

The VECTIS units at least had a better run than the Class 483s because first of the mark these had been so plentiful and in many ways despite their greater age, they were easier to maintain and not quite so susceptible to the vagaries of the salty sea air as the 483s were.

The section by Lake Cliff park with the sea visible through the trees.

Sad to say it seems there will never be a six car train to be seen on the line again. One problem is the availability of the Class 483 units. The other is the line’s power supply has become long in the tooth and is unable to support more than a couple of units. There are severe voltage drops on sections of the line which meant sometimes there was barely enough power for the trains. It was found the voltage could be as low as 350v DC on some sections of the line!

(Note the line received some upgrades in 2020-21 including Rowborough substation for the introduction of the Class 484s thus hopefully the lack of juice in the third rail isn’t so critical for these newer units.)

The latest report – November 2017.

Will the line survive the next fifty years? Despite the many surveys, reports, recommendations, it seems no-one knows. The new franchise, South West Railway, very recently weighed in with their own report – and it wasn’t widely publicised.

(As is widely known now, the line received a considerable upgrade and a new passing loop at Brading during 2020-21 however that hasn’t meant the end of the line’s problems as there are other issues still.)

485 044 fresh from the Isle of Wight at Morden Depot Open Day November 1990.

Brief 2020 update featuring the 484s’ arrival on the Wight:

Finally its happened! Fifty Four years after the first ever electric trains were ferried across the seas (well the Solent actually) to the Isle of Wight, the third generation of trains sourced from London’s Underground were sent across the waters this week from Portsmouth to the island itself. The first of these with the very smart new look arrived on the 19th November 2020 and here’s a couple of items from that momentous day….

Useful links:
Railways on the Isle of Wight (Wikepedia)
Announcing the Isle of Wight Community Rail Partnership (Nov 2005)
Some upgrade work/track repairs needed as a result of flooding (Jan 2014)
The tram conversion idea (Feb 2016)
The Future of Island Line – Options Report (PDF  Feb 2016)
Local MP meets SWR to discuss Island Line (Aug 2017)
The diesel, battery or flywheel train solution (Nov 2017)
Developing a more sustainable future for Island Line (PDF Nov 2017)

Updated 2022.