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 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. Despite knowing of the anniversary month (March 2017) I couldn’t find a single trace of my Island Line photographs so the idea of a commemorative post was given up. Thus this post was only done when those photographs were finally found and that explains why it is, well, belated.
One of the ‘Ryde Rail’ units at Ryde Esplanade in the 1980s. These were invariably in the Network Southeast livery at the time.
An entirely separate post on with new perspectives on London’s tube trains was researched and drafted in the summer of 2017 (and its to be published soon.) A considerable part of this refers to the 485/486 units. Eventually some photographs from 1989/90 were found and scanned for this other article. With that discovery a few weeks later (12 September to be exact) I created the first draft of this belated anniversary post.**
One other problem remained. I couldn’t find my copy of Railway World! That magazine was deemed to be rather central to the work and ultimately I thought this feature would never get done. Just a couple of weeks ago I found the magazine by chance right at the back of a pile of books. And there we have it! A late November post celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Island Line!
I’m sure the Island Line still has its enthusiasts and as a fan of the 1938 stock I took a great interest in their introduction on the Island Line’s services. Yet having attended the stock’s introduction in its very first days, it seemed to me the 483s just were not going to make it cos they couldn’t cope with the line’s track geometry. That meant a stay of execution for the older stock and so I compiled a comprehensive record of the last three years or so of these in service. Hence this 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.
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 still the possibility for trains to return to both Newport and Ventnor.
Network South East introduced a further element of positivity to the line in 1986 with re-branding and depot open days. The annual cheap fares day and the new Network Rail card also brought hordes of new people to the line and made it so much more widely known.
January 1974 was when I made my first ever visit to the island. Compared to the summer it was a very dull and cold day. I found what was a quite sleepy line – just waiting for the next influx of summer visitors wishing to make their way from the ferries at Ryde 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 thus in a certain way trains were still running to Ventnor!
Many seem to think the shunt and the up platform were practically never used. These were used even in the winter – as my picture shows. The up platform track could only be accessed from the stub of the line leading towards Ventnor, and it was used in the winter even just for simply stabling trains. One has to remember in those days the trains consisted of seven cars and there was a 12 minute frequency in the summer months which meant a lot of stock had to be parked in the quieter hours and during the winter in the spare platforms at Ryde, Sandown and Shanklin.
Its very interesting the electrified line in its first years retained the old ways of the steam railway. The operation for the termination of trains at Shanklin in the summer during steam days was basically the same one used for the electric trains too. However in steam days the reason for moving trains onto the Ventnor tracks and then back into the up platform was simply to allow any following trains for Ventnor to continue their journey unhindered and this too enabled the steam railway to maintain what was too a twelve minute service frequency between Ryde and Shanklin.
The up platform was of course used by passengers during the summer months in the electrified line’s early years. I have a picture in my archives showing passengers waiting for a train to enter the up platform from the Ventnor headshunt. However here’s a picture two VECTIS units at Shanklin from Flickr. The one in the up platform is clearly stabled and not in use.
The invectis website advises use of the headshunt ceased after March 1979.
What could have been. Unidentified Vectis unit peering over the wall at the new road in Shanklin that took over the old route towards Ventnor. May 1989.
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 and I took some photographs. It was a sad sight because until very recently there had been the possibility of reopening the line. With those new industrial units the station site was no longer available thus any possibility of reopening the line was now out of the question.
The Railway World published an article in 1967 which exemplified the seemingly secure future of the Isle of Wight Line at the time it was re-opened with electrification. It must be remembered this was written at a time when it seemed every single un-remunerative rail service in the country was being shut down. Amazingly this one wasn’t being shut down even though other parts of the island network had gone to the wall. This flew in the face of Beeching. It was in fact unprecedented a small and un-remunerative line such as that from Ryde to Shanklin section would be given a new breath of life. Would Beeching have approved?
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 for the publisher’s magazine 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.
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!
1938 tube stock destined for the Isle of Wight, seen at Strawberry Hill depot June 1989.
Look at the Island Line now! Yes its still got ‘heritage’ trains but its a railway that’s struggling for survival. There are two newer stations on the line (Smallbrook and Lake) which have given it some extra sources of passenger flow however the line’s problems are still at the fore. The Garnett Report of 2016 suggests further second hand tube trains would not solve its problems.****
It may come as a surprise that some of the earlier ‘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 beneath stood proud. I have seen a number of examples of this and here’s one example – this picture is of an unidentified unit at ‘Brading’ in 1974 (although the location is in fact Sandown!) What that picture also shows is the trains were simply delivered as seen. There’s rust patches and holes in the carriage bodies! It must be remembered the trains were originally sold at scrap value which explains why they arrived with London Transport still emblazoned on the sides and the rest of it.
Even in the early days of Network South East the by now quite ancient tube trains still had excitement for those who visited the island and there was indeed still the semblance of a fully fledged operational railway – especially as the double track section between Brading and Sandown still remained. There were also quite a few other sidings still in use even if for the storage of surplus stock thus despite the fact it was merely just over eight miles in length, the whole thing felt like a big railway of sorts.
485 045 at Shanklin on 12th August 1989.
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.
The only downside during the NSE days was the abrupt truncation of the line just past the station buildings at Shanklin. The embankment therewith upon which the line stood was razed to the ground and a new road built. Shanklin essentially became a one horse railway termini that had seen far better days.
Rationalisation of the double track section between Brading and Sandown initially didn’t do terrible harm as the 486/86s were able to maintain the then 20 minute service frequency using the new Sandown loop. The 483s just couldn’t do it. They had to go much slower and swung violently all over the place – as I remember only too well. In fact I remember thinking why are they replacing the older trains – they gave a far superior ride!
On some sections the 483s 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 themselves also much preferred the old stock. The 483s were used very lightly whilst the 485/86s continued to provide exceptional service.
483 001 (003 at rear) seen at Ryde Pier Head 24 November 1989.
Ideally the solution here would be a half hour service with generous recovery times would have reduced the 483s’ problems and enabled the older stock to be scrapped. But of course the great redesigned minimalist railway systems that were dotted all lover the country – and of which Britain was so proud – was now a reason for the Island Line’s major woes. With track rationalisation and the one passing loop, the line was now fit for nothing less than a 20 minute interval service and anything else just wasn’t going to fit, not even a half hourly service. Although large scale scrapping of the old stock had in fact begun at Sandown, that was put on hold for a while because the old trains were needed more than ever to maintain the 20 minute frequency.
Pruning the line’s infrastructure may have helped to keep costs down but its ultimately done the Island Line’s overall image a huge disfavour with its notorious lopsided train times. A train at twenty and forty minutes frequency and none on the hourly frequency! Not only that any notion of getting trains back to Ventnor (which would have in fact helped to 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!
The VECTIS units, being 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 manufacturers plates from companies that no longer existed and so on.
Classic tube strap hangers, vent grilles and lamp shades in the 1924/7 stock.
The trains’ clerestory roofs were another feature immediately recognisable as a signature of the old classic style of tube trains and the shovel lampshades were a fantastic addition.
What a title! Some of the VECTIS stock had ‘The Metropolitan Carriage, Wagon & Finance Co Ltd. Birmingham.‘
This one is easy! Cammell Laird & Co Ltd.
A 483 just for compares! Metropolitan & Cammell had amalgamated the rail side of the businesses.
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 however it was only a few of these that made their way to the island. As the above pictures show, Metropolitan Carriage and Cammell Laird were builders of the original tube stock and these were the most numerous examples.
A couple of VECTIS units (built 1927/34) had a more modern front look. This is 031, known as Indomitable.
486 031 despite its more modern front look (pictured above at Lake in May 1989) was a reformed unit that was cobbled together in 1985 and known as the vintage set. This compromised the best historic features still to be found of the old 1924/27 tube 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 must have been the only steel bodied modern style standard tube stock to have that feature!
Having written what are largely reminiscences of the Island Line from those days I first knew it in early 1974, we must now briefly turn to the history of the electrified line itself – and how it all began. 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 mere shuttle train service on the pier to connect with the ferries. The section from the pier head to St Johns Road would be electrified and here would be the trains’ depot. The rest of the line south of St. Johns Road would close. St. Johns Road would serve a bus station to be built there for onwards journeys to all other parts of the island.
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 very first batch of the tube trains were sent to the Isle of Wight on 1st September 1966 and in those days both steam and electric trains could be seen side by side at Ryde depot. In fact as the year progressed the entire line from Ryde to Shanklin had been electrified and the new trains could be seen on test alongside the steam services – as this page shows. Pictures showing the final services on 31st December 1966 clearly show the third rail in place in readiness for the new services from March 1967. That’s how it all began and it was by a process of some clumsiness the Island Line even survived.
W24 with W31 en route to Sandown with an enthusiasts’ special for Shanklin in December 1966. The third rail is clearly visible. Source: Preserved British Steam
The 483 stock does have its merits but their introduction hasn’t exactly given the line a huge reinvigoration because of the lopsided train frequencies. The service constitutes 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. In the summer these two car trains get terribly overcrowded at times – just like the tube!
The Class 03 shunter at Sandown October 1989.
There was a pair of shunters, one kept at Ryde and the other at Sandown. The earlier shunter was a class 05. Here’s a picture of showing this older shunter at Ryde Pier Head!
Update November 2020: It came to my attention that the page link mentioned above (which was www.sncfoto.co.uk and about the 1970s/1980s rail scene in the UK) has been offline and not registered for maybe two years at least thus I do not know who the photographer is (or the owner of that page was.) I had archived that page back in 2017, thus here’s the picture of the other lesser known shunter on Ryde Pier….
05001 at Ryde Pier Head in 1983. The shunter is using the other pier line which has been now been disused for several decades but was occasionally used in the line’s early years. Apparently the only reason the shunter came up here was so the crew could take their mid day lunch break at the pier’s cafe!
In terms of the Island Line not having had full sized main line stock since electric services began in 1967, there’s also a picture on this erstwhile sncfoto.co.uk page showing a VECTIS unit at Sandown and a pair of Southern 10 Ton Passenger Luggage Vans in the station’s third platform – thus clearly full sized stock remained in use on the Island line until at least the early eighties. One of these vans can be seen in use at Cowes during the summer of 1965 as this Flickr page shows.
Passing at Sandown on 4th May 1989. This was just after the double track section from Brading had been singled.
The VECTIS units originally ran in either three or four carriage sets. These were reformed into five and two car units during 1985. They 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 – essential for keeping the then 20 minute line frequency.
Unit 003 (with 002 at rear) at Shanklin after arriving with the 10.02 from Ryde. 24th November 1989.
Of the eighteen class 483 units (nine train formations) that came to the island, at least three have now been scrapped (eg 002 and 003.) 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.
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 current 1938 tube stock. As mentioned earlier 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 between Ryde St Johns Road and the tunnel. View looking from Rink Road bridge to Park Street bridge. 12 August 1989.
Another issue for the newer 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 and no doubt it was a shock when the new trains arrived on the island’s railway and were found to be most unsuitable for its needs.
The 485/86 units really worked their armatures off and one could especially feel these seven car trains muscling their power especially heading south. The best place to sit was of course in the front carriage, right next to the motor compartment and the power dispensed by these units upon leaving either Brading, Sandown or Lake stations in a southbound direction was stupendous. Of course if there were too many trains in service sometimes there wasn’t enough power for the run from Sandown to Shanklin and the trains would struggle somewhat. That problem lessened when the services became no more than a mere twenty minute frequency
Almost a suburban London tube scene except its the Isle of Wight! Vectis unit heading towards Sandown in 1989.
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 but it still wasn’t enough to gain that essential twenty minute frequency. What it means is the class 483s were in fact responsible for a considerable degradation in the line’s capabilities now that the double track section from Brading to Sandown had been removed.
Sandown station with its tall signal box (now demolished.) May 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 track ballast and the 483s were just no match for this.
Vectis unit passing Los Altos Park, Sandown amid the splendid Isle of Wight scenery. October 1989.
I haven’t been to the Island Line since about 2003. The last couple of times before that, in the late 1990s, I spent a few days there and sampled the 483s at various times of day and night, including the last turns and it was interesting to see how the 483s performed at various times of the day which indeed constituted a difference. In fact one night (due to a late running hydrofoil service) I remember a solitary 483 unit working the final southbound service from Ryde St Johns Road to Shanklin in just twelve minutes – the driver must have been going flat out, doing a sprightly fifty miles per hour or more! We barely stopped at the stations en route. The greater surprise was the 483s held the track exceedingly well at those speeds!
Of course by that time, which was around 1998, the Island Line’s track’s stability had got so much better and it was for that reason I was able to see how the 483s performed under different conditions. It meant they were by now a most appreciable replacement stock for the Island Line but that had taken a good ten years or so for that to happen. 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 increase saw a revial of the line’s fortunes.
However given the current state of the line, the increasing age of the trains and lack of train capacity, the number of people using the service 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 section by Lake Cliff Gardens with the sea visible through the trees.
Sad to say it seems there will never be a six car train seen on the line again. One problem is the availability of 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 means sometimes there’s barely enough power for the trains.
Unit 485 044 was repatriated form the island and taken back to London for restoration as standard tube stock representing their early days working the Morden-Edgware Line in the 1920s. The unit was seen at Morden depot open day in November 1990 when half of it had been repainted in Underground red and the other half still sported its NSE Ryde Rail livery.
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.
**This in fact referred at the time to the Runaway Tube Trains posts (which took me a very long time to compile because sources were difficult to find. The posts were eventually completed nearly two years later!
****The Garnett Report couldn’t be more wrong. The Island Line has acquired further second hand tube trains (sub surface stock to be exact) in November 2020 (to be in service from 2021) and these are certainly giving the railway a much needed boost!
This post was updated November 2020 in light of the Class 484s’ introduction to the island. Some bad grammar plus use of incorrect terms was corrected, a couple of paragraphs were altered and some extra material added. At that time I also wrote a special post on the 484s’ introduction!
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)