At the height of its railway network, the Isle of Wight had 55 miles of railway line and 36 stations, all in daily use by steam trains. Today all but two lines have been closed. The first is the Ryde to Shanklin line, an 8½-mile electric railway using former London Underground trains. The second is the Isle of Wight Steam Railway which runs for a little over five miles from Smallbrook Junction to Wootton.
The Origins of the Isle of Wight Central Railway
The origins of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway lie with the Cowes & Newport Railway, a 4½-mile line that connected Newport, the Island's capital, to Cowes and the sea, which opened in June 1862. In 1868 a rival train company, the Isle of Wight (Newport Junction) Railway, began building a nine-mile-long line from Newport to Sandown. Meanwhile, the Ryde & Newport Railway opened in December 1875, initially running trains administered by the Cowes & Newport Railway. Trains from Ryde St Johns to Newport went via Ashey, Haven Street1, Wootton and Whippingham.
In 1887 the Isle of Wight (Newport Junction) Railway fell into receivership and the line was bought by the Cowes & Newport Railway. The Cowes & Newport Line, Isle of Wight (Newport Junction) Railway and Ryde & Newport Railway then amalgamated to form the Isle of Wight Central Railway. This company ran four lines: from Newport to Cowes, from Newport to Ryde St Johns Road2 and from Newport to Sandown. Ten years later they extended their network from Newport to Ventnor West, running through Godshill, Whitwell and St Lawrence. This was the last railway built on the Island. The Newport station was also used by the Freshwater, Yarmouth & Newport Railway, which began operating services to the West Wight in December, 1890.
The Isle of Wight's railway companies were relatively small compared to those on the mainland, so most of their engines and carriages were bought second hand from mainland companies rather than built new.
After the Great War, the Railways Act of 1921 combined Britain's 120 or so railway companies into just four3. The Island's railways all became part of Southern Railway who discovered that, despite it being the roaring twenties, the Isle of Wight was still running a late-Victorian railway.
Southern Railway began to bring new engines to the Island, and, in a very popular move, named the Island's locomotives after local towns and villages. The Isle of Wight was by now a very popular tourist resort, especially the southeast coastal towns of Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor.
The Railway's Closure
In 1948 the railways in Britain were nationalised to form British Railways. Throughout the 1950s and early 60s about 3,300 miles of underused branch lines were closed, including some on the Island. First to go was the Merstone to Ventnor West line in 1952. The West Wight's Newport-Freshwater line and Brading-Bembridge lines followed in 1953, and the Sandown-Newport line was closed in 1956.
In 1961, Minister of Transport Ernest Marples appointed Dr Richard Beeching4 as the first chairman of the newly created British Railways Board with a mandate to make the perennially loss-making railways pay, or at least stop them from losing so much. His solution was the closure of a third of all Britain's railway lines, and once again the Isle of Wight didn't escape as, despite much protest, the Ryde to Cowes via Newport line was closed in 1966, along with the Shanklin-Ventnor section of the Ryde to Ventnor line. This left only the line between Ryde and Shanklin, which was electrified and equipped with trains acquired from London Underground which, because of the low height of the Ryde tunnel, are the only trains able to pass through it. These iconic Class 483 tube trains were built in 1938 and refurbished in 1989 at the Eastleigh Rail Works in Hampshire, making them the oldest railway stock operating anywhere in Great Britain on a regular scheduled passenger service.
Wight Locomotive Society
In 1966, with the Island's railways closing, the Wight Locomotive Society was formed with the aim of preserving at least one of the Island's locomotives as well as a selection of coaches in spite of the Beeching axe. The locomotive Calbourne, six coaches and a few wagons were saved and stored for five years at the former Newport station while the society began fundraising.
Isle of Wight Steam Railway
In 1971 the Wight Locomotive Society had raised enough money to purchase the former Havenstreet Station on the Ryde to Newport line, as well as a little over 1½ miles of track between Havenstreet and nearby Wootton. As Havenstreet was merely a minor station and passing loop when the railway was originally operating, new sidings and workshops were required to make the station the new heritage railway's headquarters.
The railway not only began to operate services between Havenstreet and Wootton but also increased its collection of engines and carriages. Many former railway carriages had remained on the Island, used as beach huts, hen houses and chicken sheds. These were restored to their former glory, and two former Isle of Wight engines were returned to the Island in the 1970s. Other engines were loaned to and later purchased by the railway, including two steam and one diesel engine originally owned by the former Museum of Army Transport, which closed in 2003, and four engines owned by the Ivatt Locomotive Society5.
In 1991 the line was extended by 3½ miles from Havenstreet to Smallbrook Junction, where it meets with Island Line's Ryde to Shanklin service.
The Line and Stations Today
As the line is single-track (with the exception of passing loops at Havenstreet and run-round loops at Smallbrook Junction and Wootton), the railway operates a single line token system. Engines are only allowed to travel along the line either east or west of Havenstreet if they are in possession of the token. As only one token is issued, only one train can use the line at a time. Travelling west from Smallbrook Junction to Wootton is known as 'Down', with the opposite direction 'Up'.
Smallbrook Junction was opened in 1991, allowing passengers to interchange with the Island Line rail service. The stations on that line, from north to south, are: Ryde Pier Head (for passenger ferry to Portsmouth), Ryde Esplanade (for hovercraft to Southsea as well as bus interchange), Ryde St Johns Road, Smallbrook Junction, Brading, Sandown, Lake and Shanklin. Between Ryde St Johns Road and Smallbrook Junction, the line is double-tracked.
When the line was first opened in 1875 it continued past the junction, running parallel to the Isle of Wight Railway line as far as Ryde St Johns, where passengers could change trains and which had the best access to the town centre of Ryde's three stations. Today though, it stops at Smallbrook Junction, which is now purely an interchange between the two railways with no other access. Facilities there are limited to toilets and a traditional-style Southern Railway ticket office and waiting room.
From Smallbrook Junction the line heads south-west through Swanpond Copse, under Ashey Road Bridge (nicknamed 'Long Arch', and the closest thing on the line to a tunnel), followed by Deacons Lane Bridge, which is next to signpost 3/III6, the highest point of the line, and then Ashey Halt.
Ashey Halt, sometimes rather grandly called Ashey Station, is purely a halt. Other than the train, the only way to get to Ashey Halt is by footpaths and bridleways; there is no road access nor parking. The halt is located next to what was Ashey Racecourse, and a siding here allowed passengers to see the horse races using stationary railway carriages as a grandstand. Another siding served a nearby quarry.
The Halt once boasted a station building, two platforms and a passing loop. As the original platform suffered from subsidence a new platform on the opposite side of the line was constructed during the days of British Rail. Although Ashey Halt is the only station on the line where the original station building survives, it is a private residence and not owned by the steam railway. In 1993 the halt opened as a request stop, and facilities are limited to a shelter and picnic area.
After Ashey Halt the train continues west through Rowlands Wood, home to buzzards and red squirrels, and then passes beneath Rowlands Lane before crossing the bridge over Havenstreet Main Road and into Havenstreet Station.
Havenstreet Station began life as a simple one-platform halt called Haven Street. Havenstreet was just that, a street between Ryde and Wootton containing a few neighbouring houses. Shortly after Southern Railway was created in 1926, the station was rebuilt with an island platform and loop line. These were to allow trains running in opposite directions between Ryde and Newport to pass, as Haven Street marked the mid-way point.
Haven Street's main reason for being was the gasworks built by John Rylands in 1886 near Haven Street Station, which utilised the railway and had a coal siding. John Rylands also built a library for the people of Haven Street, but sadly this has since closed. In the mid 1950s following a campaign orchestrated by the Post Office, the houses along Haven Street and adjacent roads were granted village status, becoming the village of Havenstreet.
Havenstreet Station is the railway's headquarters. The Isle of Wight Steam Railway re-opened the station in 1971 and gradually acquired many of the surrounding fields and buildings including the former gasworks, which is now the railway museum and shop. The railway is modelled to reflect life here in the 1940s.
Other facilities include a shop, a 1920's-style station building, a waiting room building and the 16-lever one-man signal box. On the platform is the former balloon water column from Newport, the raised water tank used to fill the engines7. This is complete with a brazier which was used in cold weather to prevent the water in the column from freezing. Whenever an engine heads 'up' towards Smallbrook from Havenstreet it fills its tank with up to 600 gallons of water needed for each trip along the line.
In 1980 the locomotive workshop was built here, and in 2004 a new carriage and wagon works, complete with public viewing area, was opened by the Queen. The original locomotive workshops on the Island were located in Newport and at Ryde St Johns Road. A much-anticipated development is the Changing Trains attraction. This £1.2million heritage-funded interactive museum is designed to tell the story of the railway and its vehicles. This will finally allow the railway's collection of rolling stock to all be stored under cover, a massive aid to preservation.
Other facilities and attractions at Havenstreet include extensive car parking, toilets and baby changing, a playground, a woodland walk, a show field and stage, a café, an ice-cream kiosk, a second-hand bookshop, a model railway and a garden. For the adventurous, Haven Falconry often provide visitors with the chance to see and hold birds of prey.
From Havenstreet the line continues west through Briddlesford Copse and then through open fields for another three-quarters of a mile to the railway's terminus at Wootton Station, which had been part of the 1953 round of closures. The station buildings were originally located beneath the bridge that carried the aptly-named Station Road over the railway. Attempts to rebuild the station as it had originally appeared were thwarted by the local blue slipper clay which would have meant sinking deep (and costly) foundations, so a new station was constructed east of the original site.
Much work has been done to improve the facilities and give Wootton the look and feel of an Edwardian railway station, and the waiting room is modelled on the pre-1923 appearance of Havenstreet Station. Wootton Station has toilets, a nearby picnic area, a car park and is located on the No 9 bus route between Ryde and Newport. The booking office was once a ticket hut on Ryde Pier and the signal box was originally located at Freshwater.
From Wootton Station the former railway line headed west to nearby Whippingham Station. At the time of construction it had been hoped that Queen Victoria, who had a summer retreat at nearby Osborne House, would use the train, but she had no need for it. From Whippingham the line curved south-west to Newport. The track bed is still unobstructed most of the way into Newport, and where the original Newport Station stood is now the site of the busiest roundabout on the Isle of Wight, Coppins Bridge.
The track bed between Wootton and Whippingham, when the railway was open, was notorious for slippage and subsidence caused by the blue slipper clay in the area. The route is now used as part of National Cycle Route 22.
At the time of writing the Isle of Wight Steam Railway has ten steam engines. All the engines that ran on the Island were tank engines, which carry their fuel and water in tanks and bunkers attached to the engine itself, as opposed to most other railway locomotives which carry their fuel and water in a tender directly behind the engine. Although less powerful than tender engines, tank engines are equally capable of running forwards or backwards, so turntables were not required at each terminus.
The three Victorian engines that originally served on the Isle of Wight are the backbone of the railway.
A1/x Class Terrier Engines – W8 Freshwater and W11 Newport
These are 0-6-0 tank engines originally built for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway; Freshwater in 1876 and Newport in 1878. Newport was exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exhibition Exposition Universelle, representing the LB&SC Railway under the name 'Brighton'. There she made many display runs to demonstrate the effectiveness of her Westinghouse air brake system, and was awarded a gold medal for her design, workmanship and finish.
Newport first came to the Island in 1902, and Freshwater in 1913. Following the creation of Southern Railway they were given Isle of Wight numbers and named after Isle of Wight towns, and both engines have worked on and off the Island since then. Freshwater was withdrawn from service in 1963, after which she ran on Hampshire's Meon Valley line and then spent time as a somewhat unusual pub sign on nearby Hayling Island, before returning to the Isle of Wight in 1979. Newport left the Island in 1964, was purchased by holiday camp magnate and railway enthusiast Billy Butlin for use as an attraction at one of his holiday camps, and returned home in 1973.
Adams O2 Class – W24 Calbourne
An 0-4-4 tank engine built in 1891 that Southern Railway introduced to the Island in April 1925. It served on the Island until 1967, when it was withdrawn by British Rail and purchased by the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. The Adams O2 class was one of the main models used on the Island, replacing the older Terrier engines. This is the only survivor of her class, with over 60 built and 23 serving on the Island into the 1960s.
Kitchener Class – W37 Invincible
An 0-4-0 dome tank engine, built in 1915 for the Woolwich Arsenal and which served there until 1955, followed by a spell at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Although it was not originally an Island engine, it was loaned to the railway to become the line's second steam engine in 1971, and from 1973-1977 it was the railway's only working steam engine. Invincible was purchased by the railway in 1979.
Bahan Class – W38 Ajax
An 0-6-0 built in 1918, Ajax's career saw it serve the Sulphide Corporation of London, the Ministry of Munitions, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Persia, the Stanton Iron Works, Sheffield and British Steel Corporation's quarry until 1968. Consequently it was rather worn out, and although it came to the Island in 1972 it was not until 2005 that it was able to enter service.
Austerity Class – WD192 Waggoner, WD198 Royal Engineer and 3850 Juno
The first two Austerity class engines were former Ministry of Defence 0-6-0 saddle tank engines built by the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds in 1953, and therefore relatively modern engines by Isle of Wight standards. Waggoner originally served on the Longmoor Military Railway and at Marchwood Military Port in Southampton in the 1970s, before the Royal Corps of Transport displayed it between 1979-2003 at the Museum of Army Transport in Beverley. After the museum closed the engine moved to the Isle of Wight in 2005. Royal Engineer was the last operational steam engine to be owned by the British army, after which it also became part of the Royal Corps of Transport's collection, in 1991, before being loaned to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway a year later. Both Waggoner and Royal Engineer have now been donated to the railway.
Juno was built in 1958 for Stewart's and Lloyd's quarries in Rutland, but when it became redundant in 1968 it was purchased by the Ivatt Locomotive Trust. In 2009 she moved to the Isle of Wight as part of the Ivatt Trust's collection, and in 2010 was loaned to the National Railway Museum as it is the youngest original Austerity class survivor of 484 constructed.
Ivatt Class 2 – 41298 and 41313
The Ivatt Class 2 2-6-2T tank engine was designed to be a mixed traffic tank engine. 130 were built, initially by London, Midland and Scottish Railway and later by British Railways, between 1946 and 1952. In 1961, and later in 1965, BR announced that they intended to send the Ivatt Class 2 2-6-2T tank engines to the Isle of Wight to replace the older tank engines there, although in the end this did not happen and instead British Railways closed the line they had planned to run the engines on.
All but four of the Ivatt Class 2 tank engines were scrapped8, but two examples, numbers 41298 and 41313, both built in 1952, were purchased by the Ivatt Locomotive Trust, an organisation dedicated to preserving Ivatt engines. These were held in the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre steam museum until 2006, when they were at first loaned, and later given, to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
Swapsies: The 'Love Me Tender' Story
In addition to the two 2-6-2T tank engines, which had a legitimate Isle of Wight connection as they had been intended to run on the Island, and the 0-6-0 Austerity class engine, the Ivatt Locomotive Trust also owned an Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0 tender engine.
When the Isle of Wight Steam Railway were given the Ivatt Locomotive Trust's collection they were really only after the tank engines. The Island's railways had been entirely tank engine based and no tender engine had ever steamed on the Isle of Wight. This tender engine would therefore be something of an anomaly, but it was impossible to acquire the desired tank engines without also accepting the tender engine. Basic conservation work to preserve the engine was undertaken with the intention to keep it as a static display.
In 2012 the Isle of Wight Steam Railway swapped it for an E1 0-6-0T tank engine with the East Somerset Railway, initially for a 10-year trial basis.
Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0 46447
The Ivatt Class 2 2-6-0 engines were built between 1946 and 1953 and were a solid, reliable design. All but seven were destroyed following their withdrawal from service in 1967, one of which was purchased by the Ivatt Locomotive Trust. This engine, number 46447, was built in 1950 and last steamed under its own power in 1966, when it was sold to Woodham Brothers Scrap Merchants where it lost many of its parts and lay neglected until it was rescued by the Ivatt Locomotive Trust in 1972.
E1 Class – W2 Yarmouth
The engine now named W2 Yarmouth was built in 1877, one of 78 engines of its class. This one served with the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway until 1927, then at the Cannock & Rugeley Colliery until 1963. Since then it has been preserved, finally undergoing restoration in 1986 and returning to service in 1993, but, plagued by problems, it has been withdrawn from service.
Four E1 0-6-0T class tank engines had operated on the Isle of Wight, (although not the engine in question), and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway had long hoped for a chance to acquire the last of its class. In 2012 they achieved this ambition by exchanging it for the Ivatt tender engine. It is intended to restore it as a replica of W2 Yarmouth, and at the time of writing is undergoing a major overhaul.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway also owns three diesel engines.
Barclay 0-4-0 Shunter 235 – Mavis
This engine was built in 1945. Owned by the National Army Museum, she accompanied Royal Engineer to the Royal Corps of Transport's collection in 1991 before being loaned to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway in 1992, and was donated to the railway in 2008.
British Railways Class 05 D2554 – Nuclear Fred
Built in 1956, this shunter was slightly modified in 1966 to allow it to run on the Isle of Wight's Ryde to Shanklin line, through the low-roofed Ryde tunnel. In 1984 it was transferred to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway as a goods train as it does not have the air brake equipment required to push passenger trains.
British Railways Class 03 D2059 - Edward
Built in Doncaster in 1959, in 1988 the railway acquired this diesel, which had already been fitted with air brakes, as a standby engine in case of steam engine problems. Fortunately it has only rarely been required for this duty and usually undertakes shunting duties.
Unique Features of the Railway
The mainstay of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway is its Victorian engines and Victorian and Edwardian carriages. Its rolling stock is much older than that of most other heritage railways.
All the carriages used on the Isle of Wight date from 1864-1924. Uniquely, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway is the only steam railway to operate compartment carriages rather than the more usual corridor carriages and open carriages that were common during the age of steam.
In a corridor carriage, passengers can wander up and down the length of the carriage through a corridor that runs along one side of the coach with access to each of the compartments, usually by means of a sliding door. Even if you haven't been in one you're probably familiar with the layout because the corridor has long been used as a plot or comedy device in films and television.
An open carriage is the type that most railway passengers are probably familiar with today. The layout is open-plan (no compartments) with seats on each side of the carriage and a central aisle running between them.
A compartment carriage is similar to a corridor carriage but there is no corridor. Each compartment, capable of comfortably seating six or eight passengers, covers the entire width of the carriage and is separate from all the others. Each has its own door, one each side of the carriage, to the outside. Once inside the compartment, there is no access to any of the other compartments except by opening the door, leaving the carriage and entering a different compartment.
Many carriages on the Island are short Victorian era four- or six-wheelers. After 1900 carriages were longer and had bogies at each end, providing a smoother ride.
Another unique feature of Isle of Wight trains is the air-operated automatic brake. Since the 1889 Omagh train disaster, it has been mandatory for all trains in the UK to be fitted with an automatic brake. This involves a flexible pipe, containing either compressed air or a vacuum, which runs from carriage to carriage along the length of the train. It is attached to the brakes of each carriage, and should it become detached from the rest of the train the brakes are automatically applied, assisting both the detached carriage and the train as a whole to stop. By the 1920s the vacuum automatic brake was standard throughout the UK, but the Isle of Wight, with its older stock, continued to use the older Westinghouse air brake system first introduced in 1868.
The Railway's Future
The steam railway is currently undergoing a period of consolidation. Much of the land it uses was previously rented but has now been bought, and although this has led to little visible change it was vital in securing the railway's future. Most of the buildings used by the railway were not intended for their current use and, as the railway's collection has grown since the 1970s, the original maintenance workshop is far too small. One of the railway's problems is that, due to the lack of storage space, a lot of historic rolling stock is kept permanently outside, which severely impedes and delays restoration work.
The railway has also learnt lessons from its past. From 1973-1977 the railway only owned one working steam engine9, and so the railway has concentrated on increasing its collection.
Overall, the railway's immediate priority is to be the best 5-mile long steam railway in the country, before attempting to extend the railway west to Whippingham and Newport is considered.