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 old former London Underground trains. The second is the 5 1/8 miles of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
The Origins of the Isle of Wight Central Railway
The origins of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway began with the Cowes & Newport Railway, which opened in June 1862. It was a 4½ mile long line that connected Newport, the Island's capital, to Cowes and the sea. In 1868 a rival train company, the Isle of Wight (Newport Junction) Railway, began building a nine mile 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 line 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 in December, 1890 began operating services to the West Wight.
As the Isle of Wight's railways were run by small companies, rather than build or buy new engines and carriages, most were bought second hand from mainland companies.
After the Great War the Railways Act grouped Britain's railways into four companies3. The Island's railways all became part of Southern Railway. Southern Railway discovered that, despite it being the roaring 1920s, 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 a very popular tourist resort, especially the southeast coastal towns of Sandown, Shanklin and Ventnor.
The Railway's Closure
In 1948 all the railways in Britain were nationalised to form British Rail. Yet in the 1950s and 60s railway lines began to close. Axe man Dr Beeching became the First Chairman of the British Railways Board in 1961, and, seemingly determined to make railways extinct, was responsible for the closure of a third of all Britain's railway lines.
First to close was the Merstone to Ventnor West line in 1952. The West Wight's Newport-Freshwater line and Brading-Bembridge lines followed in 1953. The Sandown-Newport line was closed in 1956, and 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 fitted with former London underground trains due to the low height of the Ryde tunnel.
Wight Locomotive Society
In 1966, with the Island's railways closing, the Wight Locomotive Society was formed, with the aim to preserve at least one of the Island's locomotives as well as a selection of coaches in spite of the axe. The locomotive Calbourne, six coaches and a few wagons were saved, and stored for five years at the former Newport station while undergoing fundraising work.
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 1 5/8 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 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 Society.
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 Island Line service runs Class 483 Underground trains built in 1938 and refurbished in 1989 at the Eastleigh Rail Works in Hampshire, making it the oldest regular railway stock operated in the UK, despite Island Line not being a Heritage Railway.
The Line and Stations Today
As the line is single-tracked (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.
Originally 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 access was provided to Ryde's town centre. Today the railway stops at Smallbrook Junction, which today is 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 southwest through Swanpond Copse, through Ashey Road Bridge, nicknamed 'Long Arch', the closest thing to a tunnel on the line. This is followed by Deacons Lane Bridge, and next to signpost 3/III4 the highest point of the line, followed by 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 with no road access nor parking. The halt was 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, and another siding headed to 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 British Rail's days. 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, passing beneath Rowlands Lane Bridge, over a bridge 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 today is the railway's headquarters, with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway re-opening the station in 1971 and gradually acquiring many of the surrounding fields and buildings. The railway now owns the former gasworks, which is now the railway museum and shop. The railway is modelled to reflect life here in the 1940s. Other facilities here include a shop, a 1920's style station building, the 16-level one-man signal box and waiting room building. On the platform is the former Balloon Water Column from Newport, complete with a brazier which was used in cold weather to prevent the water in the column from freezing. Whenever an engine heads 'Up' toward Smallbrook from Havenstreet it fills up, with up to 600 gallons of water used on each trip along the line.
In 1980 the locomotive workshop was built here, as the original locomotive workshops on the Island were located in Newport and at Ryde St Johns Road, and in 2004 a new Carriage and Wagon Works was opened here by the Queen, complete with public viewing area. 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 vehicles to all be stored under cover, a massive aid to preservation.
Other facilities include toilets and baby changing, playground, falconry, woodland walk, show field and stage, café, ice-cream kiosk, second-hand bookshop, model railway and a garden. There is also extensive car parking and Haven Falconry often provide visitors with the chance to see and hold birds of prey.
From Havenstreet the line continues west through Bridlesford Copse, beneath a final bridge and for the mile and a half journey to the railway's terminal at Wootton Station. Wootton Station closed in 1953 and originally the station buildings were located beneath the bridge between Wootton and Newport. Attempts to rebuild the station as it had originally appeared were thwarted by the blue slipper clay, and so a new station was constructed east of the original site.
The station has recently undergone work on improving the facilities to give it the appearance of an Edwardian station. The waiting room today was modelled on the pre-1923 appearance of Havenstreet Station. Wootton Station has toilets, nearby picnic area, car park and is located on the No 9 bus route between Ryde and Newport. The booking office was originally 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 in nearby Osborne House would use the train, but she had no need to. From Whippingham the line curves southwest to Newport. Although the track bed is unobstructed most of the way into Newport, the original Newport Station site itself 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 soil in the area. The route is now used as part of National Cycle Route 22.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway now has ten steam engines. All of the engines that ran on the Island were tank engines, which carried their own fuel and water in tanks and bunkers and did not require a tender to do so. Although less powerful than tender engines, tank engines are equally capable of running forwards or backwards, and so turntables were not required at each terminus.
The railway's backbone are the three Victorian engines that originally served on the Isle of Wight.
A1/x Class Terrier Engines – W8 Freshwater and W11 Newport
These engines were 0-6-0 tank engines built for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway, Freshwater in 1876 and Newport in 1878. Newport was even exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exhibition Exposition Universelle, representing the London, Brighton & South Coast 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 came to the Island in 1902, Freshwater in 1913 and both were given Isle of Wight numbers and named after Island towns following the creation of Southern Railways. Freshwater was returned to the Island in 1949 and withdrawn from service in 1963, returning to the Island in 1979. Newport left the Island in 1964 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 Railways 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, which serving 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. From 1973-1977, Invincible 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 so 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 Hunslet in 1953, and so 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 that 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 army before also becoming part of the Royal Corps of Transport's collection in 1991, before being loaned to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway in 1992. Both Waggoner and Royal Engineer have now been donated to the railway.
Juno had been built in 1958 for Stewarts and Lloyd's quarries in Rutland, but when it became redundant in 1968, 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 2-6-2 tank engine was designed to be a mixed traffic tank engine, and 130 were built, initially by London, Midland and Scottish Railway and later British Railway between 1946-1952. In 1961 and later in 1965, British Rail 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 Railway closed the line they had planned to run the engines on.
All but four of the Ivatt Class 2 tank engines were scrapped and no longer exist5, with two, 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 these engines 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, no tender engine ever steamed on the Isle of Wight. This tender engine would be something of an anachronism, but it was impossible to accept the desired tank engines without also accepting the tender engine. Basic conservation work to preserve the engine was undertaken, and it was intended to keep the engine as a static display.
So 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, with one 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, were it lost many of its parts and 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 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 and withdrawn from service.
As four E1 0-6-0T class tank engines had operated on the Isle of Wight, (although not the engine in question) the Isle of Wight Steam Railway had long hoped for a chance to acquire the last of its class, and in 2012 was acquired in exchange for the Ivatt tender engine. It is intended to restore it to represent W2 Yarmouth, and at 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 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, but has fortunately been required for this duty very rarely. Instead it usually undergoes shunting duties.
Unique Features of the Railway
The backbone of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway are its Victorian engines and Victorian and Edwardian carriages. Compared to other heritage railways, the Isle of Wight's running stock is much older.
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 exclusive compartment carriages, rather than standard corridor carriages. With a corridor carriage, passengers, once inside the carriage, can wander up and down the lengths of the carriage through a central corridor in order to find a seat, possibly even into a neighbouring carriage. With the compartment carriage, each compartment, capable of comfortably sitting six, has its own door to the outside. Once inside the compartment, there is no access to any other compartment other than by opening the door, going outside and opening the door to a different compartment. Many carriages on the Island are short, Victorian 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 automatic brake. In the UK, since the 1889 Omagh train disaster, all trains are required to have an automatic brake. This involves a flexible pipe running to each carriage, capable of stopping the carriage should it become detached from the rest of the train, and assisting 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 rather than expansion. Much of the area that the steam railway has used was previously rented and now has recently been bought, though this has led to little visible change, but 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 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 engine6, 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 are considered.