The Isle of Wight Steam Railway passes through five miles of unspoiled Island countryside between Wootton, Havenstreet, Ashey and Smallbrook, recapturing the days of the branch line railway. Brought to life again are those perky tank engines and quaint, wooden-bodied carriages which were once such a familiar sight when, up until the 1950’s, the Island boasted some 55 miles of railway lines connecting the Island’s towns and villages … But it's not just the trains that are preserved, for here too is all the associated infrastructure, from traditional operating practices and equipment through to old railway buildings recovered from long-closed lines.
For more than a century the Island’s railways operated with near life expired locomotives and carriages sent over from mainland railways. As a result the Island became a repository for a magnificent collection of 19th and 20th century steam locomotives and carriages. After extensive and skilful restoration, a number of these vehicles are again back in service with the IW Steam Railway.
Operated by a dedicated team of volunteers backed by a full-time workforce of twenty, the Railway has received several prestigious awards including ‘Independent Railway of the Year’ on no less than three occasions, despite fierce competition from a hundred or so other preserved railways throughout the country. Film and television crews have used the line extensively for programmes ranging from period dramas to documentaries.
This year the IW Steam Railway is in its 40th year of operation … it took its first tentative steps into operation in 1971 at the then semi-derelict Havenstreet Station on the former Ryde to Newport line. For 20 years the Railway operated a mile and a half section of this line from Havenstreet to Wootton, but in 1991 opened its three and a half mile extension to Ashey and Smallbrook Junction. The IW Steam Railway is unique in offering travel exclusively in wooden-bodied Victorian and Edwardian carriages all of which formerly ran on the Island system. It offers a rare chance to experience branch line travel not just of yesterday ... but also of the day before that!
1832 HAMSTEAD TRAMWAY
Regarded by historians as the Island’s first railway and built to a relatively high standard, the 2 mile long line was narrow gauge and worked by horses. It was constructed to carry goods by Royal architect John Nash serving his estate; connecting Hamstead Quay and brickworks with surrounding farm land and Hamstead House.
Nash’s fortunes declined – and so did the tramway. It probably only lasted 10 to 15 years and had disappeared by 1860 when Ordnance Survey mapping was carried out.
1862 COWES & NEWPORT RAILWAY
Opened on 16th June 1862, this was the first locomotive worked railway and was constructed to Standard Gauge (4’ 81/2”) covering the 4 ½ miles between Cowes and Newport.
This Railway had two blue painted engines appropriately named Pioneer & Precursor which operated all the trains until 1880. This line remained in use for 104 years and closed on 21st February 1966.
1864 ISLE OF WIGHT RAILWAY
East Wight’s first railway was constructed from Ryde St John’s Road to Shanklin and opened on 23rd August 1864. It later formed the core of an extended and the most profitable railway in the Island.
The line is still in use as part of the Ryde Pier – Shanklin electric railway.
1864 RYDE PIER TRAMWAY
The Ryde Pier Company constructed a standard gauge horse-worked tramway along the ½ mile pier, opening on 29th August 1864, a few days after the opening of the Ryde – Shanklin railway, although at this time there was no connection between the two. The Pier Company also experimented with steam tram engines, steam tram cars and ultimately became pioneers in the use of electric traction in 1886.
In 1927 the Siemens electric power system was abandoned in favour of internal combustion rail-cars. The tramway finally closed on 26th February 1969.
1866 ISLE OF WIGHT RAILWAY
Three years after the opening of the Ryde-Shanklin section of this railway, the final stage to Ventnor, which incorporated a 1312 yard long tunnel, opened on 10th September 1866. Sadly the line failed to see its centenary by a few months and closed on 18th April 1966.
1871 RYDE PIER TRAMWAY EXTENSION
For some years there had been considerable inconvenience to Island visitors whereby the ferry would arrive at Ryde Pier Head and the tramway only operated to the Esplanade Pier Gates leaving a distance of nearly a mile to catch the trains which terminated at Ryde St John’s Road.
The tramway was extended in 1870, along the Esplanade serving the two tidal basins, (since filled and used partly by the railway, the remainder as a car park) and crossed a number of streets before making an end on junction with the railways at Ryde St John’s Road. This was completed and opened throughout on 7th August 1871. This extension was short lived and closed on 5th April 1880.
1875 I.W. (NEWPORT JUNCTION) RAILWAY.
This line was intended to link Sandown, on the Isle of Wight Railway, with Newport. However there were problems with finance and construction at the Newport end; only the section to Shide on the outskirts of town was opened on 1st February 1875. A short length to Pan Lane followed on 6th October.
1875 RYDE & NEWPORT RAILWAY
Authorised in 1872, the line ran from Smallbrook Junction, near Ryde on the I.W.Railway, through Ashey, Haven Street and Whippingham to Newport where it connected with the Cowes & Newport Railway. It opened on 20th December 1875, and the two railways were operated by a Joint Committee.
This line closed on 21st February 1966, but the section from Wootton to Smallbrook Junction is now the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
1879 I.W. (NEWPORT JUNCTION) RAILWAY
The route from Sandown finally connected with the Cowes – Ryde railway at Newport on 1st June 1879, however it was in the hands of the Official Receiver by 1880 and the whole operation was handed over to the Joint Committee running the Cowes – Ryde line.
This railway closed on 16th February 1956.
1880 LONDON & SOUTH WESTERN and LONDON, BRIGHTON & SOUTH COAST JOINT RAILWAYS.
RYDE PIER HEAD – RYDE ST JOHN’S ROAD.
Dismayed at the treatment and inconvenience to its passengers once on the Island, the Joint Company decided to promote a new pier and railway to replace the tramway operated by the Ryde Pier Co. This new line allowed direct access by Island trains to the Pier Head, adjacent the ferry landing stage and the Joint Company’s steamers.
The railway was constructed over the pier and into a cut-and-cover tunnel under the streets of Ryde, before emerging on the old tramway formation into St John’s Road. It opened to Ryde Esplanade on 5th April 1880, and the pier section followed on 12th July.
This line is still open and forms the northern part of the Ryde – Shanklin railway.
1882 BRADING HARBOUR IMPROVEMENT COMPANY
The short 2 ¾ mile branch from Brading to Bembridge was opened on 27th May 1882. It came about as a direct result of plans to reclaim Brading marshes, the railway utilising a dam embankment for part of its length. A quay complex was also constructed at St Helens and for about four years a train ferry operated from Langstone on the mainland. The line was absorbed by the Isle of Wight Railway in 1898 and finally closed on 21st September 1953.
1887 ISLE OF WIGHT CENTRAL RAILWAY
The amalgamation of the Cowes & Newport, Ryde & Newport and the I.W. (Newport Junction) Railways was a logical conclusion and took place in 1887. It was hoped that the Isle of Wight Railway could also have been included, this would have seen the whole Island system (at that time) operated by one company. Negotiations fell through and the Isle of Wight Railway remained independent until the last day of 1922.
1889 FRESHWATER, YARMOUTH & NEWPORT RAILWAY
This lengthy railway was promoted in 1880 to serve the sparsely populated West Wight and was mainly a speculative venture in the hope that new ferry routes and a Solent rail tunnel would emerge in their area. Goods traffic started in 1888, but the line was to be somewhat impoverished throughout its life and was worked interm itently by the I.W. Central Rly from 1914.
The route was opened to passengers on 11July 1889, and closed on 21st September 1953.
1897 NEWPORT, GODSHILL & ST LAWRENCE RAILWAY
A line branching off the Sandown – Newport railway at Merstone, the N.G.& S.L.R. was heading for Ventnor via a more westerly route than that taken by the I.W.R.. It reached St Lawrence on 20th July 1897 and opened for passengers; the line was operated as part of the I.W.Central Rly from the start.
1900 NEWPORT, GODSHILL & ST LAWRENCE RLY….VENTNOR EXTENSION
This was the very last section of Island railway to be constructed and completed the link from Newport to Ventnor West via a 620 yard tunnel and a delightful route on a rock shelf through the Undercliff. Without question the most scenic section of any Island railway but was sadly the most short- lived.
Opened throughout on the 1st June 1900, it operated for little more than 50 years to close on 15th September 1952.
1923 RAILWAY GROUPING
With few exceptions, Britain ‘s numerous independent railways were grouped into four main companies on 1st January 1923. This was a Government measure in the early post First World War period to make the country’s transport system more efficient.
On the Island, the I.W.Railway and I.W.Central were incorporated for administrative convenience into the London & South Western Railway for a day at the end of 1922, before the general amalgamation. The Freshwater, Yarmouth & Newport Railway were still fighting their case for higher compensation, a situation which dragged on for a further eight months before reluctantly becoming part of the Southern Railway.
The grouping was generally regarded as a benefit on the Island and saw major investment in infrastructure and rolling stock. Service levels increased to cope with a between-wars boom in seaside holidays.
Following the Second World War in 1945, the railways generally were in a run down state. Heavy war traffic, lack of investment and manpower all taking their toll. As part of a new drive to get the country back on its feet the Government decided to bring all road and rail transport under its control, and Nationalisation became a reality on 1st January 1948. The Island’s railways became part of the Southern Region of British Railways.
1966 STEAM ERA ENDS
December 31st 1966 saw the end of 104 years continuous operation of the Island’s railways by steam locomotive.
Only the railway from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin was left operational and that closed for 2 ½ months whilst the third rail electric traction system was installed. Ex London Transport tube cars were modified and shipped in. All the old steam engines, carriages and wagons were broken up…..except the few precious items saved for preservation by the Wight Locomotive Society, forerunner of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
1971 ISLE OF WIGHT STEAM RAILWAY
After four years of storage at the closed Newport Station, the I.W.Steam Railway was founded on 24th January 1971. Preserved stock was hauled by rail with our own locomotive driven by volunteers, from Newport to Havenstreet Station, and within a few weeks were operating a limited service on the 1 5/8 mile section between Wootton and Havenstreet.
It took many years of voluntary effort to consolidate its position and provide the proper infrastructure to run and maintain both track and trains.
1991 I.W.S.R. SMALLBROOK EXTENSION
With considerable help from Network SouthEast (then operators of the Ryde-Shanklin railway) and numerous other organisations and local authorities, the Steam Railway was able to rebuild over 3 miles of track from Havenstreet to Smallbrook Junction where an interchange station was built and opened on 20th July 1991.
The Isle of Wight Steam Railway now occupies about 5 miles of the old Ryde & Newport line, originally opened in 1875.
1994 ISLAND LINE
In preparation for rail privatisation the Ryde – Shanklin railway became a shadow franchise on 1st April 1994. and was administered from the old Isle of Wight Railway offices at Sandown.
1996 STAGECOACH HOLDINGS PLC
On 13th October 1996, bus operators Stagecoach assumed management of Island Line (Ryde-Shanklin). Track and stations were controlled by Railtrack PLC and the aged rolling stock was on lease from Eversholt Leasing.
Subsequently, franchises have been renewed and rolling stock sold to Island Line Ltd.
The railway continues to attract considerable subsidy to remain operational.
TO-DAY - THE ISLE OF WIGHT STEAM RAILWAY
This is not quite the end of the story; ever ambitious the Steam line is actively seeking a way back into Ryde St John’s Road. This will add nearly a mile to the Railway and provide a valuable ‘in town’ presence together with a more convenient interchange with Island Line.
This really is a case of ‘watch this space’.