THE RYDE PIER TRAM PROJECT
RESTORING A UNIQUE PART OF ISLE OF WIGHT HISTORY!
For over 100 years, from 1864 until its closure in 1969, a tramway ran the length of Ryde Pier. For tens of thousands of holidaymakers, a ride on this tram was their first experience of the Isle of Wight. In 1969 one of the tramcars, Car No.2, was acquired for preservation. Our Ryde Pier Tram Restoration Project is bringing back to life this iconic symbol of the Island's once proud and extensive transport system.
THE TRAMS ON THE PIER
On 29th August 1864 The Ryde Pier Company opened a standard gauge horseworked tramway along the length of the ½ mile pier. The Pier Company subsequently experimented with steam tram engines and steam tram cars, and, in 1886, they ultimately became pioneers in the use of electric traction. In 1927 the Siemens electric power system was abandoned in favour of petrol-engined rail-cars.
Built by the Drewry Car Co for the Southern Railway, these tramcars were shipped to the Island before being driven to Ryde Esplanade on the mainline railway where they were jacked over the platforms in a special traversing cradle onto the tramway pier. They were somewhat quirky vehicles. Because they ran on their own tracks, there was never any need or attempt to make them compatible with conventional rolling stock. As the journey only lasted a few minutes, capacity was always considered more important than comfort. They had wooden slatted seats along each side with hanging straps for standing passengers. Each tram set had a nominal capacity of around 90 including standees but this was regularly exceeded. The driving arrangements would certainly have raised a few eyebrows among today’s health and safety fraternity as the trams could only be driven from one end and were reversed up the pier with the aid of a unique countdown marker device in the cab approaching the Pier Head but otherwise nothing more sophisticated than a rear-view mirror! As may be imagined, collisions with the stop blocks were not unknown. The petrol engines were replaced by diesel in 1958/9 and in 1968 an inspection of the tramway pier and rolling stock resulted in the system being condemned, with closure following on 26th January 1969.
At this point, Car No.2 was purchased by the 'Island Vintage Transport Group'. It remained on the pier for some months until transported by road to Newport Station, where the Wight Locomotive Society – the founding organisation of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway - was then based. In preparation for transportation the bodywork was removed in sections and covered storage found. Later it needed to be removed but was then sadly left in the open to decay. Parts such as doors, windows and fittings were removed and the remainder scrapped. This left the chassis, engine and running gear complete.
For a year or so, the powered chassis proved useful for running materials around Newport Station. On 24th January 1971 it played an invaluable role when the Wight Locomotive Society's rolling stock and equipment was moved by rail from Newport to Havenstreet to establish the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. The tramcar remained in service for about a year in use as a 'runaround' but as the Steam Railway quite understandably focused on the priorities of restoring its locomotives and passenger stock the tram, needing serious attention to the transmission and engine, was shunted out of use and effectively abandoned.
However, there were always those who were determined that it would be restored, and in 2011 a small group, including some of those responsible for its original preservation, set out a plan for its reconstruction. This was accepted by the Railway's Board the following year and an appeal was launched.
It was obvious from the start of the project that important decisions had to be taken as to how the Tram would be restored. For reasons mentioned above it was clear that, given current regulations, an exact historical restoration would mean that it would no longer be able to carry the general public. It would probably also have struggled with the quite severe gradients on the Steam Railway. It was therefore decided to incorporate modifications necessary to allow the Tram to run at line speed on the railway and to carry fare-paying passengers. These include a more powerful engine, a driving position in the trailer car and a slight increase in floor height to meet current platform levels. At the same time, every effort would be made to keep the appearance as close to the original as possible.
Work continued behind the scenes with research and the production of working drawings and recovery of all reusable parts but the project was not without its problems. Initially, it was hoped to restore the Tram at Havenstreet but this subsequently proved unrealistic. A decision was therefore taken to restore it away from the Railway and a contractor was appointed in the north-east to complete the entire job. All appeared to be going well but just before the contract was placed the firm went into receivership. No other single contractor could be found so it was decided to put the work out to different companies. This caused considerable delays, but the first contract, for a new chassis for both Car No.2 and the replica trailer, was finally placed in mid-2016. This was designed by by Graham Morris Engineering and constructed by A.J.Lowther & Sons Ltd. Further good news was received when Perkins Engines kindly donated a new 404D diesel engine for the project.
A further contract has since been placed with Alan Keef of Ross-on-Wye who are currently assembling the running chassis for Car No 2. After four years hard work, there is finally some visible progress. Exact details as to how the body is to be reconstructed have yet to be finalised and once this has been done a suitable builder will be appointed. Unfortunately, costs have risen considerably since the launch of the project so a decision has been taken to complete the rebuilding of Car No 2, possibly temporarily fitting it out to operate as a single railcar, before commencing work on the reproduction trailer car which, unlike the original, will incorporate a driving console and disabled access.
HOW WILL THE TRAM BE USED?
No final decisions will be taken until the Railway has had an opportunity to test it on its return but several suggestions have been made. These include demonstration runs on the longest siding at Havenstreet, using it for early or late services on the full line or using it as a second service when there aren’t enough passengers to justify two steam trains, much as other Heritage Railways use DMU’s. In any event, after all the delays, it won’t be long before our visitors will be able to sample this unique mode of transport as, so far as we are aware, the Ryde Pier Tram is the only surviving self-propelled light railcar of the inter-war years.
HOW IS THE PROJECT BEING FUNDED?
The early stage of the project was funded by an appeal and was well subscribed. With a generous grant of £15,000 from the Association of Industrial Archaeology, a welcome bequest and some regular donations from Isle of Wight Steam Railway members the work has progressed much further than the original appeal would have permitted. However, more funding will be needed to finish the project so all donations will be most welcome and should be sent to the Company's office at Havenstreet. Cheques should be made payable to the Isle of Wight Railway Co Ltd.