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The Isle of Wight’s 8.5 mile Island Line has long held a fascination for historians of London’s transport. Two generations of ex-London Underground tube stock have taken a second working life on the Island since the route between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin was electrified in 1967. The line is the last remnant of an island-wide network. Now, we take a look at the third generation of trains which is about to its start second working life on the Isle.
A new fleet of Vivarail D-Trains, themselves rebuilt from discarded District line D78 stock, has begun operating the line starting 1 November, and have been leased for the next 15 years. Taking advantage of the upgrades necessary for the new fleet, much of the line’s infrastructure has been substantially modernised, which we also delve into. This will be the first large-scale upgrade for the railway since 1967, and is long overdue.
When London Reconnections last visited the Isle of Wight in 2018, operator South Western Railway (SWR) had identified a number of urgent problems with Island Line, and was about to submit its preferred option for dealing with them to the Department for Transport (DfT).
Since then, the future of the line has been assured. It closed completely in January 2021 for what was intended to be a three-month upgrade programme to address most of the problems SWR identified. With the line undergoing something like a Total Route Modernisation (as Network SouthEast would have described such projects), it now seems an appropriate time to pay another visit.
The proposal for the line’s future
The Island Line is operated as part of the SWR franchise, formerly a Department for Transport DfT franchise and now a concession, still managed by a joint venture of First Group and Hong Kong mass transit operator MTR. Unusually, the local infrastructure maintenance has also been an SWR responsibility, not allocated to Network Rail (though NR owns the infrastructure) and this aspect is also covered below. In late 2017, South Western Railway completed a consultation exercise to identify a more sustainable future for the Island Line, which had high subsidy levels per passenger trip and had seen a long-term slow decline in passenger numbers. This identified a number of urgent issues facing the line, including:
SWR’s proposals at the time were to:
A ‘costed option’ to modernise the Island Line was submitted by SWR to the DfT in early 2018, but it took until September 2019 before the DfT’s decision was announced and the future of the Island Line secured. A £26m project to replace the Island Line’s trains and modernise the line’s infrastructure was revealed, with £1m coming from Isle of Wight Council and the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership. The line would close between 4 January 2021 and 31 March 2021 to allow the infrastructure upgrades to be undertaken. In parallel, remedial work was needed for Ryde Pier, which we describe later.
The announcement didn’t please everyone. In fact, it was much to the annoyance of one local pressure group who had been promoting their own version of earlier (and subsequently abandoned) plans to convert the Island Line into an ‘easily extendable’ light rail network.
A legacy of second-hand trains
Hand-me-down trains have always been the order of the day on the Isle of Wight railway network. Years before electrification, when the Isle of Wight’s railway network was in its heyday, second-hand Metropolitan Railway carriages made their way there. They never left and can still be found, converted to beach huts, at St Helens on the island’s east coast.
The first fleet of ex-tube trains to arrive on the island were the Class 485/486 fleet in 1967, converted from London Underground Standard Stock. They were replaced in 1989-90 by the Class 483s, converted from 1938 Stock. The Class 483s operated the line until 3 January 2021, at which point the line closed for its modernisation programme.
At over 80 years old, the Class 483s truly earned their pensioner status. In the last few months of Island Line operation, the fleet was down to two working trains at best, the minimum needed to operate the two trains-per-hour (tph) timetable. There were frequent instances of the service level dropping to hourly when one of the trains needed servicing or repair – and from time to time the entire line was closed due to lack of any available train – totaling over eight weeks of less than scheduled service.
Four of the Class 483s are being preserved. One is going to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, and the other is heading to the London Traction Transport Group, which plans to run it on the Epping Ongar Railway. And SWR has also managed to sell two units to a heritage line in Wales, which were delivered last week.
Newer old trains
Speculation over the nature of the trains which would replace the Class 483s was intense in the run up to the September 2019 DfT announcement. The Island Line was infamous for its gauge restrictions, particularly in terms of height, which was what had led to the use of ex-Tube trains in the first place. Ryde Tunnel was the most famous example, although some other bridges on the Ryde-Shanklin route also have restricted clearances. Even in steam days, rolling stock some 25cm lower than mainland trains was required, a legacy of repairs to the roof of Ryde Tunnel, where added beams significantly reduced train headroom.
During the 1960s electrification of the line, the trackbed in Ryde Tunnel was raised by 25cm to address (only partially successfully, as noted by SWR) the flooding issues there, further reducing the maximum height of rolling stock which could be used.
Nevertheless, it had been apparent that even with these restrictions, the line could host trains larger than tube stock, if any could have been found. In the early 1980s, British Rail seriously considered replacing the Class 485/486 fleet with ex-Merseyrail Class 503s. Although smaller than standard mainline stock, the Class 503s were a lot taller than tube stock. In the end, the proposal was abandoned and 1938 tube stock – the Class 483s – were received instead.
A world apart
What wasn’t particularly clear to most outsiders was exactly what size of train the Island Line actually could accommodate. Part of the reason is that the island, and the Island Line itself, are something of a ‘world apart’.
During the 2010s, the offending beams in Ryde Tunnel had been replaced with much shallower versions, increasing clearance. Unfortunately, that repair job wasn’t widely known about off the island. Had it been, much misdirected discussion about how to find replacement stock which could fit through the tunnel would have been avoided. Although D-Trains were speculated about in the run up to the announcement of Island Line’s future, in the absence of this one crucial piece of information many commentators (including the author of London Reconnections’ previous article about Island Line) were unable to understand how D-Trains could be accommodated. As is so often the case, the London Reconnections commentariat proved to be better informed, and most usefully, was able to point to what had happened to address the height issue in the tunnel.
The September 2019 DfT announcement confirmed the D-Train suitability, and that five 2-car trains would be provided by Vivarail for the line. Quashing ideas that the line might be converted to battery-train operation, the Class 484s were announced as all-electric third rail-supplied units. Although five trains is the smallest fleet the Island Line has had in its modern incarnation, the fact that four trains should be available even whilst one is being serviced will allow the operation of four-car services (which haven’t run for many years) if passenger numbers build up again post-lockdown. This also allows the reintroduction of a three trains per hour service on the line in future, if warranted.
The Class 484s are undoubtedly a much improved travelling environment for passengers, and are more in line with modern passenger expectations than the Class 483s. As well as on-board Wi-Fi, there are USB jacks and charging points for every seat, and dedicated spaces for passengers using wheelchairs. Additionally, their generally more spacious interiors will better cope with luggage carried by passengers arriving or departing on Wightlink’s Portsmouth – Ryde Pier Head passenger ferries for holidays, plus a luggage rack in each train. The Class 484s will also offer more space for passengers with bicycles. The improved on-board facilities will help to address the quality gap that had opened up between the Island Line’s Class 483s and the buses of Southern Vectis’s network on the Island, the latter of which feature on-board next-stop displays, charging points, and Wi-Fi. Like the rest of Britain, bikes are not allowed on the Island’s buses (except folding bikes). The Class 484s also feature inter-carriage gangways usable by guards and passengers.
For the drivers, there is the all new cab to go with the completely new mechanical, electrical, and communication workings. As well as cab air conditioning for increased comfort. Hidden London Hangouts took a recent behind the scenes, pre-reopening look at the new Class 484 trains, depot, and rides on the line. Four 484 trains have been delivered, with one still to come.
The D Stock trains were about 35 years old when made redundant, quite young by Underground standards. The original D Stock had a guard station for door operation. However this was later phased out on the Underground, but has been rebuilt anew for Island Line service.
D-Trains at passing loop
With D-Trains already operating on the Bedford-Bletchley line, and another fleet soon to begin operation in Wales, the line does not have the risk of being a launch customer, especially considering the uniqueness of the line. But the Line will also offer perhaps the best opportunity to experience the D78s in their purest form, powered by electricity rather than the diesel engines which feed the motors on the Bedford-Bletchley and Welsh D-Train versions. The D-Trains have new traction equipment by Strukton of the Netherlands, but which has had some teething troubles to overcome. In terms of the D-Train leasing, the term ended up being 15 years – any longer term at the current low interest rates would result in a marginal difference in annual expenditure.
D-Train design and Ryde Tunnel
The D stock was not designed to have significant frontal crashworthiness, on the basis that there are no level crossings on Underground lines, the maximum speed limit of 60mph, and that a train-train or train-buffer collision risk is largely mitigated with the tripcock trainstop system.
For use on main lines where level crossings can be fairly frequent, Vivarail decided that some protection was required based on the main line crashworthiness requirements for a front-end impact with a large road vehicle on a level crossing. They demonstrated this a few years back at Long Marston. The train strengthening work involved blocking up the access to the space formerly occupied by the front door. This means that evacuation has to be from the side.
With regards to an emergency detraining situation in Ryde Tunnel, the situation isn’t as bad as it appears to be – it is possible to gain access to and egress from the train from the side.
Despite the complication and speculation that surrounded the identity of any potential new trains, they are perhaps the least interesting aspect of the Island Line modernisation project.
At last, a defined role for the Island Line
Far more interesting is the fact that the September 2019 announcement at long last answered the question as to what the Island Line is actually for. Or at least, what the DfT and SWR think it is for.
Whilst British Rail (and its Network SouthEast sector in later years) always treated the Island Line as an (admittedly diminutive) part of the mainline railway network, post-privatisation operators saw it more as a novelty fun ride or a tourist attraction. An early dinosaur-themed visual identity for the line eventually gave way to a faux-heritage railway approach. In reality, the latter was a strange muddle of London Underground liveried trains sporting the wrong seating moquettes internally, married to British Railways 1950s-era green totem signage at stations sporting the wrong typeface.
In contrast, the Class 484s are being delivered in a livery which matches the SWR visual identity on the mainland. It appears that with a higher quality of train, SWR’s strategy will be to position the Island Line as part of the Island’s public transport network, as well as part of the mainline railway network, rather than as a tourist attraction. Isle of Wight Council welcomed the new trains and modernised railway as making a “sustainable and environmental friendly contribution to our Island connectivity”.
By the looks of the project progress, with pictures from SWR, it appears that Island Line stations are being repainted in green and red as they were before the upgrade. It is not clear whether this is an authentic paint scheme. Also the green faux-heritage totem signs are being retained. So overall, although the new trains now match the mainland SWR branding, the stations and their signage do not. This seems like a missed opportunity to position Island Line as a ‘proper’ part of the mainline railway network.
SWR’s Island Line visual integration
A large portion of the Island Line’s £26m upgrade budget is being spent on improved infrastructure. The most visible change for passengers is the addition of a passing loop at Brading station, with the long-vanished down track reinstated at the station. Electrically operated points have been installed here together with associated new signalling. This loop will enable trains to run every 30 minutes instead of the previous 20/40-minute headways. This in turn will allow trains to connect easily with the half-hourly ferry service at peak times, rather than only one of the two ferries per hour. Again, this will make Island Line a much more useful and integrated element of the Island’s public transport network than it recently has been.
As the Brading passing loop is additional, rather than a replacement for the existing two loops, it does not preclude the reintroduction of a 20-minute headway service in future, although it is hard to imagine a need for such a service in the near future.
The passing loop at Brading will also mean bringing back the long-disused down platform into use. Although there is a footbridge at the station to access the platform, it has deteriorated to the point where only a single person is allowed to use it at any one time. That was manageable when the only reason to use it was to access Brading station’s old signal box museum. Now that passengers will regularly need to access the down platform, a temporary pedestrian track crossing has been built here, with ramps for mobility devices.
Brading station’s pedestrian track crossing. Chris on Flickr
Power supply upgrades will address issues around degraded power supply identified in SWR’s 2017 consultation. The line’s existing transformers and rectifiers have been retained as they are fine, which is fortunate, but with new switch gear and cabling. Nonetheless there has been plenty of third rail replaced with heavier section rail, and provision of a better return path bonding for the track.
Track replacement at various locations has addressed the notoriously “lively” ride which was a notably unpleasant feature of Island Line before its closure for refurbishment. Although some will miss the lively running as a source of great jollity and excitement on classic LT Standard Stock or 38 stock trains – almost a roller coaster ride at ground level.
Good accessibility already in place
Whatever its other quirks, the Island Line has always had enviably level access between platforms and trains. The track had been raised, or platforms lowered, depending on location, to match the floor height of Tube stock as part of the 1967 electrification scheme. As sub-surface stock, D-Trains have a higher floor than a tube train, so platforms are now being raised at some stations (Lake and Smallbrook Junction, for instance) while the track is being lowered at others (including Shanklin).
Platform raising at Lake Station. SWR
Won’t anyone think of the stations?
Nonetheless, it is the stations where there is a significant gap between the consultation document and what is now planned. One of the interesting aspects of announcements which follow railway industry consultation exercises is not so much what those announcements say, as what they leave out.
One of the issues identified in SWR’s 2017 consultation was that stations required modernisation to become appropriate, efficient, and pleasant experiences – as regular users of Island Line can attest. The station ticket offices at Shanklin and Ryde Esplanade are time capsules of the railway several decades ago. There was only one ticket machine on the entire network (at Ryde Esplanade) and hardly any stations had real-time departure screens on the platform. Yet the £26m scheme announcement mentioned only free Wi-Fi at stations, and additional ticket machines at Shanklin, Sandown, and Ryde St Johns Road. It would seem that for most stations, little change is proposed apart from repainting and minor refurbishments.
What does ‘better interchange’ really mean on the Island Line?
Another element of SWR’s preferred option as detailed in its 2017 consultation that seems to have gone AWOL is the proposal for “infrastructure improvements to allow better interchange between Island Line and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway to generate revenue for both organisations”. It was never really clear if this just meant station infrastructure improvements at Smallbrook Junction, or whether it meant track changes which might have allowed the steam railway to operate services along the route to Ryde. However, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway operates under a different regulatory framework than the Island Line, further complicating a better interchange.
Either way, nothing has since been heard of this part of the preferred option, which lends weight to the theory that DfT and SWR have become more interested in Island Line as a public transport option than as a tourist attraction.
Whose line is it anyway?
The Island Line is unusual for being a vertically integrated franchise, in which SWR not only runs trains but is also responsible for infrastructure maintenance, leasing the line from Network Rail. However, the leaseholder’s responsibilities extend only a few centimetres below track level, so Network Rail is directly responsible for Ryde Pier, the near half-mile extension of the Island Line into the Solent, where the water is deep enough even at low tide for the passenger ferries to Portsmouth to dock safely. The state of the pier was a cause for long-term concern by the end of the 2010s, but fortunately recent detailed surveys during line closure went better than expected, with less work needed than presumed.
SWR’s 2017 consultation document noted that the current Island Line lease ended in 2019 and the operator indicated a desire for a new 25-year lease. In the end, a 20-year lease was agreed upon, but this was enough to allow Network Rail to agree to spend some £5m on remedial works to the pier, a sum which appears to be additional to the £26m announced for the modernisation of Island Line, and which will secure the pier’s future.
Ryde Esplanade and Pier: Transforming Cities Fund
Though the significant station works suggested in SWR’s 2017 consultation mostly seem to have gone missing in the final plans for Island Line’s modernisation, major changes are afoot at Ryde Esplanade station and along Ryde Pier, albeit with funding from a different source. A successful bid to the government’s Transforming Cities fund by Isle of Wight Council, Portsmouth City Council, Hampshire County Council, and various public transport operators resulted in £56m of funding being granted towards a £96.5m package of improvements to public transport on both shores of the Solent.
Of this funding, £10m will be spent at Ryde Esplanade station and on active transport improvements along Ryde Pier. For transport historians, a particularly interesting element is the conversion of the long-disused Ryde Pier Tramway section of the pier into a segregated walking and cycling route. At the moment, pedestrian access along the pier is at the edge of the roadway, segregated only by a painted line, while cyclists take their chances amongst the motor traffic or use the pedestrian route if they can.
Esplanade station will be reconfigured and improved along with the next-door bus interchange. Additional improvements to cycle and pedestrian access will be made, as well as the public realm.
CGI visualisations released when the funding was announced showed a covered walk/cycleway along the pier and even a whole new roof for the railway station on the Pier Head. The current station there looks ‘tired’ to say the least, with the screen on the east side of the track looking particularly in need of some maintenance. However it is unclear whether these will actually be delivered. The local media is already reporting that the covered element of the walking/cycle route will not feature in the final project.
Render of Ryde Pier pedestrian walk/cycleway
Unfortunately, it appears that access between Esplanade station and the Isle of Wight’s unique passenger hovercraft link to the mainland will remain sub-optimal. Although the Hovertravel terminal is immediately adjacent to the station, it is on the ‘wrong’ side, with the station platform and entrance on the other side of the tracks. Getting to the Hovertravel terminal involves walking over a stepped footbridge away from the station, or along a much longer step-free route at the side of access roads. Proposals to install a footbridge with lifts to allow easier access between the railway and hovercraft failed to win funding in the Transforming Cities bid, the local bus and rail user group was recently told.
Ryde pier development cgi render
As well its ex-Underground trains, the Island Line continues to demonstrate other aspects which add to a London rail transport feel. The line has taken a leaf out of Crossrail’s book and will reopen rather later than the date originally announced. Due to Covid-related restrictions impacting both infrastructure schemes’ delivery, software integration issues, and Vivarail’s ability to complete the remaining four Class 484s destined for the island, the line was then scheduled to reopen in mid-May 2021 – provided that no further delays were encountered…
Route refresher training was added due to the line being closed for so long. Required stock training has also added to the delay. Then climate change struck – flash floods in early August caused by more than a month’s worth of rain falling in two hours, saw water rise to 18 inches (46cm) above the track at Ryde St John’s Road, Sandown, and Shanklin railway stations. This mostly occurred in areas with no history of flooding, as the rain was quite localised and missed some of the usual suspects i.e. Ryde tunnel, which was bone dry (also thanks to drainage improvements there). Nonetheless, the line’s riders have had to use the longer bustitution replacement service.
Now that it has finally reopened, the Island Line will once again take up its familiar place as the place to go to experience withdrawn Underground trains in regular service and in as close to original operating condition as possible. London’s southernmost line appears to have secured its future.
But wait, there’s more – Extending the Island Line?
Discussion of improvements to the Island Line never go on for too long before the issue of extensions to the line are raised. Islanders keenly feel the loss of the rest of their railway network, and keep their crayons close at hand to illustrate their ideas to extend Island Line back down to Ventnor (its original southern terminus). Another idea often mentioned is for some kind of track-sharing arrangement which would allow Island Line trains to traverse the tracks of the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (IWSR) to reach Newport (the main town on the Isle) and perhaps onward. Or for steam railway trains to be allowed to access Island Line tracks between Smallbrook Junction and Ryde.
Isle’s original railway lines in 1914. Railway Clearing House
IoW Council has not been content with the line’s reopening and upgrading. It had submitted proposals for and received £50,000 from the Department for Transport’s “Restoring Your Railways – Ideas Fund” in May 2020 to prepare a feasibility study for restoring former rail links between Ryde, Newport, Shanklin, and Ventnor. From that, the Council appointed a consortium in December to prepare a Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC), the next step in the process. This SOBC was submitted to the DfT in July 2021 with the goal of receiving further funding from the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ programme to better develop the business case for the reinstatement of some of the Islands’ railway’s lost links. An executive summary of the SOBC is linked here.
Restoring the disused rail line between the two largest towns on the Isle with the Island Line extension is believed to be the best boost to the local economy, whilst easing congestion and reducing carbon emissions. A frequent, fast and reliable railway service would provide a viable alternative to car travel.
The shortest path is not always the best path
The obvious, but far from easy, option for a Ryde – Newport line would be to use, share, or build alongside the IWSR via Wootton as the least slow rail route between Ryde and Newport. In fact, there are more than a few complications in marrying a public railway with modern access, line speeds, and safety standards with a preserved railway. For example, consider the counterpart of a tourist railway seeking to maximise Victorian-style appearances and operations.
Pretty well everything could be in diametrical conflict between the two railway elements. Think of:
That route also has to address:
Overall, any arguments for that routeing point towards constructing a parallel track – in effect a new build – for the modern line to follow the preserved solum. Not necessarily the best value for money…
green line shews preferred newport extension route. Wikipedia
The proposal for railway extension to Newport has now identified the reinstatement of the former Sandown to Newport railway via Blackwater, with a new junction north of Sandown, as the most viable route of an initial phase, at an estimated cost of £67 million. This line was closed in the 1950s, and approaches Newport from the south, but fortunately, the track bed remains largely intact. The existing cycling and walking routes on the right of way would be retained and improved alongside any new rail infrastructure. This route would avoid any conflict with or encroachment on the IWSR’s trackage, operations, and revenue, albeit requiring a longer journey time between Ryde and Newport than via Wootton. Nonetheless, restoring the railway between the island’s two main towns would enable greater integration with the mainland ferry services, such as trains timed to meet the ferries.
Other potential Island rail extensions
A number of extensions and additional stations have also been suggested:
Ryde – Newport
As the former railway’s trackbed near Newport town centre has been redeveloped, the closest any train may be practically run would be at the town’s eastern outskirts. Perhaps a creative solution could be devised to allow further operation closer to the town.
Short extension within Newport
Were a line to Newport to be possible, a further extension to the Island’s main college and main hospital on the north-west side of Newport would greatly add value, usefulness, and ridership to the line.
Newport – Shanklin
Via Wootton, there was interest in studying whether a south chord south of Smallbrook Junction station would make a business case to connect Newport with the Island’s main ‘East Coast’ towns, Sandown and Shanklin, on the existing Island Line. This would have the effect of turning the Island Line into an Island Rail network. Alternatively, reinstatement of the Sandown-Newport line also offers this linkage.
Where to site Ventnor station?
Ventnor station was always inconveniently placed, being high up a steep hill behind the main town, and the station site itself has been redeveloped. The trackbed between there and Shanklin has been built over at the intermediate settlement of Wroxall, and the tunnel immediately north of Ventnor now houses a water main. This might well force a rethink on how the railway reaches Ventnor. Alternatively, an urban escalator or lift from the town centre to somewhere near the old station site might be more economical.
The alternative railway route from Newport to Ventnor West may still be available, which arrives at the bottom of the hill and is closer to the town centre. However, the former Ventnor West station site is now used mainly as a car park. Whilst this route would be a longer stretch to reopen, it might have fewer obstacles.
Some suggestions were considered for local stations on each corridor towards Newport. Additionally, there might be local benefit in relocating Smallbrook Junction station northwards to serve residential areas and a business park.
The DfT’s list of nominally successful Restoring Your Railways schemes is here. Should the SOBC be approved by the government, then the project will progress to the preparation of a more detailed engineering case.
The bigger picture
An expanded island rail network could be undertaken with a wider vision of what can be possible – for instance, the creation of a truly ‘Island Rail’ network. And providing car-free, sustainable mobility for residents, tourists, and hopefully festival goers to Newport.
Unfortunately, the October 2021 Spending Review did not have the same vision for the Island Line, as it was not one of the schemes chosen for further funding. So the Island Line extension project joins a long list of Restoring Your Railway (RYR) projects which have been announced as worthy of study at the end of each bidding round, but with no explicit statement from the Government about whether such RYR schemes are now moribund after detailed scrutiny, or still subject to further assessment.
Nevertheless, reinstatement of the island’s long lost railway links will no doubt remain an active topic of discussion amongst the transport cognoscenti locally and on the mainland. Most regular Island Line passengers will probably simply be glad to witness the return of any train service at all, after 10 months of slower road-based substitutes. They should certainly notice the changes the upgrade has delivered, and for the sake of Island Line’s longer-term future, it is to be hoped that passengers (both existing and potential) are attracted back quickly and in numbers.
This article first appeared on www.londonreconnections.com
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