The announcement of public consultation into the future of the south-west franchise has resulted in renewed concern over the one surviving section of the once extensive railway network on the Isle of Wight.
Currently part of the South West Trains franchise area, according to the Department for Transport, the next operator will be required to work with the council, community and stakeholders to develop plans to turn the Island Line from Ryde to Shanklin, which serves the Isle of Wight, into a separate and self-sustaining business during the life of the next franchise. This has led to concerns over the future of the line, with campaigners seeking to see the line retained as part of the new franchise area for the duration of the franchise. There have been other proposals, but, to campaigners, none offer the same guarantees that the service will continue.
It’s not the first time that the line has been threatened; it, along with the other surviving routes on the Isle of Wight, were threatened by the Beeching Report of March 1963. However, unlike the sections from Smallbrook Junction to Cowes and from Shanklin to Ventnor, the line from Ryde to Shanklin was to survive and be electrified.
The line’s origins date back to the incorporation of the Isle of Wight (Eastern Section) Railway, which was incorporated following an act of parliament of 23 July 1860 to construct an 11¼-mile long line from St John’s Road in Ryde to Ventnor. The route opened to Shanklin on 23 August 1864, by which date, following an act of 28 July 1863, the company’s name had been simplified to the Isle of Wight Railway. As a result of demands by the Earl of Yarborough, which forced the railway to construct a ¾-mile long tunnel through Boniface Down, the section from Shanklin to Ventnor did not open until 10 September 1866. The line was originally constructed as single track throughout with passing loops at Brading, Sandown and Shanklin; whilst the section south of Shanklin remained largely single track, much of that north to Ryde was eventually doubled, with the section between Sandown and Brading being doubled in 1927.
The Ryde & Newport Railway was authorised on 25 July 1872 to construct a line from Smallbrook Junction, on the Ryde to Shanklin line, to connect with the Cowes & Newport Railway at Newport. The line, with its intermediate stations at Ashey, Havensteeet, Wootton and Whippingham opened on 20 December 1875. This line was to survive, as part of the line through to Cowes, until closed following the Beeching Report on 21 February 1966 (although Wootton and Whippingham stations had closed on 21 September 1953). The section from Havenstreet to Smallbrook Junction is now preserved as the Isle of Wight Steam Railway.
The Shanklin line, following authorisation on 23 July 1877, was extended north from St John’s Road to Ryde Pier Head; this section was funded jointly by the London & South Western and London, Brighton & South Coast railways and was constructed under the aegis of the latter’s chief engineer, Frederick Banister. The new work included a 396 yard-long tunnel under the town along with a new extension to the pier at Ryde, which offered passengers a direct connection with the ferry services operated by the two railways from the mainland. The line from Ryde St John’s Road to Ryde Pier Head opened on 5 April 1880. One intermediate station, Ryde Esplanade, opened with the extension.
At Brading there was a second branch; this was the short line to Bembridge that was authorised as the Bembridge Harbour Improvement & Railway on 7 August 1874. Opened on 27 May 1882, the 2¾-mile long line was operated by the Isle of Wight Railway from opening and formally taken over by the larger company on 2 August 1896. The Bembridge branch w as to survive until complete closure on 21 September 1953.
A final branch, from Sandown to Merstone via Alverstone, Newchurch and Horringford, opened on 1 February 18765. It was to survive until 6 February 1956 when it closed completely with the withdrawal of passenger services.
Following the Railways Act of 1921, all the railways on the Isle of Wight became part of the Southern Railway and the first of the ex-LSWR Class 02 0-4-4Ts, which became such a familiar site on the island until the mid-1960s, were transferred from the mainland. In 1926, a signalbox and crossovers were installed at Smallbrook Junction; this permitted the section from Ryde St John’s Road to be operated as double track. Prior to that date, the lines from St John’s Road to the junction had operated as two parallel single tracks; during the winter, however, when traffic was lighter, the box was closed and the two lines reverted to single track operation.
At Nationalisation, the surviving lines on the island passed to British Railways (Southern Region) but, as already outlined, economic reality started to impact upon the network and by the end of the 1950s, the island’s once extensive network had contracted to the lines from Ryde Pier Head to Ventnor and from Smallbrook Junction to Cowes via Newport. Both of the lines were threatened with closure; in the event, however, the Ryde-Shanklin line was reprieved with the Smallbrook Junction to Cowes line closing on 21 February 1966 and that from Shanklin to Ventnor on 17 April 1966.
As part of the decision to reprieve the line, it was agreed that the surviving section would be electrified using the Southern’s 630V third-rail system using, as a result of the island’s reduced loading gauge, second-hand rolling stock procured from London Underground. In furtherance of this, steam services were withdrawn from Ryde Pier on 17 September 1966 and the entire line closed temporarily on 31 December 1966 to permit electrification work to be completed. By the time that the line reopened in March 1967, both Ryde Esplanade and Pier Head stations had been modified.
In the period between then and privatisation in the 1990s, there were some significant changes. Two new stations — Lake and Smallbrook Junction (in conjunction with the preserved line) — opened in 1987 and 1991 respectively whilst, in 1988, the loop at Brading and the double-track section to Shanklin were singled. ‘New’ rolling stock, again second-hand from London Underground, was introduced between 1989 and 1992. The line became branded as the ‘Island Line’ from the same time.
Privatisation in 1996 saw the line franchised to Stagecoach; unusually, the franchise also included the responsibility to maintain the track. Normally, across the National Network, track ownership and maintenance falls to Network Rail (or previously Railtrack). However, in February 2007, the two Stagecoach-owned franchises — Island Line and South West Trains — were united into a single franchise and it is over the future of this franchise that the government has instituted the consultation process.
One factor in the story is that, unlike the rest of the railway network, where passenger traffic growth has been significant over recent years, figures for the Isle of Wight have declined significantly. In 2011/12, the peak year, the number of passengers through Shanklin has fallen from 373,000 to 318,000 and those through Ryde Pier Head have fallen between 2010/11, the peak year, and 2013/14 from 235,000 to 209,000.
With the decline in passenger traffic, the viability of the line has become increasingly questioned and a number of options, such as the creation a Social Enterprise Company to run the line, have been floated. The consultation announced this past week suggests that the government will be looking at a range of options to secure the line and that its continuation within the south-west franchise is not guaranteed.
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