The Island line, the one small remaining part of the Isle of Wight’s once extensive network 55.5 miles of railways, is just 8.5 miles in length and has a total of 8 stations spread across its length, mostly centred on the north-eastern and eastern conurbations of Ryde and Sandown & Shanklin.
Since 1967, when the line was electrified and the track height raised in the Ryde tunnel, the line has been known for its unusual rolling stock, former London Underground (LU) tube trains. When the line reopened in 1967, following a winter closure, services were operated by class 485s and 486s, former LU ‘Standard Stock that was built between 1923 and 1931 for operation across the Bakerloo, Central, Northern and Piccadilly lines.
Already 37-45 years old by the time it reached the Isle of Wight, the class 485/486s kept the line running for another 24 years before being replaced at the ripe old age of 60+ by ‘new’ trains in 1991. These ‘new’ trains were once again stock retired from service by LU and were, already 54-year-old, 1938 stock. Designated class 483 for their operation on the Island line, these trains have crawled on to the age of 82 and have finally been retired on 3rd January 2021 after almost 30 years of service on the island.
Ahead of their retirement, I headed down to the Isle of Wight for a ride on one of these veteran trains, with a plan to spend the day on the island and alight or board at each one of the islands eight stations. This plan, however, was in jeopardy the week before my trip when the two serviceable units (483006 & 483008) both became defective and 483007 wasn’t due to finish its overhaul until the Monday after my trip.
Thankfully, two days before my trip the railway gods smiled down on me as the Island line engineers pulled through and got 007 in service ahead of schedule. Therefore, as the hovercraft approached Ryde (read about that here), I saw the fresh gleaming red paint of an ex-tube train heading down the pier to Ryde Pier Head, the northern terminus of the line.
After a short wait, 483007 came trundling along the pier and arrived into the Esplanade station. Clearly there were a few people taking last (and sometimes first) rides on these classic trains as the train was fairly busy for a random Saturday in December. Capacity is something the Island line has struggled with as these trains have got older and less reliable, especially given they used to run two pairs of units coupled together in the summer for the twice hourly service and on my visit struggled to provide the one unit for an hour service.
As mentioned above, I had a plan to visit all the stations on the line during the day and the first leg in this was to travel to the southern end of the line at Shanklin. The line used to continue beyond here to Wroxall and Ventnor, another seaside town on the southern coast of the island, however the line was curtailed in 1966 as part of the rationalisation and modernisation of the line.
Given I was running an hour early (because reasons!), I decided rather than getting the train straight back north, I’d jump out at Shanklin and grab some food at the local café before catching the train I had planned to back to Ryde St. Johns Road. This was a decision that I ended up regretting, given that whilst the unit was back in Ryde, it failed meaning the service for the rest of the day was cancelled. Thankfully the member of staff in the ticket office was able to advise me on the local buses and I was able to catch one back to Ryde which for the most part followed the railway line.
The one station on the line that isn’t accessible via rail replacement bus and is only served on specific days, is Smallbrook Junction. This is the line’s newest station, having only opened in 1991, to connect with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway that was extended to the station at the same time. The station is unique on the national railway network as it only accessible by train, not from the street, and is only open on days the steam railway is operating. For some reason, on the day of my visit, despite the steam railway operating, the Island line was not stopping at Smallbrook Junction.
One station we did pass close to on the bus back to Ryde was Brading, which serves the town of the same name, and is approximately the halfway point on the line. Brading used have a passing loop and was also a junction station, with a branch heading northeast to St. Helen’s and Bembridge which closed in 1953. The removal of the passing loop here has caused the oddity of the Island line’s timetable, with the current passing loops at Sandown and St. John’s Road only allowing an irregular 20 and 40minute interval service.
As part of the works taking place in early 2021, the passing loop at Brading is being reinstated which will allow for a regular 30-minute service. In total £26 million is being invested on the new trains and upgrading the line, which will also include platform and track works to better place the new class 484s alongside the platforms. The existing passing loops at Sandown and St. Johns Road are being retained, meaning in the future, a 20-minute, 3 train service could be operated in demand dictates.
Rather than go all the way to the bus station on the Esplanade, I jumped off the bus close to Ryde St. Johns Road station and the Island line’s maintenance depot which is adjacent to the station. In the sidings around the area, there are extremely forlorn looking class 483s which although previously operated on the line, were regarded as unserviceable over time.
In total 9 operational class 483s were delivered to the island, with an additional unit arriving as a source of spare parts. The first of the 9 to be withdrawn were 483003 and 483004 which were both scrapped in April 2000. The others soldiered on, but with 001 being scrapped in 2006, 002 & 004 becoming spares donors in 2008 & 2019 respectively and 009 being withdrawn and used for depot duties in 2019, only 3 units made it to 2020.
As previously mentioned, this lack of serviceable rolling stock has led to reliability problems on the line, as two of the three need to be in service to provide the full timetable. Long gone are the days of units being paired to boost capacity in the summer and more often than not, just one unit made it out to provide a limited hourly service. It was with this in mind, that 483007 entered overhaul, re-entering service just the day before my visit to the island and 3 weeks before its retirement.
Whilst, like many rail enthusiasts, I’ll be sad to see the final pre-war rolling stock be retired from the British railway network, it is definitely time for the Island line to get the new trains and investment it deserves. With more than 55,000 people living in the towns and villages along the line, a regular, reliable service is essential.
It was a shame I couldn’t travel on the retiring class 483s for the full day, but unfortunately that’s the reality of 80-year-old trains running a regular service. Having only managed to ‘visit’ two of the eight stations, and not even having been able to call at Smallbrook Junction and Ryde Pier Head, another day on the Isle of Wight is definitely needed when the Island line is back up and running with the class 484s.