Sunday 3rd January 2021
Today marks the end of a train era on the Isle of Wight as the Island Line’s infamous former Underground stock dating from 1938 is finally retired after 82 years front line service. They’re by far the oldest trains running on the national network.
Like a lot of people I enjoy a good dose of nostalgia when it comes to train travel but we’re fortunate to have many well run heritage lines all over the country that cater well for this need. So I won’t be shedding any tears at bidding farewell to the iconic red liveried trains today especially as they’ve proved hopelessly unreliable recently and particularly as one has apparently been snapped up by the Epping Ongar Railway and will no doubt see further service in Essex – a far more appropriate home than in front line service.
The Island Line is now closing for at least three months so £26 million can be spent on upgrading the infrastructure including installing a new passing loop at Brading and preparing a fleet of five refurbished forty year old former Underground D stock trains, designated Class 484, to run in two-car formation when the line reopens.
The DfT is providing most of the funding for the infrastructure upgrade (which includes new electrical equipment for three substations and track renewal) with £1 million coming from the Isle of Wight Council and Solent Local Enterprise Partnership for the Brading passing loop which will enable an even 30 minute frequency with two trains. Meanwhile South Western Railway is undertaking station improvements including wifi, information screens and ticket machines at Shanklin, Sandown and Ryde St Johns.
The £26 million investment was confirmed back in September 2016 bringing to an end years of speculation over the future of the line. Consultancy Atkins undertook a study looking at governance options at the time the South West franchise was being reviewed including running the line as a separate franchise and whether to do so with or without infrastructure. In the end, the status quo was retained.
Another study by former train boss Christopher Garnett: ‘The Future of Island Line – Options Report’ was published in January 2016 and examined a number of possibilities including converting the line into a tramway.
His report listed the line’s four main challenges: a large annual operating subsidy; poor track condition; time expired trains; and a lack of detailed knowledge about the infrastructure particularly Ryde Pier. In addition the lack of a passing loop halfway along the line at Brading meant an uneven 20/40 frequency operated.
Christopher’s recommendation to convert the line to a tramway which would have included a fifteen minute frequency was ignored. He reckoned trams would reduce operating costs as well as eliminate expensive signalling infrastructure (by running on ‘line-of-sight’) and also suggested second hand trams could have been purchased from Centro in the West Midlands.
Being a professional career train man Christopher didn’t consider the option of a high quality busway similar to the one operating south of Fareham towards Gosport – ie without the added cost of guide tracks (as in Cambridge, Crawley and Leigh).
This would have enabled a fully integrated service to operate with the Island’s highly regarded bus network as well as brand new buses with all the latest comfort and environmental features. It would also have guaranteed regular investment in replacements as proven by Southern Vectis’s excellent reputation for fleet renewal. No doubt a more frequent service than every 15 minutes could have been considered if needed too.
Such a plan would also have overcome one of the downsides of the Island Line: it doesn’t serve the town centre or beaches at Shanklin and Sandown very well, and really only directly serves around 60,000 residents – less than half the Island’s population, as well as seasonal visitors of course. While concessionary travel is available on the Island’s buses it’s not valid on the trains, so that would also have been a bonus for the Island’s passholders and visitors.
What a missed opportunity. The Atkins study stated the annual revenue from passengers using the Island Line in 2014/15 was roughly £1 million but the Line required an operating subsidy of just under £4 million. That worked out at £5 per passenger journey. Quite Incredible. For every passenger journey made on the Island Line, the taxpayer is chipping in £5.
On the other hand, Southern Vectis provides a comprehensive bus network serving the full Isle of Wight population of 140,000, even on Christmas Day, on pretty much a commercial basis.
Atkins reported 37 staff are directly employed to run the Island Line. I reckon Southern Vectis could provide three times the frequency of service for under half that number. And just imagine what Southern Vectis could have done with that £26 million investment.
Still; we are where we are and that £26 million is now being downloaded to bring the Island Line into the 2020s and no doubt the Class 484s will notch up equally impressive years of service for the Island in decades to come and I’ll hopefully be visiting the Island later in the year to take a ride from Ryde.
In the meantime, ironically for the next three months it’ll be buses that provide the service and I see it’ll be at least some of First West of England’s ‘metrobus’ branded fleet involved – and ironically providing direct services for students to their college. Now there’s a thought.
Finally, for old times sake as YouTube is awash with farewell tribute videos, if you fancy watching a few short clips of train 007, pressed into service for the last couple of weeks, albeit on an intermittent basis, lasting less than two minutes, click on the link here (taken before Boxing Day’s travel restrictions).
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.