Could buses have replaced the 1938 stock?

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).

Photo courtesy SWR

Roger French

16 thoughts on “Could buses have replaced the 1938 stock?

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  1. The biggest problem with replacing the Island Line with a busway is what to do about Ryde Pier.
    It’s half a mile from Ryde bus station to the Pier Head, which – bearing in mind the proportion of people catching the ferry who are elderly and/or holidaymakers with luggage – is a long way to expect people to walk. So you need to provide some form of transport other than Shanks’ pony. So what is there?

    The big advantage of trains (or trams) is that they don’t need to turn round at the end of the route, they just reverse. Buses typically need a turning circle about 25m diameter, which would take up pretty much the whole of the station building, meaning that you would either lose all station facilities or lose a load of car parking spaces in order to move them. And that’s just to run a shuttle bus along the pier – if you wanted to actually extend the buses that currently run to the bus station along the pier so that passengers wouldn’t need to change then you would take up the entire pier head leaving no parking at all.
    I believe there’s also a question about whether the pier is strong enough to take the weight of a full roadway designed for buses. While the trains themselves are heavier than buses, the railway is a lot lighter than a road would be.

    Yes, you could have minibuses shuttling along the pier between the bus station and the pier head, but bear in mind that the ferries have a capacity of 260 passengers. Even assuming that the ferries won’t typically be full and that plenty of passengers will be happy to walk, you’re still looking needing several minibuses on hand or giving passengers a long wait while one Sprinter runs up and down the pier five or six times to clear the waiting load – bad enough coming off the ferry, but if you end up having to wait while going to the ferry then there’s a risk of missing your sailing.

    Trams/Pods/Other gadgetbahn
    Sure, you could convert the rest of the route to busway and just retain a rail-based shuttle for the pier itself – whether that’s a VivaRail refurb, new or second-hand tram, or some other weird and wonderful bespoke system – going backwards and forwards between the bus station and the pier head, but now you’ve got no economy of scale, you’ve still got to maintain the infrastructure for something that has a utilisation of only about 30%. In effect, you’re running just one train instead of two but to provide only a fraction of the service.

    If it wasn’t for the thorny issue of Ryde Pier, I would completely agree that it was long past time for Island Line to be gracefully retired, but as it is, I’m not sure that any of the alternatives would both be adequate for meeting the needs of ferry and crew and would actually save money.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Huge waste of money, use buses and invest some of the money saved in the uk mainland,not on providing a trainset on such a short line, also why not call it a preserved railway and run it with volunteers like most preserved railways do.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The amount of subsidy being thrown at the railway is staggering. Without wanting to be too negative, there may be some big changes coming as the economy takes time to recover.
    The railway has had a blank cheque leading to the DfT being less than prudent with public money. Buses are likely to bear the brunt, but can the railway be immune?


  4. Let us not forget that the staggering sums of money being spent to “upgrade” are on top of the £sums already spent on keeping this “fun” train set going. The Pier section of line could be kept going as per the old Tramway, but the days of thousands disgorging from ferries on summer Saturdays, when only trains could cope, have long gone. A more frequent (when, or IF necessary) bus service could be provided for Ryde-Shanklin at virtually no subsidy and certainly no need for an expensive busway either. Buses had no problem replacing trains across the rest of the Island and you still have the Isle of Wight train set to play with.


  5. I’m a ‘rail person’ but it’s hard to disagree with this analysis. I think it’s been easy to ignore the level of subsidy because Island line has been rolled in with the South Western franchise, historically that’s been profitable so it’s actually commuters from Weybridge & Woking who have been paying for the IOW.

    As an aside I recall that around the time of privatisation Christopher Garnett was in favour of closing down the East & West Coastway lines as he didn’t see any way they could be profitable, so he’s certainly not been afraid of suggesting unpopular ideas.


  6. If I was being cynical, I’d point towards the local MP being Conservative. If I was being REALLY cynical, I’d suggest that the political fallout from closing the railway between Ryde and Shanklin would jeopardise that constituency remaining in Tory hands; as well as reflecting on the wider railway (if that line could close, what about the Central Wales line? What about the Far North line to Thurso / Wick? What about Whitby?).
    Frankly, conversion to some sort of busway, with the ability to provide a through bus service to Ventnor, would be what any public transport industry manager would advocate, given a reasonably clean sheet of paper.
    Still . . . based on past experience, we’ll get another opportunity to do the right thing in around 40-50 years (when the Class 484 trains start to fall apart). Not too long to wait . . . . !!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s time to start looking at the three-section trolleybuses now being delivered in larger numbers in places like Switzerland and Austria. Under wires for part of the route, and battery power for other parts. If the pier is an issue, put in O-Bahn type of guidance along its full length. A trolleybus can run backwards as fast as it can run forwards (I’ll bet no-one has read that before), so no need to turn around. Let the driver control the vehicle from the rear end using a remote, when leaving the pier. So the substations get to see a bit more use as well. All of this applies anywhere in the world, especially now that Covid will decimate the passenger levels on which rail transport depends.


  8. Bob (5 Jan) – that’s just what happened in the first lockdown (March to May).

    The non-franchised operators are to cease operations again: Hull Trains from 9th Jan until further notice, Grand Central no trains from 9th Jan to 28th Feb inclusive.


  9. From 7 January, bus operators running local services will be legally required to publish timetables, fares and location data to the BusOpenData Service


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