Tuesday 2nd November 2021
It’s taken over six months longer than planned but after a £26 million upgrade and four of the five ‘new’ two-coach trains delivered it’s good to see the Island Line up and running again between Ryde Pier and Shanklin on the Isle of Wight.
I won’t repeat my thoughts expressed when the line closed for its makeover back on 3rd January that a bus based alternative would have provided better value and a more frequent, network-integrated service for residents and visitors as I covered all that back then. We are where we are. The money’s been spent and a new era in the line’s history has begun.
I took a couple of rides up and down the line yesterday, it’s first day back, to have a look at the improvements.
Obviously the first of many changes you notice are the ‘new’ trains. South Western Railway have acquired five two-coach Class 484 trains from Vivarail being former London Underground D78 Stock.
Unlike the Class 230 conversions running between Bedford and Bletchley these haven’t had engines added (they use the electrified third rail) nor are toilets fitted (the line has such a short end to end journey time). This means they have more space and more seats.
The seating layout comprises two bays of four seats in the middle of each coach with the rest as inward facing longitudinal seating with a pair of seats at the driving cab end of the train..
There’s a single seat either side of the bays but I found they don’t give much elbow room.
Two of these are designated as ‘priority seats’ but will really only be suitable for slim line priority seat users.
I couldn’t see any usb sockets in the bay or adjacent single seats even though there’s a blanked off socket marked “charging point” but there is one alongside the longitudinal seats (four sockets for five seats) and one to share between the end pairs of seat in each coach.
The wheelchair bay includes two tip up seats …
… but I wondered how a passenger using a wheelchair is meant to leap over the gap at Ryde Esplanade …
…. although I’m aware stations have had their platforms raised for level boarding, but the trains don’t have mini ramp type protrusions that come out when the doors open as on Greater Anglia’s new trains. It didn’t look much to me like the promised level boarding has been achieved.
I noticed the wheelchair bay was also being used for cycles …
…. as there didn’t seem to be a dedicated cycle storage area, and with lots of luggage carrying holiday makers in the summer season I wonder whether it will also become an overspill area from the adjacent luggage rack.
There are cove panels above the windows with paid for adverts from local businesses or promoting island features and there’s a three part route diagram which doesn’t really work because of the panel gaps.
Opening windows are fitted above both the bays of four seats but nowhere else.
The driving cab looked much improved compared to the old 1938 stock these trains have replaced.
Overall the trains are a much welcome improvement to the tired and well-past-retirement former Class 483 trains they’ve replaced. They offer a much more comfortable ride with more space and a bright and airy interior. It is fitting and appropriate therefore to pay tribute to Vivarail and in particular the company’s chairman Adrian Shooter CBE for masterminding the development of these former Underground trains, not least with the sad news this week, now in the public domain, of Adrian’s diagnosis with the awful Motor Neurone Disease. Sending you very best wishes Adrian and how proud you must be of the Class 484 achievement.
The Island Line’s track and signalling have been upgraded as a key part of the project – no more bouncy rides – and another very visible improvement is the addition of a passing loop at Brading station ….
…. enabling a more attractive half hourly frequency to be timetabled rather than the old 20/40 arrangement although the service level has returned with just an hourly frequency so it’s not currently in use.
A new footbridge has been added to access the second platform alongside the original which I guess is too old to restore to full use …
…. and there’s a new footpath crossing at the southern end of both platforms to provide level access.
Although no longer needed as a passing place I noticed that both platforms at the refreshed Sandown station are now being used, one each for northbound and southbound trains.
Yesterday’s hourly timetable was struggling to cope with trains taking longer than the scheduled hour to complete a rounder from one end of the line to the other.
I suspect this was partly to do with first day teething problems and drivers being cautious approaching stations and ensuring a four coach train lined up correctly.
But I was surprised to see the guard was responsible for opening and closing the doors as well as checking and selling tickets. I thought we’d moved on from such impracticalities like this especially on busy trains.
On a two unit train with no connection between the two halves it’s also frankly a charter for free riders.
Although there is a connecting door between the two coaches in each unit.
It was particularly noticeable how slow some of the doors were to both open and close – indeed I saw the guard in frustration manually push the door open and shut to try and speed things up.
The effect of cumulative delays yesterday meant one rounder was cancelled as early as 08:45, the 14:15 from Shanklin turned short at Ryde Esplanade and the 15:45 from Ryde Pier Head only ran as far as Ryde St Johns Road instead of Shanklin. The first journey of the day from Shanklin only ran as far as Ryde St Johns Road too.
The continuing delays during the day had the unfortunate effect of the arriving train missing the hourly connection with the fast Wightlink catamaran ferry to Portsmouth at Ryde Pier Head – which itself is only running hourly and with no departure at Ryde at 14:45 meaning anyone aiming for the 13:45 departure and travelling on the late running train that arrived nineteen minutes late at 13:58 instead of 13:39: would have had nearly two hours to wait until 15:45. Not a good way to attract passengers back to rail having spent £26 million.
After I’d left in the afternoon a line side fire caused further disruption resulting in replacement buses running south of Ryde St. Johns Road making for a rather chaotic first day back.
I’m sure things will settle down as staff get used to the refreshed infrastructure and new trains and it certainly looks like a sensible move to bed the new service in with just an hourly timetable until the upcoming 12th December changes.
Once the half hourly timetable returns it needs to run reliably and smoothly to ensure the new passing place at Brading earns its keep.
It was naturally a very busy first day yesterday as train enthusiasts as well as locals were out in force to see the new breed of trains and all the improvements, and it was good to see people generally impressed with what they saw, if not the timekeeping.
£26 million well spent? Island Line users are very lucky passengers indeed.