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Steaming back to Ryde after 50 years? assesses the plan and gives its verdict.

Published: 18th January 2015

Beware political promises in an election year!

There has been a lot of interest and public debate in the prospect of daily steam trains operating back into Ryde on the Isle of Wight (IOW) in a plan backed by Island MP Andrew Turner. But are the plans robust and deliverable? Many public statements made do not acknowledge the practicality of a new service, even if it ran 50 years ago.

Island Line is the only UK rail franchise that is close to the pre 1994 model of British Rail. It maintains the track, signaling and other infrastructure and maintains its own trains.

Why the plan?

Its roots are in the fact that the six two-carriage Island Line electric former tube trains were built in 1938 and will be 80 years old when the current franchise ends. They were bought for a symbolic £1 in March 2007 from owners, HSBC bank at the start of the new franchise which in turn lowered the cost of running the 8.5 mile line linking Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin as there were no lease charges.

Island Line is mainly single track apart from in essence between Ryde Esplanade and Smallbrook Junction, the interchange station for the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (IOWSR). There is one passing loop at Sandown which means trains run on an uneven timetable with a scheduled 20 or 40 minute gap.

Every day the vintage electric trains run over 30 round trips of the line covering around 200,000 miles a year and this is where the facts start to bring operational and financial doubt into the equation. One of the six 1938 trains is under major renovation at any given time while another will be undergoing planned maintenance leaving four trains to run the daily service. At quiet times two trains maintain the service but at busy times, each train has four carriages using four trains with no operational spare available.

Steam locomotive availability is way below electric trains which is why they replaced them, as it would require a minimum of four steam locomotives to run a similar service but probably six.

Why electric trains replaced steam

Electric trains have a driving cab at both ends and have a turn-around time of under 10 minutes at each end of the Island Line plus a top speed of 45mph. A steam locomotive does not have the same performance characteristics so would not be able to maintain similar timings.

A spare steam locomotive would have to be at each end of the line to be able to be watered and have the fire cleaned ready for the next trip. The spare engine would have to be attached to the front of the train while the incoming engine was detached as it is not permissible to propel a passenger carrying steam train on the national network today.

And to have six engines in steam requires at least another one on standby and with another couple on repair or overhaul, a minimum of ten engines would be required with the attendant costs.

Running round loops

And this brings another fact into play. To allow the engine to run round the train, you need a loop line or what is known as a loco-release headshunt. Ryde St. Johns has three through tracks which is why steam to this station could become a reality at some stage. Franchised trains could use the platform 3 line while steam services could use Platforms 1 and 2 which also form the runround loop.

The heritage nature of existing trains means that they cannot carry much luggage or have compliant space for disabled passengers but a wheelchair ramp is carried on each train. Trains carry over a million passengers a year with heavy loads in the summer and minimal loads in the winter and runs at a significant loss.

Pier and tunnel floods

It is prone to flooding on the Ryde Pier section from rough seas and high tides while Ryde tunnel floods on a regular basis leading to the electrified third rail being switched off. In 1966, the trackbed in Ryde Tunnel was raised by about 25cms to reduce the flooding frequency but this reduced clearances preventing steam or modern main line trains from using it today. An opportunity was lost in 2006 to reinstate the clearances when roadworks above the tunnel could have raised the roof by allowing newer mainline stock to be re-introduced to Island Line.

Ryde Pier has two railway tracks but only one has been used for the last eight years saving maintenance costs. The second line was used to keep trains running in March 2007 when a fuse blew on the other line. If steam were to be used, the pier would need to be strengthened and the second line reinstated adding considerably more cost.

Operational costs would be reduced by moving the loop at Sandown back to Brading which would have two beneficial effects. It also has a foot crossing available for disabled passengers and a bridge. The first for passengers would be that trains would run every 30 minutes in each direction rather than as present. Creating a single line through Sandown would also save maintaining the ‘Up’ platform and the associated subway saving more money.

It would also allow the line to be operated on a single track split into two sections meeting at Brading. This in turn would render the existing double track between Smallbrook and Ryde redundant allowing the steam railway to extend to Ryde St. Johns. This would reduce the track needed for the franchise by about 15%.

Safety would be maintained by having a token system between Ryde Pierhead and Brading and Brading to Shanklin which would allow the fixed signals to be switched off and the signalbox to be closed. And its signaling which costs a fortune!

Olympic hurdle?

And this was precisely what was being planned in 2007 and 2008 when Network Rail declared that the signaling system had reached the end of its operational life and had to be replaced or a new method of working established.

The Olympics offered a unique opportunity to do this work as all mainland UK rail works were suspended for the Olympics releasing staff and equipment to work on Island Line. Trains would have been suspended for a week while the loop was moved to from Sandown to Brading and the Ryde St. Johns lines reconfigured for use by the IOWSR.

The final bit of work would have been linking the IOWSR line at Smallbrook which was deliberately laid in the correct alignment to connect with what would have become the disused mile long section of Island Line to Ryde St. Johns. As this would not be carrying main line trains anymore, steam could run alongside the new single track main line as it already does on several preserved railways.

So why didn’t this happen? Because Network Rail decided that the signaling equipment was still safe and serviceable until the end of the Stagecoach franchise. This is when the Island Line’s trains could change to a light rail system or using refurbished former District Line London Underground trains fitted with diesel engines but the gauge and clearance issues in Ryde tunnel would still need to be proved to allow a safe operation.

Using steam would increase the cost immensely and as with every steam railway, the IOWSR can only operate using a large volunteer workforce. If steam were to operate Island Line, staffing would probably triple and maintenance and fuel costs would soar and the line’s economics worsen despite more enthusiasts visiting.

Island Line closed

Island Line is currently closed for an extended period for track repairs costing millions following last year’s flooding and this could bankrupt a preserved railway. So the message is that beware any politician’s promise about railways in general and especially in an election year when they clearly have either been briefed incorrectly or not at all! The IOWSR’s comment was that they are not interested in running Island Line for all these reasons.

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