It’s 50 years since Dr. Robert Beeching wielded his infamous ‘axe’ and decimated the country’s railway network
His swingeing cuts were designed to streamline a railway system that was struggling to keep pace with costs, following the vast increase in traffic on the roads. So as motorways were built, railway track was ripped up, and the Island was caught up in the sweeping changes just as the mainland was.
Dr Beeching’s recommendations were nothing short of ruthless. He proposed closing 2,363 stations and 5,000 miles of railway line. It was the equivalent of just over half of all UK stations and a third of track. Some of his plans were axed due to protests, but much of his report was implemented, and the railway system was never to be the same again.
The first railways appeared on the Island as early as 1862 when Isle of Wight Central Railway (IWCR) opened a line from Cowes to Newport. More quickly followed, with a line from Sandown to Shanklin extended to Ventnor in 1866 before Brading, Bembridge, St Helens, Ryde were all linked into the network, along with Yarmouth, Freshwater and Wroxall.
But by the time the Beeching report was published many Island lines had already disappeared, as railway enthusiast John Suggett explained. John’s interest in railways stretches back to the days when he was a toddler growing up in Kent, and if his mother didn’t stop on the daily walk for him to see the engines, he would scream out his disgust!
John started railway preservation in 1966 on the Welshpool to Llanfair line in Wales, and when he moved to the Island he joined the IW Steam Railway, initially as an ‘armchair member’. But he later began helping to run the trains, and rose first to director and then to chairman, a position he held for 17 years until 2007.
John has avidly researched Island railways, and revealed: “Well before the Beeching report some stations had already shut – Bembridge, Freshwater and Ventnor West as well as the line between Newport and Sandown. They went in the 1950s, just after the Second World War when people began getting cars, and the traditional holiday, where you went everywhere on a steam train, went into decline.
“The lines that survived, namely the ones from Ryde to Ventnor and Ryde to Newport and Cowes were really only busy on summer Saturdays, and when that traffic started to decline they became vulnerable. So Dr. Beeching proposed that all the Island lines should be shut.
“But what ultimately survived is still here – Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin was saved and eventually electrified.”
When the Cowes line closed in early 1966 a group of enthusiastic youngsters decided that something of the railway heritage on the Island should be preserved. Initially the idea was to buy an engine and some carriages, and the single locomotive ‘Calbourne’ was purchased.
The original plan was to have the rolling stock displayed somewhere, but then came the opportunity of actually running a railway. Initially all the rolling stock was kept at the Newport station, but that was in the way of what is now the dual carriageway.
John continued: “Wisely the IW county Council had bought up the track bead, and they agreed it could all be moved to Havenstreet. So in January, 1971 all the rolling stock was moved to Havenstreet, which at the time had very basic facilities of one platform and one small station building. But that is where the IW Steam Railway started.”
Despite being given just a few weeks’ notice to move everything to Havenstreet, the enthusiasts and volunteers succeeded in their mammoth task. And coincidentally as the last train passed through Whippingham a message was sent to the Queen informing her of it – and a gracious reply was received. That was because Queen Victoria often visited Osborne House, and was thought to have travelled on the Island line to Whippingham.
The IW Steam Railway has continued to grow in stature over the years, and has become one of the Island’s major tourist attractions. It is particularly popular with more senior visitors who well remember the days of corridor coaches and windows that were so difficult to open with the leather strap!
But ‘Railway Children’ of all ages enjoy the thrill of seeing steam trains, such an integral part of Island heritage, that has operated between Wootton and Havenstreet since 1971, with and Smallbrook Junction included in 1991. And there are lingering hopes that one day it may be extended to Ryde St John’s Road.
John admits it is difficult to imagine the strength of feeling against the Beeching report, pointing out: “Although a lot of people had bought cars, many still had strong affections for the railways. But the truth about the Island was the fact that the ‘holiday lines’ simply did not carry enough passengers throughout the year to survive.
“Of course Dr. Beeching was blamed, but he was given a particular brief, and rapidly established that one-third of the railway network in the UK contributed just one per cent of the revenue. As a result vast swathes in Scotland and Wales were wiped off the railway map. The irony of course is that a lot of lines are now being resurrected, because rail travel is suddenly more popular than it has been since the 1920s.
“Naturally we hope the Island Line between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin will survive. But thankfully the IW Steam Railway is very financially sound despite restoration costs, with the creation of some 30 jobs – full-time, part-time or seasonal – over the years. If it hadn’t been for that group of enthusiastic youngsters who kept the steam railway alive, it might have gone forever, so we owe them a great debt.”