CAN there be a time warp like this anywhere on the British railway system? Elderly Tube trains dating from 1938 trundle between Ryde and Shanklin in the Isle of Wight as they have done for the past 30 years. It is quite surreal to see carriages that once did service for squashed London commuters in the tunnels of Zone One carrying jolly hordes of bucket and spade holidaymakers to the beach. Railway enthusiasts from all over the country come to pay homage to these venerable trains, by far the oldest in daily service in the UK. (I travelled on them and wrote about them recently in my book ‘On the Slow Train’.)
Now it has been announced that they are to be replaced by some sprightly new trains – this time
a mere 40 years old! The ‘new’ trains are to be rebuilt from the ‘D stock’ once used on London Underground’s District Line, as part of a £26m scheme to modernise the Island Line. Known as Vivarail Class 484s, they are the brainchild of Adrian Shooter, the former managing director of Chiltern Railways, who spotted an opportunity to buy up these trains before they went for scrap and convert them to work on lines where new ones would not be economic. As well as the Island Line, they are also being put into service on the Bedford to Bletchley line and the Conwy Valley line in north Wales.
The converted trains will be a great relief to the islanders who have been worried about whether their railway would have a future at all. Various plans have included replacing the tracks with asphalt and turning it into a bus route or converting it into a single line tram operation. Self-propelled flywheel trains were an option once considered
The fact that it still exists is something of a miracle – the line is all that remains of a 50 mile network that once criss-crossed the island. It opened in 1864, reaching the resort of Ventnor two years later. In the run-up to Beeching, the line, with other branches to Newport, Cowes Ventnor West, Yarmouth and Bembridge had become a mecca for enthusiasts who came to travel behind Victorian locomotives on one of the loveliest country railway networks in the land. But only Ryde-Shanklin survived the inevitable cuts. As a boy I took scores of pictures of the famous O2 class steam tank engines that operated the line, which still have pride of place in my photo albums.
Now it is the turn of the 1930s Tube trains to be the subject of a nostalgic farewell of their own. In fact, in the time warp that is the Island Line, it always seems to be nostalgia time…