Southend, a Routemaster and the Isle of Wight

Still struggling with jetlag, I again woke up too early in my London hotel, and dozed until around 6:30. At around 7am, I left the hotel and went down into Paddington underground station to find the train to Tower Bridge. Looking at the maps, it didn’t quite make sense, as the the trains were all going to places I didn’t expect, then it dawned on me; there are two Underground stations at Paddington, and I was at the wrong one!

I walked though Paddington station, and found the correct Underground platforms before making my way to Tower Hill, where I walked the short distance to Fenchurch St station. It was peak hour, and there were frequent 12 car commuter trains arriving from across Essex, passengers piling off to work ins the shops and offices in central London. I found my train, a nearly empty 12 car c2c commuter train to Shoeburyness. There was no first class car, but the journey was fast and comfortable nonetheless.

c2c Class 357

A 4 car c2c Class 357 EMU at Southend Central

We zipped through Essex countryside, and I was soon at Southend Central, where I took a short walk to a long pier. At 1.3mi long, the Southend Pier is “the longest pleasure pier in the world”. It has its own gift shop and a cafe at the “wet” end. I paid my admission fee and set out to walk the pier’s length. Now you may question my sanity at paying an entry fee to walk 1.3mi along an exposed pier in the middle of the English winter. Well, this pier has an unique feature which interested me very much; a 3′ gauge passenger railway running the length of the pier.

The railway was once electrified double line, but is now operated by diesel powered trains running on a single track with a station at each end. There is a passing loop in the middle to allow two trains to operate, but during the winter, one train trundles back and forth at half hourly intervals. The passenger carriages are utilitarian, and have hard side seating with a single door on each side. The doors are remotely controlled by the Driver.

Southend Pier

A train runs along Southend Pier

I had arrived just as the pier was opening, and walked the cold 1.3mi along the wooden structure. It was low tide, so the first ¾ of the pier was over the tidal flats. Boats sat on their hulls in the mud, waiting for the tide to come back in at re-float them. The little train passed me on its way to the pier head, then back again to the shore station. After a very cold, windswept walk, I reached the end of the pier, and revived myself with a hot drink from the cafe. I was the only customer on that cold morning.

Pier Head

A train departs Pier Head station for Shore station

I caught the train back along the pier to the shore station. The carriages on the train outnumbered passengers by about 2 to 1, and the lightly loaded train trundled along the bumpy track at a stately speed of about 15 mph. After leaving the little train, I walked back to Southend Central station and caught the train back toward London.

Southend Pier Railway

One of the Southend Pier Railway trains at Shore station

From Fenchunrch St, I took the bus from Tower Gateway to Charing Cross. You may wonder why, in a city famous for its Underground railway system, I (of all people) chose to catch a bus through the centre of the city. The reason is Routemaster. London bus route 15 is supplemented in the middle of the day for part of its route by vintage Routemaster buses (a touristy thing, similar to Melbourne’s W class trams on the City Circle). There is no special fare for these services, and they run frequently. I boarded the beautifully preserved old bus, and we lurched through the congested streets of central London. The journey didn’t take long, but it was wonderful to ride on a 60 year old public transport icon.


An original Routemaster in front of a New Routemaster at Tower Gateway

At Fenchurch St, I boarded a train heading across the river to Waterloo, and at Waterloo I just made the 13:00 South Western Railways service to Portsmouth. The service was run by a Class 450 electric train, which gets its power from a third rail. The journey through the south of England was pleasant enough, although South Western Railways are rather stingy with their first class; not even a free cup of tea!

At Portsmouth, there are two stations; Porstmouth & Southsea (in the city centre) and Portsmouth Harbour. Normally, when travelling to the Isle of Wight, passengers travel on to Portsmouth Harbour, but I had other plans and left the train at Porthsmouth & Southsea.

SWR Class 450

A South Western Railway class 455 at Portsmouth Harbour

I caught the bus from outside the station, and were soon at Clarence Pier where I bought my ticket for the flight over to the island. Yes, I did say flight – in England, journeys taken on hovercraft are considered as flights, and Hovertravel (running from Southsea to Ryde) are the only commercial hovercraft operator in the UK.

I was quite excited to be going on my first hovercraft ride. There was a small ticket counter and a waiting area inside the terminal, and after watching me buy my ticket, a man at the check in counter inspected it and allowed me to pass though into the tiny waiting area. The man who had checked my tickets came through and told the 2 dozen people waiting that there would be a 5 minute delay and he was very sorry for the inconvenience.

The hovercraft approached, and was an impressive sight as it floated out of the water and on to the concrete apron outside the terminal. The craft stopped, and the engines were cut, settling it on the ground and deflating the skirt. boarding ramps were extended from the front, and about 50 people disembarked before we were allowed to board. Inside the hovercraft, there were 78 seats, arranged mostly in a 2-4-2 configuration. I took my seat and the doors were closed. The engines started, and there was a strange sensation as we levitated above the apron. We slid backwards into the water, with the fans blowing us along towards the island at around 26 knots (50 km/h). The fans were loud, but not so loud that they interrupted conversations, and there was little sensation of movement.

Ryde Esplanade

A Hovertravel hovercraft next to Ryde Esplanade station

The advertised 10 minute journey took just under 15 minutes and I disembarked right next to Ryde Esplanade railway station and walked onto the platform. Shortly after, an Island Line train approached, headed for Shanklin.

St Johns Road

Island Line trains at St Johns Road yard

The Island Line is an isolated passenger only railway running from Ryde Pier Head (ferry terminal) to Shanklin. It is part of the National Rail network, and is electrified with 630v DC 3rd rail. The line uses the oldest non-heritage rolling stock in the UK; class 483 EMUs, which were originally introduced in 1938 on the London Underground. These 80 year old workhorses trundle around the island at 45 mph on the 8.3 mi line. Trains run roughly half hourly and carry about 1.3 million passengers per year. One of the intermediate stations is Smallbrook Junction, which is not accessible by road; this station connects with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (but sadly this was closed for the winter).

St Johns Road signal box

The mechanical signal box at St Johns Rd, Ryde

I boarded the train, which ran through a tunnel under Ryde town and alit at the next stop (St John’s Rd), where there is a signal box and a small railway yard with a workshop for maintaining the Island line fleet. I just missed the train in the opposite direction, and the next wasn’t for an hour, so after taking a few photographs of the semaphore signals and trains in the sidings, I walked back through Ryde town to Ryde Esplanade to catch the hovercraft back to Portsmouth.

Island Line

An Island Line train running between Ryde Esplanade and St Johns Road

The hovercraft was running 15 minutes late, which was a problem, as this would cause me to miss my bus back to the station, which would in turn cause me to miss my train to Southampton, which would cause us to miss my connection to Reading, which would cause me to miss my train to Paddington. This was not a major problem as my rail pass allowed me to travel on any train, but it required some consultation of timetables on how to get back. I worked out that I could take a train about 45 minutes behind the one we were booked on, then we could make the following Southampton – Reading service, an hour later than planned.

I boarded the bus from Clarence Pier to Portsmouth Harbour, where I watched a few South Western Railway trains depart, before my little 3 car Great Western Railway train departed for Cardiff. We trundled along, stopping every so often at small stations, running roughly on time, which would make a good connection at Southampton.

Class 158

A Great Western Railway Class 158 at Portsmouth Harbour

After we departed Cosham, the train slowed, then stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was quite dark outside, but by consulting the map, I was able to work out that we were somewhere near Porchester, where we weren’t meant to stop. After a few minutes, the guard (who looked and sounded like Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies) announced “Err, scuse me ladies an’ gen’elmen, we’re stopped near Porchester because the train in fron’ of us is not movin’ and oi dunno woi”. We waited and waited, and after another 10 minutes, Hagrid came back on the PA and said “Oi’m sorry ladies an’ gen’elmen, we’re wai’in for the police to remove a suicidal person from the rail tracks at Porchester. Oi dunno ‘ow long we’ll be.”

Our train sat and sat for quite some time, with passengers starting to make phone calls to friends and family to tell them that they’d be home late, others enquired about missed connections and how were they going to use their advance ticket on another train (advance tickets are cheaper, but only valid on the train for which they were booked). It was clear that we would not make the second connection at Southampton.

After 40 minutes, the police had removed the misguided individual from the tracks, and we finally moved off. I arrived into Southampton just in good time to catch the train after the train after the train I had planned to take to Reading. I boarded the 4 car Cross Country Class 220 Voyager, and set off into the night.

Class 165 at Paddington

A Great Western Railway Class 165 at Paddington station

The trip to Reading was uneventful, and we had a quick connection to one of the frequent Great Western Railway express services that run through Reading to London. A 3 car class 165 Turbo whisked me back to Paddington and I finally made it back to my hotel at around 11pm.

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