Island Line’s revenue of around £1m and costs of £4.5m have prompted DfT to ask in the South Western franchise consultation for innovative ideas for the future. The decision by the Isle of Wight Council in April 2011 to withdraw the free travel concession for senior citizens on Island trains is behind a decline in passenger numbers of 14% between financial years 2010/11 and 2013/14 - at a time when passenger numbers are growing nationally. Before 2011 passenger numbers were growing, despite the long-term decline in use of the foot passenger ferry between Ryde and Portsmouth (which may reflect the economic decline of the island) and the inconvenient location of the stations at Brading, Sandown and Shanklin. The cute 77 year old trains with their funfair ride do attract some visitors, but despite the best efforts of the enthusiastic staff, today’s regular and business passengers expect more.

Last week the Isle of Wight council voted for keeping Island Line in the SW rail franchise, rejecting the conclusion of the Garnett report and endorsing Mark Brinton’s technical report.

Just replacing the tube trains like for like is unlikely to improve the situation. However at the moment the government is prepared to invest to improve rail services, reduce subsidy and deliver economic growth (witness the new rolling stock and reducing subsidy profile for the Northern franchise), so now is the time for a sustainable rather than a patch and mend solution. Whilst there does not appear to be an appetite for closure at the moment, the next time the begging bowl is held out there may be no spare change.

In crude terms what is required is to halve costs and double revenue. The finance costs of the investment required may make that unachievable, but if the gap can be closed then a politically acceptable result may be achieved.

Operating costs

Whilst the breakdown of the £4.5m costs is not in the public domain, it will include staffing, energy, vehicle and track maintenance, and the £2m annual lease of the track from Network Rail. There are no lease, finance or depreciation costs for the trains! The lease payment reflects spending by Network Rail on structures, incentivising SWT to resist any more spending to maintain structures such as the pier than is absolutely necessary to keep the railway running safely.

Cashless ticketing would enable one-man operation and reduce the need for ticket offices, which together with automation of signalling would reduce the number of staff required to operate the service. New stock, whether trams or heavy rail, would be more energy-efficient and would require less maintenance, but would incur significant finance costs, hence the proposal from Garnett of second-hand trams. Converting to trams would reduce staff costs further as tram drivers are paid less than train drivers, automated signalling will be cheaper, and rolling stock will cost less, although track maintenance costs may increase as trams are less tolerant of poor quality track than heavy rail trains and OLE maintenance may cost more than 3rd rail.


New rolling stock providing a more comfortable service will help to build demand, but not enough. Scheduling and routing bus services to connect with the rail services will also help. More frequent services would certainly increase usage, but maybe not enough to pay for the extra costs.

The key to increasing revenue is for Island Line to be fully integrated with the bus services, not competing with them. Common smartcards and fare pricing with the buses, with cashless operation and possibly with a zonal fare structure, would make rail easier to use. If the IoW council made local bus passes available on the rail services as they used to be (except to Pier Head, where there isn’t a bus choice), then senior citizens would use rail instead of the bus; this need not cost the council significantly more than the £1.50 per journey they pay the bus company today, since few senior citizens pay to use the train.

The closest integration and so the greatest benefit would be achieved if rail services were provided by bus operator, Southern Vectis, which would be easier to achieve with trams than heavy rail. With the right commercial agreement, Southern Vectis would be incentivised to increase the frequency of rail services and reduce the frequency of directly competing bus services. This might also allow some Ryde – Shanklin bus services to be rerouted via villages off the main road, thus improving public transport services on the island overall.

Since the pier section only exists to serve the ferry, consideration could be given to increasing fares on this section. Many passengers are prepared to pay £6.20 to park on the pier for a day, so a higher rail fare could still be good value, particularly if using the park & ride option at Ryde St Johns.

A significant proportion of revenue is likely to come from through tickets and even from the legendary Gold Card between Ryde Esplanade and Ryde St Johns. An argument for keeping Island Line open is that the total revenue from through tickets, not just the part directly attributable to Island Line, might be lost to the railway as passengers find alternative methods of travel. As recommended by Garnett, it is therefore necessary to retain through ticketing with the mainland; this can still be achieved with cashless ticketing if local shops are able to sell tickets. To ensure long term security, DfT should also retain its responsibility to provide an ‘operator of last resort’.

Capital costs

The railway is suffering from a major backlog of maintenance. As a minimum, repair of the pier will cost £10m, stabilising the track formation to provide an acceptable ride will cost £5m; renewing the electricity substations will cost £5m, and refurbishment of second-hand rolling stock around £5m. Given the scale of this investment, it may be worthwhile to invest the additional £15m for erecting overhead electrification and around £10m more for new rolling stock to achieve a long term sustainable solution.

Whilst funding could come from separate sources – for example Network Rail has a responsibility to maintain the pier and the formation, whilst rolling stock can be leased - funding on this scale will only be possible if it can be demonstrated that the improved service will stimulate significant economic growth.

Technical issues

The key constraint on Island Line is Ryde tunnel, which was always smaller than the standard loading gauge, but in 1967 the floor of the tunnel was raised to reduce the risk of flooding to the third rail supply. Therefore at present only tube stock will fit through the tunnel. The possible solutions are therefore:
  • Second-hand ex-Bakerloo line stock, which will not be available until 2027 when it will be 55 years old and so expensive to maintain. Piccadilly Line stock will be available earlier but may require Ryde Esplanade platform to be modified
  • Excavate the tunnel floor to the original level and use second-hand class 508 or 313 stock (as proposed by Mark Brinton in his response to the Garnett Report) which at 11ft 8in are the same height as the original steam stock. These however are already 40 years old, and when they go out of service on the mainland will be expensive to maintain. More modern stock is higher so will require the tunnel floor to be excavated further. This solution will also be susceptible to the risk of flooding – and this risk will increase as global warming increases sea level
  • Excavate the tunnel floor to the original level, install tram track set in concrete slab (which reduces the height of the railhead) and use trams with batteries or supercapacitors to avoid the need for OLE in the tunnel. However batteries are heavy, expensive and need to be replaced at least every seven years, whilst superconductors may not provide the range required, and it may not be practicable to excavate the tunnel floor deep enough. Even without the third rail, the proximity of the traction motors to the ground will make this solution susceptible to the risk of flooding
  • Excavate the tunnel floor below the original level, install tram track set in concrete slab and fit overhead conductor rail to minimise the clearance required. However it may not be practicable to excavate the tunnel floor deep enough, and this solution will also be susceptible to the risk of flooding
  • Build new trams to tube stock gauge. However a special build will be expensive
  • Build a new surface single track tram route along the Esplanade, down Cornwall Street, then following the stream (which could be put into culvert) to rejoin the railway just south of the tunnel. Some traffic signals would be required, and parking on the Esplanade might need to be reduced, but no property demolition is necessary, no traffic congestion would be caused, and only a few properties would be affected by noise. However the journey time would be increased, which might require an extra tram and the second platform at Ryde Pier Head to run 4 trams per hour service.
Note that the central portion of the tunnel, accounting for over half its length, is double track with a brick arched roof; for this section a single central track would require less excavation of the floor to provide the necessary clearance than will the single track bores at each end of the tunnel.

The second-hand T69s mentioned in the Garnett report are worn out and were withdrawn due to their unreliability, so significant refurbishment would be required. They are also low-floor trams, unlike those on Manchester Metrolink for example; whilst this gives the potential for street running in future, it means that the track will need to be raised at platforms or the platforms will need to be lowered almost to track level.

The Garnett report suggests releasing one of the tracks between Ryde St Johns and Smallbrook Junction and two platforms at Ryde St Johns to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. A 20 minute interval service could still be achieved with a new passing loop at Smallbrook Junction on the site of the present platform; alternatively a 15 minute service could be achieved with passing loops at Brading and between Ryde St Johns and Ryde Tunnel, which is currently double track. However in both cases the resilience of the service will be reduced; services would have to run exactly to time.


The South Western franchise renewal offers the opportunity to put Island Line on a financially sustainable, if not profitable, footing. The Garnett report has opened the discussion but leaves many questions yet to be answered. The IoW council must work with DfT to seek funding from Government or European sources to:
  • analyse the economic growth which a revitalised Island Line could bring to the island
  • investigate the technical options
  • broker the commercial arrangements needed
  • Implement the development required
Railfuture will continue to offer informed opinion, working to bring stakeholders together for a sustainable solution.

Garnett on Wight article

The Future of Island Line - Options Report by Christopher Garnett (use Adobe Reader to open it)

A Technical Response to the Report “The Future of Island Line – Options Report” by Mark Brinton MIET