How To Ride A Tube Train Out To Sea

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By M@ Last edited 17 months ago
How To Ride A Tube Train Out To Sea

It looks like a tube train. It rattles like a tube train. It sports familiar seat covers and no-smoking roundels. There's even a Mind the Gap sign on the platform edge. But we're a long way from London. Welcome to the Island Line, a 14km track along the eastern side of the Isle of Wight.

An old tube train pulls in to Shanklin station.

The route uses the oldest passenger trains still in regular service anywhere in the UK. They're hand-me-downs, bought from London Underground in 1988, but dating back to 1938. To put things in a whimsical context, that makes them older than Sir Ian McKellen.

We board at the southern terminus station of Shanklin, though not before some kerfuffle with the station car park, whose ticket machine is broken. "Oh, don't worry about that," says the station supervisor. "You can have free parking on us today." This would not happen in London.

Familiar seat covers.

In a further break from tube protocol, a neighbouring passenger engages us in conversation. Before we can ask him about the railway, we're interrupted by a ticket inspector. We consider asking if he's got a ticket to Ryde, but conclude that he must suffer that joke a dozen times each day.

Our short journey ends at the coastal town of Sandown, whose handsome if faded station building would look at home at the western extremities of the Metropolitan line. Had we stayed on board, we could have travelled the island line up to Ryde, which connects with the catamaran and hovercraft to the mainland.

Local resident and train enthusiast Graham Middleton sings the line's praises. "Personally, I think what most people love about the Island line is the ridiculously helpful station staff," he says. "The fact that every train has a guard (unlike the London Underground) who can sell you a ticket to anywhere in the UK while chatting about the latest local gossip. The end of the line at Ryde Pier Head station does what it says on the tin — you actually ride on the train to the end of the 681 metre pier, taking the train out to sea!".

The route diagram is a bit more arty than Transport for London's efforts.

The creaky old route is not without its foibles. "The downside to the combination of ancient rolling stock and the single-track line over the marshes between Brading and Sandown is an incredibly bumpy ride in places," says Graham. "It's still the quickest way to travel in the summer traffic though."

Old and wobbly they might be, but these 1938 tube trains are among the most reliable and punctual in the country. By one measure, 99.7% of services are on time. That hasn't stopped threats to their operation, and serious questions remain over the route's future. One scheme would have the Island line replaced by a modern tram system. Such a move would no doubt increase efficiency, but at the loss of one of the country's genuine rail curiosities.  

The easiest way for a Londoner to catch the Island line is to buy an integrated ticket that includes your trip down to Portsmouth, ferry passage to Ryde on the Isle of Wight, and onward travel on the Island line.

Last Updated 18 June 2016