The first services between Ryde St Johns and Shanklin, with intermediate stations at Brading and Sandown, ran on 23rd August 1864 when steam trains dominated the network and trains carried huge numbers of passengers.
Fierce opposition from local landowners and the need to cut a 1,312 yard tunnel through St Boniface Down delayed the opening of a 4-mile extension of the line to Wroxall and Ventnor – 11.5 miles from Ryde – until 15th September 1866. The Ryde to Ventnor Line, serving the developing seaside resorts along the Isle of Wight’s east coast, was an immediate success.
It wasn’t until 5th April 1880 that trains continued from Ryde St John’s to Ryde Esplanade, with the extension to Ryde Pier Head opening 2 months later on 12th July. This route is still considered vital for Islanders wanting to connect with ferry services to the mainland.
Eventually, trains travelled across almost the entire Island with a staggering 53-miles of rail network and a total of 36 stations/halts. Steam trains chugged from Bembridge to Freshwater, Cowes to Ventnor and everywhere in between.
During the 50s and 60s a number of stations were closed across the Isle of Wight and the network quickly diminished, however, the Ryde to Shanklin line survived through all of the Beeching cuts and to this day still operates a regular service. However, the steam trains were pulled up for good on 31st December 1966 – shortly after the closure of Wroxall and Ventnor stations – and were replaced by electrified trains from March 1967.
On 11th May 1987 a new station was opened on the electrified line at Lake, followed by Smallbrook Junction on 20th July 1991 – a station that connects with the Isle of Wight Steam Railway. In 1996 the railway became known as ‘Island Line’ as a result of the privatisation of British Rail. This was run by Stagecoach, before transferring to South West Trains in 2007 and then South Western Railway in 2017.
Now, as the railway moves towards its 160th birthday, the railway network is set to change again with plans for the Isle of Wight Steam Railway to once again take steam trains into Ryde St John’s as an extension the heritage railway line. It is understood that approval has been given to the plans, although it is unknown when the line will be extended.
Major changes are also expected on South Western Railway’s service between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin with Class 483 trains dating from 1938 set to be replaced. An announcement was due in May 2019 but things have been delayed. An announcement is now expected around October.