80-year-old former London Tube equipment to be replaced on Isle of Wight

Equipment, which has become its own tourist attraction, will be replaced by remanufactured cars from company partially owned by US's Rail Development Corp.
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80-year-old London Underground, still in service on the Isle of Wight's Island Rail, are on the pier at Ryde on Oct. 15, 2020. Trains connect with ferries and hovercraft from the city of Portsmouth, visible across the water to the right.
Keith Fender

RYDE, England — Railcars originally built for London’s “Tube” subway during World War II but still in service are about to be retired.

The 80-year-old trains are used on the railway on the Isle of Wight — a large island just off England’s south coast near the naval port city of Portsmouth. In January 2021 they will be replaced by more modern cars, remanufactured by a company in part owned by Pittsburgh-based Rail Development Corp.

The island, popular as a tourist destination for over a century, used to have an extensive rail network but almost all of it was closed by the mid-1960s. The surviving line, operated by national rail company British Rail from Ryde to Shanklin, was electrified in 1967 when former Tube cars dating from the 1920s were used to replace steam locos from the 1870s. The island’s railways have gotten used to operating with hand-me-down equipment; even the steam locos used from the 1920s to 1966 were second hand. Part of the closed network was re-opened as the ‘Isle of Wight Steam Railway’ which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021.

Tube cars were used due to the very low clearances in some places; the network had been built cheaply in the 1860s, always used small-profile cars in steam days, and was never upgraded properly. The “Island Line,” as it is now branded, isn’t very long, about 8 1/2 miles,  but survives because it is much quicker than buses or driving on the island’s congested routes, especially in the busy summer months. Around 1.2 million passengers use it annually.

In 1990 British Rail replaced the then 65-year-old 1920s ex-Tube trains with slightly newer former Tube cars, ordered before World War II but mostly delivered in 1940 when Britain was under almost daily air attack. Eighty years after they were built, these trains still use the original electric motors and other equipment, and while the line was privatized along with the rest of British Rail in the 1990s, the new operators saw no reason to change the train fleet.

In the last 15 years, they have even been repainted back into their original London Transport red paint scheme. The trains have become a tourist attraction in their own right but cannot be kept running much longer; most of the fleet is now out of use, providing spare parts for the trains that remain in use.

The line will be shut down in January for three months of long-overdue renovation, and beginning in April, a new car fleet will arrive on the island. The cars once again are former London subway cars, but much larger D78-design cars, dating from the early 1980s. These cars were previously used for lines running on or near the surface, not the small ‘Tube’ design used for the deep tunnels under London. The “new” trains are being re-manufactured with modern interiors, wi-fi, and USB charging ports by Vivarail, a British start-up company in part financed by Railroad Development Corp.

Vivarail has rebuilt several batches of trains from the D78 cars now in use on regional lines in England and Wales. The re-manufactured trains can use diesel, electric, battery or hydrogen power, or a mixture of these. RDC has previously announced plans to bring one of the rebuilt trains to the USA; it is currently being re-manufactured at Vivarail’s shops in the UK.

Readers interested in the railway history on the island or the steam railway should look at the steam railways website www.iwsteamrailway.co.uk.

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