The Ryde – Shanklin railway has always been the Isle of Wight’s main line, even when the Island boasted a complex 54 mile rail network with 36 stations and halts. It was not, however, the first part of the network to open. That honour fell to the Cowes and Newport Railway in 1862; the Isle of Wight Railway Company inaugurated services between Ryde (St Johns) and Shanklin with the intermediate stations at Brading and Sandown, on 23rd August 1864. 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 – Ventnor Line, serving the developing seaside resorts along the Islands east coast, was an immediate financial success.
The IWR added only the short Brading – Bembridge branch line (opened in May 1882) to its system, and it was left to other local railway companies to develop the Island network around the hub of Newport, the Island Capital. Further lines eventually radiated from Newport to Ryde (opened in 1875); to Sandown (opened in stages between 1875 and 1880); and to Freshwater (opened in 1889). The final section of Railway was opened in stages between Merstone Junction, on the Newport – Sandown Line, and Ventnor Town (later renamed Ventnor West) between 1897 and 1900.
In the meantime, the connection between Ryde St Johns and the Portsmouth Ferries at Ryde Pier Head, which was initially provided by a Horse drawn Tramway, had been substantially improved in 1880 when the mainland-based London & South Western and London, Brighton & South Coast Railways combined to build a new railway pier and connecting double-track railway which allowed the through running of trains, between the Pier Head and the Island Network at St Johns Road.
All railways on the Isle Of Wight were amalgamated in 1923 as part of the Southern Railway, one of the Big-4 companies formed as a result of the grouping of the British Railway System. The SR developed the potential of the Island network, and particularly the busy Ryde- Shanklin – Ventnor Line, to the full. Among the many improvements made were the provision of an additional passing loop at Wroxall and, in 1927, the doubling of track between Brading and Sandown. Plans to extend the double track section through to Shanklin were made, but never materialised. The line continued to prosper, carrying large numbers of passengers in the summer months, and this remained the case throughout the years of SR control and, despite the rapid advance of the Motor Car, into the era of the Nationalised railway, which came into being in 1948.
There appeared little threat to the continuance of railway services between Ryde and Ventnor, even when the Isle of Wight system was cut back in 1952 (when the Ventnor West branch closed); in 1953 (when the lines to Freshwater and Bembridge were axed), and in 1956 (when services were withdrawn between Newport and Sandown). There then came the era of Dr Beeching and, in 1964, controversial closure proposals for the remaining Island routes, Ryde-Newport-Cowes and Ryde-Shanklin-Ventnor.
The fight to save the two routes, still steam-worked by the stalwart 02 class tank locomotives, dating back more than 70 years, became the most celebrated of all the railway closure battles of the Sixties. It failed to prevent the closure of the line to Newport and Cowes, which was axed in February 1966, and the withdrawal of services between Shanklin and Ventnor two months later, on April 17th, but it did result in reprieve for the 8.25 mile line between Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin, which thus became the last section of state-owned railway on the Island. It did, in fact, close after the last steam trains had run on 31 December 1966, but only temporarily, to permit its (3rd Rail) electrification by the then Southern Region of British Rail. Train services resumed in the following March, using refurbished former London Underground units.
Since then there has been an upturn of fortunes for the Isle of Wight’s Railways. The Isle Of Wight Steam Railway has reopened the Wootton – Havenstreet – Ashey – Smallbrook section of the former Ryde-Newport Line. Between Ryde and Shanklin, two new stations were opened during Network South East management of the Line – Lake in 1987, and Smallbrook Junction, a cross-platform interchange with the Steam Railway, in 1991.