A history of Jersey transport - railways

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Engine Carteret at Snow Hill terminus

By Doug Ford

The introduction of the steam locomotive was revolutionary as far as the pace of travel was concerned and in the early days of railway travel in the 1830s, doubts were raised as to whether or not the human body would be able to withstand the force it would be subjected to in travelling at such speeds.

John Ruskin, the 19th century philosopher, described the railways as being simply "a device to make the world a smaller place".

Cheap fares

The relative cheapness of the fares, which in Jersey was approximately a penny a mile, resulted in what could be termed the growth of suburbia. No longer had workers to live within walking distance of their place of work, and Jersey saw the development of houses around the wayside stops.

The first discussions about the possibility of having a railway on the Island came about during the first railway boom of the 1840s. The local newspaper La Chronique de Jersey in July 1845 refers to a company being set up to build a railway and a new harbour in the Island. In October of the same year a well attended meeting in St Helier heard that the railway would run from St Aubin to a new harbour, which was to be built at St Catherine, and that the journey to London could be completed in eight hours if one of the new steamers was used.

The meeting ended without a decision having been made but the English language Island newspaper, the Jersey News, pointed out that the majority of the traffic would be on the four-mile stretch between St Aubin and the town of St Helier, with its harbour already in existence, and further extensions planned. As a word of caution it pointed out that the total revenue of the omnibuses running between the two towns would not be enough to cover the annual running costs.

The first railway boom ended and no more was heard of the plan until November 1860, when the formation of the St Helier and St Aubin Railway Company was announced. A railway bill was lodged in January 1861 and in January 1863, by which time the company was known as the Jersey Railway Company Limited, it was sent to London for the confirmation of the Queen in Council. It was finally passed by the States in October 1869.

A train passing Green Street Station

Sea wall needed

As there was no sea wall along St Aubin's Bay for over three-quarters of its length, and as the railway line was to be very close to the high-water mark, there was a problem of the line being undermined in bad weather. In order to prevent this, the contractor was to build a sea wall and back fill a space of about 25 metres, of which ten were used by the railway and the rest was to be used for a carriageway and promenade. This sea wall was not completed before the railway was operational.

Two locomotives and four covered carriages were brought from England, and three open carriages and most of the station fittings were built in the Le Vesconte shipyard, West Park, which had been bought by the railway company in 1867.

Within months of the Jersey Railway Company beginning operations, plans were laid to start up other companies. Of these, the Jersey Eastern Railway Company was the only real success. The line was to be of standard gauge and it was to run from St Helier to Gorey, and then on to St Catherine's Bay.

When the first official sod was turned by Mrs Edward Mourant in September 1872, the navvies using more conventional tools had already been at work for nearly five months, as well as having been on strike for higher wages and a reduction of their basic hours.

The line was officially opened on 29 September 1870, when a party of 300 invited guests were taken to St Aubin and back in a train consisting of an engine and four open carriages. The return trip, which included stops at Beaumont and Millbrook, took 22 minutes. The line opened for public traffic on 25 October and there were intermediate stations at First Tower, Millbrook and Beaumont. More stations and halts were added later and omnibuses were laid on to meet incoming trains and to convey passengers to different parts of Town.

Mrs Mc Queen took over as stationmaster at Pontac from her husband

En desastre

By the end of the year the Railway Company carried 90,000 fare paying passengers: in 1871 the figure was 597,000. However,the company was not making the expected profits and in 1874 they were declared "en desastre", but the trains continued running under new management.

On 10 July 1873 the Eastern Railway Company transported about 700 members of the Militia to Grouville Common to take part in manoeuvres and on 6 August members of the States were taken from the Green Street station to the Grouville terminus by the Wimbledon Hotel in 15 minutes. The line opened for public traffic the following day.

The Green Street station was replaced in 1874 by the new Town terminus at Snow Hill, and in 1891 the railway was extended to Gorey Pier for the convenience of passengers catching the boat for France. Through tickets to Paris had been available since 1881, but this had previously meant getting off the Jersey train in Gorey Village and walking half a mile.

Work began on the St Aubin - La Moye Railway Company's line in 1876, and was finally completed in 1884 after the Jersey Railway Company and the St Aubin - La Moye Railway Company had both been bought by Viscount Ranelegh and amalgamated as the Jersey Railways Company. The two lines were incompatible as they were built with different gauges. The St Helier to St Aubin stretch was standard gauge (4 ft 8½ in) and the stretch to La Moye was narrow gauge (3 ft 6 in).

This made it necessary to reduce the gauge between St Helier and St Aubin as it was not feasible to widen the track to la Moye. The first through train from St Helier to La Moye ran in August 1885. The line was finally extended to La Corbiere in the summer of 1899, by which time the company was known as The Jersey Railways and Tramways Limited. By running "specials", such as the workmen's early train and the boat train, the Jersey Railways Company managed to increase the number of passengers to over three-quarters of a million.

Impact of the Great War

The Great War deprived both the railway companies of much of their summer traffic and the introduction in the spring of 1923 of the more versatile motor buses, which could reach all parts of the Island, put the railway companies under great financial pressure. To meet these new demands rail cars were introduced by the Jersey Railways Company which were cheaper to run, and an increased service of 33 trains a day in each direction was offered.

Fauvic stationmaster Alfred Hill and his family in 1920

This resulted in more passengers using the service, and in 1925 the figure was about 1.1 million. However, the days of the railway were coming to a close, for not only was there the threat from the motor bus, but the number of private motor cars was steadily on the increase.

The new technology applied to the problems of mass transport meant that the petrol driven internal combustion engine was replacing steam as the most economical source of power. The company tried to counter the threat by taking over the Jersey Motor Transport Company in 1928, but they had failed to recognise the threat early enough and the damage had been done. They had merely removed one competitor, there were others still in the field.

The Eastern Railway Company was in a similar situation, yet it did not introduce rail cars until 1927, although the previous year it had taken over the Jersey Bus Company and operated both the trains and the buses from Snow Hill. Unfortunately both of these measures were taken too late, the Jersey Eastern Railway Company was in financial trouble and it closed down both its train and bus services on 22 June 1929 and went into voluntary liquidation.

The end for the Jersey Railways Company was not long in coming. By 1931 the St Aubin to La Corbiere stretch was only viable in the summer months, and by 1933 even the St Helier to St Aubin service was reduced to summer-only operations. Private cars were responsible for the loss of the first class passengers, the more versatile motor bus was taking the second class passengers and the seasonal char-a-bancs were creaming off the lucrative summer trade.

The last straw came in October 1936 when a disastrous fire at St Aubin's station destroyed all 16 of the company's carriages, which were in winter storage. Unable to replace them, and bearing in mind the financial position of the railway side of the business, it was decided to sell off all the company's assets, apart from the JMT, in order to pay their creditors. This was duly done and stations, lines, rail cars and locomotives all disappeared from the Island in 1937. On 1 April 1937 the States bought the railway track from Town to Corbiere for £25,000.

Today's needs

A popular belief today is that if the Jersey Railway Company was still in existence, it would be able to pay its way in the summer months. How often has the exasperated driver stuck in the eight o'clock crawl along Victoria Avenue looked wistfully at the site of the old track and thought "If only ...". But if we look at the facts rationally rather than emotionally, how many of us would give up the versatility and independence offered by the car for a seat on a crowded train, and would we simply be substituting the crawl into St Helier for the crawl into St Aubin or wherever. If it would only be viable as a summer-only service, it would not fulfil the original role of the railways, which was to transport goods in bulk and people en masse; it would become relegated to the role of an "attraction" - with as much benefit to the Island community as a ride on the DUKW.

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