The first attempt at constructing a railway in Jersey was made in 1845 when a group of English speculators proposed a line from St Aubin to St Catherine, where the Government were about to build a large harbour. Owing to the size of the idea, the scheme received little support locally and was dropped.
A second attempt took place in 1860, when a much less ambitious line from St Helier to St Aubin was projected, running along the beach of St Aubin's Bay. With Jersey entering a growth phase, the scheme received the support of the States. In 1863, the bill was duly forwarded to London to receive the Royal Assent, but this was not forthcoming, owing to a financial crisis which prevailed in England at the time.
With an improvement in affairs, the bill was resurrected in 1869 and was this time granted the Assent. Work on the line began in 1870.
The original line was laid just above the high water mark, leaving the vault-roofed town station by way of the Esplanade to the Castle causeway, where it left the road and ran along the beach to Millbrook. Here the Railway Company had built a small wooden viaduct to carry the line over the delta formed by the Mill Brook.
Passing on, still along the beach, the line followed the curve of the bay to La Haule, where, due to the difficult coastal shape at that point, the line was carried over two further viaducts, regaining solid ground at St Aubin, where a magnificent station and licensed hotel had been built specifically to attract town-dwellers to travel upon the line.
Construction of the line was made simple by the absence of gradients and work proceeded well until Jurat De Quetteville raised the Clameur de Haro over what he thought was a too great demolition of the old slaughter-houses on the Weighbridge. This held the work up for a fortnight, and it was not until 25 October 1870 that the line was inaugurated after several free trial runs, which the public enjoyed.
The rolling stock consisted of two engines, Haro Haro and Duke of Normandy, which, along with four winter carriages, were sent from England. There were also several open summer carriages which had been built in Daniel Le vesconte’s old shipyard near First Tower. These last carriages were intended for use in the warmer months and had verandahs along each side.
There were five stations – St Helier, First Tower, Millbrook, Beaumont and St Aubin – and these were supplemented in 1872 by Cheapside (later renamed West Park), People’s Park and Bel Royal.
A third engine arrived in 1871 names General Don, but was shipped away in May 1872, along with many locally built carriages and goods wagons to Tunisia, where Jerseymen were engaged in constructing a line from Tunis to the port of La Goulette.
To replace it, the Railway Company purchased a further engine and named it North Western, in anticipation of the construction of an extension line from St Aubin to Greve de Lecq. But owing to the stubborn attitude maintained by the La Moie Granite Company, over whose land the railway was to run, and their refusal to co-operate with the Jersey Railway Compay, the line was never built.
Edward Pickering, the contractor and principal shareholder, went bankrupt in 1873, and the Metropolitan Bank of London, his principal creditor, seized the line and continued to operate it until 1874, when the line were en desastre. Under Jersey Law, a platelayer who was not prepared to forgo his claim against the company was appointed proprietor of the line, and assisted by a trio of distinguished Jersey businessmen, started paying off the remaining creditors.
During all this, work had been started on a railway from St Aubin to La Moie. In 1869 the company working the La Moie granite quarries had purchased a traction engine to pull trains of road wagons from the quarries to St Helier Harbour. This engine had spiked wheels, and these became so destructive to the poor road surfaces of the time that the States restricted its use to only a few hours a day, between 8 pm and 4 am.
This so interfered with the operation of the granite quarry that the owners approached the States for, and got, permission to lay a tramway to St Aubin, where the stone could either be loaded directly into ships or on to the Jersey Railway’s wagons and taken to St Helier Harbour by rail.
After a poor start and several changes in the board of directors, work started in August 1873, but went very slowly until 1876, when the company went bankrupt. Control passed to another contractor who, too, went into liquidation in 1878, leaving an unfinished railway and the town of St Aubin in a mess of demolished houses and carelessly banked up roads.
By this time the Jersey Railway and the Jersey Eastern Railway Company had entered into close co-operation with each other, sharing the same manager and locomotive superintendent, which explains why the engine North Western was transferred from the St Aubin line to the Eastern Railway in 1878, the latter line being in need of further stock.
Jersey Railway then bought another locomotive, naming it General Don. In 1878 the whole of the La Mole Railway works passed to a Mr Budd, who, after tidying up the town of St Aubin, sold the whole undertaking in 1883 to an English company, which had already purchased the St Helier to St Aubin line. This new company, The Jersey Railways Company, set to work at once to unite the two lines.
The gauge of the old line was reduced from standard 4 ft 8½ in to the narrow 3 ft 6 in gauge of the La Moie Line. All the old engines were disposed of, and some of the carragies sold to the Jersey Eastern Railway.
Other sections of line were opened to the public in 1884, but it was not until 1885 that a satisfactory way was found to connect the two lines. A great deal of quarrying was done behind St Aubin’s Mill before suitably gentle curves could be obtained, but as from August 1885, passengers could for the first time travel in a train as far as La Moie.
In 1889, alarmed at the financial state of the Jersey Railways Company, the trustees for the bondholders appointed a receiver manager to protect the affairs of the company.
The new company had, in 1884, brought over two new engines, St Heliers and St Aubyns, and many new carriages, all made necessary by the change of gauge. The company had also taken over two little engines, known as 3 and 4, from the La Moie Company. These were replaced in 1893 by a further large locomotive, Corbiere.
The Jersey Railways Company was bought out in 1896 by the Jersey Railways and Tramways Company, which immediately set about improving the facilities. Apart from receiving a fourth engine, St Brelades, which had been ordered by the old owners, they new carriages and to eliminate the curves at St. Aubin a tunnel was dug through the rock, the first trains running throuqh it on 26 December 1898.
The line was extended from La Moye Quarries to Corbiere in 1899.
Another engine was bought in 1907, La Moye, but was found to be so heavy on the track and so fuel consuming that, upon the outbreak of the Great War, it was placed on the reserve list and used very rarely after the war. The war itself caused traffic to be greatly reduced, although the German prisoners-of-war were a good source of revenue. They were regularly conveyed from Don Bridge to the Harbour and back.
Soon after the war the last extension of the granite sea wall was completed from Millbrook to Bel Royal, resulting in the removal for the last time of the line on to reclaimed land, in order that an extension of Victoria Avenue could be made.
This was followed in 1922 by a complete redesign and reconstruction of the St Aubin terminus, the vault roof being replaced by umbrella lean-tos.
Competition from buses
With the introduction of the JMT buses in 1923 the railway company started running their own light blue vehicles, and in the same year the first of the Pioneer steam railcars entered service.
The first was an experimental car built by Sentinel-Cammell, hence the name Pioneer. This was followed by two more cars and a fourth was bought from the Eastern Railway after its closure in 1929. More buses were bought, along with the JMT company, and the engine La Moye was sent to South Africa.
The condition of both the buses and the railway left something to be desired, and after an accident at the bottom of Mont Felard, a new manager was appointed, who immediately set to work to put both systems to right.
The buses of the railway fleet, which had been operated in blue livery, were merged with the green JMT fleet and the track of the railway relaid.
Irreparable damage was being done however, by the 'Bus War' which had already caused the JER to close. As a result, no trains were run in the winters after October 1931. In the summers, operation of the line was mainly by railcar, the engines running only in peak periods.
Operation continued normally until the end of the 1936 summer season, when as usual, carriages were shunted into St Aubin Station and all the engines and railcars were stored at St Helier. On 18 October a terribie fire swept through St Aubin Station and consumed most of the carriages, without which the railway could not hope to continue. Consequently, the line closed and George Cohen's men removed the track and cut up the remaining stock.
When all was cleared away, the States set about laying out the promenades aiong St Aubin's Bay, and the walk from St Aubin to Corbiere. This work was carried on after the arrival of the Germans in 1940, and was finished in 1942 — a few weeks before the Organisation Todt laid down their own line to Corbiere.