Eleventh hour reprieve for world’s oldest pier railway

It was less than 48 hours before what had been billed as its last ever sailing when things began to look a little brighter for the historic Hythe Ferry, which links the waterside village with Southampton, and the 100-year old narrow gauge railway that takes passengers along the 700-yard Hythe Pier to the ferry.

Mounting losses and withdrawal of council financial support had led operator Blue Funnel Ferries to announce that the ferry would close on New Year’s Eve 2022, when the final sailing would have left Southampton’s Town Quay at 17.30. But on the evening of Thursday, 29th December came a glimmer of hope that the link could be saved.

On a day when I and many more locals and visitors had made what we believed would be a last ever trip on the remarkable ferry and railway, Blue Funnel announced that it had received expressions of interest from a number of parties about taking on the ferry service, so the service would continue while discussions continued with a potential new owner/operator.

Hythe Ferry has survived closure threats in the past, notably when its previous operator, White Horse Ferries, withdrew in 2016 and later during the COVID-19 pandemic when services were temporarily halted. So, with recent work having taken place on the vessels, as well as the pier and train – partly through a successful Crowdfunding campaign – there seem grounds for cautious optimism that a new operator can be found.

Taking a trip from Southampton’s Town Quay aboard the packed MV Hythe Scene and then a ride in one of pier railway’s ancient wooden carriages, just two days before its planned closure, it was clear that closure of this link would be a big loss, not least at the delightful Hythe Waterfront. 

The two-foot gauge Hythe Pier Railway opened in 1922, more than 40 years after the pier itself had been opened in January 1881. It is a single line with 250V third rail electrification that is worked by one of two four-wheel electric locos, built five years before the pier opened (1917), originally battery-powered and built to work at a WW1 mustard gas factory in Avonmouth. 

On the day of my visit (29 December) services were being operated by a loco named Gerald Yorke – honouring the consulting engineer who oversaw installation of the railway – and comprised three wooden passenger carriages. Services operate in push-pull mode and are driven from a cab in one of the coaches on the trip towards the pier head, where one journey I saw also pushed the line’s only freight vehicle, an oil tank wagon for re-fuelling the ferry.

For anyone who has never sampled it, or anyone interested in the huge cruise liners and car-carrying ships that you will pass on the 10-minute journey across Southampton Water, this is a journey not to be missed. I can only echo what Blue Funnel said in its 29 December announcement, strongly urging passengers to support the ferry while negotiations over its future continue.

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