The unusual three foot six inch gauge railway as it was known in its final form began operation in 1949. The exact date for the introduction of the new trains, signalling and crossovers took place on 13th April 1949. The pier’s first railway began partial operation in 1889 thus this is the 130th anniversary for that as well as the 70th anniversary of the 1949 trains which were stylised on London’s tube stock. The current 3 foot gauge line opened in 1986 and I have photographs of its construction – however this post is specifically about the 3′ 6in gauge line.
Southend’s pier was where one of the earliest pioneering electric railways in the country could be found. It was a sort of cousin to that other electric seaside line, the Volks Electric Railway of 1883. Both shared a similar gauge as well as an unusual off-centre conductor rail. Naturally when the pier decided to dispense of its old toast rack trains, two of these went to Volks where they remained in service until the 1990s.
The establishing shot! Nice view of the famous pier line. Crop from my postcard, which was a full copy of the painting by railway artist Robin Pinnock. The card was produced by the Lynn Tait Gallery in 1989 following an exhibition of Pinnocks’ work.
Southend pier was originally built in the early 19th Century, the foundation stone being laid on 25th July 1829. (This year is also the 190th anniversary of the pier itself) The original pier was half a mile long, which actually wasn’t long enough to reach the lowest states of the tides. There was a causeway and a short crossing over a shallow stretch of water that led to ‘The Mount’ – an artificial sort of island, where the deepest vessels could berth at low tide.
This hassle soon led to the original pier being extended right out to The Mount, a total distance of one and quarter miles. A rudimentary railway, built of wood, was constructed to enable luggage and other stuff to be carted to the end of the pier. People still had to walk however.
In the 1870s the first passenger line on iron rails using horse drawn carriages, was built. This was quite unsatisfactory and had ceased by 1881. However the need for transportation along the pier was still considered essential and was important if Southend was to retain its status as a primary British seaside resort. It must be remembered in those days passenger ships sailing round Britain’s coasts were an established way of travelling and Southend was one of the major stopping points en route from London up to the East Anglian Coast resorts or those on the Kent coast. Many people from London travelled to Southend this way rather than by train.
In 1885 a new pier of iron was built and soon after the first rails were laid for a new 3 foot six inch gauge electric railway. Initial trials and partial opening was achieved in 1889. The full line opened on 2nd August 1890. However this only stretched three quarters of a mile along the pier and was quite basic in terms of rolling stock. These trains were the first of the famous toast rack cars that came to be a popular sight until 1949.
Contemporary drawing of the pier’s early ‘toast rack’ trams. Source: Southend Echo
The decision was soon taken to add extra trains and a passing loop, and eventually extending the line right out to the pier head itself. Eventually more substantial stations were built and by the 1920s the line had become so popular it was deemed necessary to make it double track and introduce colour light signalling in order to maintain the intensive service needed to shift the hordes of visitors wishing to visit the pier.
Nice view from the pier head station. The trains had been in operation just ten years at the time. Source: Southend Echo.
The pier railway in 1892. As well as the single track, the off-centre third rail powering the trains can be clearly seen. Source: Southend Echo
A new extension to the pier head was built in 1929 and opened in July of that year. This prompted the need for substantial improvements to the railway and almost immediately Southend council approved plans for a double track line with semi automatic signalling. The conductor rail itself was moved to the centre in common parlance with other railways.
The old toast rack railcars were in use for many decades and lasted until the early 1950s. In fact one of these had become a freight wagon many years earlier and it survived in use until 1978 when the railway was shut down. this can be found in the Pier Museum.
The above view shows the toast rack trains in their earlier form during the 1930s. In due course the driver’s position was fully enclosed to protect him from the elements. There was one toast rack which became an almost fully enclosed unit and that was for winter use. This can be seen below.
The almost fully enclosed single toast rack car. The new signals are evident. This is early 1949 I think. Source: RMweb
Plans of a driving car and the new 1949 track layout. Source: RMweb
The new trains were built by AC Cars of Thames Ditton. The bespoke car builder’s commission to build new railway trains must have been one of their most unusual contracts. Yet the stock they produced became one of the most popular electric narrow gauge trains ever. Nothing equalled since!
AC Cars did build further trains following on from their experience for the Southend line. These were the five AC railbuses built in 1958 for the UK’s branch lines. Just one example is left and can be found on the Colne Valley Line.
In the first fifteen years of the new trains’ operation around 45 million passengers were carried! They were very popular and there was simply nothing to beat that splendid train ride across the sea!
I first encountered the pier’s railway about 1959 and have vivid memories of it. The oddest and perhaps most captivating thing for me about these iconic trains as a small kid was the blue lamp above the driver’s console. It was a large bulb and imagine it was some sort of primitive indicator to denote the traction current was live.
Yes the trains too had a great driver’s eye view from the passenger saloon. The windows behind the driver’s cab were large and the forward view for passengers was miles better than any of those encountered on the UK’s diesel multiple units.
At night time there were blinds which were simply rolled down to help give the driver a better night time view of the track ahead. These blinds were pretty much like those found on buses.
The train’s windows were of the wind up, wind down type rather like the RT buses in London. Seating consisted of wooden benches, some longitudinal, and some traverse. The rear ends of the cars were also furnished with a longitudinal bench. There were handrails for the purpose of facilitating passengers who had to stand up when things got very busy!
I loved the windscreen wipers, except they weren’t those they were actually of the kind used for shipping. How these work is they spin round very fast and throw any water off immediately. This is useful especially if any large waves hit the pier as did happen and the trains would get completely drenched. The make used on the pier’s trains was a modified Kent Clear View Screen.
The pier railway probably late 1950s, as the old shore buildings were replaced in 1962. Source: Twitter
Its a surprise they managed to keep the railway running in such conditions especially seeing it was a third rail contact system. If it got really really bad they suspended the services however the trains could take a good amount of punishment and keep going – and if it was very rough the sea would throw its tumultuous waves right over the trains.
In fact it was necessary to have the trains running in dire conditions because it after all, provided a very important life line. Although there was a RNLI base on the King George extension at the end of the pier, the train still had to run lifeboat crews out if necessary.
A sixties era postcard showing the pier train nearing the shore station. Source: Pinterest
By the 1970s Southend had become a fairly less than salubrious destination (which is generally attributed to the decline and ultimate closure of the resort’s famous Kursaal Amusement Park – this was once the country’s biggest theme park.) The pier railway’s patronage dropped so much the council decided to retire two of the trains. The west track was taken out of use due to structural defects in the pier itself. The council then looked at ways of retaining the railway and proposals included repairs to the pier’s structure and the railway re-instated with a single line and loops.
Exactly how it was remembered! The pier railway in 1974. Note the illuminations and the full pier head facilities behind the station. Source: RMweb
The pier head as most remember it – what stood here was a small town in fact and it had everything, amusements, funfair rides, cafes, restaurants, shops. The picture shows the ‘town’ right at the end of the pier itself. It all burnt down in a disastrous fire in the mid 1970s. Source: Facebook
Pier train in the 1970s. This shows the later shore buildings (including the bowling alley) which burnt down in 1995. Source: Was on Marks postcard chat – however the page has been deleted so source is now Internet Archive.
The railway in 1978. The large pipe by the side of the tracks is the water supply to Pier Head. Source: Reddit
Decommissioned train and west track in 1978. Source: Reb Mordechai Reviews
In July 1975 I made a 8mm video of the pier railway including a cab view ride. It proved quite difficult to photograph the frames from a small 8mm film viewer because it has what is essentially a Fresnel lens. What follows are just a few shots from that 8mm film.
There seems barely any shots on the internet showing the 1960s built entrance to the shore station with its sign proclaiming ‘Electric Trains to Pier Head. 1¼ Miles.’ Obviously this one isn’t a good rendition but there we are!
(Since writing that here’s a video just showing the above sign, partially hidden – You Tube.)
Heading along the pier as viewed from the driver’s cab.
The gaps between the rails!
One fact from the 8mm film is the west track is no longer used. It was taken out of use in 1974 so had been unused for a year or so by the time of the film.
Always wondered why the shore station east side platform has this curious kink! I think its due to the large pillar stood just behind these waiting passengers. I don’t think it could have been moved as it was also a main support into the ground below. At this point there was also an underpass accommodating the adjacent promenade so it was simpler to tweak the railway alignment than do major structural alterations.
As related earlier, the council was looking at various ways of retaining the railway line. These included a rebuild as single formation track after having undertook repairs to the pier’s structure. At the end of the 1978 season the council announced railway life expired. From 1st October it was shut down for good.
By then the pier was in a bad way – there was practically nothing left of the pier head’s buildings after a series of fires. The picture below I took in September 1985 shows the gutted portions of the pier head, looking from the 1930’s built King George extension – with a tenacious walkway linking across the destroyed sections..
The gutted Pier Head in 1985.
The trains themselves were soon sent for scrap and I recall some of them lying in the yard outside the pier waiting to be taken away.
A couple of the pier train cars ended up in the pier’s museum whilst one or two others found their way elsewhere to museums or private collections. Most met the cutter’s torch at a scrapyard in Shoebury.
Some of the former pier train stock at a scrap yard in Shoebury. Source: Flickr
Much of the pier train stock went to the scrap-yard, however the next picture which I took in April 1987 shows the same car back in the pier workshop which doubled as a temporary home for the then unopened pier museum. Evidently no.11 was rescued from the scrap yard, helped by £1,000 grant from a local trader in 1982.
The scene I found in 1987. Car no.11 (with motor flat wagon 29 at its side) in the upper pier workshops.
The vehicle next to it is the railway’s one and only dedicated goods train. This consisted of a single car with an open deck and a small driver’s cabin at one end. Known as motor flat wagon no 29 it dates from 1902, having been converted from one of the pier’s original toast rack cars. Its purpose was to deliver stock and other materials to the pier head. Until I saw this in the pier’s workshops, I had assumed no.29 had been scrapped.
I have tried to find a picture of motor flat wagon 29 in use but to no avail. By the way there was a siding off the west track just before the shore station platforms was where no.29 was kept when not in use. Sometimes it would be parked right by the buffers at Pier Head as there was enough space to berth both a passenger train and no.29.
In terms of preserved trains from the pier there’s few extant. The Pier Museum has several. There was this other example, no.21, at the Lynn Tait Gallery in Leigh on Sea, which had survived being dumped in a field at Tal-y-Cafn in North Wales.
One of the old 1949 cars that had been preserved at the Lynn Tait Gallery, Leigh on Sea. Source: Twitter (Note: The Twitter account no longer exists thus an archived image is used here.)
Sadly the gallery was closed in 2017 and its memorabilia auctioned off. I do not know what happened to car no.21.
Postscript: The present Southend Pier trains (which were introduced in 1986) are set to be replaced at a cost of £3.5 million according to the council. BBC News
Postscript 2: New trains were introduced on the pier in 2022 and are very modern looking. The surprise is these have the same classic livery as the pier’s older railway – green and cream!