By Hovercraft to the Isle of Wight

There is now just one place in Europe where you can travel by commercial hovercraft service – from Southsea to the Isle of Wight – and it’s great!

The Isle of Wight, a highly scenic island separated from the southern England county of Hampshire by the body of water known as the Solent, is a popular tourist destination – particularly in the summer months.  Tourism is crucial to its economy, and its direct value in 2015 was £263 million.  But, obviously, every tourist (and local) needs to cross the water in order to get on and off the island.

Car ferries and, more recently, also fast ferries – owned by the railways for much of the 19th and 20th centuries – ply the routes between Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington and Ryde, Fishbourne, Cowes and Yarmouth.  A train ferry was trialled between 1882 and 1888 using the Scottish vessel Carrier between St Helens and Langston, however this came to nothing.

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“Solent Express” at Southsea, August 2010.

Travel to the island beneath the Solent and through the air above it have both received serious consideration in the past.  A railway tunnel under the Solent was mooted on numerous occasions around the turn of the last century, most recently in the 1920s, but was not encouraged by the Southern Railway which had very recently invested in new ferries and piers.

Commercial air travel to the island dates back to the 1930s.  On 1 May 1934, Railway Air Services in conjunction with Spartan Air Lines Limited began a service from London.  C.F. Dendy-Marshall in his book A History of the Southern Railway (1936) rather quaintly describes:-

Passengers are conveyed from Imperial Airways, adjoining Victoria Station, to Croydon Air Port by motor car, and thence fly to Cowes; the whole journey taking an hour and a half.

This service was short-lived, and was the average holidaymaker was priced well and truly out of the market for it.  By the way, the unusual-sounding (to us) “Croydon Air Port” was London’s primary airport from 1920 until 1959, when it closed.  The airport in Cowes was at Somerton Aerodrome, now part of the BAe Systems radar testing site, and saw its last commercial air services in 1951.

However, you can still fly to the island, in a manner of speaking.  The fastest way from the mainland to the island is in fact to take a flight from Southsea to Ryde – by hovercraft – the only place in Europe where you can travel on one.

Hovertravel operate a service from Southsea to Ryde, with at least one departure per hour for most of the day, but, crucially, the flight time for the 4 ½ mile journey is only  in the region of 10 minutes.  The hovercraft can only take foot passengers.  The standard single fare is £16.50 with a return priced at £21.00, although they frequently offer some useful special deals.  This is slightly more expensive than the ferries, however the benefit is two-fold – firstly, you’re paying for speed, and secondly, it takes you right to the heart of the transport hub of the island at Ryde transport interchange (plus of course, you get a pretty much unique mode of transport!)

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On board “Solent Flyer”, December 2016.

The convenience of the hoverport at Ryde is easy to see.  Just a 2-minute walk over the footbridge sees you either on the station platform of the Island Line (the only remaining railway on the island, which runs from Ryde to Shanklin and uses 1930s-vintage former London tube trains) or in the heart of Ryde bus station.  The hoverport at Southsea is slightly less convenient – being located some way out of the town – but this is more than made up for by the Hoverbus service to and from Portsmouth and Southsea, which costs £1.75 each way and connects into and out of each flight.

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The Hoverbus at Southsea Hoverport.

To be quite honest, I don’t know why the hovercraft as a method of transport has not been used more widely.  Passenger hovercraft can trace their history back to 1962 when a service was operated between the Wirral and Rhyl.  Three years later, the first service to the Isle of Wight began.  Ryde is a perfect demonstration of where this mode of transport can come into its own.  Whereas ferry services must dock at the end of the ½ mile-long pier, and passengers complete their journey into the island’s largest town on foot, by road or by rail.  The dock cannot be closer to the town as low tide would leave conventional vessels unable to reach it.  This is not a problem, of course, for a hovercraft which can hover over dry land just as well as it can over the water.

1966 saw the commencement of cross-Channel hovercraft services, and in 1968, the first car-carrying hovercraft was built.  This heralded what was surely the heyday of the hovercraft; but in the face of competition from the then-new Channel Tunnel, and the increasing age of their fleet, conventional catamarans were the replacements when the last SR.N4 was withdrawn in 2000.  With that, and relatively little fanfare, hovercraft disappeared from the English Channel.  This left the Southsea to Ryde route as the last remaining hovercraft route in Europe – and, aside from a short-lived trial across the Firth of Forth, it has remained so ever since.

Hovertravel currently have a fleet of three hovercraft – one, the “Freedom 90”, dates from 1990 and will soon be retired, but the other two, “Island Flyer” and “Solent Flyer”, are brand new (dating from 2016), and represent a £10 million investment by Hovertravel.

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“Island Flyer” at Ryde, December 2016.

So, this hovercraft service is unique in Europe.  But is its value merely rooted in curiosity, or is it a viable proposition for daily travel to the island?  My answer to that is unequivocally, yes! It is fast, versatile, very smooth and above all very safe.  If you haven’t already tried it, I would really recommend a trip to the Isle of Wight on the hovercraft service.

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The Rødby to Puttgarden Train Ferry

There are only three remaining passenger train ferries in Europe: one between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily; one from Sassnitz in Germany to Trelleborg in Sweden; and one from Rødby in Denmark to Puttgarden in Germany.

The idea of putting a whole train on board a ferry to cross an expanse of water is one largely confined to the past, at least in Europe.  This is predominantly due to the creation of numerous fixed links, such as the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France or the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and also the proliferation of low-cost air travel making the rail routes themselves redundant in a number of cases.

Even the three survivors are under threat.  That between Villa San Giovanni in Italy and Messina on the island of Sicily is mooted to be getting a bridge replacement (although this is a very much on/off affair, most recently being declared “off” for the time being); that between Sassnitz and Trelleborg is an overnight, summer-only operation which has been suggested for closure on a number of occasions; and that across the Fehmarnbelt between Rødby and Puttgarden is being replaced by a fixed link for which the construction contracts have already been signed.

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The proposed fixed link across the Fehmarnbelt will take the form of an 18 kilometre long immersed tunnel encompassing a four lane motorway and a double track railway, and will be the world’s longest immersed tunnel upon completion.  It will take 7 minutes to cross from one side of the Fehmarnbelt to the other by rail, and 10 minutes by road – whichever way you look at it, a significant saving on the current 45 minute crossing time by ferry for either mode of transport.  In addition, it will be far less susceptible to weather-related disruption.  The shortened travel time from Hamburg to København is expected to drastically increase traffic between the two cities.

It’s fairly clear that the pros of the fixed link far outweigh the cons, which are largely sentimental.  However, the good news if you’ve yet to visit, is that the construction work has not yet started.  It is due to begin in January 2018 and take 8½ years, so the train ferry would appear to have a good decade left.

I last took a journey on this train ferry in summer 2007, travelling from Denmark to Germany, and I found it very interesting indeed if, indeed, it felt like something of an anachronism even then.

As befitting the nature of Denmark, the journey from København to the port at Rødby is one of numerous islands linked by bridges.  After travelling via Roskilde, Ringsted and Næstved to Vordingborg (all on Sjælland), the train crosses first to Masnedø, then to Falster, and finally to Lolland on whose coast Rødby is situated.

It must be said that the scenery en route is not necessarily fantastic – although I thought that the views of the water from the bridges – in particular the Storstrøm Bridge – were memorable.  Lolland is also known by the nickname “Pancake Island” as a reflection of its flatness, and the railway is as good a way to appreciate this facet of its geography as any!  It is therefore something of a surprise to finally reach Rødby Færge station, its pylons and floodlights reaching higher into the sky than even the turbines of the surrounding wind farms.

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The ferry connection between Rødby and Puttgarden commenced operation on 14 May 1963 – completing a direct link between København and Hamburg.  This was dubbed the “Vogelfluglinie”, or “bird flight line”, as it roughly follows a common migratory route used by birds.  The route briefly took on international significance in late 2015 during the EU-wide refugee crisis.  Large numbers of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Iraq and Syria, were trying to reach Sweden which was displaying a more welcoming attitude to them than most EU countries.  As a result, the Rødby to Puttgarden ferry and associated railways and motorways ended up being closed on police orders.  Reports described “chaotic scenes” where well over a thousand refugees disembarked from ferries arriving at Rødby, some “disappearing” to evade capture by the police, others attempting to walk up the E47 motorway in the vague direction of Sweden.

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Both ports painted a sad picture of emptiness and desolation, and had certainly not only seen better days but had been constructed with the intention of handling much higher volumes of rail traffic than now pass through; indeed international railfreight via this route has ceased.  Rows and rows of overgrown and rusty sidings lay empty in and around the terminal as we edged our way towards the ferry.  Saying that, however, it is clear that the dearth of rail traffic must be more than compensated by the proliferation of lorries and cars, as the intensive ferry shuttle service is clearly supported by something!

The ferries themselves are operated by Scandlines and can carry both cars and trains.  Ferries depart each port at broadly 30-minute intervals, 24 hours a day – however only three in each direction convey trains.  There are four train ferries in the fleet, all dating from 1997 – two under the Danish flag (Prins Richard and Prinsesse Benedikte), and two under the German flag (Schleswig-Holstein and Deutschland).  It was the latter onto which my train rolled.

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It’s slightly unnerving to be on a full size train just feet away from lorries and cars, not least for it to cross from land onto a vessel!  The train slowly drew to a stand on the ship’s single railway track within the car deck, and passengers were instructed to disembark and make their way up to the passenger area, mingling with the motorists who had just parked their own vehicles.

The crossing itself was admittedly something of an anti-climax. The Deutschland has all the amenities you would expect from a modern short-distance passenger ferry – shops, restaurants, etc – and the 45 minute journey passed quickly and without incident.  Before long, an announcement was made for train passengers to make their way back to the train, and after docking, the engines were restarted and the train slowly emerged from the darkness of the ferry’s car deck, back onto terra firma and into Puttgarden railway station.

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Puttgarden was broadly similar to Rødby, in that it featured relatively nondescript 1963-vintage architecture simultaneously being heavily used and being slowly reclaimed by nature, depending on whether you looked at the rail or road parts of the terminal.  With a harsh wind blowing straight off the Baltic, seagull droppings everywhere (I have never seen so much in one place!), rust and foliage everywhere, it was not a place to remain in for long.  Indeed, it’s kind of the point of Puttgarden that nobody every does stay there for long.  The port complex (as distinct from the tiny village of Puttgarden, some distance to the west, from which it takes its name) exists solely to tranship people, goods and their vehicles from land to sea, and from sea to land, as efficiently as possible.  When the Fehmarnbelt fixed link is finally commissioned, will likely disappear from the map, its purpose negated.

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You can’t help but feel that although – again – it will undoubtedly be a step forward when the tape is cut on the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, that it will be sad to see the end of something which has been a thriving, now almost unique, operation which has quietly gone about its business for well over half a century.  If you haven’t yet experienced the train ferry from Denmark to Germany, I would recommend building it into your travel plans before that day arrives.

Marshal Tito’s Blue Train

For people of my generation, Belgrade (Beograd) was notable from school textbooks as the capital of Yugoslavia, and its burning buildings were sadly a regular sight on the TV news as it was pounded by NATO aerial bombardment.

Nowadays, Beograd is the capital of modern-day Serbia, and its post-war incarnation is beginning to thrive once again.  This brief article is about something lurking within a shed in one of its southern suburbs…

The socialist federation of Yugoslavia was born out of the Second World War under the direction of Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), a key figure of the wartime resistance.

From 1947, he used the Blue Train to both travel around and entertain and impress guests; in much the same vein as the British Royal Family’s own private train.  The Blue Train was the epitome of luxury, being essentially a hotel on wheels – it included bathrooms, suites, and copious amounts of leather and wood panelling.  As a feather in the cap and a demonstration of Yugoslavia’s increasing prosperity, virtually every material that went into it was locally sourced.

This special train was greeted rapturously by the locals wherever it passed through.  It was routinely hauled by three dedicated steam locomotives, one of which is now plinthed and on display at the side of Beograd’s main railway station.  As part of the ongoing modernisation of Yugoslavia, these were replaced in 1957 by three West German-built Class 761 diesel-hydraulics, named “Dinara”, “Kozara” and “Sutjeska” in honour of important Second World War battles fought in the Balkans.

The provenance of these showcase locomotives is interesting and reflects the complex political history of mid-20th century Yugoslavia.  Tito’s Communist and (particularly) anti-Nazi pedigree and is established fact; therefore it is entirely natural that a Yugoslavia under his leadership would emerge from the war aligned with Soviet Russia.  However, Tito was less loyal to Stalin than the leaders of the Communist states in Eastern Europe.  He had less reason to be; the Red Army had played a considerably lesser role in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the Nazis than, say, Czechoslovakia or (East) Germany – in fact, much of the credit for it might well be laid at the door of Tito’s own partisans.  Tito’s insistence on pursuing what he saw as Yugoslavia’s own path – whether or not Stalin approved – angered the Soviet leader greatly and resulted in Yugoslavia being expelled from Cominform in June 1948.  Despite relations thawing after Stalin’s death amid Khrushchev’s general policy of “de-Stalinisation”, the rift was never fully healed.

However, far from hamstringing Yugoslavia, it arguably was the making of it.  Yugoslavia was able to pursue a more nationalistic approach to socialism, which led to a notable economic boom, and the fact that it was not aligned with either “East” or “West” meant that it was able to establish trade relations with both sides.  Therefore, whilst its Eastern European neighbours were sourcing locomotives from behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was able to look further afield.  This middle ground was not, however, always a blessing: it meant that as well as embracing both sides, Yugoslavia needed to maintain defence plans against them both too.  It did, however, mean that the Blue Train saw a wide range of guests, from Gaddafi, Ceaucescu and Brezhnev to Arafat, Mitterand and our very own Queen!

If buying locos manufactured in the Munich suburbs would’ve annoyed Moscow as the Cold War reached its tensest period (and the Hungarian Railways’ purchase of a small fleet of Swedish-built diesels in the early 1960s certainly did; further orders were forbidden and less reliable Soviet-built locomotives “recommended” instead), then the direction of Yugoslavian locomotive procurement through the 1960s would have enraged them.  Almost all of the mainline diesel locomotives bought for use in Yugoslavia were products of the American giant General Motors; built either in North America or under licence in Yugoslavia.  As in their homeland, these proved themselves incredibly reliable over the challenging and often mountainous terrain of many of the Balkan routes, and many are still in service today.

It is also from this source that the next generation of Blue Train locomotives were obtained.  In 1978, the three German locomotives were withdrawn from their special duties.  They now stand rusting away in sidings in Topcider, a southern suburb of Beograd.

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The three 1957-vintage Blue Train locomotives at Topcider in 2015 – from Google Street View!

They were replaced by four brand-new General Motors Class 666 diesel-electric locomotives; the first three inheriting the previous battle-inspired names and the fourth having the title “Neretva” bestowed upon it, on the same theme.

However, the GMs’ most notable duty was to be Tito’s final journey.  After a protracted illness, the dictator died on 4 May 1980 in a Ljubljana hospital.  The Blue Train – hauled by 666.003 “Sutjeska” and 666.004 “Neretva” – conveyed his remains, departing Ljubljana at 08:20 the next day and, after a break in Zagreb, arrived in Beograd approximately six hours later.  Tito was buried in the “House of Flowers” there three days later.

Although the Blue Train is seen as “Tito’s”, it continued to operate after his death, conveying the new order of Yugoslavian top brass.  An example of its use was to take Slobodan Milosevic to Kosovo Polje in order for him to give the infamous speech to over a million people at the Gazimestan memorial on 28 June 1989.  This was one of the train’s last uses; its carriages were retired that year.

Quite clearly, this private train would never have been one that the likes of you or I could have travelled on.  However, parallel to the rise of “Ostalgia” in the former East Germany – i.e. a renewed interest and nostalgia for the days of old, both by people who were and were not there – we have seen the emergence of “Yugonostalgia”.  Perhaps it is not surprising that people should hanker after the “good old days” of Tito’s reign.  History has tended to routinely bestow the title of “benevolent dictator” upon him; what is undeniable is that he ensured that the six republics and two provinces that made up Yugoslavia both thrived economically and co-existed reasonably peacefully for the duration of his tenure, whereas the decline and conflict that occurred there in the two decades following his death has left an indelible mark both literally and metaphorically.

To feed on the renewed interest in pre-1980 Yugoslavia, some of the carriages have been retained in working order for private charters and, from 2013, conveyed tourists along the stunningly scenic 300-mile route from Beograd to the Montenegrin sea port of Bar.  Interestingly, this route passes through that country’s capital Podgorica, which was named Titograd for a number of decades when in Yugoslavia (its airport code is still “TGD”, to act as just a small reminder of the pre-1992 world!).  Perhaps surprisingly, given the palatial surroundings of the train and the associated prestige of sharing environs with the ghosts of the world leaders of the past, tickets were available on board this special train from the equivalent of just £129.  It appeared popular, however the severe flooding that affected much of the Balkans in May 2014 severed the railway, and although it reopened fully a year later, it is unclear as to whether the Blue Train has resumed operation.  The excellent “Man in Seat 61” website advises that it has not; Serbian Railways (Železnice Srbije; ZS) do still however advertise it on their website.

Here is a photo of the Blue Train in recent years, complete with one of the 1978-built locomotives

As a footnote, one of the Blue Train locomotives from Tito’s funeral train – 666.003 “Sutjeska” – was returned to operation for ŽS in 2013 – which was an event deemed worthy of the national news! – and so ensured that at least one part of the legacy of a very famous train will continue to grace the iron road for some time to come.