New rail journeys were just simply electrifying

A publicity painting for Southern Electric called Approaching Buriton Tunnel.  Picture: The Geoff Burch collection.
A publicity painting for Southern Electric called Approaching Buriton Tunnel. Picture: The Geoff Burch collection.
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There has been much in The News in recent months about increasing the speed of trains between Portsmouth and London Waterloo.

I have had much to say on the matter as most who put in their twopenn’orth do not realise the dynamics and geography of the line. It is not simply a case of making trains go faster.

There are only a few stretches of track where trains can run at more than 80mph. Indeed, the majority of the line has a 70mph limit thanks to reverse curves. Then there are the gradients – climbs. Buriton Bank, Haslemere Bank and Witley Bank are just three.

It is not long since the Portsmouth to London route via Petersfield took more than 100 minutes with fewer stops. The main line was then steam-hauled.

But on the morning of Thursday, July 1, 1937, everything changed when the first electric train arrived at Portsmouth and Southsea low-level platform to be greeted by the lord mayor and members of the city council.

The following Sunday, July 4, the more frequent, regularly timed train service began.

The work of electrifying the Portsmouth line began in June 1935 and the first trial train ran to Portsmouth on March 8, 1937.

The opening of the line meant the longest electrified track in the country and cost about £3m.

With 32 down and 30 up trains on that first Sunday the annual train mileage increased from 2,235,464 (steam) to 4,188,168 (electric), an increase of 88 per cent.

The cost of the scheme included new or re-built motor coaches and trailers.

Eleven stations, including Fratton, Portsmouth and Southsea and Portsmouth Harbour were extended to take the 12-coach trains which needed 800ft of platform.

Fratton missed out on the complete extension and only four of the platforms at the Harbour station could be extended because of the branch line across the viaduct to South Railway Jetty. The Isle of Wight also improved its service as the fast electrics brought thousands on holiday and no fewer than seven steamers operated on the Portsmouth-Ryde trips.

In the electrification inauguration year 2,326,259 passengers, nine times the population of Portsmouth, crossed from Portsmouth to Ryde, an increase of 50 per cent from 1926.