Langstone – IoW train ferry

 Langstone to Isle of Wight Train Ferry 1885 to 1888


The train ferry used the principles and equipment developed for the world’s first roll on roll off train ferry. The system was developed by Thomas Bouch to overcome the need for trains to take very long inland routes to reach Aberdeen and Perth from Edinburgh before the railway bridges across the Firth’s of Forth and Tay were constructed.

Paddle steamer ‘Carrier’

The paddle steamer Carrier was built at Greenock and launched in 1858 as part of a fleet of train ferries, or floating railways, introduced by the civil engineer, Thomas Bouch, to carry goods wagons, and occasionally empty passenger coaches, across the Forth and Tay estuaries. At 243GRT and measuring 38 metres by 8.15 metres overall, she was powered by two 112hp steam engines and had two tracks on her deck each capable of taking seven railway wagons.

By 1883 Carrier was redundant. She was sold to the Isle of Wight Marine Transit Company, who started up a rail freight ferry link between Bembridge Harbour and a newly constructed wharf near the Hayling railway viaduct.

Track plan showing sidings and new wharf (left) , Hayling branch line approach to the viaduct (centre) and coal wharf siding (right).

The idea was to transport goods such as fresh vegetables, and coal from the Midlands, by train, thus omitting the need to unload and reload them on either side of the Solent. It was also thought that cattle might be sent from the island to markets on the mainland. Until now coal had been expensively conveyed from the north by sea; other goods would often be met by carts drawn by horses belly-deep in the water to carry the load ashore and sheep might be cast overboard to take their chance in swimming to safety.

Shore Installation

Linkspan – allows loading/unloading at any state of the tide

This was the key feature that allowed the roll on, roll off concept to work, regardless of the state of the tide. The linkspan would be moved up or down the slope to ensure the bridge section was level with the Carrier’s deck when lowered. Moving the Linkspan was achieved by the use of a stationary steam engine, housed in a building on the wharf  and connected to the linkspan with chains. Lowering the bridge section was achieved manually with controls on a gantry with the weight of the bridge section being counter balanced to make this operation easier.

Langstone Installation (Train Ferry)

Langstone Installation (Train Ferry)

This same stationary steam engine was used to load and unload wagons on the ferry – locomotives not being permitted on the deck of the ferry.


The Carrier’s first eleven mile trip between Langstone and Brading was on 14th July 1885, when she successfully transported 12 wagons loaded with merchandise and weighing 160 tons.

In December 1886, as the IOW company was in financial trouble, the London Brighton and South Coast Railway agreed to hire the Carrier and use of the quays. Its solicitor, Sir Philip Rose, who was holidaying in Shanklin, had his horses and carriages conveyed by the train ferry, perhaps as a publicity stunt. The unusual cargo was loaded onto the 6.35 am train at Victoria Station, reached Havant at 9 am, and was hauled down to Langstone, where the railway wagons were lowered by means of a gradient onto the deck of the Carrier. Starting from Langstone at 10.30 am and reaching Bembridge at 12.35 pm the load was then transferred to the IOW Railway Company’s train. This left Bembridge at 1.12 and arrived at Shanklin at 1.38 pm, the whole journey taking just seven hours.

At the 1887 Naval fleet review, the Carrier was used to carry spectators and is notorious for having apparently belched out black smoke in the direction of the Royal Yacht. In general, the rough open sea did not suit the Carrier and this and the unprofitability of the ferry scheme resulted in it closure in 1888. Two lines of wooden stakes, which formed part of Langstone Wharf, can still be seen near the railway viaduct.

This was the implementation at Langstone, based on that at the Firths of Forth and Tay. See article the main differences were; 1. the engine used for the winching of the bridge section was enclosed in a building and 2. only two railway tracks were catered for. Note: Locomotives were not allowed on the bridge [...]

The system called 'Floating Railway' was pioneered in Scotland as a solution to moving freight across the Firths of Forth and Tay. At the time, the technology to build bridges suitable to span these Firths did not exist. I shall write more about this in a future article. See for the Langstone implementation of this [...]