Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway

The Railway Today

Hurricane at Dungeness
with her train
(Yes it was Halloween)

The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a 15" gauge railway just short of 14 miles in length. As you might expect the railway crosses Romney Marsh and in so doing, links the towns of New Romney, the railways headquarters, and Hythe, some eight miles distant. In the other direction the line runs from New Romney Station across a vast bank of shingle thrown up by the sea to Dungeness. Although the whole railway was once double track the Dungeness section is, sadly, single. The terminus is almost in the shadow of the massive structures that make up the Dungeness nuclear power station and an excellent free tour of the plant is available. Also nearby is a historic lighthouse from the top of which anyone fit enough to scale its many spiral steps can enjoy a stunning view.

A journey on the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch involves bending to get into the minute coaches but these turn out to be surprisingly comfortable once inside. Most trains are hauled by steam, and the locomotives are little gems, following the spirit and outline of a standard gauge express engine.

Whatever may be the views of some purists, this railway is certainly not a toy and provides a public service between sizeable towns as well as attracting large numbers of tourists. The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch is also under contract to the council to transport school children to and from school every day and for this purpose a special train is run. Normally diesel hauled, on occasion in winter this train has been equipped with snow ploughs and, moved by two steam engines, has got its precious cargo safely to school on days when many of those travelling by road could not attend.

Straight, level, double track

One unique feature of this railway is the running of narrow gauge trains over straight and level tracks that allow sustained running at 25mph or more. This may not sound fast in our modern world but for trains of this size it feels very quick and makes these the fastest trains of their size running anywhere in the world.

History and Origins

In 1923 - 24 The well known miniature railway company Basset Lowke were engaged in building an Atlantic locomotive for Count Louis Zborowski for his 15" gauge Higham park railway and a Pacific for JEP Howey's Staughton Manor railway of the same gauge. These two were firm friends and shared a dream of building a main line in miniature, with double track, miniature express trains and proper signalling. The idea in their minds was to combine the ultimate model railway with a useful transport system. Tragically in October 1924 Zborowski was killed in a motor race.

Both Howey and Zborowski were wealthy men and Howey, rather than let the dream die with his friend, determined that the railway they had dreamed of together would be built. Howey considered purchasing the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway and extending it to Ambleside by driving tunnels under the Hardknot and Wrynose passes, a formidable undertaking as anyone who has seen the areas massive landscape built of unyielding rock would appreciate. Perhaps it is just as well that the railway was not for sale, although had Howey succeeded this would have been a spectacular railway indeed.

Ultimately Howey commissioned Henry Greenly, who was already a figure of some stature in the tight knit miniature railway world, to find a suitable site. It was Greenly who drew the attention of Howey to Romney Marsh. Reclaimed from the sea over many centuries this area of rich agricultural land offered a coastline littered with holiday camps and a potential route linking Hythe, Dymchurch and New Romney. It was also flat and level and fairly featureless making for easy operation and sustained high speeds.

Work commenced in 1926 (in spite of a flurry of opposition from local people) and part of the line was completed in time for a visit from the Duke of York (Later King George VI) which included a short train journey along the line. Among the guests was Sir Nigel Gresley, designer of the famous LNER pacific locomotives on which Howey's scale models were based.

During 1928 Howey extended the railway across a huge natural shingle bank deposited over millennia by the sea, to Dungeness, an extension of 5 1/2 miles.

Armoured Train
This armoured train
saw service during World War II

During the war the railway saw service in a number of ways. A special branch was laid to the site of a number of concrete structures designed to focus the sound of attacking aircraft and allow their early detection. Troops were billeted at the holiday camps and special trains run for them. There was even an armoured train, one of the locomotives (Hercules) was fitted with armour and coupled to two solidly built and armoured steel bogie wagons built for mineral haulage on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway.

Ultimately however the last military project the railway was involved in cost it dearly, the PLUTO project (pipeline under the ocean) was devised to supply an invading army in France with petrol and oil. Vast lengths of pipe were welded together on the platforms at New Romney and Coaches were stripped to the underframes to carry them. After many of the coaches were destroyed it was found to be easier to drag the pipes across the shingle behind tracked vehicles, these destroyed the permanent way as they went.

After the war most of the railway was found to be intact, if overgrown, and was rapidly restored to service but the Dungeness extension needed substantial rebuilding. Shortage of materials in this austere-post war period lead to the use of the surviving equipment to restore a single track to Dungeness and this situation remains today. After the war the locomotives were the centre of attention and were always superbly maintained but Howey was niggardly in funding the maintenance of almost everything else. So it was that when Howey died in 1963 and the railway passed into new hands, bridges, permanent way and coaches all needed urgent work.

The railway continued as a commercial business, but made the owners little profit, until, in 1972, the threatened complete closure and sale for scrap brought matters to a head. A group of local people raised finance from several sources, W.H. McAlpine being a notable benefactor, and managed to purchase most of the shares. The railway has seen many improvements over the years and still thrives in this quiet corner of Kent as a monument to two men and their extraordinary dream.

Comments on this Railway

Add your comment on this railway.

jocky wilson   26 Sep 2012
first went on this amazing railway as a child in 1948 during a school visit to nearby broadstairs, i have visited it nearly every year since apart from the years i was in the army, i still find it fasinating i now travel two round trips on my concession each time i visit, my children & their children also visit the railway on a yearly bassis
Ian   16 Sep 2011
Well worth a visit with the return trip amounting to 27 miles! Great model railway in the museum at New Romney Station and I can recommend the Fish and Chips at Dungeness. The third scale engines give a real impression of mainline speed operating on 15 inch guage track.
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