Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway turns 90
PUBLISHED: 12:18 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 12:52 20 March 2017
It's not just Her Majesty The Queen who has reached a milestone birthday recently; the opening of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway took place 90 years ago this year and Kent is celebrating its miniature hero
When the Dungeness section of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway (RH&DR) re-opened after the Second World War in 1947, Laurel and Hardy were on hand to sprinkle a little Hollywood star dust on the proceedings.
How fitting that the western world’s best-loved, most recognisable comedy duo should cut the ribbon for its most celebrated miniature railway. A movietone news clip of the occasion is available on YouTube, and the humour this unsurpassable double act managed to extract from the event, to the delight of the gathered crowd, still works its magic 70 years later.
This summer the railway celebrates the 90th anniversary of its opening, and it is still going strong. Along with a special anniversary event on 15-16 June, Andy Nash, historian of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway Association Heritage Group, is currently working on a commemorative book Romney Then And Now, with fellow group members Steve Town and Tim Godden.
The initial idea for the railway was the brainchild of a couple of millionaire racing driver friends, Count Louis Zborowski and Captain ‘Jack’ Howey.
Zborowski had already built a narrow-gauge railway circuit on his estate near Canterbury, where he raced his Chitty Bang Bang cars, but in 1924, he was tragically killed driving a Mercedes in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, aged just 29.
Although the count had already placed orders for a couple of locomotives to be specially designed for the anticipated new railway, a site had not yet been found.
Several places were investigated from as far afield as the Lake District down to West Sussex before the coast of Romney Marsh, from New Romney to Hythe, was settled upon.
Andy explains: “The Southern Railway had a branch line which terminated at New Romney and they were being pressured to extend it to Hythe. Sir Herbert Walker, the Southern Railway chairman, suggested to Howey that this would be a good location and offered their full support to him at a public enquiry.
Captain Howey wanted a railway where he could run his express trains at speed, but where they would also be of use to the local people and tourists alike. It was expected that the railway would generate freight too, with goods transfer facilities provided from the standard gauge at New Romney.
This never amounted to much, but coal was delivered to the line by rail until the early 1960s.”
The first locomotives were designed by the line’s first chief engineer Henry Greenly. The first train made the eight-mile journey from Hythe to New Romney on 16 July 1927. A further five-mile extension of the line down to Dungeness was completed in 1928. It remains the world’s longest public miniature railway track.
The senior engines, still running today, are Green Goddess and Northern Chief, built in 1925. “These were two-cylinder versions of the three-cylinder prototype, of which Flying Scotsman is the most famous,” says Andy.
“Following the success of these two, another loco was soon ordered, Southern Maid, which was also designed by Greenly and built by Davey Paxman of Colchester.”
Others followed in the succeeding years, including Hurricane, which was Captain Howey’s favourite and which he regularly drove himself. Andy says Hurricane was chosen to haul a special train for HM The Queen when she visited in March 1957.
An outsider might think that the apparently billiard-table flatness of Romney would be an engine driver’s dream, but Andy, a former driver himself, testifies that this impression is not entirely accurate.
“The line does have a few gradients which can be very telling in bad weather conditions, especially when hauling heavy trains. Hauling 13 or 14 coaches loaded with passengers on greasy rails is a challenge for our little locos, which are a third of the full size.
“Leaves on the line are a real problem for railways of all gauges, because they are primarily made of oil, whereas the train wheels and the rails are steel. The oil is a perfect lubricant between two steel surfaces, and this is no laughing matter, despite the ridicule of newspaper editors.”
The RH& DR did wartime service, when the War Department requisitioned the line during the Second World War, using it to move troops and supplies along this stretch of coast. Anti-aircraft guns were mounted onto some of the rolling stock.
Inevitably, lack of investment during the time of the hostilities was felt after the line re-opened. The cost of running the locomotives and the ageing rolling stock, along with repairs to infrastructure such as bridges, placed a heavy burden on finances.
The 1960s saw the growing popularity of holidaying abroad, and it seemed that fewer people wanted to come to Romney to ride on the trains.
It was Sir William McAlpine who stepped in with his consortium to save the line from closure in 1972, according to Andy. “He invested a large sum of money and gave other assistance with rebuilding stations and infrastructure like bridges which has undoubtedly kept the line going.”
Even so, it was long process. At the turn of the 1980s, the magisterial New Shell Guide to England reminded readers that a ride on these trains was great fun, and even exhilarating, “a taste, even if in miniature, of the days before British Rail ran out of steam.”
But then it added the grim rider that the railway’s “future is uncertain and it may close down in 1981.” Andy confirms that there was indeed a very real chance that at that time the line was going to close down and move to the West Country.
Of course, nothing can be taken for granted in the current economic climate but, for now, the future looks bright, “with lots of plans celebrate our 90th birthday,” beams Andy, and lots of enthusiasm.
“The staff at the railway come from all walks of life. Many, like myself, got involved as children and then went on to have careers with the ‘big’ railways, but the RH&DR is our main love.”
He says the line employs roughly 40 full-time staff working in various departments from office and retail to engineering, and in the carriage, coach and wagon works.
“They are supplemented by seasonal and voluntary staff. But while at work we are all ‘staff,’ subject to the same checks and training, and expected to behave in a professional manner.”
The line is used by tourists, and locals popping along to their nearest shopping centre. There are special event activities for children, and adults can even learn how to drive a steam locomotive.
But if your needs are as straightforward as simply delighting in the countryside, taking a ride on the train is a fine way to enjoy the Romney landscape, from Hythe to Dungeness. Here’s to the next 90 years.
Get in touch
To keep up to date with news on the 90th anniversary celebrations, visit: www.rhdra.co.uk/events/017997362353