A History of the Railways
around Basingstoke

by Christopher J Tolley

Ordnance Survey

Military Railways near Basingstoke

Hampshire and the surrounding counties have long had an association with the forces - Aldershot, Sandhurst and Salisbury Plain for the Army, Portsmouth and Gosport for the Navy and Farnborough for the Air Force. Within the local area, there have been a number of railways which were built and operated for the armed forces. Different railways had different purposes, and of course the main lines have been used for transporting personnel and military goods.

Bramley Ordnance Depot

The nearest of these military installations to Basingstoke was five miles north, at Bramley. This started to be used during World War 1 for the manufacture and storage of ammunition. Tracks were built both sides of the line connecting Basingstoke and Reading. These were joined with each other at their northern and southern ends, and the tracks on either side of the running line were connected with each other by means of two tunnels under the running lines.

The tracks in the depot served a multiplicity of stores, and some impression of the complexity of the depot can be gained by considering that in the site, which was almost 1¼ miles from north to south, there were over 30 miles of track - more than enough to cover the distance from Basingstoke to Reading and back.

On the map alongside, the minor sidings to the stores have been omitted for clarity - what remains are the running lines at the depot. A spur northwards from the military yard reached Bramley station, and this allowed connecting services to be run from Bramley station into the depot for the work force. Such services started in about 1922, but were suspended early in World War 2. Several years after the war, the service was resumed, using coaches bought from the London Transport Piccadilly line, and continued until the summer of 1970. The depot's railway system was closed in March 1987. On 1 March 1987, a special service was operated to the depot from Basingstoke for enthusiasts who wanted to tour the extensive sidings.

A number of locomotives had been kept at the depot, and there were facilities for their upkeep on site. It had been hoped that these might have formed the basis of a railway preservation centre, but this scheme never came to fruition. The track, which had been kept in place for a few years after closure, has now been taken up.

Burghfield Royal Ordnance Factory

This factory was served by a long siding which left the Basingstoke to Reading line some 6¾ miles north of Bramley depot. It opened during World War 2, and after the war was passed to the Ministry of Supply.

Like Bramley, Burghfield had its own steam locomotives, but unlike Bramley, there was not a vast network of lines to serve. The railway connection was severed in 1957. Since that time, the factory saw further use in connection with the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

Details of the railway layout at the factory are not available because of the delicate nature of the latter use.

Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough

Since the earliest days of military flying, Farnborough has been one of the chief installations in England. During World War 1, No. 1 Squadron and No. 2 Squadron were based there. At the end of the 1920's*, a siding was constructed to the airfield from the goods yard at Farnborough. This ran almost due south for just over a mile, including a section along the course of a road. The branch was used for carrying coal. The Southern Railway's 1934 operating instructions make interesting reading and illustrate the practice on short branches such as this:

* “1920's”: This date is an estimate on my part. The railway is shown on the 1931 large-scale ordnance survey map, but does not appear on a 1922 map.

"Air Ministry's siding. - Traffic to and from this siding will be worked by one of the Air Ministry's engines which may be permitted to travel to and from the Company's goods yard under the control of the Shunter in charge of the railway shunting arrangements. The Air Ministry's engine must not be permitted to enter upon the Company's siding unless the Shunter is present, and after the engine leaves the goods yard the Shunter will be responsible for seeing that the engine is shunted clear of the siding connection and that the points are left in their normal position. The Air Ministry's engine will dispose of the empty wagons it brings into the goods yard as directed by the Shunter. Loaded wagons for the Air Ministry should, as far as practicable, be placed in the siding next to the dock road, which should, as far as possible, be kept clear for the passage of the Air Ministry's engine. Loose shunting of vehicles into the Air Ministry's siding is strictly prohibited. The Air Ministry's staff will be held responsible for the safe working of traffic along the siding as well as for securing the catch points and the gate which is provided at the end of the siding near the public road. The Air Ministry's engine must not under any circumstances be permitted to enter upon the main running lines at Farnborough."

The Air Ministry's engine mentioned above was a small steam locomotive called “Invincible”, which was still operating after the last steam locomotive ran on the main line. Its final trip on the airfield branch was undertaken on 10 April 1968, and was captured on a newsreel. Though little else survives of the branch, “Invincible” has found a new home at Haven Street on the Isle of Wight

Longmoor Military Railway

 Unlike the other railways mentioned above, the prime purpose of the Longmoor Military Railway was education. The first soldiers in the area were veterans from the Boer War, who were billeted in huts at Longmoor. At some stage in 1905, it became necessary for the soldiers to move to Bordon, and some narrow-gauge tracks were laid from Longmoor to Bordon to enable their huts to be moved with them. With the opening of the L&SWR branch from Bentley to Bordon, the narrow-gauge track to Longmoor was rebuilt to standard gauge.

Soon after conversion, the line was given a new name, the Woolmer Instructional Military Railway. Training in all aspects of railway management and operation was provided on the railway. Throughout the British Empire, there were extensive railway systems, and in places as far afield as India or South Africa, the soldiers might find themselves using, building or repairing* railways, depending on operational circumstances.

* “building or repairing”: Of course, some soldiers, notably T. E. Lawrence, specialised in blowing trains up. I'm not sure this was on the curriculum at Longmoor!

Since a part of what was being taught at Longmoor was how to build railways, the system was constantly being modified. At one point, there was a track-laying machine on site capable of laying 1,500 yards of track per day, so in common with Bramley, there were many miles of track in a relatively small site - over 70 miles at its greatest extent. The many small sidings on the LMR have, for the sake of clarity not been shown on the accompanying map. Leaving aside the many minor changes brought about by training construction, the evolution of the railway included three main periods of expansion. In the first period, the line extended from Bordon to Longmoor. The next phase saw the continuation towards Liss. With this, the line was again renamed - to the Longmoor Military Railway. At first, the LMR was not physically connected to the main line at Liss. The final main addition to the system was the construction of the loop line. This loop provided extra opportunities for training, since it meant that trains could be run for greater distances without having to reverse them.

The vehicles on the LMR were very much an assortment, this selection giving the maximum learning opportunity. The same was true of the signalling at the various locations on the line. After the end of the war, the collection also included captured enemy equipment, such as a trailer which dragged behind it a huge hook, used to destroy sleepers and so render captured railway lines unusable. In addition to the various military items, there were standard (if old) passenger carriages, and indeed a passenger service was operated over the line at various times, nominally for personnel* required on the railway, and others from the War Department/Ministry of Defence and their families. With a declining role for railways both in Britain and the rest of the world, it was inevitable that the significance of the facilities offered by the LMR would be reduced in later years. Even so, the LMR was still important enough for the tracks of the Bentley to Bordon branch to be left in place when passenger services were withdrawn from that line on 16 September 1957. (Arguably this was not necessary, as there was by this time a physical connection at Liss; however, the main line through Bentley was more lightly used than the main line through Liss, making it easier to accommodate the movements of military traffic, especially at short notice.) In 1966, however, the movement of goods over the Bordon branch was suspended, and the line was taken up in 1967. This had an effect on the LMR: the last few hundred yards of the line (the approaches to Bordon station) ceased to be used, and this proved to be a sign of the end for the entire LMR.

* “personnel”: among those who were taught the workings of railways on the LMR, there were a select band who continued in railway-related work after leaving the services. These were the members of the Railway Inspectorate, whose remit is to enquire into the circumstances surrounding railway accidents. The first Chief Inspecting Officer of Railways, not to have been trained in the army, was R. J. Seymour, appointed to that post in 1988. With the LMR now closed, effectively this source of supply of Railway Inspectors has dried up.

The LMR was officially closed on 31 October 1969, though for another two years some locomotives and stock remained on site, and there were occasional movements. The hope was to establish a railway preservation centre, but, as at Bramley, this did not happen. As was the case with “Invincible” at Farnborough, some of the stock of the LMR did pass into the hands of preservationists, and some was also bequeathed* to the Museum of Army Transport at Beverley.

* “bequeathed”: The rail wrecker mentioned above is among the items preserved at Beverley.

Although the last post has sounded for all the military railways within the area covered by the sketch maps, there are still a few military installations with rail connections. The nearest* to Basingstoke is at Ludgershall, just beyond Andover, and the largest* is probably the depot at Kineton in Warwickshire. These are oddities, though; in the era of the cruise missile, a railway presents an easy target, and it is certain that we shall not see the like of the railways described above again.

* “nearest”, “largest”: this sort of information is hard to come by and prone to become out of date. These are the nearest and the largest depots I am aware of, but there may be others.

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