North Downs Line

North Downs Line
North Downs Line

North Downs Line
Type Suburban rail, Heavy rail
System National Rail
Status Operational
Locale Berkshire, Hampshire, Surrey
Termini Reading
Opened 1849
Owner Network Rail
Operator(s) First Great Western
Depot(s) Reading TMD
Rolling stock Class 165, Class 166
Track gauge 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in) Standard gauge
Electrification Partially electrified
Operating speed 70 mph (110 km/h) (maximum)
[v · d · e]North Downs Line
Unknown BSicon "exSTRrg" Unknown BSicon "exSTRlg"
Continuation to left Unknown BSicon "CPICa" Unknown BSicon "eABZ3rf" Unknown BSicon "xKRZu" Unknown BSicon "ABZ3lg" Transverse track Continuation to right
Great Western Main Line
platforms 4A/4B
Unknown BSicon "CPICdd" + Transverse terminus from left
Unknown BSicon "eABZ3rg" Unknown BSicon "eABZ3lf" Junction from right
Reading Southern
Unknown BSicon "exKBHFl" Unknown BSicon "exSTRrf" Straight track
Transverse water Bridge over water Transverse water
River Kennet
Stop on track
Transverse water Bridge over water Transverse water
River Loddon
Winnersh Triangle
Stop on track
Stop on track
Unknown BSicon "AKRZ-UKu"
Station on track
(Wokingham level crossing – B3349)
Level crossing
Junction to left Continuation to right
Reading to Waterloo Line
Station on track
Station on track
Station on track
Unknown BSicon "AKRZ-UKu"
Farnborough North
Station on track + Hub
Unknown BSicon "ekABZgl" + Unknown BSicon "HUB26"
Farnborough (Main)
Continuation to left Transverse track Transverse track
Station on transverse track + Hub
Unknown BSicon "kKRZuxl" + Hub
Unknown BSicon "ekABZql" Continuation to right
South Western Main Line
Airport Straight track
Farnborough Airfield
Station on track
North Camp
Ash Lock
Unknown BSicon "uCONTr" Urban transverse track Unknown BSicon "uLockl" Urban track turning from right Straight track
Track turning from left Station on transverse track
Waterway under railway bridge + Unknown BSicon "kABZq+r"
Unknown BSicon "kKRZu+r" + Unknown BSicon "ÜWc3"
Continuation to right
Alton Line
Aldershot South Jn
Continuation to left Unknown BSicon "xABZ3rf" Unknown BSicon "exSTRlg" Urban straight track Unknown BSicon "kABZg+r"
Unknown BSicon "exSTR" Waterway turning to left Unknown BSicon "mKRZo" Urban transverse track Unknown BSicon "uCONTl"
Basingstoke Canal
Link closed December 1960
Unknown BSicon "exSTR" Straight track
Tongham (1856-1937)
Unknown BSicon "exHST" Straight track
Unknown BSicon "exSTR" Station on track
Ash Green Halt
Unknown BSicon "exHST" Level crossing
(Ash level crossing – A323)
Ash Junction
Unknown BSicon "exSTRlf" Unknown BSicon "exSTRq" Unknown BSicon "eABZlg"
Stop on track
Straight track
Continuation to left Transverse track Unknown BSicon "ABZ3rg" Station on transverse track Unknown BSicon "ABZdr" Transverse track Continuation to right
Portsmouth Direct Line
Transverse water Bridge over water Transverse water Bridge over water Transverse water
River Wey
Straight track Track turning left Continuation to right
New Guildford Line
Station on track
(Chilworth West level crossing – A248)
Level crossing
(Chilworth East level crossing – unclass.)
Level crossing
Stop on track
(level crossing – unclass.)
Level crossing
Shere Heath (1849-1850)
Unknown BSicon "eHST"
Stop on track
Westcott Range Halt
Unknown BSicon "eHST"
Dorking West
Stop on track
Dorking (Deepdene)
Station on track
Mole Valley Line
Continuation to left Unknown BSicon "eABZ3lg" Unknown BSicon "KRZo" Station on transverse track Transverse track Continuation to right
Unknown BSicon "exSTRlf" Unknown BSicon "eABZrf"
Spur closed 1946
Transverse water Bridge over water Transverse water
River Mole
(Brockham level crossing – unclass.)
Level crossing
Unknown BSicon "eABZld" Unknown BSicon "exABZq+lr" Unknown BSicon "exKDSTr"
Betchworth Quarry
Stop on track Unknown BSicon "exENDEe"
(Betchworth level crossing – B2032)
Level crossing
(Reigate level crossing – A217)
Level crossing
Station on track
Straight track
Brighton Main Line
Continuation to left Transverse track Unknown BSicon "ABZdl" Station on transverse track Transverse track Continuation to right
Continuation forward
Tonbridge Line

The North Downs Line is the name of the passenger train service connecting Reading, on the Great Western Main Line, to Gatwick Airport, on the Brighton Main Line. It is also the name used to refer to the line over which these services run between Reading and Redhill[1].


The route

Despite its name the line does not run along the top of the North Downs, but loosely shadows the main chalk ridge of the North Downs between Redhill and Ash at a lower level. Between Reigate and Gomshall the line runs along the foot of the North Downs escarpment in the Vale of Holmesdale. At Guildford it runs through the gap in the Downs carved by the river Wey, with a short tunnel just south of Guildford station, and further west between Guildford and Ash the line runs to the north of the Hog's Back. It then follows the Blackwater valley as far as Sandhurst, before continuing to Reading.

History of the line's construction

The line was authorised by Acts of Parliament in 1846 and 1847 and most of it was constructed by the Reading, Guildford and Reigate Railway Company (RG&RRC), opening in 1849. (A central section of the line near Guildford was built by a predecessor of the LSWR.) The stated objective of the company was to

"secure through traffic passing between the West, North and Midlands and the Channel Ports avoiding the congestion of London and thus saving time, distance and expense."[2]

Although the company had some independent shareholders, it was closely associated with the South Eastern Railway (SER). The original intention was for the SER to build part of the line itself, but this proposal was rejected by Parliament. The independence of the company was only a formality to satisfy Parliament. The two companies had some common directors; a SER engineer controlled the construction of the line. As intended at outset, the line was leased to the SER in 1850, and the two companies finally merged in 1852. The company's relationship with the GWR is described as "enigmatic". The GWR initially offered the company the use of its facilities at Reading station but terms could not be agreed and a separate station was built.[3]

The SER operated the line from its opening, and ran passenger services on it from Reading to London Charing Cross via Redhill. Even today, the distances along the line are measured from the terminus of the former SER.

Technical information

The line is two track throughout, except for a short single track section on the approach to Reading. Reversible working is provided on the down line[clarification needed] between Guildford and Shalford. The entire line is designated W6 gauge and overnight engineering possessions of up to 4.5 hours are available.[1]

  • Reading to Wokingham is electrified (3rd rail, 750 V DC) and signalled under the TCB (Track circuit block) system from Wokingham Signal Box. Signalling headways are 3 minutes for fast services and 3.5 minutes for stopping services. The line speed is 70 mph (110 km/h), except for two 30 mph (48 km/h) restrictions (on the approach to Reading and through Wokingham station).
  • Wokingham to North Camp is also under the control of Wokingham Signal Box, however long distances between signals increase headways to 6 minutes and 11 minutes for fast and stopping services respectively (the longest headways on the line). This section is not electrified and the line speed is 70 mph.
  • North Camp to Shalford Junction is controlled from Guildford (TCB). Signalling headways are 2 minutes with an additional 1 minute added for stopping services. This section is electrified (3rd rail, 750 V DC) from Aldershot South Junction. The line speed is 70 mph, except for a 40 mph (64 km/h) restriction at Ash Junction (between Ash and Wanborough) where the line curves sharply, and a 30 mph restriction on the approaches to Guildford station.
  • Shalford Junction to Reigate The route leaves the Portsmouth Direct Line at Shalford Junction and there is a 20 mph restriction. From here to Reigate the line is not electrified. It is controlled by Guildford from Shalford Junction to Gomshall and by Reigate Signal Box (TCB) from Gomshall to Redhill. Signalling headways are 5 minutes for fast trains and 7 minutes for stopping services. The line speed varies from 30 mph (on the approach to Shalford junction) to 70 mph.
  • Redhill to Reigate is electrified (3rd rail, 750 V DC). The approach to Redhill is controlled by Three Bridges Signalling Centre and has a 30 mph speed restriction.

The major capacity constraints are the platform capacities of Reading, Redhill and Gatwick Airport stations.[4] [5][6]

At Reading, North Downs Line services normally terminate at platforms 4a and 4b on the south side of the station, although access to other platforms is possible via a junction with the Great Western Main Line (see map, right). Trains could formerly access the north side of Reading station via an underpass, although this has been disused for some time. The access to platforms 4a and 4b is via a short single track section, which severely limits capacity. As part of the 2012 Reading resignalling scheme, an additional platform will be provided for North Downs Line services. The underpass may also be reinstated.[7]

Network SouthEast originally planned to electrify the whole route, with a completion date of 1993 being published, but these plans were dropped.[8]

Current passenger services and rolling stock

First Great Western Class 165 at Guildford station

The main services on the line are provided by First Great Western using Class 165 and Class 166 Network Turbo diesel multiple units. Hourly semi-fast services run from Reading to Gatwick Airport and there is an hourly stopping service between Reading and Redhill. At Redhill the Gatwick Airport services reverse to head south along the Brighton Main Line.[4] Before 1994, the stopping services continued to Tonbridge, however the line between Redhill and Tonbridge was electrified in 1993 to provide an additional diversionary route for Eurostar trains to continental Europe. Services on this line now run to London Bridge and are operated by Southern.[9]

Additional services on the North Downs Line are provided by South West Trains between Reading and Wokingham (trains to/from London Waterloo) and between Ash and Guildford (trains to/from Alton or Ascot). Southern operate weekday peak hour services between Reigate and Redhill and onwards to London.[9]

Passenger services and rolling stock before privatisation

Class 206 3R unit at Guildford station, June 1979

Steam traction was replaced by 3R (Class 206) DEMUs on 4 January 1965. The new trains consisted of two 6S (class 201) coaches from the Hastings Line coupled to adapted 2EPB driving trailer units. As a result of the visible difference in width between the narrow Hastings Line stock and the standard width Hampshire trailer, the units were nicknamed Tadpoles.[10] Additional peak time services were hauled by class 33 diesel locomotives until May 1977.[2]
The express service from Reading to Gatwick Airport was launched on 12 May 1980 using three-car class 119 DMMUs, based on the Western region. The trains were especially modified for this service to create extra luggage space: the buffet counter in the centre coach was removed. Class 101 three-car units were later used on the route as well.[11]
All of the stations between Shalford and Betchworth inclusive, were recommended for closure in the Beeching Report of 1962.[12] The report recommended that the whole of the North Downs Line should be developed as a trunk route.[13]

Freight services and rolling stock

As of 2007 there are no scheduled freight services which use the line.[4] The Travelling Post Office train from Dover to Manchester via Tonbridge, Redhill, Guildford and Reading was routed along the line from May 1988 until 2004.[2] The Network Rail 2008 Strategic Business Plan recommended that an enhancement project for the line should be pursued to enable freight traffic from the Channel Tunnel to use the line.[14]

Electrification proposals

Wanborough railway station

Electrification had been shelved prior to World War II as it was felt that little traffic would be generated. Unelectrified routes of the North Downs Line included Wokingham railway station to Ash railway station (Aldershot South Junction) and Shalford Junction to Reigate. In August 1981, Modern Railways magazine studied an electrification strategy for the then Southern Region of British Railways. The article saw potential on the route with the area having developed rapidly, and also with the prospect of Channel Tunnel traffic; cross-country passenger and freight workings might also be diverted along the route. Subsequently some of the routes considered were indeed electrified; other routes mentioned included South Croydon-Oxted-East Grinstead* (1987), Bournemouth-Weymouth (1988), Hilsea/Farlington Junction-St Denys/Eastleigh (1990) and Redhill-Tonbridge (at the time the furthest extent of North Downs Line services, in 1994).

According to internet sources[clarification needed], electrification of these sections of the North Downs Line was again discussed as part of the Blackwater Valley Rail Survey, in 1991. Motive power from the outset would have been the BR Mark 1-based electric stock classes, but the idea was scrapped when the conventional diesel multiple units on the region began to be replaced by the current Class 165/166 'Turbos'.

*Hurst Green/Tunbridge Wells to Eridge and Uckfield was also mentioned in the same scheme, but remains unelectrified today. The Tunbridge Wells-Eridge portion closed to BR passenger traffic in 1985.

Lineside features

Chilworth Railway Station
External videos
Steam-hauled excursion passing the yew bush Jesse's Seat, near Chilworth, 2 March 2007.

On the south side of the line between Chilworth and Gomshall a yew hedge known as Jesse's Seat has been cut into the shape of a pheasant. It is a memorial to a guard who was killed in an accident at this spot in about 1910.[15] [16]

Network Rail routes

The service uses all or part of the following Network Rail routes:[17]

  • SW 210 from Reading
  • SW 265 from Wokingham
  • SW 110 from Guildford
  • SW 300 from Shalford Junction
  • SO 560 from Gomshall to Redhill

Typical off-peak journey times from Reading

A 1909 Railway Clearing House map of western end of the North Downs Line.
A 1912 Railway Clearing House map of the central section of the North Downs Line.
A 1905 Railway Clearing House map of the eastern end of the North Downs Line.

Based on the December 2006 - May 2007 timetable. Stations in italics are served in peak hours only.

Destination Semi-fast services
Stopping services
(trains per hour)
Change for
Winnersh 7
Wokingham 9 9 2 London Waterloo via Bracknell and Staines
Crowthorne 14 1
Sandhurst 18 1
Blackwater 14 21 2
Farnborough North 26 1
North Camp 23 30 2
Ash 34 1 Aldershot, Farnham, Alton and Ascot
Wanborough 38
Guildford 34 45 2 London Waterloo and Portsmouth Harbour
Shalford 49 1
Chilworth 53 0.5
Gomshall 59 0.5
Dorking West 62 0.5
Dorking (Deepdene) 52 64 2 London Waterloo, London Victoria and Horsham from Dorking Station
Betchworth 69 0.5
Reigate 60 74 2
Redhill 64 81 2 London Victoria, London Bridge and Tonbridge
Gatwick Airport 76 1 Eastbourne, Brighton and Littlehampton

Between Guildford and Redhill the off-peak stopping service pattern alternates every hour, giving Shalford an hourly service and Chilworth, Gomshall, Dorking West and Betchworth one train every two hours.

Hour 1 Guildford Shalford Chilworth Gomshall Dorking (Deepdene) Reigate Redhill
Hour 2 Guildford Shalford Dorking West Dorking (Deepdene) Betchworth Reigate Redhill

During peak hours the stopping service between Guildford and Redhill calls at all stations.

See also


  1. ^ a b "Business Plan 2006 - Route 3: South West Main Line" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  2. ^ a b c Jackson, AA (1988). Dorking's Railways. Dorking: Dorking Local History Group. ISBN 1870912012. 
  3. ^ Minutes of the Board of Directors of the RG&RRC, ed. by Edwin Course, 1987 ISBN 0 902978 08
  4. ^ a b c Network Rail: Reading to Gatwick Airport - Congested Infrastructure Capacity Analysis (2007)
  5. ^ "36470 RUS SWML 80pp.indd" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  6. ^ "Network Rail Route Plan 2004 (Page 42) (9.4mb PDF)" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  7. ^ "Microsoft Word - Inf Note - Network Rail Business Plan.doc" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  8. ^ Brown, David and Jackson, Alan A. (1990): Network SouthEast Handbook, page 20. Capital Transport Publishing, Harrow Weald. ISBN 1-85414-129-5
  9. ^ a b [1][dead link]
  10. ^ "3R (Class 206) "Tadpole" DEMUs". Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  11. ^ Brown, David; Jackson, Alan A. (November 1990). Network Southeast Handbook. Harrow Weald: Capital Transport Publishing. ISBN 978-1854141293. 
  12. ^ Beeching R (1963) The Reshaping of British Railways
  13. ^ Beeching R (1965) Development of the major railway trunk routes
  14. ^ "Strategic Business Plan Update" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-17. 
  15. ^ Alan C. Edwards (28 Feb 2004). "The Railway at Chilworth, Surrey". Rough notes of the talk at Chilworth Village Hall. Retrieved 23 March 2010. 
  16. ^ Mitchell, Vic; Smith, Keith (1989). Guildford to Redhill. Country Rail Routes. Midhurst: Middleton Press. 
  17. ^ Network Rail: Rules of the Plan (Southern) (2007 Timetable)

Further reading

  • Butt, R.V.J. (1995). The Directory of Railway Stations. Patrick Stephens Ltd. ISBN 1-85260-508-1. 

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