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Wanborough railway station
The North Downs Line is the name of the passenger train service connecting Readingmarker, on the Great Western Main Line, to Gatwick Airportmarker, 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, Business Plan 2006 - Route 3: South West Main Line which was authorised by Acts of Parliament in 1846 and 1847 and constructed by the Reading, Guildford and Reigate Railway (RG&RR), opening in 1849. 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."

The line runs roughly parallel to the North Downsmarker escarpment between Ashmarker and Redhillmarker. The South Eastern Railway which operated the line from its opening, ran passenger services on the line from Reading to London Charing Cross via Redhillmarker and 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 between Guildford and Shalford. The entire line is designated W6 gauge and overnight engineering possessions of up to 4.5 hours are available.
  • 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 , except for two 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 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 and 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. Network Rail: Reading to Gatwick Airport - Congested Infrastructure Capacity Analysis (2007)

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.

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

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 Readingmarker to Gatwick Airportmarker and there is an hourly stopping service between Readingmarker and Redhillmarker. At Redhill the Gatwick Airport services reverse to head south along the Brighton Main Line. Before 1994, the stopping services continued to Tonbridgemarker, 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 Bridgemarker and are operated by Southern.

Additional services on the North Downs Line are provided by South West Trains between Reading and Wokingham (trains to/from London Waterloomarker) and between Ash and Guildford (trains to/from Altonmarker or Ascotmarker). CrossCountry operate two trains per day between Reading and Redhill (calling at Guildford en route), although from December 2008, Cross Country's ongoing franchise requirements mean that Southbound passengers will be expected to change at Reading for onward train services to Gatwick Airport operated by First Great Western.Southern operate weekday peak hour services between Reigate and Redhill and onwards to London.

Passenger services and rolling stock before privatisation

Class 206 3R unit at Guildford station, June 1979

Steam traction was replaced by 3R 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. Additional peak time services were hauled by class 33 diesel locomotives until May 1977.

The express service from Reading to Gatwick Airport was launched on 12 May 1980 using three-car class 119 DMMUs, transferred from 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.

All of the stations between Shalford and Betchworth inclusive, were recommended for closure in the Beeching Report of 1962. The report recommended that the whole of the North Downs Line should be developed as a trunk route.

Freight services and rolling stock

There are currently (2007) no scheduled freight services which use the line.The Travelling Post Office train from Dovermarker to Manchestermarker via Tonbridgemarker, Redhillmarker, Guildfordmarker and Readingmarker was routed along the line from May 1988 until 2004. 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 Tunnelmarker to use the line.

Possibilities for electrification

An article in the August 1981 issue of Modern Railways magazine studied an electrification strategy for the then Southern Region of British Railways. Among the then-unelectrified routes covered were the sections of the North Downs Line between Wokingham railway stationmarker and Ash railway stationmarker (Aldershot South Junction) and Shalford Junction and Reigate. The plans for electrification were initially shelved prior to World War II, over concerns that little traffic would be generated. However, the article saw potential on the route with the area rapidly developing since that time, and also with the foresight of the Channel Tunnel traffic, as well as the ability for cross-country passenger and freight workings to be diverted along the route. Of course, some of the routes included were indeed later electrified in the time after the article was published; other routes mentioned including South Croydon-Oxted-East Grinstead* (1987), Bournemouth-Poole/Poole-Weymouth (1988), Hilsea/Farlington Junction-St Denys/Eastleigh (1990) and Redhill-Tonbridge (at the time still the furthest extant of North Downs Line services, in 1994).

According to internet sources, the considerations to electrify these sections of the North Downs Line arose again as part of the Blackwater Valley Rail Survey, dated 1991. Motive power from the outset would have been the BR Mark 1-based electric stock classes, but proceeding with the idea to electrify the line was halted when the conventional diesel multiple units on the region begun 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 still remains unelectrified today. The Tunbridge Wells-Eridge portionmarker closed to BR passenger traffic in 1985.

Lineside features

Chilworth Railway Station
On the south side of the line between Chilworthmarker and Gomshallmarker 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.

Network Rail routes

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

Typical off-peak journey times from Reading

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
Winnershmarker 7
Wokinghammarker 9 9 2 London Waterloomarker via Bracknellmarker and Staines
Crowthornemarker 14 1
Sandhurstmarker 18 1
Blackwatermarker 14 21 2
Farnborough Northmarker 26 1
North Campmarker 23 30 2
Ashmarker 34 1 Aldershot, Farnham, Alton and Ascot
Wanboroughmarker 38
Guildfordmarker 34 45 2 London Waterloo and Portsmouth Harbour
Shalfordmarker 49 1
Chilworthmarker 53 0.5
Gomshallmarker 59 0.5
Dorking Westmarker 62 0.5
Dorking marker 52 64 2
Betchworthmarker 69 0.5
Reigatemarker 60 74 2
Redhillmarker 64 81 2 London Victoria, London Bridge and Tonbridge
Gatwick Airportmarker 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 Guildfordmarker Shalford Chilworth Gomshall Dorking marker Reigatemarker Redhillmarker
Hour 2 Guildfordmarker Shalford Dorking West Dorking marker Betchworth Reigatemarker Redhillmarker
During peak hours the stopping service between Guildford and Redhill calls at all stations.

See also


  1. Jackson AA (1987) Dorking's Railways
  3. Network Rail Route Plan 2004 (Page 42) (9.4mb PDF)
  4. Network Rail Business Plan 2007: Implications for the South West Region
  5. Brown, David and Jackson, Alan A. (1990): Network SouthEast Handbook, page 20. Capital Transport Publishing, Harrow Weald. ISBN 1-85414-129-5
  6. 3R (Class 206) "Tadpole" DEMUs
  7. Brown, David and Jackson, Alan A. (1990): Network SouthEast Handbook, page 58. Capital Transport Publishing, Harrow Weald. ISBN 1-85414-129-5
  8. Beeching R (1962) The Reshaping of Britain's Railways
  9. Beeching R (1962) Development of the major trunk routes
  10. Strategic Business Plan Update
  11. YouTube - 35028 Clan Line near Chilworth on VSOE lunch trip 2 March 07
  12. Network Rail: Rules of the Plan (Southern) (2007 Timetable)

Further reading

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