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Alresford station
The Watercress Line is the marketing name of the Mid-Hants Railway, a heritage line in Hampshire, Englandmarker, running from New Alresfordmarker to Altonmarker where it connects to the National Rail network. The line gained its popular name in the days that it was used to transport locally grown watercress to markets in Londonmarker.


In 1861 the Alton, Alresford and Winchester Railway Company was authorised to build a new railway to connect to the existing London & South Western Railway lines at Alton and Winchester. It was opened on 2 October 1865 as the Mid-Hants Railway. Trains were operated by the London & South Western Railway who eventually purchased the Mid-Hants Railway Company in 1884.

Stations were initially constructed at Itchen Abbasmarker, Ropleymarker and Alresford. The station at Alton was already in existence. The station at Medstead and Four Marksmarker was added in 1868. Just outside this station, the line is at it highest point ( above sea level) having risen from Alresford ( above sea level) and descending to Alton ( above sea level). The section of line became known as "the Alps", due to the steep gradients that exist here.

The line provided an alternative route between London and Southamptonmarker and besides transporting locally produced watercress, was particularly important for military traffic between the army town of Aldershotmarker and the military embarkation port at Southampton.

With the development of motorised transport, the line declined during the inter-war and post-war periods of the 20th Century and was further compromised by the closures of the Basingstoke and Alton Light Railway in 1932 and the Meon Valley Railway in 1955. Electrification of the line from London to Alton in 1937 meant that the Watercress Line was no longer part of a through route: it became necessary to change at Alton. Electrification of the line from London to Southampton occurred in 1967, which further affected the economics of the picturesque Mid-Hants route.

The line became part of the Southern Railway in 1923 and then part of the Southern Region of British Railways in 1948. It survived the Beeching Axe in 1967, but was eventually closed by British Railways in 1973.

Heritage railway

The section of line from Alresford to Alton that can be seen today was successfully purchased from British Rail in November 1975. Reconstruction of the line subsequently progressed in stages. The section between Alresford and Ropley re-opened on 30 April 1977. To provide engineering and maintenance facilities, the main locomotive shed and workshops were constructed at Ropleymarker. The extension to Medstead & Four Marks opened on 28 May 1983 and the final section to Alton opened on 25 May 1985.

Some of the structures that can be seen on the Watercress Line today were not part of the original railway infrastructure; they have been added to make the line serviceable again and to recreate the feel of a fully-operational steam railway.
Imported structures
Station Structure Original site
 Alresford  Footbridge   , East Sussex
 Alresford  West Country Buffet (building)    , Dorset
 Alresford  West Country Buffet (counter)   , Devon
 Ropley  Signal box   , Hampshire
 Ropley  Footbridge   , Devon
 Ropley  Water Tower  Longmoor Military Railwaymarker, Liss, Hampshire 
 Ropley  Wheel Drop  Bricklayers' Armsmarker, South London
 Medstead & Four Marks   Signal box   , Wiltshire
 Medstead & Four Marks  Footbridge   , Isle of Wight

Other history

In 1941, prototype Merchant Navy Class 21C1 Channel Packet travelled as far as Alresford after the naming ceremony at Southampton for a trial run with press dignitaries.

A replica of Sans Pareil visited the Watercress Line in June 1982, successfully running from Ropley to Alresford under its own power on 12 June 1982.

Future developments

Before its closure, the railway joined the South Western Main Line at Winchestermarker Junction, two miles (3 km) north of Winchester. There have been proposals to extend the existing line to rejoin Winchester, but that would require significant civil engineering works and massive funding. The M3 motorway from London to Southampton cuts across the old route and houses have been built across the right-of-way in Itchen Abbasmarker.

2008 Lottery grant

In October 2008 the Mid-Hants Railway announced that it had been successfully awarded a £550,000 grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for a number of improvement projects.

A new two-track carriage and wagon workshop is to be built at Ropley, capable of holding four carriages under cover. The workshop is intended to meet the particular needs for the restoration of wooden vehicles. New woodworking machinery will be installed, and the grant will also pay for the employment of a carpenter and carpentry trainees.

The existing locomotive workshop will be extended by the provision of a small machine shop and stores area, and new volunteer mess (refreshment and changing) facilities. Viewing platforms for visitors will be provided in the locomotive and carriage workshops and the boiler workshop. Interpretation materials will be provided to enhance educational opportuniites and provide explanations of the work being carried out.

A historic signal box is to be rescued (assisted by a grant from the Railway Heritage Trust) and installed at Medstead. It will provide a hands-on signalling experience for visitors together with space for an exhibition of Strowger telephone equipment.

The total cost of the projects is likely to be in excess of £1m, with the balance being funded from within the railway and by additional volunteer labour.

The railway was successful in gaining two previous HLF awards: the Old Goods Shed at Alresford was restored, and opened in 2000; the wheel drop shed at Ropley was built in 2005.

Ongoing developments

Alton signal box

Currently, a new signalling installation is being commissioned at Alton. It is a colour-light system, running from the signal box control panel; as compared with the mechanical semaphore signals used on the rest of the line. The new system will allow a more intensive train service, making use of the loop, and will allow shunting within the station, operations which the current manual flag signalling does not allow. The new installation makes use of track circuits to detect where the train is and can change points and signals accordingly. It will run fully automatically, once in use, so there is no need for a signalman, unlike the other signal boxes on the line. When there is no signalman, all Signal Post Telephones will be diverted to Medstead & Four Marksmarker signal box. It will work on a system where a member of the locomotive crew will insert the token into a keyhole, to allow the system to take the next steps.

Ropley signal box

Phase One of the Ropley re-signalling project, construction of the new signal box, has been completed. Phase Two is expected to happen once the Alton re-signalling scheme has been finished. Phase Two will include installation of Up and Down distant signals, in place of the existing fixed reflective boards. The new signals will be motorised semaphore signals as they are too far from the signal box to be operated mechanically without considerable physical effort by the signalman. The scheme will also include installing "advance starter" signals and an "outer home" signal in the Up (Alton-bound) direction.


  • – at the northern end of the line, with a cross-platform National Rail connection to London Waterloomarker.
  • – the highest station in Hampshire, and a depiction of a quiet 1940s Southern Railway station. The Signal and Telegraph department is based here, along with the Permanent Way group, and the Building department.
  • – the engineering centre of the line, the location of the locomotive maintenance and running sheds. The station is famous for its topiary. It houses the biggest signal box on the line, controlling movements through the station, as well as much shunting to and from the locomotive yard.
  • Alresfordmarker – the southern end of the line. Main station for passenger facilities, including a museum, buffet and two shops. On special events, the brake van rides are based here.

Motive power

The railway is operated by a variety of steam locomotives, many originating from the Southern Railway. Two of the locomotives, now named Thomas and Douglas, were rebuilt from Hunslet 'Austerity' tank engines ('Thomas' was rebuilt at MHR.) Heritage diesel locomotives and multiple units are also represented.

(Reference for this section)

Steam locomotives

Number & Name Description Current Status Livery
No. 1 (works number 3781 of 1952) Hunslet Austerity 0-6-0ST Operational, convertedfrom a saddle-tank to side-tank design to create No. 1 "Thomas" in 1994 Sodor Blue
No. 34007 "Wadebridgemarker" SR West Country Class 4-6-2 operational BR Lined Green
No. 34016 Bodmin SR West Country Class 4-6-2 Stored in Ropley MPD for public viewing BR Lined Green
No. 34105 Swanage SR West Country Class 4-6-2 Stored in Ropley headshunt, this was moved into the yard in 2009 for a clean, and is now on the overhaul list BR Lined Green
No. 35005 Canadian Pacific SR Merchant Navy Class 4-6-2 Stored BR Lined Green
No. 60019 Bittern LNER Class A4 4-6-2 operational BR Green
No. 10 "Douglas" (works number 2890 of 1943) Hunslet 0-6-0 Undergoing a major overhaul, work on chassis almost complete. T&F Black
No. 850 "Lord Nelson" SR Lord Nelson Class 4-6-0 Operational, at the MHR under agreement with the National Railway Museummarker and ERPS SR Green
No. 30075 JŽ Class 62 0-6-0T Operational. Delivered from the East Somerset Railway following contract expiration, will be operational during the Autumn Steam Gala 09. BR Black
No. 30076 JŽ Class 62 0-6-0T Undergoing restoration with the overseas modifications being removed N/A
No. 828 SR Class S15 4-6-0 Undergoing overhaul, boiler repairs underway, frames stored in Ropley headshunt SR Green
No. 30499 LSWR Class S15 4-6-0 In storage at Alresford after arrival from the East Lancashire Railwaymarker N/A
No. 30506 LSWR Class S15 4-6-0 Boiler receiving attention BR Green
No. 45379 (5379) LMS Black Five 4-6-0 Newly restored boiler, planned to return to steam early-2010 BR Black
No. 76017 BR standard class 4 2-6-0 Stored in Ropley headshunt BR Black
No. 75079 BR standard class 4 4-6-0 Undergoing restoration N/A
No. 31625 Southern Railway U Class 2-6-0 Stored, painted as James the Red Engine, in Ropley headshunt T&F Red
No. 31806 Southern Railway U Class 2-6-0 Undergoing overhaul, re-wheeled, new cab fitted BR Black
No. 31874 Southern Railway N Class 2-6-0 Stored behind boiler shop N/A
No. 41312 LMS Class 2MT 2-6-2T Awaiting overhaul BR Black
No. 73096 BR Standard Class 5 4-6-0 Operational until 14 March 2009, when a catastrophic failure destroyed the driver's side cylinder block and damaged the piston and motion. The locomotive is likely to be out of service for many months as new castings are required to replace the damaged parts, and new patterns are required to make them. Work has already commenced with the removal of damaged parts and ordering of patterns. BR Green
No. 92212 BR Standard Class 9F 2-10-0 Operational. Restored to working condition after a two-year (boiler and heavy general) overhaul. Hauled first passenger train on 11 September 2009 during Autumn Steam Gala. BR Black
80104 at Ropley

Diesel locomotives

Number Description Current Status Livery
John Fowler

Works no. 22889 of 1939.

Stored in Ropley headshunt.
08032 "Mendip" BR Class 08 Operational Yeoman Blue
08288 (D3358) BR Class 08 Operational

Ropley yard shunter
BR Black
12049 BR Class 11 Undergoing bodywork repairs in the wheel drop shed.

New alternator fitted.
Day Aggregates
27007 (D5353) BR Class 27 Undergoing overhaul at Ropley shed. BR Green
33053 BR Class 33 Stored

Leased from Battlefield Line Railwaymarker
BR Blue
33208 (D6593) BR Class 33 Operational until 14 March 2009, when a traction motor flashover occurred, resulting in a fire. (Motor will require re-winding.) BR Green
No. 37905 Vulcan Enterprise BR Class 37 Operational

Leased from Battlefield Line Railwaymarker
Railfreight Metals Grey
45132 (D22) BR Class 45 Undergoing overhaul, generator away for repair.

Stored in Ropley headshunt
BR Blue

Diesel multiple units

Number (Type) Description Current Status Livery
W51363  (DMBS)

W51400  (DMS)

W59515  (TCL)
BR Class 117 3-car DMMU.

Operates on most special events, such as playing 'Daisy' in Day Out With Thomas events
Malachite Green
W55003 (DMBS) BR Class 122 Single railcar.

Operational. Has a Main-line Certification
BR Green
60124 (DMBC)

(60824) DTC
BR Class 205 Unit 1125. Two-car "Hampshire Unit" DEMU. Returned to operational use in May 2009. Rededicated at the Diesel Gala. BR Green

Safety systems

AWS (Automatic Warning System)

The Watercress Line is currently the only heritage railway with a complete AWS system. It is used on all distant signals, and some other signals. Almost all of the locomotives and multiple units are fitted with it, apart from a couple of steam locomotives.

Train Protection & Warning System

The Class 205 and Gresley A4 60019 Bittern only have Train Protection & Warning System (TPWS) fitted, although it is not used.

Staff and volunteers

Currently there is a small base of paid staff (mostly in administrative duties) and a core of volunteers.


Derailment at Ropley, 2006

On 25 July 2006 the leading bogie of the BR Class 117 DMMU forming the 10:50 service from Alton to Alresford derailed on points approaching Platform 2 at Ropley Station. The train was stopped within 20 metres of the point of derailment by an instructor who was in the cab with the driver. There were no injuries as a result of the incident, and the train and track suffered limited damage.

The immediate cause of the incident was the reversal of the points by the signalman at Ropley Signal box. The causal factors were the confusion by the signalman about the exact location of the train and lack of point-detection systems.

The RAIB has made six recommendations aimed at:
  • the provision of train detection on points;
  • the operating of the electric token block system;
  • the safety management system; and
  • the competence and medical standards for staff.

Since the accident a new signal box has been opened at Ropley, with full interlocking, which will prevent a repeat of this incident. Also, fouling bars have been installed to prevent points being moved (when the Facing Point Lock is not in use).

Passenger fatality at Alresford, 2007

On 1 December 2007 a passenger fell from the platform at Alresford as he tried to board a departing train. It is believed Michael Kerry, 62, of Redbridge, Southampton, fell on to the platform, and was dragged under the train on Saturday night just after 10pm as he was about to board the Real Ale Train.

The PA system was not working in the carriage he was travelling in. As a result he missed an announcement asking passengers not to leave the train at the second Alresford stop as it was running late.

As the train was pulling out of the station, Mr Kerry ran to get onto the train while it was moving. Despite shouts for him to stand clear by the guard and other people on the platform, he managed to open a door but lost his footing and was dragged under the train. The train was stopped by the guard using the emergency brake and the Emergency Services were called by the signalman. The post mortem concluded that Mr Kerry was killed by multiple crush injuries. He was declared dead at the scene. The coroner concluded that the death was accidental, and he was satisfied that the emergency procedures, put in place by the Mid-Hants Railway, were safe and worked.

Failure of 5MT 73096, 2009

Services for the Spring Steam Gala on 14 March 2009 were seriously disrupted when one of the operational locomotives suffered a major failure at Wander's Curve in the Ropley to Medstead section. The casualty was 5MT Standard 5 number 73096, which, whilst on the first Alresford to Alton service of the day, suffered major damage to its left-hand (driver's-side) cylinder. It is thought, about 3/4 of a mile from Ropley station, a piston coreplug worked loose thus causing much damage to the cylinder covers, cylinder, piston and piston-rod plus other equipment in the area. There is no evidence that this was caused by priming (water in the cylinders, which can cause similar catastrophic failures) and currently the crew are absolved of any blame.

No damage was done to the track or signalling, but No. 73096 blocked the line for some time. Shuttle services were quickly organised between Alresford and Ropley, and between Alton and Medstead, until the line could be cleared. Parts of the steam locomotive's 'motion' (connecting rod, valve gear linkages, etc) on the driver's side had to be removed by MPD staff to allow the locomotive to be moved – as the 5MT was unable to move under its own power, a diesel locomotive was dispatched from Ropley engine shed to retrieve it. The Gala thereafter continued with a revised timetable.

The locomotive is to be out of service until its cylinder is replaced.

Failure of 33208 at Ropley, 2009

At the 2009 Spring Steam gala, Class 33 diesel locomotive number 33208 was sent from Ropley MPD to rescue the failed 73096. However, the Class 33 suffered a traction motor flashover, which resulted in a small fire when the locomotive was over the yard entrance points. To allow the other Class 33 out of the yard to rescue the failed train, the dead Class 33 had to be manually pushed back into the station by a number of volunteer workers before it could be moved out of the way with the yard's Class 08 shunter.


  1. South Coast railways - Portsmouth to Southampton. Vic Mitchell and Keith Smith. ISBN 0-906520-31-2
  2. Mid Hants Railway Guide – accessed 2009-04-03
  3. Mid-Hants railway in colour. Alan C Butcher. 1996. ISBN 0 7110 2465 0.
  4. "Watercress Line Successful Again with a Substantial Grant Awarded by Heritage Lottery Fund."(Press Release on Mid-Hants Railway website - Accessed 08 December 2008)
  5. Mid-Hants railway in colour. Alan C Butcher. 1996. ISBN 0 7110 2465 0.pp36
  6. 5MT 73096 - Photographs of damage to cylinder casting
  7. 73096 progress obtained from reading Watercress Line website news pages - 15 Sept 2009
  8. Restoration of Class 122 W55003
  9. RAIB report
  10. European Rail Agency Incident Report
  11. Fatality - report from Petersfield Post (Dec 2007)
  12. Coroner's findings - Southern Daily Echo (Nov 2008)

External links

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