Southend Pier Railway

Southend Pier

Southend Pier at dusk


At 2360 yards (2.158km), Southend Pier was, for many years, the longest in the world. It is still the longest pleasure pier. As well as the usual tourist attractions, the pierhead houses the RNLI lifeboat station and Lloyds signal station. The pierhead can accommodate ships of up to 1000 tons. Reliving it's turn-of-the-century heyday it still occasionally sees visits from a paddle steamer on excursion trips.

Brief History

The original pier at Southend was a wooden construction erected in 1830 by a private company. To assist in the loading and unloading of vessels at the seaward end, a horse-drawn tramway was laid down along its length. When construction of the new pier was sanctioned by the Southend Local Board, the plans included provision for an electric railway. Construction of the line commenced in 1888 concurrently with the building of the new pier, under the direction of Mr. C. R. Norton, the former Electrical Engineer of the pier, electrification being carried out by Colonel R. E. B. Crompton.

By 1889 about ¾ mile of single track had been laid and a single motor car was run over it. This was equipped with a 13hp motor taking current at 200v dc from the pier`s own generator. The compound wound generator being belt driven from a Davey & Paxman 25hp steam engine with a locomotive type boiler. Current collection was from a centre rail consisting of a steel channel and copper strip mounted on petticoat insulators, with a carbon brush pickup on the motor cars. The return circuit was through the running rails. In 1890 the 1¼ mile single track was completed and two trailer cars acquired to form a three-car train. In a passing loop had been completed and a second train of three cars added.

Over the six years from 1893, traffic on the pier had developed to the point where another two trains were needed. At the same time (1899) a second generator was provided and the passing loop extended. However, in 1902 Southend Corporation established its own generating station in London Road and the pier plant became redundant and was disposed of. The new supply was at 500v dc so the four motor cars were refitted with new motors rated at 18hp each. The trains were made up to four cars each by the purchase of four new trailer cars from the Falcon Works at Loughborough. Two of these were purchased by the Volk's Electric Railway when they became redundant in 1949.

In 1909 a further four trailer cars were purchased to form four trains of five cars each. The motor cars proved to be underpowered for this load and in 1910 each motor car was refitted with twin BTH 27hp motors. In 1911 the conductor rail was replaced with 45lb/yard steel rail, similar to the running rails, with new pickups, made of cast iron, being fitted to the motor cars. In 1914 another eight cars were purchased and the trains made up to seven cars each. In 1919 the original track, now twenty years old, needed replacement, so new running and conductor rails were laid throughout the pier.

In 1923, experimental magnetic brakes were fitted to one train set. The experiment was evidently not a success as they were discarded after about a year. At the same time, new wheels with Bessemer steel tyres were fitted to all the cars.

The year 1928 saw the extension of the midway loop by a further 150 yards and new loops were constructed extending from the North (shore) and South (pier head) stations. The following year these loops were joined up to form a double track railway 93 chains long, along the length of the pier. The track came out of cover at pile 18, the two signal cabins were at piles 47/48 and 179/180, and the south station was at piles 217 to 225. At some stage, a workshop was built along the west side of the shore station to handle routine maintenance.

During the Second World War the pier was closed to visitors but was used as an assembly point for convoys with anti-aircraft guns on the pier head. The trains were used to supply them with ammunition and ferry casualties ashore from the ships. Masters of passing merchant ships used to complain the trains set off the acoustic aircraft early warning devices fitted to their vessels!

By 1949 the original rolling stock was approaching 60 years old and so it was decided to replace it. New stock was ordered from AC Cars Ltd of Thames Ditton, the survivors of which worked the line until its closure in the mid seventies. Twenty-eight cars were supplied, forming four trains of seven cars each, consisting of three motor cars and four trailer cars in M-T-T-M-T-T-M formation, the motors cars being operated in multiple. There were three common patterns of operation:

  • Peak: all four trains in service. At any time two trains would be moving, one in each direction, while two more were sitting at the stations. As a train was on its way in to a station, the waiting train would depart, so passengers arriving at a station would normally - but not guaranteed - find a train waiting.
  • Off-peak: two trains were sitting locked up, while the other two ran a service.
  • Low season: one train ran a shuttle service on one track while all the other trains were stored, at one end or the other, on the other track.

By the seventies there were only two trains left in service consisting of cars 1-7 and 22-28. One of the surplus motor cars was converted into a works loco, consisting of a driving cab at the south end and a flat bed mounted on the remainder of the chassis. This was used for the transportation of goods out to the bars and stalls at the end of the pier, and also acted as a permanent way train.

The Track

The track was laid at 3'6" gauge on 12"x4½" longitudinal sleepers and consisted of 45lb/yard flat-bottomed rail fastened with elastic rail spikes. Power was supplied by a centre third rail at 580v dc.


The two scissors crossovers were controlled by individual manually operated signal boxes cantilevered out from the side of the pier. Each box contained seven mechanical levers and two "Annett" keys for use as follows: 2 levers operated the crossover points, which were equipped with full Westinghouse point gear, with facing point locks and 17' locking bars, the plungers being driven through the stretcher bars and electrical detection provided for the facing points. The locking bars were installed at the end of the crossovers to prevent operation of the points while a train is passing over them. 4 levers operated the signals, 2 home and 2 starters. These signals were of the Westinghouse colour light type with repeaters in the box.The seventh lever is a King lever, which enabled the box to be switched out, operating in conjunction with suitably interlocked Annett keys to allow the two tracks to be operated independently with one train on each. Rotation locking was installed and the signal relays were controlled by depression bars suitably placed to prove that the platform roads were clear.

Operation in the 70s

Originally the east line was the up line and the west line was the down line, giving conventional left hand running. Trains were crossed to the appropriate line by the scissors crossovers situated approximately 400 yards from each station. By the nineteen-seventies the operation had changed to the following: both trains used the east platform at the North station and ran on the east track as far as the second crossover (Signal Box 1), where alternate trains were switched to the west track, thus utilising both platform faces at the South station. To prevent confusion as to which train was next to depart, the service was arranged so that both platforms were not occupied simultaneously, departing trains moved up to the signal protecting the crossover and waited there for the southbound train to cross. The west track between the crossovers was not used and the west platform in North station was used to stable the works loco.

The pier and railway featured in the opening titles of the Thames TV series Minder

Recent History

The pier was closed in the late seventies while three million pounds worth of repairs were carried out. When it finally reopened the electric railway was no more. Four cars went to Tal-y-Cafn including motor car 7. When the site closed car 7 was returned to Southend where it may eventually be put on display. Cars 21 and 22 are in the museum at the shore end of the pier along with one of the original signal boxes. The museum also has one of the 1899 built toastrack cars returned home after half a century at Brighton. Services are now operated by two seven car diesel trains, built by Severn-Lamb, running on 3' gauge track laid onconventional cross sleepers with a simplified layout, consisting of a singletrack and passing loop, reminiscent of 1893. The signalling is automatic.

The pierhead was badly damaged by fire on the evening of Sunday 9th October 2005, the South station being one of the structures destroyed, along with a pub and restaurant. As a result the pier, with its railway, was closed until August 2006. A new modern style station has now been built to replace the old one.

The latest information can be obtained from the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council Website.

1949 Electric Rolling Stock

A.C. Cars electric train

A.C. Cars electric train

Each motor coach was fitted with two 17hp traction motors, one at each end, driving through a cardan shaft to worm gears on the axles. The six motors of a train were controlled by the driver from the front cab. Rheostatic brakes were fitted for service braking, with air-brakes being used to bring the train to a standstill in the stations. A hand operated parking brake was also fitted. As the service ran all the year round, each motor car was equipped with a marine Kent clear-view screen.

All cars were fitted with air-operated centre doors controlled from the driver`s cab. The doors were electrically interlocked and a blue light in the cab indicated when all the doors were closed. Seating was of the transverse tram type in the trailer cars, the motor cars differing in having longitudinal benches behind the cab. Each car had 8 half drop type windows, fixed end windows and 8 curved side roof lights. Car interiors were wooden panelled with a minimum headroom of 6'. Central buffers and drawgear were fitted to all stock. Suspension consisted of leaf springs mounted on rubber suspension shear units to reduce vibration. All wheels were of the resilient type.

The trains were painted in a green and cream livery, lined out in black. Car numbers were painted centrally on each end and each side under the doors. Motor cars carried the Southend Corporation coat-of-arms over the end numbers.

Car 7 interior Trains passing
Interior of driving motor car 7. Note the reversible transverse seating and the longitudinal benches behind the cab.
The driver has lowered the cab blinds.
Two trains passing south of the second crossover.
Note the centre third rail and the longitudinal sleepers.
Train in North Station Train in South Station
Train awaiting departure from the North (shore) Station.
The building background right was the railway workshop.
Train in the South (pierhead) station.
The Kent clear view screen can be clearly seen.

A.C Cars Specification
Weight of motor car (unladen)5 tons 15 cwt5842kg
Number of passengers34
Weight of trailer car4 tons 4 cwt4267kg
Number of passengers38
Length over buffers29'6"9m
Height from rail-level7'9"2m 36
Overall width6'6"1m 98
Wheelbase14'6"4m 42
Wheel diameter24"60cm
Traction Motor rating17hp12.6kW
Transmission Gear ratio57/87.125:1
Maximum acceleration1mph/sec1.60kph/sec
Maximum braking rate1½mph/sec2.41kph/sec
Maximum speed18mph29kph

1986 Diesel Rolling Stock

Diesel Train leaving North Station

In 1986 the service was resumed with two train sets supplied by Severn Lamb. Each set consisted of a diesel-hydraulic locomotive at the southern end with five trailer cars and a driving trailer at the north end. The two locos are lettered A and B and carry the names Sir John Betjeman and Sir William Heygate respectively. Initially they carried the red and white livery shown, but more recently have been repainted in a striking blue and white scheme. The marine style clear view screens of the electric trains have been replaced with conventional windscreen wipers.


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