This is an interesting and characterful branch line, with a varied history. The story begins in 1807, when Royal Assent was received for the incorporation of the ‘’Harbour Company’’ to construct an extensive harbour at Folkestone, using finance provided by the Government’s Loans Commission. Construction began in the following year, and Scottish-born Thomas Telford acted as consulting engineer. Telford had previously been involved in the enlargement of Somerset House (The Strand, London), and had also engineered canals and roads in Shropshire. However, Parliamentary approval of the Folkestone Harbour project had originally been passed on the basis of a design developed by West County-born engineer William Jessop. Amended plans outlined a harbour of 14 acres in extent, a scaled-down figure from the original proposals. The formation of a harbour at this location had been helped by the presence of an existing spit head of shingle which partly formed the desired shape.
Twelve years were to pass before the project was deemed complete. The harbour walls were formed by laying two parallel rows of stone slabs, angled inwards at 45 degrees. The gap in-between the rows of slabs was subsequently in-filled with crushed stone. Three walls – or, rather, piers – were formed during the construction: West, South, and East. The former two were, essentially, two of the same thing, for the pair were joined together at right angles to form an L-shape harbour wall to the south. The East Pier was constructed for the purpose of protecting the harbour from incoming winds from this direction, and its presence created an enclosed body of water, accessed by means of 120-foot gap between it and the South Pier.
South Pier: 950 foot
West Pier: 400 foot
East Pier: 700 foot
The disadvantage of having a trapped body of water soon became apparent, as the current of the English Channel carried silt into the harbour, where the deposits settled. The Harbour Company deemed the silt removal process as too expensive, but this decision soon put paid to the profitability of the operation, and in 1842, the company went bankrupt.
In the meantime, railway expansion from London had been in full swing. The London & Greenwich Railway had commenced operation between Spa Road and Deptford on 8th February 1836, and in the same year, the South Eastern Railway (SER) was formed. The latter had received Royal Assent for the construction of a Weald of Kent line to Dover, branching off the existing London & Croydon and London & Brighton Railways’ metals at Redhill. The company commenced operation between London Bridge and Tonbridge on 26th May 1842, and this was followed by the opening of an eastward extension to Folkestone on 28th June 1843, the line initially terminating at temporary accommodation. A permanent station, named ‘’Folkstone’’ (note the missing ‘’e’’) was opened to traffic on 18th December 1843, after the completion of the impressive Foord Viaduct. The latter comprised nineteen arches, the tallest reaching 100-foot high, and took half a year to complete. In conjunction with the viaduct works and the opening of a new station site, the SER bought out the bankrupt Folkestone Harbour operation, and was eager to commence steamer services across the English Channel. Unfortunately, as a condition of the original 1836 Act of Incorporation, the company was forbidden to run a passenger boat operation to the Continent. To bypass this obstacle, the SER, and, indeed, other railway companies, established nominally independent concerns to run the steamers.
On acquisition of the harbour in 1843, the railway company began constructing a 1325-yard-long double-track branch line, descending at a gradient of 1 in 30, towards the water. This terminated at a coal jetty, and had a trailing connection with the incoming line from London. A peculiar characteristic of this branch from the outset was that it could only be accessed from the main line by means of a head-shunt manoeuvre into sidings. The SER’s jetty was originally constituted of a brick viaduct, of which twelve arches spanned the water for the majority of the harbour’s north to south width, and ran parallel with the west pier. The viaduct accommodated a double-track, and flanking the structure on either side were wooden additions which were each host to a single line – thus, in total, four tracks ran parallel with each other across the water here. The viaduct seemingly terminated in limbo, for there was a 150-foot gap between it and the southern pier. Behind the southern pier existed the aforementioned shingle spit; ultimately, the SER was to fill the breach and take the line over the remaining stretch of water, and establish extensive goods and passenger facilities upon the site. This the company did in 1847, and to permit continued access by boats to what had become the ‘’Inner Harbour’’, a swing bridge was built within the 150-foot gap. This rested upon a centrally-located brick support, and rotated upon an axis much in the same fashion as an aircraft propeller.
From 1843 onwards, when railway operation down the branch first commenced, through to 1847, when the line was fully extended over the whole width of the harbour by means of the earlier-mentioned swing bridge, the SER undertook a land reclamation task, which sought to extend the width of the shingle spit head southwards. Not only would this allow the construction of a terminus station and a large warehouse within a maze of lines, but it also laid the foundations for the construction of yet another pier. Passenger services to Folkestone Harbour commenced on New Years Day 1849, but only temporary arrangements were in place on the southern side of the water, as construction of the terminus was still ensuing. Completion of the station came in the following year: this became a two-platform northward-facing affair, serving a double-track and demonstrating an overall roof. 70 yards to the east of the station existed a rail-served goods warehouse, measuring 180-feet in length by 90-feet in width. A pair of spaced out tracks entered the building, the two being fed directly by small wagon turntables.
n 1893, a comprehensive rebuild of the site began, involving the demolition of the original terminus station and the creation of a through affair. Two platforms were built around a tight curve, which eventually gave the line a south-easterly heading towards a timber-built pier. The latter jutted out from the shingle spit and was served by a single-track from the goods sidings. Stone-faced single-storey offices appeared on both platform surfaces, and these in turn were fronted by ornate V-shaped platform canopies. Built on a lattice iron frame, the canopies demonstrated the typical SER clover valance design (an example of which can still be seen in existence at Maidstone West). The platforms were linked by an enclosed lattice footbridge, which was to the same design as that still in evidence at Maidstone West, and intercepted the canopies at their halfway point. A second, exposed lattice footbridge was also erected at the northern extremity of the station site, adjacent to the level crossing.
As part of the revisions, the goods yard to the east of the platforms was wholly revised and enlarged, and consequently, the aforementioned warehouse became sandwiched within a maze of tightly curved sidings. Over twenty-five sidings eventually appeared at the harbour site (including carriage berthing facilities west of the platforms), three of which entered the warehouse. The majority of the goods yard required a reversal manoeuvre to gain access: locomotives would proceed through the Harbour station platforms, and on reaching their ends, would be presented with a trailing junction. Here, goods and carriage sidings converged with the platform lines, and both sets of metals lead to a head shunt upon a timber-fabricated pier. As part of the same works, piecemeal rebuilding of the pier from wood to concrete began, and overall lengthening of the structure also occurred. A single SER-designed all-timber signal box was in evidence at station: this was positioned upon the southern end of the ‘’up’’ platform and controlled the junction between the platform lines and the carriage sidings. A second signal box, again of SER design, could be found on the northern side of the inner harbour water, built upon a brick pier jutting out from the west side of the railway viaduct.
The continued southerly extension of the pier, coupled with the rebuilding of it in concrete, gave rise to a second station. A single wooden-fabricated platform was erected alongside the ‘’up’’ track, south of the existing station, in 1905. It was physically detached from the harbour station, being separated from the latter’s ‘’up’’ platform by the single-track trailing connection from the carriage sidings to the west. The platform was protected by a flat-roof timber canopy, demonstrating the familiar clover-patterned valance. The two sites were connected by a lengthy exposed metal footbridge, and access to the pier required the payment of a toll. A second signal box was opened to control the complex arrangement of tracks upon the extended pier.
Circa 1915, track revisions took place at the northern end of the site, which involved removing the ‘’down’’ track wagon turntable sandwiched in-between the level crossing and the platform ends. A new signal box came into use upon the northern end of the ’’up’’ platform: this was built by the SE&CR, but clearly derived its design from those earlier cabins erected by contractor Saxby & Farmer. Complete with a brick base, timber upper half, and pyramid-shaped roof, a much larger example, but of the same ilk, came into use with the newly built Dover Marine terminus in February 1915.
Under the Southern Railway, changes at Folkestone Harbour were substantial. These commenced in 1930 with the removal of the lattice-patterned swing bridge across the inner harbour entrance. This was replaced by a heavier and more robust single-span steel bridge, which could support greater weight. The strengthened swing bridge would indeed have been immediately useful, for during the same decade, the SR tested the use of ”W” Class 2-6-4 and ”Z” Class 0-8-0 engines on the harbour branch. These were powerful locomotives, which were able to haul heavy loads up inclines and negotiate flying junctions with ease. However, restricted clearances put paid to their continued use on the Harbour line, and banking engines remained in the form of the 1910-introduced 0-6-0 R1 Class. The greatest of the SR’s works at the site commenced in 1938: the ‘’down’’ Harbour station platform was extended southwards, virtually doubling its length, and bringing its southern end in line with the sea end of the isolated pier platform. This produced a platform measuring about 215 yards in length, protected by a steel-framed canopy with a plain timber valance. The gap in-between the wooden pier platform and the Harbour station’s ‘’up’’ surface could not be in-filled to produce a similarly-long area, because between the two was the single track trailing connection with the carriage berthing sidings. As a consequence, the somewhat unusual arrangement of having a single, elongated ‘’down’’ platform, combined with two separate ‘’up’’ platform sections, was retained. At the southern extremities of both the ‘’down’’ and pier platforms, an enclosed concrete footbridge was installed. The enclosed lattice footbridge of SER origin, within the confines of the original Harbour station, had been removed in 1920, under SE&CR auspices.
The British Railways era witnessed the coming of the Western Region to Kent. In 1959, the elderly R1 Class tank engines, which had served the Folkestone Harbour branch well, were replaced by ex-GWR Pannier Tanks. Of the ‘’5700’’ series, these engines ran off Folkestone Junction shed, and remained on banking duties along the line until the last examples were re-allocated to Nine Elms and Salisbury sheds in November 1961. On 18th February of the following year, new colour light signalling was introduced as part of ‘’Phase 2’’ of the Kent Coast Electrification scheme. This system was controlled by a then new power box installed at Folkestone Junction; the SE&CR cabin at the northern end of the Harbour station remained in use to operate the level crossing and the points of the platform lines. The full accelerated electric timetable along the ex-SER Weald of Kent route, via Tonbridge and Ashford, commenced on 18th June 1962.
Goods facilities were withdrawn on 17th August 1968, resulting in the lifting of all those sidings east of the station. The cessation of steam-hauled services had also made the carriage berthing sidings to the west of the platforms redundant, and their removal finally allowed a substantial southward extension of the ‘’up’’ platform. This became significantly longer than the ‘’down’’ platform, and was ultimately extended to the end of the concrete pier, complete with a simple upward-slanting glazed canopy. It is worth noting that at the southern end of the ‘’down’’ platform, the layout narrowed to single track, and third rail was not extended beyond this set of points.
In 1980, an enclosed transparent footbridge was erected over the top of the station, just south of where the long-gone SER lattice footbridge would have resided. This provided the ‘’up’’ platform with a direct link to the passenger ferry terminal situated immediately adjacent the ‘’down’’ side of the station. Folkestone Harbour continued to be served by regular boat trains for many years and indeed, outlasted its counterpart Dover Western Docks (Marine) when this closed in 1994, in response to the opening of the Channel Tunnel. Despite surviving closure, boat traffic to the Harbour station was drastically reduced, and in its final days it only had two scheduled connecting services: one from Charing Cross, connecting with the 11:15 Sea Cat service to Boulogne, then another at 13:15, connecting with the return working. With the transference of the Sea Cat to Ramsgate in September 2000, rail services to the Harbour station ceased, such occurring shortly before the Summer 2001 railway timetable came into use. The third rail was de-energised later on in the same year and the track work subsequently deteriorated to the extent that the ”up” line was taken out of use. Reviving fortunes seemed to occur in May 2002 with the installation of TPWS along the branch, but the rails of the ”up” line were later lifted, although charter services did soon commence. In April 2006, new plans were published showing a total redevelopment of Folkestone Harbour. This included the conversion of the whole harbour site into a marina and the permanent closure (and presumably, demolition) of the railway branch.
Folkestone Harbour: Life after Death
The closure date of this station is currently not clear, and when a particular service seems to be the final one, another event appears on the schedule! The last VSOE service was originally scheduled for 9th November 2006, followed by the final train of the year – in the form of the ”Blue Pullman” – on 14th December. A stay of execution was seemingly granted, and a steam-hauled charter ran on 27th January 2007. On 12th April 2008, it really did seem like the end of the line for the Folkestone Harbour branch: a final steam-hauled charter, fronted by Bulleid Light Pacific No. 34067 ‘’Tangmere’’, ran to mark the ultimate closure of the line, and this service was followed by a trio of Class 73 Electro-Diesels (Nos. 73204, 73205, and 73209) traversing the route. However, despite this final ‘’closure’’ event, VSOE services continue to use the Harbour branch every Thursday, running from London Victoria. With Network Rail receiving a number of objections to the closure of the branch from rail bodies, including the Department for Transport, perhaps this renowned appendix of the South Eastern Division railway network is not doomed after all. The original intention was to concentrate VSOE services at an improved Folkestone West station. For the time being, the VSOE service continues to run down the Folkestone Harbour branch from London Victoria, every Thursday and Sunday.
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