The 120-year-old plan for a tunnel from the New Forest to the Isle of Wight

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tunnel isle of wight
A map of the proposed tunnel from the New Forest to the Isle of Wight

TRAVELLING across the Solent is reputed to be one of the most expensive per mile in the world. But 120 years ago there were plans to bypass ferries altogether by building a tunnel linking the Isle of Wight to the New Forest.

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The scheme even progressed as far as a parliamentary bill giving permission for a seven-mile connection, with further proposals to divert the railway line at Brockenhurst to link to Keyhaven and create a new train station at Milford.

Labelled an “Islander’s dream”, the proposal ran out of steam when the First World War broke out – but enthusiasm was rekindled later when a widespread postcard drop garnered support.

However, nearly four decades after it was first mooted it was eventually sunk by spiralling costs and transport developments.

The extraordinary story has been laid bare in the third of a series of Bygone Brockenhurst books which chronicle the village’s history, written by resident John Purkess and edited by David Bennett.

Mr Bennett, chair of the Friends Brockenhurst Station, said: “We know this plan died – it was over ambitious – but we have now tunnelled under the English Channel.

“And if you’d said then to people that within half a century there would be craft hovering on a cushion of air playing their part in the link, they’d have been equally incredulous.

“Yet the hovercraft came into being, and indeed many were built on the Island. Brockenhurst and its station would be very different today if the tunnel scheme had gone ahead.

“There would be far more trains, especially freight, and the Isle of Wight would benefit from a link which wasn’t weather dependent.”

The idea for a tunnel surfaced in the 1890s, amid widespread frustration among Islanders at the time it took to get to London and a growing feeling of isolation during foggy or stormy weather.

Seizing upon that, businessman Frank Aman – who owned the Totland Bay Hotel – promoted the possibility of a Solent Tunnel. He considered a link would increase tourism by extending the holiday season on the Island.

By 1905 support for the idea ensured a bill made its way to parliament authorising the creation of a “South Western and Isle of Wight Junction Railway” by constructing a seven-mile tunnel.

It stipulated two-and-a-quarter miles would be under the Solent, from Keyhaven to a point between Yarmouth and Freshwater.

The railway track would leave the Lymington branchline north of Ampress to run west to Pennington and then to Keyhaven, with a spur for a station at Milford.

At the other end of the tunnel was proposed a triangular junction on the Newport, Yarmouth and Freshwater Railway. This would have provided access to Newport and the other island lines.

Electric traction would be used on the tunnel section and the locomotives would have run through to Brockenhurst, long before actual electrification in the 1960s.

Postcard imagining the ‘Islander’s dream’ of a tunnel to the Isle of Wight

Through trains from the Island to Waterloo would have been quicker than crossing by boat from Cowes or Ryde. But the plan met opposition from Lymington residents and then the start of the First World War scuppered its progress.

When the idea was suggested post-war it got even less traction, mostly because by that time the Southern Railway had invested heavily in piers and ferryboats.

Its growing expense was also beginning to put off the local authorities, and Mr Aman knew he needed to revitalise the possibility of his vision.

So in 1925 he organised and conducted among Islanders, which involved dropping a postcard into every household asking it to declare whether it was in favour of pursuing the tunnel.

The majority of those who responded were positive, but the plans hit the buffers when Islanders subsequently decided they were not prepared to raise the capital. It was finally laid to rest by the Isle of Wight Council in 1930.

But the idea did not disappear. Two years later famed railway historian Chapman Dendy Marshall wrote to The Engineer magazine, proposing a three-mile tunnel. While the idea created a lot of curiosity nothing came of it.

Mr Bennett added: “In many ways it’s a shame this plan didn’t go ahead and who knows, it may be revisited one day.”

While that idea might seem far-fetched it has not stopped Islanders frustrated by ferry prices from trying to launch a modern bid.

Since 2014, a group called Pro-Link has promoted the idea of a “Solent Freedom Tunnel” as an alternative to Wightlink and Red Funnel ferry crossings, plus a pedestrian tunnel under the Medina River at Cowes to replace the chain ferry.

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35 COMMENTS

  1. wont happen as each landowner like me will sue for FULL developed land price. To buy out all landowners at full price would cost billions plus the extra legal costs on top!
    this project will never happen

  2. Don’t talk, stupid, I will give my land for free, but I will also travel for free and the project returns in 2021 in March, May do more geo drilling

  3. The idea of a rail tunnel made sense when the island had a comprehensive rail network, there was a line connecting Yarmouth to Newport and most travellers didn’t have a car. Now everyone has a car, so it would either have to be a road tunnel or have shuttle trains for cars like the Channel tunnel has. Loading and unloading your car from a train wouldn’t be any quicker than the ferry. Road tunnels have to be much wider than a rail tunnel and correspondingly more expensive, and until we all have electric cars there is also the problem of ventilation. So it was a good idea in its time, but the time has now passed.

  4. It won’t happen in that location, but this project will go ahead in another location, which connects it to the M27, as the world leading infrastructure company, Arup, are now involved, & want to perform the viability study. The public have raised over £27k already. All the details are on here solentfreedomtunnel.co.uk

  5. I’m glad it won’t happen.. it’s unique being on an island and keeps to many unsavoury characters away

    • Do you mean the unsavoury characters that are already here, because the islands crime is already higher than Eastleigh, The New forest etc, so how do you explain that when they are connected to big cities by roads? The old scaremongering comments against a link have to stop, as they have been proven incorrect.

  6. Each selfish and out for a big profit landowner! By all means make a reasonable profit but do look at the bigger picture.

  7. Progress and innovation will always stand in the way of a modern Britain, we may live in a era of the longest reigning monarch, but without the drive and determination of the victorians progress and money will only be given where it matters, London!!

  8. What a small minded view of the world , reduce everything to monetary value. There is such a thing called ” the greater good and quality of life , which for sure a Tunnel would bring.

    • Exactly… it will be around a 6 min drive, depending on speed limits and length, & it will be considerably cheaper. Fixed links are classed as infrastructure, so the tolls are regulated by the government. At present the most expensive is around £10 return

      • How do you know it will be cheaper? By your own admission there hasn’t been any sort of feasibility study as yet.

        • Did you actually read my reply above? Road tolls are regulated by the government, or do you actually think you will have to pay £100 + in the summer on a road toll? Lol. Not a new feasibility study yet, but one was done in 1998.
          Usual scaremongering by an anti fixed linker

  9. I think it would be of great benefit to the island and should be built, if we can build channel tunnel and cross rail ,this project would be small in comparison and is possible . Should have been done years ago , don’t worry about faster journeys on hs2 when this part of the country isn’t even connected yet , get prioritys right and build a connecting tunnel here first.

  10. There is already a tunnel linking the Isle of Wight with the mainland no one knowns about, it is a military tunnel not far from the needles along with an underground barracks

  11. £27k woopy doo. Not much of a call for the tunnel then? Considering polls suggested the majotity wanted a tunnel the £130,000 should have been reached easily

  12. Fortunately, there is no real support here on the Island for any fixed link. Clearly demonstrated by the poor response to the fundraising and one of the proposers losing his deposit in the last general election when standing as a pro-tunnel, pro-Brexit candidate. This will still be discussed in another hundred years and long may that continue to be the case.

    • A lot of people are unaware of the fundraising, as they don’t read the county press or have Facebook, but that will change soon. Typical anti frightened of the viability study results

  13. Cant see problem with a tunnel as long as the communities are respected, only problem is getting a firm cost to build it.

  14. A rail link to the iow would be the best option as a road link would surely mean a motorway style exit which I suspect would be less popular for iow residents than a rail link

  15. Perhaps a Toll Tunnel is the answer . It would be a much cheaper option for holidaymakers and would encourage the ferry companies to offer realistic tariffs to those (like me) who prefer the sea crossing !

    • I agree, a road bridge would be a less expensive option and if it’s design were considered carefully could be very visually attractive.

  16. A road bridge would have to be on the lines of the Severn bridge. That or a tunnel would require vast areas of land. Modern roads suddenly reduced to island roads = chaos. This is a holiday themed island, don’t turn it into an industrial hub of Soton.

  17. I think basically the Island residents don’t want it, they enjoy the exclusivity of being an Island ‘race’. A bridge on the lines of the San Francisco bridges would be the answer but I suspect the advantages would be gained by the mainland side, easier and cheaper freight charges. In the long run the easier access would ruin that gem of the south coast.

  18. Listen people, the feasibility study by Arup would cost upwards of £500,000 then wharever cost someone comes up with for the cost of the project, double or even treble it. Lessons learned? Look at HS2 and the channel tunnel.

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