Tonbridge Shed


Although partially turned over to commercial premises, much of the former Tonbridge engine shed site is still in railway use today. It has become home to a Multi-Purpose Vehicle (MPV) depot, used to stable and service those units involved in track maintenance. A two-road depot building is complemented by six sidings, located in the fork of diverging Ashford and Tunbridge Wells lines, which sprang up in 2008. Once, however, the site was home to over sixty steam locomotives at its peak, located at an important junction on a main line from London to the Channel ports.

The South Eastern Railway (SER) started running scheduled passenger trains between London Bridge and Tonbridge (then called “Tunbridge”) via Redhill on 26th May 1842. It is likely that an engine shed was evident at Tonbridge from the outset, given that it was the terminus of the line until an eastward extension to Ashford was opened to passenger traffic on 1st December of the same year. Ordnance Survey maps from the 1860s show a three-track dead-end engine shed, facing in the Ashford direction, nestled in the apex of Hastings and Kent Coast routes. The shed could only be accessed through a reversing manoeuvre into a siding, and behind the building, situated at a right angle to it, was a three-track carriage shed. The latter had an even more complicated access procedure than the former: a reversing manoeuvre was first made into the same siding used for engine shed movements, after which a small rolling stock turntable had to be negotiated. The diagram below illustrates the positions of engine and carriage sheds relative to each other and the tracks over which they were accessed.

Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool

By the early 1890s the locomotive depot had nearly quadrupled in size. The adjacent carriage shed had been taken down and the original locomotive building extended westwards over the former’s approaches, giving it a total length of about 140-feet. A second shed building was added to the southern side of the original depot structure, covering a further three westward-facing tracks and extending to a total length of about 190-feet. Like the original shed building, the mentioned extensions were brick-built with slated pitched roofs. A turntable was installed immediately northwest of the shed structure, replacing a smaller one to the west which was remote from the depot and adjacent to the junction between Ashford and Tunbridge Wells routes. Two tracks approached the turntable from the west, these of which flanked either side of a coal stage.

The diagram below illustrates the enlarged locomotive depot; it also shows a standalone building to the south of the former, which accommodated three northwestward-facing dead-end tracks. Your author suspects this was a carriage shed which replaced the earlier structure when the locomotive depot was enlarged.

Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool

By 1936, under the Southern Railway, a replacement turntable had been provided on the southern side of the shed. This required the abolition of the triple-track rolling stock shed which had been commissioned as part of the SER’s original enlargement works.

A significant wave of alterations were pushed through under British Railways (BR). The first was coding the shed “74D” using the ex-LMS numbering system, it formally being under Ashford’s umbrella. In 1952, the engine shed lost its pitched roof profile; trapezium-shaped brick gables were installed, linking both sections of the engine shed complex. A new roof comprising a metal frame of ridge-and-furrow type was erected and clad in asbestos. The adjacent coal stage - which unlike those at many sheds was not elevated upon an embankment - received a pitched-roof canopy of metal frame construction. Like the roof of the running shed, the coal stage canopy was clad in asbestos.

As of 1947, sixty-four steam locomotives were allocated to Tonbridge. By 1955, this number had dropped to fifty-five engines, and as of 1959, the allocation had further reduced to forty-five. The depot was recoded to "73J" in October 1958, as a precursor to the abolition of steam traction on Kentish main lines. The full electric timetable came into force between London and the Kent Coast via Chatham and Ashford on 15th June 1959 and 18th June 1962 respectively, eliminating nearly all steam-hauled services in the county. However, a couple of pockets of steam traction remained; notably, the Central Division branch line to Tunbridge Wells West, and the Redhill to Tonbridge line, which had escaped the third rail.

In your author’s experience, exact closure dates of engine sheds to steam are difficult to ascertain. Locomotives were known to use facilities even after depots were supposedly out of use, and closure did not always coincide with accelerated timetables going live. Some sources suggest that Tonbridge survived as an active engine shed into 1964, which sounds plausible, given that steam continued to front services from there to Redhill until January of the following year. The Summer 1962 Edition of the Ian Allan ABC Combined Volume of shed and locomotive listings still shows an entry for Tonbridge (73J); however, by the 1962/1963 Winter Edition, the shed was nowhere to be seen, suggesting that it closed to steam when the full accelerated timetable via Ashford went live. By late 1962, just Hither Green, Ashford, and (surprisingly) Faversham remained in the “73” shed series; Stewarts Lane had since moved under the Brighton group as 75D.

After closure, the main shed buildings were demolished, but the offices running along their southern elevation retained. The turntable pit was in-filled and occasionally used as a staff car park. Diesels were stabled at the site post-steam, a series of westward-facing sidings remaining in place upon the former shed area, but your author cannot find any evidence of an official locomotive allocation for this period.

Click the above for a larger version. © David Glasspool


"C" Class No. 31588 is seen at the eastern end of the shed yard in this London-bound view. In the background can be seen the shed building with its trapezium-shaped roof sections, installed by BR in 1952. Lurking in the darkness of the shed can just be seen a "Type 3" (later "Class 33") diesel, these locomotives having started to arrive in force on the South Eastern Division by that time. © David Glasspool Collection


Pictured above are the trio of sidings which can be seen on the 1955 diagram, at the eastern extremity of the shed site. From left to right are "C" Class No. 31592, "H" Class No. 31263, and BR Standard Tank No. 80066. No. 31592 was fortunate enough to survive into preservation, initially finding a home at the "South Eastern Steam Centre" upon the former Ashford Shed site in 1968; the engine eventually moved to the "Bluebell Railway". No. 31263 was also saved after withdrawal in January 1964, initially being stored in the "down" sidings at Robertsbridge station, with the ultimate aim of it working on a preserved Westerham branch line. The latter never happened and, after a period at the former Ashford Shed site, the engine eventually found a permanent home on the "Bluebell Railway". As for No. 80066, this locomotive was a regular performer on Central Division branch lines around Tunbridge Wells and Lewes and, by November 1963, was based on the South Western Division at Eastleigh. © David Glasspool Collection


"Schools" Class No. 30929 "Malvern" is seen at the eastern end of the shed, upon the southern-most sidings. The original negative is dated 31st December 1962, but after some research your author believes this to be incorrect, because by 8th of that month No. 30929 was already on the scrap line at Eastleigh. Plus, Tonbridge had disappeared from official shed lists by this time and it seems unlikely that lines of withdrawn locomotives, wearing head code discs and comprising tenders full of coal, would be stored out of use there so late on. As of 1st May 1959, No. 30929 was listed as a Bricklayers Arms (73B) engine. © David Glasspool Collection