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The World's Smallest Railway

Updated on July 26, 2016

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway

Children’s eyes beam with excitement as the little train arrives at the full scale station at Hythe in Kent. The youngsters clamber into the small carriages with ease whilst their parents squeeze themselves, somewhat less comfortably, in alongside. A little discomfort is all part of the attraction of ‘The Smallest Railway in the World’, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway.

The railway was the dream of two men, Count Louis Zborowski and Army Officer Captain Jep Howey. Both men were millionaire racing drivers who enjoyed taking risks. In the mid 1920’s the Count decided he wanted to build a fully working express railway using the 15 inch gauge. Howey, meanwhile, had established a reputation for owning and operating such trains. The pair got together and made an ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in the Lake District. Undeterred, Howey and Zborowski sought out suitable areas to build a 15 inch gauge railway and eventually selected a stretch of coastline in Kent between Hythe and the desolate and isolated area around Dungeness. The route did not have any railway line and was suitably flat. What would today be called ‘the business plan’ foresaw a sizeable seasonal trade with passengers wanting to explore the Kentish coastline, as well as providing a regular link for residents. The train builders Davey, Paxman and Co of Colchester soon received an order for two Pacific locomotives. These would be christened Green Goddess and Northern Chief.

Tragically, the Count never saw the trains or the railway having been killed in the Italian Grand Prix in 1924. Now Jep Howey would have to go it alone. Having established the location for his light railway with Henry Greenly, the leading model railway engineer of his day, work started on building the railway line.

On 16 July 1927, the railway was officially opened linking Hythe to New Romney. At first there was only eight miles of double length track linking the two largest towns, but there were other areas that needed to be linked, Greatstone and Dymchurch. By 1928 these had been added to the line that now measured thirteen and a half miles in length.

The early years of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway were good ones with people wanting to ride on ‘The smallest Public Railway in the World’. The success led to the purchase of more rolling stock, eventually totalling nine main line express engines and a fleet of luxurious coaches.

Tourism died throughout the six years of the Second World War and as the Romney Marsh was thought to be amongst the German’s preferred invasion routes the whole south coast was heavily fortified. Amongst these defences the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was quickly taken over by the military. The track proved its value during the construction of PLUTO (Pipeline under the ocean) which pumped fuel to the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944.

Peace returned in late 1945 and with it came the desire to re-open the line. Pressure on resources meant that the managers had to wait until 1946 to open the section between Hythe and New Romney. The following year the stretch to Dungeness was re-opened with the comic film stars Laurel and Hardy cutting the ribbon.

The 1950’s and 1960’s were the halcyon days of the railway with a boom in tourism, but the attractiveness of cheap foreign holidays took the shine off the business in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Jep Howey died in September 1963 but his legacy remained.

In 1973 the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway was transferred to a consortium headed by Sir William MacAlpine who oversaw new investment in the facilities with new rolling stock to replace worn out engines and coaches, whilst urgent repairs were made to the tracks.

Today the railway is something to treasure and enjoy. Volunteers keen to see it survive work on the line and it provides a vital link between the coastal communities on the Romney Marsh. Every morning local schoolchildren clamber on board to go to school on board ‘The Smallest Railway in the World’.

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