Vessels equipped with rail tracks on their decks have been transporting passengers in carriages or cargo in rail wagons in coastal waters with little tidal range for nearly two hundred years. On land, George Stephenson was building steam locomotives to haul coal from mines at Killingworth in Northumberland in 1814, with ten more locomotives following during the next decade, and the first regular passenger train in the world began operating from Stockton to Darlington in 1825. On water, one has to move further north to the Kirkintilloch and Monkland Railway in 1833 for a rail system to begin operating carrying coal in wagons on barges fitted with rails across the Forth and Clyde Canal. Here, there were no tidal considerations in keeping the vessel level with the tracks of the shore, but where tidal ranges were a problem, the shore terminal ramps were later made adjustable by a balanced weights system in order to roll the wagons onboard in safety.
In 1850, the East Coast Main Line was extended north from Edinburgh to Dundee and Aberdeen by twin funnelled passenger train ferries across the Firth of Forth from Granton to Burntisland and also across the Tay, and which were only later made redundant by the construction of the three cantilevers of the Forth Rail Bridge and bridges across the Tay. American rail wagons were transported across the Susquehanna river between Havre de Grace ad Perryville (Maryland) from 1836, and a Danish rail ferry passenger service began across the Little Belt in 1872, with Danish to German State passenger railway systems established in 1903 from Warnemunde to Gedser, and German to Swedish State passenger railway systems in 1909 from Sassnitz to Trelleborg.
During World War I, a vital train ferry service operated from the present day Mayflower Park in Southampton, and from Richborough in Kent, to three Continental terminals to speed up the supply of munitions and troops to the front line. Train Ferry Number 1, Train Ferry Number 2, and Train Ferry Number 3 were of 2,683 gross tonnes and of 250.6 feet in length, moulded beam of 58.7 feet, and depth of 15.5 feet. They were delivered in November 1917 from the Armstrong, Whitworth yard on the Tyne and the Fairfield yard on the Clyde, with Leonard of 3,365 grt built in 1915 for CNR of Canada also used. They were twin screw and powered by twin triple expansion steam engines, with twin rail tracks on entry to the vessel, broadening out to four rail tracks for most of the length, and all with carefully balanced weight calculations to avoid capsizing.
Harwich to Zeebrugge and Dunkirk Freight Train Ferries
The Continental loading system that had been used at Dunkirk during World War I was dismantled and shipped to Zeebrugge at the end of the war in barges, and then rebuilt in Zeebrugge Ferry Dock. The two British loading terminals were moved from Southampton and Richborough to Harwich on barges, however the Southampton terminal was lost on 4th September 1923 when 2.5 miles from the Cork Light Vessel, and although raised in parts it was found to be useless for the task of building a loading terminal in Harwich Dock (not the present day Parkeston Quay). The Richborough loading terminal was then sent as a replacement to Harwich, and with Prince George in attendance a fully operational freight train service began operating on 24th April 1924 from Harwich to Zeebrugge using two of the three war built train ferries mentioned above, with the third joining in July 1924. The rail wagon rolling stock was mostly Belgian and of various types and capacities, as the system was jointly operated by two new companies in Great Eastern Ferries Ltd. of England, and the Societe Belgo-Anglaise des Ferry Boats S.A., a subsidiary of Belgian State Railways. The two companies also jointly owned the shore terminals at Harwich and Zeebrugge.
Ownership of the three Harwich train ferries was taken over in 1934 by the London and North Eastern Railway Company (LNER). The trio were taken over by the Admiralty on the outbreak of World War II, and served in various roles including evacuation ships from France and the Channel Islands, tank transporters and ferries on other routes e.g. Stranraer to Larne. Train Ferry Number 2 was wrecked after being shelled and after reconditioning in 1946, Train Ferry Number 1 was renamed Essex Ferry in July of that year, while Train Ferry Number 3 was scrapped at the end of 1945.
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