The Gillingham to Chatham Dockyard Railway Link

Just to the east of Gillingham Railway Station in Kent, about half way along Railway Street, there used to be a hump-backed bridge. If you looked over the south side of the bridge, you could see a single-track railway line running from a spur on the down, coastbound, side of the main railway line. Crossing the road and looking over the other side, the railway line headed north and disappeared along a cutting in the maze of cramped Edwardian streets to the north of Gillingham Station. People said it went to Chatham Dockyard, but the maps always showed a blank area there. So, what was this line for, and where did it actually go?

In 1872 questions were asked in the House of Commons about the possibility of linking the Chatham Dockyard and other Military Establishments with the main railway line. This would allow the materials required for shipbuilding to be transported directly into the dockyard from the manufacturing plants in the north of the UK. At the time, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company was unable to undertake new work, but after The Admiralty got involved, a new railway link was opened in 1877.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link viewed from Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent. As a small, old goods line, the railway track is not continuously welded like the mainline track. Instead it still has separate sections of line joined with fishplates, and held to the sleepers with metal clips.

The new line started as a spur off of the main railway line east of New Brompton (now Gillingham) Railway Station near the level crossing, running northwards past the sidings that are now the station car park, and under the Railway Street bridge. It continued along the east edge of Kingswood Road, under the bridge on Burnt Oak Terrace, along the east edge of Brooklyn Paddock, then along the west edge of Rosebery Road, crossing both Rosebery Road and the A289 Pier Road. It then turns west and entered the dockyard at the gate that was just to the north of Gillingham Gate Road. The line is single along the length of the link, and it turns so sharply west at its north end that it takes the whole width of the bridge across Pier Road, even though that bridge looks wide enough for twin tracks.

There are separate bridges over Rosebery Road and Pier Road, with the Pier Road bridge being rather newer, built somewhere around 2000. I once saw a map with descriptions of old cold war defences on it, and it mentioned that the railway link had two blocks of concrete that allowed a steel girder to be welded across the line, in case of invasion. I'm not sure if that was just planned or whether it was actually built.

Until the early 2010s there was a scrap yard just before the dockyard gate, which had another spur line of its own, but all of this has been cleared away and redeveloped. Inside the dockyard the railway line continued and split into dozens of different lines covering almost all of the yard. Looking at the old photos from Google Earth, it looks like almost every road inside the dockyard had at least one railway line running along it.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link Viewed From Gillingham Level Crossing, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link viewed from Gillingham Level Crossing, Gillingham, Kent. The Dockyard Link line is on the right, branching off from the rightmost line where the grass covers the track. The old freight yard was behind the grey pallisade fence by the cell phone mast, where the car park is now.

At the southern end of the line there was a small rail yard next to the bridge which lasted until around 1970. Where rail wagons used to be stored is now the station car park; maybe that's why the car park is so far away from the entrance.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link Disappears Towards The Dockyard. Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link disappears towards the Dockyard. Viewed from Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent. Although the line was still in use when this photo was taken, it wasn't regular enough to stop the track starting to become overgrown. You can also see how narow the line was, and how close the gardens are to it, with the chain-link fence on the far side and the embankment in the foreground.

The line was in use for around a hundred years, taking cargo to the dockyard, and bringing empty goods wagons back to the main line. Trains would travel down the line and wait to be allowed through the dockyard's Gillingham Gate. After entering the dockyard, the locomotive would have to wait for the dockyard crews the shunt the train away and return with another train of empty wagons. Apparently around the time of the Second World War, the mainline rail crew were not allowed to get off of the locomotive and, if they did, had to be escorted everywhere. This sounds similar to the way things work in any other secure facility even today.

As time went by though, like so many other parts of the towns the line seemed to be forgotten. I didn't know about it until one day I stopped to look over the edge of the only hump-backed bridge in the area, and saw an overgrown single railway line. Wandering around nearby I saw that it ran down towards the Dockyard, but even that was somewhere mysterious. Although around four or five generations of my family worked there, nobody really spoke about it to anyone outside "The Yard", possibly because it was just somewhere they worked, and also because so much of it was secret - it was a Military Establishment after all. Until quite some time after it closed, it was enclosed by the high walls that still surround most of it, and it appeared on maps of the towns as a huge blank area with no buildings, docks or other geographical features. Following it down as far as I could, I saw that it went over Pier Road and disappeared towards the scrap yard, so I couldn't go any further. I wandered past there a few more times over the years, put off of getting too close not so much by the 'Danger Trains' signs - there weren't that many trains, but by the "Ministry Of Defence" signs accompanying them. Even if you tend to ignore warning signs, those are ones to take notice of.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, With New Ballast. Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, viewed from Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent. Despite a lack of regular trains, the ballast here had been recently replaced to keep the track fit for use. From here you can also see that the line has old wooden sleepers, and the sole plates that hold the rails are bolted to the sleepers.

For a while during the 1980s the Dockyard Spur was disconnected from the main line but then, unusually for these things, it was reconnected. This was probably when parts of the dockyard became a commercial port, and someone realised rail transport direct from the yard would be a good method to move materials.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, Ministry Of Defence 'Danger Trains' Sign. Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, Ministry Of Defence 'Danger Trains' sign.

A few years after the dockyard closed there was talk of redeveloping it. At that time I travelled to work by train and sometimes used to speak to the guards. I was told by a few of them about the trains carrying blue asbestos from the dockyard. Apparently a lot of these trains had "meters that made a clicking noise" around them, which sounded a lot like Geiger counters. So, as well as asbestos there sounded like something radioactive being moved. This wasn't surprising - it was an open secret that the last work that was carried out at the dockyard was to change the reactor cores of the UK's nuclear submarines, and the waste had to go somewhere. After being stored nearby it was moved by rail along the link to the main line, accompanied by Royal Marines for protection, and then seemed to be spirited away to waste facilities in other parts of the UK. Running 24 hours a day, every four hours, trains removed and replaced a total of 1.2 million cubic metres of topsoil from St Mary's Island so that the island could be redeveloped with a new community.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, Looking Overgrown Even Though It Was Still In Use. Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, looking overgrown even though it was still in use.

The line continued in use for hauling freight from the dockyard to the main rail network, but by April 2015 it had been removed at the north end at the edge of the Chatham Waters development, near the location of the old nuclear storage facility. On Google Earth it looks like the end of the line is now unsecured, if overgrown. It's a strange thing to have done, especially given the high cost of the new replacement bridge that was put across the four lane Pier Road in the late 1990s. Up until then there were rumours that the line was going to be reinstated and run into the dockyard once more, and that its existence was a matter of national security and its continued presence a condition of sale to Peel Ports. None of this appears to have been the case.

Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, Medway Ports 'No Fly Tipping' Sign. Viewed From Rosebury Road, Gillingham, Kent.
Chatham Dockyard Railway Link, Medway Ports 'No Fly Tipping' sign.

Once the northern end was removed, it was only a matter of time until it was severed from the main railway line, especially as maintaining a set of points is more expensive than maintaining straight sections of line. By August 2016, the lines were no longer joined. The bridge carrying Railway Street over the line is still there, although the brick hump backed bridge was replaced by a longer, flatter and sadly characterless bridge, with obligatory graffiti. Even when the line was open, litter was collecting on it and larger items like mattresses were dumped there over the edge of the bridge on Burnt Oak Terrace. Now that the trains are gone and the line is overgrown, the cutting is bound to attract more fly tippers.

The commercial docks in the eastmost Basin, No 3, are owned by Peel Ports, as is the land used for Chatham Waters and the railway right of way. Chatham Waters seems to be keeping up the tradition started by HM Dockyard Chatham, being named after Chatham, but actually being at least mostly in Gillingham.

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