On any railway the engines are the prima donnas. The coaches and wagons are the supporting cast. The railway track, embankments, cuttings, bridges, level crossings and stations are the stage upon which the actors do their business. If you like, the signals are the stage lighting that allow the actors to be seen so that they don't bump into each other.
On the Isle of Wight railway there are over 5½ miles of railway track to be maintained. There are some 12 miles of fencing and hedging. There are several level crossings and many bridges. There are 20 signals and associated points. Altogether these amount to the all important stage upon which a daily performance has to take place. Thousands of people of all ages come to see the performance, day after day.
The Permanent Way Department is responsible for maintaining the stage in a safe and reliable fashion. Without a stage the actors cannot perform.
The railway track upon which the trains travel consist of steel rails held in cast iron chairs affixed to wooden timbers called sleepers. The whole is firmly bedded down in crushed granite. The granite supports the track and the load of trains passing over . It also provides excellent drainage preventing flooding and rotting of sleepers.
The rails are generally either 45 or 60 feet long and are joined together with plates and four large bolts.
The railway tries to take as level a route as possible so this means in places the track may be level with the surrounding ground or riding high on an embankment or in a cutting passing through a hill.
Sometimes a road or path needs to cross the track and a bridge is provided. In other places a bridleway or lane will cross level with the track at a level crossing protected by gates. Trains cannot stop suddenly or swerve like motor vehicles. They have to be strictly controlled. Signals indicate to a driver whether to go or stop and in which direction the train will go. Points deflect a train from one line to another. The points and signals are interlocked by a complex safety mechanism to prevent collisions and derailments.
All these matters require regular maintenance. They must be safe and reliable otherwise the show would not go on. After all, they are the stage and you can't have that collapsing.
Then of course new facilities are required and these are designed and built to exacting standards.
The responsibility for all these matters rest with the Chief Civil Engineer who manages the Permanent Way Department. Staff and volunteers in this department have a varied, challenging, interesting and responsible job. Just think of the skills involved!
If you feel inspired to come along and assist us in our work please contact the railway's volunteer coordinator to arrange an informal visit to meet the team. More details can be found on the Volunteer Information page.
The Civil Engineering Department publishes a monthly on-line news letter, Track Pack, which can be seen Here.