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Gatwick and its Stations

Gatwick Racecourse station

Gatwick Racecourse station looking tidy and well cared for in 1956.

photograph by Jim Aston/Bluebell Railway Museum Archive.

Gatwick - the name

Gatwick may never have had a railway station had it not been for the racecourse and subsequent airport; because of these it has had no less than three stations since 1891. It is therefore important to understand the history of Gatwick as it is intertwined with the railway, its stations and the trains that served them. As an airport Gatwick was the first in the world to provide a direct interchange between air, rail and road transport.
In terms of its name, Gatwick has been traced back to John de Gatwick who acquired some twenty-two acres of land around Charlwood. Subsequently becoming the Manor of Gatwick, the land passed from the de Gatwick family in on to various land owners the 14th century.
The railway through Gatwick opened on 12th July 1841 and whilst Network Rail suggests an 1876 station at Gatwick, no record of this can be located.

Gatwick (1891) Station

The Gatwick Race Course Company purchased Gatwick in 1890 with the race course opening in 1891 in order to replace Waddon Racecourse which closed in November 1890.
It was not without some irony that Waddon Racecourse became the site for the world's first international airport. Croydon Aerodrome officially opened for passenger traffic in March 1920 closing in September 1959 following the opening of Gatwick Airport.
September 1891 (some sources also quote March 1891) saw the opening of Gatwick station, the site of which is underneath part of the current Gatwick Airport station.
A special train to view the new course ran on 2nd May 1891, according to Surrey Mirror of that date, but opening to regular race-special trains was from 7th October 1891, according to information from the railway in Railway Clearing House documentation. Curiously, the statin appeared briefly in Bradshaw's Monthly Railway Guide (timetable) from June 1907 until November 1907, although it's not clear why it started or finished!
Besides the Up and Down Main lines that station had two new Up Loops and a new Down Loop line. There were two pairs of island platforms between each loop and its respective main line. In addition there was a further single platform along the second (western-most) Up Loop; this having direct access into the racecourse.
Facilities at the station were basic with no canopies or waiting rooms save a small building on the platform adjacent to the racecourse. The tracks were crossed by an open footbridge.
Sidings were provided for holding the return workings of race trains; the station only being used on race days; these are still present today although now see little use.
The station had two Signalboxes, both located on the down side. These were brought into use on 1st October 1891. An Up Relief line from Gatwick to Horley opened in October 1892, this becoming the Up Slow in 1907.
Powers for the quadrupling were obtained in 1899 and this was brought into use in 1907. This saw the replacement of two 1891 Signalboxes with a 75-lever box in 1907. The wooden Signalbox was 42' long, 12' wide atop a 9' wide brick base on platforms 3 & 4. Sykes Lock and Block was employed to Horley South (707yds north); Harper's Block to Tinsley Green (1m 602yds south). There was no 'box closing-out switch.
The quadrupling led to Gatwick being used for 'ordinary' traffic between June and November 1907; outside these dates the station was only used for race traffic.
Electrification came on 17th July 1932 and the nearby 1907 Signalbox at Tinsley Green closed on 5th June 1932. This 25-lever wooden Signalbox/brick base was 22' long, 12' wide and employed Harper's Block to Gatwick and Three Bridges North (1m 276yds south). It was only open 7 am to 11 pm weekdays and 7am to 10pm summer Sundays.
The racecourse itself now lies underneath both airport terminal buildings and their aprons; its orientation having been north-west to south-east.
As a race course, arguably Gatwick's place in history was during the First World War when for the only time in history, the world's greatest steeple chase was held away from Aintree.
Following the 1915 "Grand National" Aintree had been requisitioned by the War Office so in 1916 Gatwick hosted "The Racecourse Association Steeplechase" with a course length identical to the Grand National's 4 miles and 856 yards. The following year's race (1917) was renamed "The War Steeplechase" and the prize money from these two years was donated to the home for blinded soldiers. The final "National" to be held at Gatwick was in 1918; the winner "Poethlyn" being ridden by Ernie Piggott, the grandfather of the very well known jockey, Lester Piggott.
Although aircraft had been based at Gatwick from November 1928, Gatwick Airport only really came into being when the airfield was licensed as such in early August 1930. During the early 1930s race goers could arrive by road, train or air.
Airports Limited was formed in 1934 and with the Air Ministry issuing Gatwick with its first public licence that year, commercial aircraft commenced use of the airport with Hillman's Airways being the first airline to operate out of Gatwick to Paris and Belfast. In 1935 they merged with United Airways and Spartan Airways to form Allied British Airways Limited. In the same year (1935) Airports Limited became public and plans for a terminal building were raised.
In 1936 the Southern Railway Magazine listed stations at Gatwick (open race-days only) and Tinsley Green for Gatwick Airport. However, in 1937 it listed Gatwick Racecourse (open race-days only) and Gatwick Airport. Certainly by 1938 the name Gatwick Racecourse had appeared in the working timetable.
The last WW2 race meeting, served by trains, was on 15th June 1940 - but the station was used again a few times in 1948/9 for air pageants, according to the Daily Express the last being 23th July 1949. The racecourse closed in 1940 but at present no actual closure date for Gatwick station can be located. Perhaps given the war it just fell into disuse on the basis the racecourse might reopen after hostilities ceased?

Tinsley Green (1935) Station

In 1934 Airports Ltd paid the Southern Railway £3000 towards Gatwick's second railway station, which opened on 30th September 1935 and was initially served by two trains an hour. With platforms on both slow and fast lines, constructed with concrete harp & slabs, the station was renamed Gatwick Airport on 1st June 1936. Signal Instruction N°35 of 1935 confirms this opening date of "Tinsley Green for Gatwick Airport".
The Times' issue of 29th May 1936 carried a report (article datelined 28th May) which used the new name prematurely in a rather throw-away aside about the station. Alteration from Tinsley Green to Gatwick Airport was confirmed as 1st Jun 1936 (by Cheshire Lines Committee CF Circular N°448 of 12th May 1936). That Circular also explained that the renaming had initially been intended to be 5th July 1936 but was preponed to be in advance of official opening of the airport on 6th June.
Connected by a covered footbridge, the station had waiting rooms and canopies on all four platforms.
On Sunday 17th May 1936 Gatwick's first scheduled air service left for Paris, operated by British Airways ("Allied" had been dropped in October 1935). Even then, through ticketing was available as the single fare of four pounds and five shillings included a first class ticket from Victoria! Other flight destinations were Malmo via Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and the Isle of Wight. The Southern Railway was now serving Gatwick Airport, some of whose air services were in direct competition!
British Airways Ltd moved to Heston in 1938 and its competition on European services so threatened Imperial Airways that in November 1937 a Parliamentary committee proposed the nationalization and merger of Imperial and British Airways. When the reorganization was completed on 24th November 1939, the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) was formed. The connection with British Airways Plc is purely historical via the British Airways Board, which was formed from the merger April 1974 of BOAC and BEA.
The 6th June 1936 saw the opening of the Beehive; the world's first circular airport terminal. With a 130-yard foot tunnel to the station (thus allowing passengers to remain dry, although the tunnel often flooded) aircraft could pull right up to the terminal building.
Designed by architects Alan Marlow, Frankin Hoar and Bill Lovett the (now restored) Beehive with its patent on the moving telescopic canopies, which radiated out from the terminal building to the aircraft, was arguably a significant step in the design of airport terminal buildings. It is understood that a narrow gauge railway was involved in the airport construction work.
With the Second World War, Gatwick was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for use by the RAF. This including extending the airfield into part of the racecourse which saw its last race in 1940. Following the Second World War Gatwick was retained under requisition and operated by the Ministry of Civil Aviation saw civilian charter operations. Having had government approval in 1952 for the development of Gatwick, the airport closed in March 1956 to enable building of the "New London Airport". However Gatwick Airport (1935) station remained open and with the last trains on the 27th May 1958 it finally closed in favour of the new airport station on 28th May 1958.
The 1935 station remained derelict for many years. Eventually the copers were removed and in the late 1970s platforms 2, 3 & 4 of the 1935 station were razed and the slow lines straightened in readiness for Tinsley Green Junction.
Now in a position away from the Up Slow, the former station building even saw use as office accommodation for at least one of Gatwick Airport's many businesses.

The present (1958) Gatwick Airport Station

The new and current Gatwick Airport station opened on the 28th May 1958 with Her Majesty The Queen officially opening Gatwick Airport itself on 9th June 1958. Signal Instruction No 1 1958 entitled "Bringing into use an additional running line and altered signalling arrangements at Gatwick Airport (previously known as Gatwick Racecourse) on Sunday 25th May 1958" states "Gatwick Racecourse signal box will be renamed Gatwick Airport". It is assumed that the (1907) Gatwick signal box was renamed Gatwick Racecourse with either the opening or renaming of Tinsley Green station. Certainly the 1922 Appendix also refers to "Gatwick" and the 1934 Appendix calls the 'box "Gatwick". as do signalling instructions up to May 1935.
When it was built the facing bricks were chosen specially to match the then existing LB&SCR Signalbox. The use of these dark bricks was continued in subsequent extensions and so there is a legacy from the Signalbox in the current station. These more modern bricks have not weathered very well and make parts of the station look quite dowdy, especially around the link bridges.
By 1962, the terminal was already being doubled in size and runway extensions occurred in 1964, 1970 and 1973. As a passenger terminal the Beehive had been abandoned with its apron used by helicopters; the whole area being severed from the new airport by the realigned and widened A23 roadway. Airport expansion continued and a second (North) terminal was opened by Her Majesty The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988; this being linked to the South Terminal and railway station by a 29-mph rubber-tyred automatic transit system.
As an airport, significant events worthy of note were the arrival of Pope John Paul II in 1982, on the first Papal visit to the United Kingdom, whilst 1985 saw Concorde making its first commercial flight from Gatwick. In 1987 BAA plc, of which Gatwick Airport Ltd is a wholly owned subsidiary, was floated on the London stock exchange.

Gatwick station

The north end of Gatwick station photographed on 15th December 2005. This shows the last slam-door EMUs to run on the Southern and is the stock from the 26th November 09:19 Brighton - Victoria and the 11:06 Victoria - Brighton final service workings comprising of 3490, 3505 and 3535.

photograph by Colin Watts

On a more somber note a Turkish Airlines Vickers Viscount crashed near Horley on 17th February 1959 whilst approaching Gatwick. The plane hit some trees and went in to a house. Of the 22 passengers 10 survived including the Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Ten years later on 5th January 1969 an Ariana Afghan Airlines Boeing 727-113C from Frankfurt, crashed while attempting to land in low visibility conditions. The flaps were not extended far enough to maintain flight at final approach speed. It too crashed into a house, killing 50 of the 66 people on board. On the ground two people died.
Although called 'London Gatwick' in the 1970s Surrey County boundary was moved north so the airport is now actually within the Borough of Crawley in the County of West Sussex, with the County of Surrey separating West Sussex from Greater London!
The present Gatwick Airport station is substantially on the site of the 1891 Gatwick 'racecourse' station; estimations placing the 1891 station under at least the southern two-thirds of the present station's platforms; the southern-most platform ramp positions are probably unchanged (save current platforms 1 & 2 where the equivalent 1891 platform extended much further south).
It was likely that the 1907 Gatwick Signalbox was renamed Gatwick Airport at this time but confirmation of this is sought.
Gatwick Airport's railway station was substantially rebuilt in the late 1970s/early 1980s; one of the major changes being the widening of platforms 1 & 2. Located on its roof, the station also boasts the world's biggest BR double-arrow.
A siding to the north of the station (alongside the Up Slow on the earlier "Government Sidings") was used for oil traffic between 1969 and 1971. Oil traffic was subsequently transferred to Salfords before a pipeline to Fawley took this traffic away from the railway altogether. A further siding, accessed off the north end of the Down Loop (platform 6), was provided between 1971 and 1974 to enable stone deliveries for the construction of the M23 motorway.
Gatwick's 1907 LB&SCR Signalbox closed on 28th/29th April 1978; the reason for the closure being primarily to cater for the reconstruction of the station. Although the station approaches were also remodelled, the layout at the southern end of the station was altered again in 1979. One of the four Up Sidings south of the station was removed to make way for an extended Up Passenger Loop line alongside the Up Slow Line.
In 1980 the Three Bridges re-signalling contract was awarded to Westinghouse Signals Ltd of Chippenham, Wiltshire. With respect of Gatwick Airport and the Three Bridges re-signalling scheme, additional crossovers were laid at the north end of the station. These were commissioned (along with Tinsley Green Junction) during 1983. This resulted in the de-commissioning of the Gatwick Panel within the old Three Bridges Signalbox and final closure of the old Three Bridges Signalbox came on the 1st/2nd July 1983. Within the new Three Bridges Power Signal Box panel section 3 and part of 4 were the first to be brought into use and included Gatwick Airport.
It is understood that operationally the track layout was designed still on the basis of the Horsham line services providing the main services to Gatwick Airport, with units being divided at the station.
The Gatwick Panel from Three Bridges initially found a new home at Lovers Walk before being moved to Chichester Signalbox, when the line between Barnham and Chichester was re-signalled. It was finally replaced with a new panel when the line between Chichester and Warblington was re-signalled.
South of Gatwick Airport the flight path is very low over the railway, up sidings, A23 and the Perimeter Road. As a consequence there is a height restriction on the operation of railway cranes along this section of line. In addition two tripwires run parallel to the railway on a pole route; these being clearly visible from passing trains. Intended to protect trains from a plane in serious trouble and such a plane from the conductor rail, if one of the tripwires is broken all approaching signals are replaced to red and the conductor rail is immediately de-energised. The compiler has been in the cab of an approaching train when the tripwire was tripped (by a technician in error) and yes, it works! There is a similar tripwire alongside the railway as it passes Shoreham Airfield.

Dedicated Rail-Air Services

Prior to the arrival of the Vep stock, Gatwick Airport saw the dedicated use of two-car Tin-Hals. With their large brake vans these were dropped off the back of Horsham line services. However, even with the slightly more comfortable Vep stock airport passenger growth lead to an increasingly unhappy mix of airport passengers and commuters. So in 1978 the Southern sought to provide a dedicated Victoria to Gatwick Airport service.
Accordingly twelve 4-Vep units (class 423) were adapted with every other block of 2+2 seating replaced by luggage racks. These units were reclassified as 4-Veg (class 427) with the "G" standing for Gatwick. They were identified by a sage green cant-rail stripe above the second class areas and on the outer ends of the driving cars body-side lettering stating "Rapid City Link Gatwick London" alongside an aeroplane symbol in a small box.
Considerable upset was always caused when 4-Veg units with their reduced seating capacity worked off-diagram onto a peak-hour Horsham service! However, for the airline traveller these units provided only the most basic level of comfort and by 1984 a fleet of dedicated Mk2 coaches had been prepared. Accordingly the 4-Veg units were converted back to 4-Veps with the seats replaced and branding removed.
Following the remodelling at Gatwick Airport more services stopped at the station including the Bognor Regis service that was previously routed through Mitcham Junction.

Gatwick Express
Wanting to provide a dedicated non-stop rail service to Gatwick Airport, the British Rail Board converted some Mk2 rolling stock from the Midland main line (along with ex-Hap motor coaches turned into Motor Luggage Vans and type JB loomotives) to form the Gatwick Express service which started in 1984. This dedicated service between Victoria and Gatwick Airport formed part of Anglia and Gatwick Intercity Sector and was liveried as Intercity.
As part of the privatisation process, Gatwick Express became its own company in 1994 and was put out to tender with National Express wining the franchise on 28th April 1996, The award was dependent on the replacement of all rolling stock, which was undertaken during 2000 /2001 with Juniper class 460 trains. However, some Mk2 sets were retained until 2005 in order to cover occasional shortfalls of 460 units. A pair of class 458 units were also hired by Gatwick Express and despite having spent time curing the units faults, rebranding and altering the interiors these units went back to South West Trains without ever being used in passenger traffic.
Following privatisation Gatwick Express decided to advertise their 30-minute journey as being the fastest rail service from London to Gatwick. This did not last long as Thameslink rescheduled an hourly Bedford to Brighton train to run non-stop from London Bridge to Gatwick Airport. As this non-stop journey only took 28 minutes Gatwick Express had to cease its claim of being the fastest. Soon after Thameslink re-instated the stop at East Croydon.
In June 2008, the Gatwick Express service came under the stewardship of Southern Railway with class 442 units (to be used only in pairs) being scheduled for a revised Gatwick Express service with some services extended to the Sussex coast.

The start of Thameslink services in May 1988 saw an immediate change in the services to Gatwick connecting stations that previously required a cross-London transfer by bus or underground. Not only did this run straight through the City, stations such as the Luton and Bedford directly linked, a change of train from this provided cities such as Leicester and Nottingham with a one-change connection; hugely accessible in respect of Gatwick Airport's holiday charter services. Today there is now a direct rail service between Gatwick and Luton Airports.

Other Services
Network Southeast introduced an hourly Gatwick Airport to Reading service using Western Region diesel railcars; a useful cross-country service that still operates in 2008, albeit now with 465 diesel multiple units.
Although not a service specifically intended to serve Gatwick Airport the locomotive-hauled Brighton to Manchester service stopped at Gatwick Airport and provided a useful direct connection to the north. Indeed at weekends the Manchester service terminated at Gatwick Airport with the stock running ECS to New Cross Gate for a 'lunchtime' layover, before returning to Gatwick Airport for the afternoon departure back to Manchester. The modern equivalent of this service (using Voyagers) ceased in December 2008.
Another useful service that ended in December 2008 was South Eastern Train's hourly Horsham to Tonbridge shuttle. Whilst some of the trains terminated at Three Bridges, the service provided a useful link to Gatwick Airport from Edenbridge, Tonbridge and beyond. The Redhill to Tonbridge service was transferred to Southern Railway which reduced it to an hourly frequency on the basis that that provided sufficient capacity. Aircraft do not hold connections for trains and vice-versa. Accordingly it is only the most hardy of rail traveller that will accept up to a 59 minute wait for a train instead of the previous 29 minute maximum, coupled with a now obligatory additional change of train at Redhill.
Connex introduced an hourly through service from Gatwick Airport to Rugby via the West London Line; their eventual aim being to reach Birmingham. The aspirations towards Birmingham have now been replaced by Watford Junction and the through service from Gatwick Airport has been dramatically reduced. However, perhaps the greatest hindrance to non-airport passengers is the inflexible routing of tickets to say, Horsham, as most are endorsed "via Euston".

Compiled by Colin Watts from various sources, predominantly members of the SREmG List.

This page was last updated 8 March 2023

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