Epsom, the races and the railways
The London and Southampton Railway opened to the public from Nine Elms, the London terminus, to Woking Common on the 21st May 1838. Epsom races occurred in the following week and the company advertised its intention of running eight trains to Kingston (now Surbiton) station on Derby Day.
Early on the morning of that day about 5,000 people were at the station gates and several trains were despatched, but the crowd increased until the doors were carried off their hinges and the crowd invaded the platform and entered a train chartered by a private party. The Metropolitan Police were called, and at midday it was announced that no more trains would run that day. The passengers who did arrive at ‘Kingston’ then had to find their way to the Downs (6 miles as crows go).
Before the first station in Epsom was opened, race goers also took trains to Stoats Nest (Coulsdon) on the London Brighton and South Coast Railway, and walked or rode the six miles to the course. Epsom station was opened on the 10th May 1847 in Station Road (now Upper High Street). On Derby Day, 19th May, more than 32,000 passengers travelled from London Bridge to Epsom; while this boosted the Brighton company’s revenue, it must have been an operational nightmare because the line terminated at Epsom, and empty trains would have to be disposed of before later arrivals could enter the station.
The London and South Western Railway opened the Wimbledon to Epsom line on 4th April 1859. At the Brighton company’s half-yearly meeting in July, the Chairman said that the decrease in revenue for the previous six months was due to the South Western’s obtaining some of the Epsom race traffic. The position might have been altered in 1865 when Epsom Downs station was opened, but racegoers appeared to prefer the stations in the town which were nearer to overnight accommodation and public houses.
Despite this preference, extra trains were run on the Epsom Downs Branch, and all nine platforms could be full. Three raceday-only signal boxes and their associated equipment were installed; the signals were only used in daylight and were without coloured spectacle glasses and lamps.
Tattenham Corner was a raceday-only station from its opening by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway on the 9th June 1901; it was unique in having none of its six platforms artificially lit. Normal services terminated at Tadworth (opened 1st July 1900) until the Southern Railway electric service was introduced in 1928 and the platforms got their lights.
The LSWR never owned a station in Epsom but operated that on the present site which was jointly owned by the Epsom and Leatherhead Railway company and the Wimbledon and Dorking Railway company. A loop line on the north side of this joint station, commonly known as the South Western station, was normally a siding connected at both ends to the Up Wimbledon running line; special signalling enabled this siding to be used as a platform road for passenger trains at race times.
Other special arrangements, including raceday-only signals and a facing crossover, were installed. Facing points on running lines were not popular with the Railway Inspectorate of the Board of Trade, and their use entailed the expense of installing and maintaining additional safety equipment. This crossover was brought into use on the 26th April 1885, and was probably one of the first to be used as a direct connection between Down and Up running lines at an intermediate station. The importance as a revenue earner of race traffic, along with horses and their grooms, is demonstrated by the companies’ authorising the expenditure on these special arrangements.
The special arrangements did not affect the LB&SCR which had been offered the use of the joint station ‘except on race days’. This company could, however, dispose of its empty Down trains to Leatherhead after the opening of the single line over East Street on the 8th August 1859. This line made a common junction with the Wimbledon lines and the single line to Leatherhead on the north side of the bridge over West Street. Both lines were doubled in 1867.
Fay, Sam, A Royal Road: Being the History of London & South Western Railway (Kingston on Thames: W. Drewett, 1882)
Marshall, C.F. Dendy, and R.W. Kidner, History of the Southern Railway (London: Ian Allen, 1963)
Turner, John Howard The London Brighton and South Coast Railway (London: Batsford, 1977–9).
Williams, R. A., The London and South Western Railway (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1968–73).