This is the story of a railway station that closed over three decades ago, still has a rail replacement bus service calling at it, and might reopen to the public again.

This is Tilbury Riverside railway station, a once busy place with six platforms sitting next to London’s main cruise ship terminus, and would have been the railway station that thousands of people arriving to the UK would have used to complete their journey into London.

Although the railway has long since been removed, the large booking hall and the original ticket office remain, but empty and rarely seen by the public. Now, a team is putting together an exciting plan to restore and reopen the ticket hall again.

Tilbury Riverside station opened in April 1854 at the end of a V-shaped junction, allowing trains to leave and head west to London or east to Southend. As it was a terminus, most trains out of London would call at Tilbury Riverside and then reverse, heading back up to the mainline to continue their trip towards Southend. Oral history recounted on a recent open day by a couple of former passengers said that the reversal of the train could take long enough for people to quickly grab something from the station cafe and take it with them on their journey.

Although the station was busy when it opened, thanks to the steamboats and the ferry from Gravesend, it got a lot busier after Tilbury was declared the centre for cruise ship operations in London. In 1924, plans were announced to rebuild both the railway station and the ship terminus, to a design by Sir Edwin Cooper, adding a floating dock with ramps to the shore. Before this, passengers were conveyed between ship and shore by a small boat, which was slow and cumbersome.

The port gained widespread fame in 1948 when the Empire Windrush docked here carrying the Caribbean arrivals who had answered the invitation to help rebuild the UK’s post-war economy. Just think of the many people from the Caribbean arriving at Tilbury Riverside station and having their first experience of a British Rail sandwich.

As people’s travel habits changed, passenger numbers at the station declined, especially when air travel became much more affordable. Eventually, by the 1990s, British Rail was looking at closing the station.

The reasons given were that the cost of repairs to the track, signalling and overhead wires wasn’t worth the expenditure, considering the low revenues that the station was now generating. A consultation was ordered, and the Transport Users Consultative Committee (TUCC)  received 60 objections to closing the line, mostly citing the hardship for people with luggage, the elderly or those with children.

To alleviate this, the British Rail Board offered a substitute bus, governed by Section 119 of the Transport Act 1985, to run at least as often as the trains used to run — which was about twice an hour by then. The closure order was finally given on 10th September 1992, announcing that the station would close on Saturday 28th November 1992, and the first rail replacement bus service ran the following Monday, 30th November.

That was in 1992, and over 30 years later, in 2023, that rail replacement bus service is still running.

So, if you time it right, you can arrive at Tilbury Town station, quickly nip over to the other side and catch the 99 bus to Tilbury Riverside station. As it happens, this is a regular bus that loops around the local area, and you’d usually have to pay to ride it. However, show the driver your train ticket for Tilbury Riverside, and they’ll nod you on without question so you can ride between the two railway stations for free, thanks to a decision taken over 30 years ago.

The rail replacement bus service only takes a couple of minutes to complete the journey between the two stations, pulling into a bus stop that, on my visit, was busy with people who had just arrived in the UK by cruise ship and were heading into London.

The people waiting for the bus probably don’t realise that as they walked from the cruise terminal to the bus stop, the car park they walked through is where the railway platforms used to be, and the large metal-clad building next to the cars is the railway ticket hall.

It doesn’t look much from the outside these days, as the metal wall covers up the doorways that led from the platform to the ticket hall, but inside is a revelation. It’s a vast space with the original ticket office in the centre. The Port of Tilbury refurbished the roof in 2017 to restore it to its 1930s appearance, and they’ve even retained the marks in the roof beams where a bomb hit the station during WWII.

At the moment, the space is used by the cruise terminal for baggage handling — hence the airport-style luggage trollies piled up in places — and is rarely seen by the public, but there are plans to open it up to the public once again.

A charity, Tilbury on the Thames Trust, was set up a few years ago, with the support of the Port of Tilbury, to look at how the building can be open to the public permanently.

As Scott Sullivan – director of Tilbury of the Thames Trust, explained, they had some early successes, with Tesco’s Bags of Help programme providing funds from the 5p carrier bag charges to open up the pedestrian walkway and some early Lottery money to cover the cost of initial investigations to work out how the building can be reopened again.

The breakthrough was when they secured funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to take their plans to public consultation and complete the detailed architect drawings, which would then be used to apply for the full amount needed to restore the ticket hall.

The cost of the whole scheme is not far off £6 million and will include creating heritage, creative and event spaces, a new community café, and refurbishing the building’s interior. The restoration will also draw on the building’s Windrush heritage, and following completion of the work, the space will be accessible all year round as a public space.

At the moment, a row of empty rooms on the river side of the ticket hall, which were offices and the public toilets when this was a railway station, could be turned into commercial spaces to rent out to local small businesses and artists. A former glazed roof entrance, which has long since lost its roof, will likely become a new cafe, which will also be useful to passengers on the Tilbury-Gravesend ferry and visitors to the nearby fort.

The aim is to open the building again while ensuring sufficient commercial income to look after it and keep it open for visitors.

Ahead of all that, there’s the consultation showing off the plans, and the charity is also seeking help from anyone who will have used the railway station over the decades before it closed or has items showing the station’s heritage. The ticket office standing in the centre of the booking hall is intended to become a heritage space that people can go inside and will be telling the story of Tilbury’s place in the national story, its history as a local port and of course, the railway station.

The charity trust is working with the Port of Tilbury, which owns the ticket hall building, and apart from the hoped for National Lottery Heritage Fund support, there’s also Tilbury’s Town Funding, which has plans to reconnect the town station gateway with the town centre and the riverside – and to the nearby Tilbury Fort.

All things going well, in about three years time, Tilbury Riverside station will echo to the sounds of visitors again, and maybe some of you will have caught a rail replacement bus to get there.

The consultation is here, and if you have memories of the station, they’d love to hear from you.

The rail replacement bus service outside Tilbury Riverside station

Ensure the ticket machine offers Tilbury Riverside station.


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  1. Julian Walker says:

    A bit off-tangent, but I wonder if there is any scope to restore a rail link to Tilbury Riverside for cruise ship passengers? There appears to be a rail siding close by which has the potential to be electrified and a simple platform with shelter erected. c2c has plenty of rolling stock outside the peaks to put on special non-stop services, preferably from Liverpool Street as it is better connected, it has a taxi road with direct access to a platform and is more spacious generally for cruise passengers and their often copious amounts of luggage.

  2. Barry Buitekant says:

    Iirc decades ago on the booking hall walls there used to be Russian language posters. Presumably to aid Russian sailors who used the port. Went there one foggy night and it was certainly atmospheric.

    • Paul Nash says:

      I actually took a picture of that Russian poster. Probably the only BR poster ever produced in Cyrillic text! It was a very atmospheric station as you say.

    • Ian H says:

      I think the Russian posters may have been for the Russian Cruise ships that sailed to and from Tilbury. I know some of them were still using the port in the early 90s when I lived in Grays, just down the road.

  3. Lo Monroe says:

    I’ve always wondered why this essential port has been closed for so long. I mean here’s a port that is so needed. I’m travelling from Victoria on Sun for the long journey for a sailing on Monday however I’ve booked a hotel nearby as its to complicated to get there other wise. I didn’t know there’s a bus that can take me to the port. Please let it happen. 🙏 Lo

    • Mel Thorley says:

      How amazing that this story should suddenly appear when I thought Riverside had been consigned to history. I am sure many people remember the giant neon lit sign on the building. On a visit to Collectors’ Corner at Euston I saw the huge sign lying in the entrance, all neon tubes inside the letters smashed. I asked Bob, the boss, had there been any interest in it ?.He said no, and it would probably be scrapped. I went back to Euston, persuaded the Manchester driver to help me carry it from C.C. to the baggage area of his train. It was very heavy and both of us were glad to get seated in the train. Ray was so weary from his exertions, he ran through Watford Junction without stopping.

  4. George Harris says:

    I used the station many times between 1965 and 1973 to travel from /to Leigh on Sea and on the other side to / from Eltham/ Bexleyheath / Dartford. The facilities in the station were more than adequate. Loved the bookstall and occasionally the cafe. The floating piers were quite an experience at low tide.
    Once I remember a Russian cruise ship arriving and passengers being taken forward to St Pancras by a steam train and first class coaches. All were bulled up. The locomotive was a green Jubilee 4-6-0.
    There were loads of disused sidings to the east, and in 1965 the remains of the locomotive shed in the triangle of lines to the north.
    On one trip the electric train had a bad flat on a wheel.
    On another a stone was thrown at the train as it entered Stanford le Hope station injuring a lady further down the open coach.
    On another we hit a shopping trolley at Pitsea Station and it took some time to cut it up and remove it from under the front bogie.
    On yet another trip we hit a child on a bike between Benfleet and Leigh stations. We had to get out and walk to Leigh. An eventful line!

  5. Jason rogers says:

    Would make a perfect indoor market or in shops like the one in gravesend , the ferry may benefit from that too as residents from over the water may use it too

  6. Anthony Skinner says:

    I have been there by train, but all I remember is a run down station on its way out, but as to any other detail it won’t come such was my impression

  7. Mark Norrington says:

    I was member of the management team at LTS in BR days when the closure was sanctioned. The main reason for closure wasn’t so much the maintenance cost of the infrastructure (which was huge due to rambling steam age layout) but also the expenditure that would be associated with resignalling which took place a few years later in the mid 1990s. Even the costs of a new very simplified track layout to operate services just in the Grays direction only didn’t meet any value for money criteria due to the low and declining passenger numbers. Closure also enabled the demolition and removal of the long road over bridge that crossed the whole station throat and the diversion of said road at grade to where the platforms and tracks were, (pretty much where the picture of the train in the above historic picture above is). This road would need to be diverted/elevated if any attempt at reopening were to be considered as it would cross any future trackbed closer to the junction with the current operational railway too. I’m sure the property board had their eyes on the sale of a large plot of land too!

  8. Mike Groome says:

    In 1952, as an eight year old, I left with my family for Australia from Tilbury. I don’t remember much, but it’s interesting to read and view about its history. Thanks

  9. Mike Roberts says:

    What a coincidence; I walked through this building yesterday (11 Dec) and caught the 99 bus. I think it gets more use than is implied in Ian’s piece. The security people insist terminating passengers come off the ships via this space even if they do not need to collect their luggage.

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