HomeHeritageIs there a railway on the Isle of Man?

Is there a railway on the Isle of Man?

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I suppose the best answer to the question is no, there are at least four or possibly more if you count the three little ones! (Great Laxey Mine Railway, Groundle Glen Railway and the miniature one).

The Isle of Man differs in many ways from the United Kingdom. A local resident summed it up nicely for me saying, “What I love about living here (as I now do) is that it is safe and reminds me of what it used to be like to live in England three decades ago”.

In April 2018, a party of six retired railway managers, all with North Eastern connections, and our wives enjoyed a visit to the island to explore the railways and some of the Isle of Man’s many other attractions.

Photo: Philip Benham.
Photo: Philip Benham.

Crown Dependency

The island has been inhabited since around 6,500 BC and back in 2016 was assessed as having the sixth highest gross national income per capita of any country. Its two official languages are English and Manx, a form of Gaelic. After periods of rule by kings of both Scotland and England alternately the island came under the English Crown in 1399. It has never been part of the United Kingdom, but to this day remains as an internally governed crown dependency. Its government Tynwald was first established by Viking invaders and has existed since at least 979 AD. Today’s government has two houses, a Legislative Council and House of Keys which were established in 1765. It enjoys an annual rainfall of around 30 inches, although its only mountain Snaefell (2,034 feet) receives 75 inches. The 2016 census confirmed a population of 83,314.

Photo: Philip Benham.
Photo: Philip Benham.

Isle of Man Steam Railway

The capital is Douglas and the island covers around 221 square miles being 32 miles long and just 14 miles across at its widest point. The railways declined in use and reduced in size over many years leaving some areas bus dependent, but today the United Kingdom could perhaps learn something from the Manx  experience. The first railway to be built was Isle of Man Steam Railway which opened in 1874 and followed the Irish model for minor railways, with narrow gauge of three feet. It claims to be the oldest narrow gauge railway to have continued to operate from its opening until the present day. Its route runs for some 15.5 miles from Douglas to Port Erin and still uses lovingly restored original steam locomotives and rolling stock. It aims to cover some 70 per cent of its running costs from receipts for its services.

Boiler replacement and other specialist repairs are carried out in England but trained railway repairing staff and apprentices, carry out most repairs. The fabric of the rolling stock is also worked on by a loyal army of volunteers. Adjacent to Port Erin station there is a most interesting Isle of Man Railway Museum. An interesting, and probably unique, facility for a heritage railway is the provision of an interchange with the island’s airport in the form of Ronaldsway Halt!

Photo: Philip Benham.
Photo: Philip Benham.

Steam train dining

These services arguably equal or exceed many provided by heritage railways here, particularly in the variety of dining options offered. Their commuter club steam trains from Port Erin in the south through to Douglas (stopping at Port St Mary, Colby, Castletown and Ballasalla) serve full breakfasts or breakfast baps on the way to Douglas. On the returning commute their bar snacks offers include chilli, curry, stews and a range of desserts with the car bar selling drinks including locally brewed ales. During the TT Races at the beginning of June special TT Commuter Club trains run. The dining car works hard.

The first themed dining event this year was on 11 March for Mothering Sunday when lunches or afternoon tea could be booked. That was followed by a Shamrock Express on 17 March and two “Pie and Mash” specials towards the end of that month. Between March and 5 November there are a dozen themed dining trains every month. The restored railway station in Douglas is near to the Sea Terminal at the south end of Douglas Bay.

Photo: Philip Benham.
Photo: Philip Benham.

Manx Electric Railway

The Manx Electric Railway celebrates its 125th anniversary this year having opened back in 1893. Like the steam railway, it is built to a gauge of three feet, but it uses electrically powered tramcars on its coastal route from Douglas to Ramsey. Arguably it is the best way to enjoy the coastal scenery. The beautifully restored tramcars use an overhead electrification system. The service began with just three cars running to Groudle. These are described as “unvestibled saloons”. Six “tunnel cars” were added in 1894 and further cars included crossbench vehicles, winter saloons and even in 1900 a freight locomotive! Of the original fleet of 34 cars, 27 are still in operation.

The Manx Electric Railway (MER) operates from Derby Castle station at the north end of Douglas Bay. This station is adjacent to the MER dedicated free Museum which was opened a decade or so ago. There are eleven stops (including seven request stops) between Douglas and Ramsey. Travelling from Derby Castle station the 4th stop is at the junction at Laxey. From here the Manx Electric Railway continues northwards to Ramsey but many visitors change onto the Snaefell Mountain Railway. The Great Laxey Wheel and Great Laxey Mine Railway are both nearby.

The Groudle Glen Railway (two foot gauge) was especially favoured by Victorian visitors. It is best accessed from the Manx Electric Railway. The Orchid Line miniature railway which opens on Sundays is to be found in Curragh’s Wildlife Park.

Douglas Bay Horse Tramway

Travel between Derby Castle station and the Sea Terminal at the southern end of Douglas Bay is provided by an earlier source of power. The distance to be covered is just one and a half miles. The services are provided by the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway which runs along the promenade and claims to be the oldest continually operational horse tramway in the world. It was constructed and brought into operation in 1876, just two years after the steam railway. The stables for the horses are to be found towards the Derby Castle end of the route and can be visited. Not far away is a Home of Rest provided for retired horses. Replacement horses are bought and then trained to haul the trams. Currently there are 12 horses listed as working with a further eight still being trained. From recent observations the going bribe rate per trip is two stub ends of carrot from the driver’s pocket!

Snaefell Mountain Railway

This double-track, 3 ft 6 in gauge mountain railway was built in just seven months in 1895. Originally the route was surveyed in 1888 for a steam railway that was never built. However, in 1895 the Snaefell Mountain Railway Association revived the plan and leased the required land to build it on. Since they had the land available they did not need to obtain statutory powers. There were six original tramcars all manufactured by George F Milnes and Company, five of which are still in use today. Originally the plans had been for the steam railway braking to rely on normal rail friction but a fell braking system now uses a centre rail for braking. Power is provided from overhead equipment at 550 volts DC using bow collectors.

The route is 11.75 miles long and rises to 2,000 feet above sea level. There was an incident on 25 September 2017 involving the braking system but this was dealt with and the railway re-opened in March of this year. The views from the summit on a clear day are excellent. Locally it is claimed that on such days seven kingdoms can be seen; Mann, England, Scotland, Wales, Heaven and Neptune’s Realm. There is a café at the summit which serves lunches and brunches plus on Wednesdays and Saturdays “Sunset Dinners” of two courses in the Snaefell Summit Restaurant for an all-in price that includes return tram travel.

The Isle of Man Railways may only operate from March to November, although the Manx Electric runs a limited service year round, but their entrepreneurial approach to maximising income and focus on preserving railway heritage is surely to be admired. Lest it be thought these are just more leisure-based railways, what makes them special is that they are very much part of the island’s transport system, with many local residents using it for their everyday transport needs. Heritage railways continue to go from strength to strength in the United Kingdom but maybe we can all learn something from the Manx approach!

Finally, I would like to thank Ian Longworth, director, Transport Services Division for the Isle of Man Government, and his team, for their time showing us around the railway workshops at Douglas and Derby Castle. Much of the factual information in this article was also supplied by Ian.

Report by Colin Wheeler with Philip Benham. 

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