The Great Orme Tramway: The Cable Car of Wales

By Walter Rice Ph.D.

Nestled in Llandudno, North Wales, is the Great Orme Tramway, a cable system whose supporters aspire to make it as famous as the San Francisco cable car system. The Great Orme is one of three systems in the world in which "cable cars" operate on city streets. The most famous and by far the largest of these is San Francisco's; the only other comparable street-running system in the world is the Elevador da Bica of Lisbon.

Great Orme passengers are informed of the line’s important accomplishments by this notice board, posted at the starting point of a Great Orme Journey -- Victoria Station.

notice board

CABLE SYSTEMS OPERATE via an underground cable running continuously between the rails. The system needs a gripman, who, by engaging or releasing the grip and using the brakes, controls the car. The Great Orme Tramway, which is really two cable tramways, has two independent sections-a lower and an upper. it is operated as a street funicular, by which the cars are propelled and stopped by starting and stopping the cable.

Great Orme is a mass of limestone approximately two and one-half miles long and a half-mile wide, which rises to a height of 679 feet. This rock mass is on one end of the idyllic, half-moon Llandudno Bay in Wales.

When the British industrial boom began in the latter part of the last (Nineteenth - JT) century, the combination of the bay and Great Orme provided an ideal setting for what was to become the "Queen of the Welch Resorts." Entrepreneurs soon recognized the investment potential of providing transportation to the top of Great Orme. By Rocky Mountain standards, mountains 679 feet in height are not impressive. But by Welch seacoast standards, such a height is quite impressive, particularly when magnificent vistas can be seen from the top.

Victoria Station Lower section car No. 5 is taking a layover at the main station Victoria Station. Victoria station was not named after Queen Victoria but for a hotel that occupied the site before the Great Orme Tramway.

The Great Orme Tramway was created in May 1898 by an act of Parliament. Work on the tramway's lower section started in April 1901. The first revenue passengers were carried on July 31, 1902, on the lower section, and service began on the upper part one year later.

In its early years, the tramway went through the economic and operational convulsions that tend to characterize many transport operations in their infancy. Investors didn't receive promised dividends, and initial construction was of shoddy quality-causing innumerable operational problems that culminated in 1932 with the only fatalities the tramway has experienced. On August 23, car No. 4 was descending a steep grade on the lower section when its steel drawbar broke, sending the car crashing into a stone wall, killing the driver and a twelve-year-old girl. As a result of this accident, the tramway was rebuilt, reorganized, and sold, ultimately coming under the control of local government in April 1948. By this time, the private sector did not consider such operations financially viable; however, local government recognized the importance of preserving the tramway as an integral part of the tourist base.

Both of the Great Orme Tramway's are three-foot, six-inch-gauge funiculars with counterweighted cars (i.e., the weight of the descending tram aids in the ascent of the ascending tram). The lower section differs from the upper in that it operates on paved roadway in the middle of, or next to, a steep, curving street. Lower-section trains at times meet wayward automobiles and must be able to make emergency stops. Because of this, operation of automobiles is currently limited to residents, except at cross streets. The upper section operates as what the British call "a private tramroad"-namely, all of the cable workings are exposed, and the track is laid on a barren, unpaved hillside.

Before 1990, to set the trains in motion, the tram driver used a hand-generated telephone to notify the engineer at the winding house that all was clear. The winding-house engineer then released the caliper brake on the winding drums, setting the trains off at a speed of five miles per hour. Various bell codes were used to signal the winding house, including a single ring for an emergency stop. An overhead wire was constructed over the middle of the track to power this phone system.

However, state-of-the-art electronics have come to the Great Orme; a new radio system was put in place in 1990. The train driver now depresses a foot pedal that is linked by radio signal to the winding house. When both cars have given the winding-house engineer this signal, the system starts. The winding house is also in direct voice contact with all trains, and each tram driver is required to make regular calls at various points en route.

As a result of the switch to radio, one-person operation was introduced on the upper section in 1990 and on the lower section in 1991. Previously, two people were needed: the driver and a second person to ensure that the trolley pole did not leave the wire. Today, the cars often carry a second person, who acts as a conductor, tour guide, and goodwill ambassador. (All that remains of the old telephone system are the poles from which the wire was strung and the trolley poles on the cars. Because of the overhead wire, many people who have seen the Great Orme have jumped to the false conclusion that the cars are electrically powered.)

passing track
Cars Nos. 4 and 5 are on the passing track known as the "lower loop" on Twgwyn Road. At this point, lower section tram operation is the side of the roadway.

The lower section is approximately twenty-six hundred feet long and rises some four hundred feet. The average grade is a little more than sixteen percent, with the steepest part having a grade of more than twenty-five percent. Upon leaving Victoria Station at the base of the grade, the trains proceed up a paved roadway known as Old Road, using a single track. At the halfway point, the track divides, producing a passing track ("loop") where the ascending and descending trains meet. Above the passing track the line changes, becoming an interlaced double track with a shared center rail. The lower section ends at the winding house, known as Halfway Station. Here passengers change for the Summit Car.

As cars climb further up the Great Orme it is clear why combination of the bay and the Great Orme provided the ideal setting for Llandudno, North Wales to become the "Queen of the Welsh Resorts."
Llandudno view


The upper section is slightly shorter, just under twenty-five hundred feet, with a rise of only 150 feet. The right-of-way consists of exposed trackwork using fifty-pound flat-bottom rail bolted to wooden ties ("sleepers"). Unlike the lower section, the upper section proceeds up a barren, windswept hillside to the line's summit. On a clear day the Isle of Man is visible from the summit.

cable rollers The upper section right-of-way consists of exposed trackwork using fifty-pound flat-bottom rail bolted to wooden ties ("sleepers"). Unlike the lower section, the upper section proceeds up a barren, windswept hillside to the line's summit.


The entire system is powered by two English Electric motors-a 125-horsepower motor for the lower section and a 75-horsepower for the upper section. The cable on the lower section is 1 5/16 inches in diameter, while the upper section requires only 7/8-inch-diameter cable. Steel pulleys on both sections must be lubricated by hand. A unique aspect of the Great Orme is that the cars, as they progress on their trips, lubricate the various curves and pulleys with water, which is carried on the cars in holding tanks.

Another unique aspect of the Great Orme Tramway is the cars. More than ninety years old, the cars are nevertheless in remarkable condition, thanks to their original construction, the line's long-term maintenance practices, and, most important, the efforts of volunteers.

Cars No. 4 and No. 5 are assigned to the lower section, and Nos. 6 and 7 work the upper section. A natural question is, what happened to numbers 1, 2, and 3? These numbers were assigned to "donkey cars" used in construction and subsequently to haul coal to the winding house. These cars have long since vanished.

Structurally all four cars are identical: thirty-seven feet long with a thirty-foot closed center passenger section ("saloon"). The cars can accommodate forty-eight seated passengers and twelve standees. Today they bear a blue and white paint scheme; their earlier colors were yellow and dark royal blue, with brown interior.

The Great Orme Tramway currently operates seasonally and carries approximately 160,000 riders a year. This compares favorably to the 100,000 average during the first thirty years of operation, but it is below the peak of nearly 230,000 riders carried just after World War II.

Llandudno is still a vibrant, immaculate tourist area of which the Great Orme has become a centerpiece, attracting visitors from all over the United Kingdom and the world. Unfortunately, some of the urban decay of our times has crept into even this idyllic setting. On a recent run trains could not operate on the upper section because vandals had stolen the points of the passing-track switch, so "coaches" (buses) were used as a substitute. If the track had not been inspected before operation began, a tram would have certainly derailed. On the positive side, the Welch are very friendly, the setting is one of the prettiest in the world, and the system is a fascinating step back in time.

Much of the success of the system is directly attributable to the efforts of preservationists, who, through political activities in the late 1980s, secured sufficient funding to have the Great Orme restored and upgraded to its glory days of the past. The Great Orme definitely ranks as one of the world's most unique transit operations and is a tribute to the preservation movement.

Published in Locomotive and Railways Preservation magazine, issue 46, March/April 1994.

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Last updated 01-Jul-2004