17¾ MILES LONG, 3 FEET WIDE; - THE MANX ELECTRIC RAILWAY

 

By

Walter Rice, Ph.D.

 

On a personal note, one of my favorite articles from childhood was a Trains Magazine article describing the rail wonders of the Isle of Man. As an adult I resolved to visit Man. After six visits, my fascination and excitement about Manx rail has only been enhanced.

 

The 17¾ mile Manx Electric Railway (MER) hugs the Isle of Man’s Irish Sea east coastline for much of its trek, twisting around tight curves and climbing steep gradients as mile upon mile of stunning scenery drifts past. Three-foot gauge was adopted, in part, because of the mountainous character of the island. Today this pioneer electric railway operates much as it did over a century ago, still using late-Victorian and Edwardian technology. The MER operates with its original rolling stock (except rebuilds) -- the newest dating from 1906. Cars Nos. 1 and 2 date from the opening of the line’s initial section on September 7, 1893. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Nos. 1 and 2 as the world’s oldest operating electric cars.

Manx Electric #1 and #2 Manx Electric trams Nos. 1 and 2 hold a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s oldest operating electric cars.

 

Adding further to MER’s uniqueness is the fact that many of the line’s Douglas (the capital and most important town on the Isle of Man) riders use the Douglas Horse Tramway to connect with the company’s electric cars. The Douglas Horse Tramway operates a three-foot gauge, 1.6 mile double-track line from the terminal of Manx Electric (Derby Castle) to the City Center/Sea Terminal, running along Douglas’s sea-front Promenade. The Douglas Corporation owns the horse tram which, except for war years, has operated since 1876, whereas Manx Electric is owned by the Manx government.

Douglas horse tram Douglas Corporation horse car No. 33 is arriving with connecting passengers for the Manx Electric interurban trams at Derby Castle, Douglas.

 

In the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man lies between the Cumbrian Coast of England and Northern Ireland. It is thirty miles long and eleven miles wide with more than a hundred miles of often rugged coastline. With a population of approximately 75,000, Man has been governed independently since 979, although it acknowledges Queen Elizabeth as sovereign.

 

Besides the Manx Electric and Douglas horse tram, the island boasts three other Victorian-era railway systems. Some two miles north of Douglas on the Manx Electric route at Groudle Glen is the two-foot gauge steam-powered Groudle Glen Railway. The first phase of the Manx Electric line opened between Derby Castle, Douglas and Groudle Glen.

 

At Laxey, the Manx Electric connects with the 3’6" gauge electrically-powered Snaefell Mountain Railway. The mountain railway climbs at the rate of one-in-twelve to just 46’ below the 2,036 foot summit of the mountain from which the railway takes its name. Running from Douglas southwest to Port Erin is the 15.37-mile Isle of Man Railway steam railway line. The line is powered by five historic in-service Beyer, Peacock 2-4-0 tank locomotives. Service from Douglas to Port Erin began on August 1, 1874.

Manx Electric #21 A two car train consisting of motor No. 21, an 1899 product, and trailer will be leaving Laxey shortly for Ramsey.

 

Douglas, Groudle Glen, Laxey, Ramsey and Way-Stations

 

Like many of its North American counterparts, the first stage of what was destined to become Manx Electric was built as part of a real estate venture -- Douglas Bay Estates Ltd. -- and financed by the prominent local banking interest -- Dumbells Bank of Douglas. While the initial 2- mile line to Groudle Glen was under construction, permission was obtained to extend the line an additional five miles to the important mining village of Laxey. The real estate venture line was about to become a full-fledged electric interurban.

 

On September 7, 1893, the first revenue cars of the "Douglas & Laxey Electric Tramway" left Derby Castle, Douglas for Groudle Glen. The line was electrified at 500 volts DC (later increased to 550 volts). G. F. Milnes & Co. Ltd., of Birkenhead, supplied three motor cars -- Nos. 1-3 -- and six open cross-bench (toastrack) 44-passenger trailers for the new company.

 

Electric traction in 1893 was in its infancy. No traditional design(s) for electric cars had been established. The motors were patterned after steam train coaches of the period to which were fitted two electric motors. Trailers were but lengthened open horsecars riding on light trucks. The cars were, however, constructed to very high standards with every attention given to detail. The earliest motors were fixed with, what proved to be unsatisfactory, bow collectors. These were replaced in 1897 with today’s trolley poles. Cars were purchased between 1893 and 1906. Today, each of these cars (that is still on the roster) has surpassed more than a million track-miles.

 

It was assumed each motor car would haul two trailers. This proved to be false because the motors lacked sufficient power to pull the weight of two loaded trailers over the line’s grades. However, a motor with a single trailer became the standard consist. This tradition continues to this date. Most summer schedules run as motor-trailer sets. Except for the occasional use of an enclosed trailer (winter saloon), all the trailers are of the open cross-bench design. Riders are thus accorded unhindered views of the line’s striking scenery offered by the glens, hills, cliff tops and rugged coastline -- besides enjoying the sounds and smells of traction.

 

Derby Castle is the site of the line’s important Douglas terminal. Unfortunately, it is over 1½ miles short of Douglas's city center and its important boat dock, Victoria Pier. The many efforts to electrify the Douglas horse tramway to provide direct electric service proved fruitless. The failure of Manx Electric to reach its obvious terminal undoubtedly has cost the electric line significant patronage, particularly after the advent of direct competitive bus services.

Manx Electric #4 Manx Electric No. 4 has just pushed its trailer from the Derby Castle car house to the Derby Castle terminal. Shortly, No. 4’s trolley pole will be reversed and another trip to Ramsey will begin.

 

Derby Castle derived its name from private residences constructed in 1847. In the 1880s, to take advantage of the island’s expanding tourism, a pleasure garden was developed complete with a theater and large dance hail on the site. It was from here that the pioneer electric line would provide service.

 

During 1897, a period when the electric line was operated under the ownership by the isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Co. Ltd. -- a syndicate which also acquired the Douglas promenade horse tramway (1894) and the Snaefell Mountain Railway (1895), and constructed the Upper Douglas (San Francisco style) Cable Tramway (1895) -- Douglass small (126’ x 80’) wooden rustic-style station was completed. The station features two ticket windows and space for a stationmaster, but no waiting room. Until 1980, a large 82’ long, 18’ wide ornate canopy covered both the electric line and horse car tracks.

 

In 2000, the car body of ex-Lisbon (Portugal) No. 360 was placed in use as a stationary waiting room (minus its trucks), having replaced a Leyland National bus. Manx Electric has repainted the 1907 car into a dull all red livery with white relief above the windows. The car was purchased as part of a grandiose failed plan to handle disabled passengers.

 

Twenty-five days after the start of Groudle Glen service, on September 28, 1893, and with more than 20,000 passengers carried, service was suspended to allow the contractors to work on the village of Laxey extension. On July 28, 1894, the electric line to Laxey, then a major mining center (the mines included zinc, copper and silver as well as lead ore) was opened. The extension was very successful -- during the summer season of 1895, 80,000-passengers per week were carried. During the zenith of the electric line, passengers would ride the horsecar to Derby Castle, purchase tickets at the booking office and then ride the horsecar back to the end of the line of awaiting passengers.

 

To accommodate the increased traffic and length of line, the company purchased additional rolling stock, consisting of motors Nos. 4-9 and another group of trailers. The new cross-bench trailers were equipped ­with clerestory roofs and bulkheads, unlike the original trailers.

 

A problem faced by the developers of the electric line was that in the early 1890s, there was no public supply of electricity available. If you wanted electric power, you had to produce it yourself. This is exactly, what was done. On the lands directly beyond Derby Castle, the company built a car barn (sheds), workshops and its first coal-fired power station. The plant produced 100 amps at 500 volts DC. A modernized "Derby Castle Car Depot & Works" minus the power plant exists on the site today, providing all major maintenance for the rolling stock.

 

As the line lengthened, additional power plants were built. Also, battery stores were built to provide the necessary extra power in the event several cars were starting simultaneously. By 1895, the company was providing electricity for the first street lighting in Britain. However, by the mid-1930s the company found it more economical to purchase commercial power and its power plants were closed.

 

Still in use today, the company constructed at Laxey (in 1935) a substation to convert the Island’s power from AC into DC current. This facility features mercury-arc-rectifiers that transform the current. They resemble -- with their protruding wires, bubbling mercury producing a bluish glow in large light bulb-shaped vats arid wooden fans to cool the mercury -- something out of an old science fiction movie featuring the mad scientist’s laboratory.

 

During 1895, a nominally separate group from the owners of the electric line planned and built a five-mile steep-gradient line from Laxey to the summit of Snaefell Mountain -- the Snaefell Mountain Railway. Today, the mountain railway and the Laxey Wheel, or "Lady Isabella" as it is known, attracts thousands of people each year-- most whom arrive via MER, often by "extra cars." The wheel -- the largest water wheel in the world -- was designed to pump the surplus water from the mines. The wheel has a circumference of 227 ft. a diameter of 72½ ft and a breadth of 6 ft is capable of raising 250 gallons per minute from a depth of 1200 ft. This magnificent piece of engineering, built in 1854, is still in perfect working condition.

 

The following years were occupied with the building of the expensive ten mile extension from Laxey to the important northern town of Ramsey. The first passenger car reached Ballure, on the outskirts of Ramsey, on August 5, 1898. The present terminus at Ramsey (Plaza), 17¾ miles from Douglas, was opened (in pouring rain) on July 22, 1899. The line was now complete.

 

Upon the signal from the Laxey station agent, MER trains begin their journey to Ramsey — arguably, the most spectacular electric tram segment in the world. Just beyond the Laxey station, the line begins an almost continuous climb up the north side of the Laxey Valley, encountering grades of more than 4%. The summit is reached at Ballaragh, 588 feet above sea level. The highlight is a 500 feet-plus cliffside shelf at Bulgham, featuring a rugged 500-ft drop to the Irish Sea and perpendicular cliffs climbing 70-feet above the rail line. Construction in this area was extremely difficult. Soon cars are running inland passing through wooded Dhoon Glen and rolling green hills with grazing sheep. A herd of wild goats watch with wonderment as the trains glide past. The approach to Ramsey is dramatic with the vistas of the crescent-shaped Ramsey Bay and the Queens Pier. Across from the Ramsey station is the MER Museum and Visitors’ Center.

 

Dumbells Bank collapsed in February 1900, forcing The Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Co. Ltd. and many other Manx businesses into receivership. (We owe the expression, "Do not be a dumbell" to this collapse.) A new company, the Manx Electric Railway Co. Ltd., took over the electric tramway in November 1902, while the town of Douglas took over the horsecar and cable car lines.

 

Through the years that followed, the MER became a vital Island institution, providing important and valued services, not only to passengers but also for freight and mail. A sharp downturn in tourism in the 1950s, together with increased operating costs, produced significant financial losses. The private company was unable to continue. As a result of a successful campaign mounted by the opponents of closure, MER was taken over, in 1957, by the Isle of Man government. Almost twenty years later, faced with spiraling deficits, the government decided to close the line on September 30, 1975, at the end of the summer season. The Douglas-Laxey and Snaefcll lines would continue to operate, but only seasonally. The Laxey-Ramsey section would be permanently abandoned.

 

It quickly became evident half a railway produced still more losses, On June 25, 1977, a change in the Island’s government restored Ramsey service after a two-year absence. Currently, the line is experiencing a renewal program focusing on the route’s infrastructure -- track (60 lbs. rail), poles and electrical. Frequency of service has been enhanced for the seventy-five minute journey, particularly during the winter. During the winter of 2000-2001, Sunday service was offered for the first time in fifty years. Typically, Douglas-Ramsey cars are operated from 9:45 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. at the peak of the season. Additional services include the "Illuminated Groudle Shuttle" in connection with the Groudle Glen Railway (Wednesday nights) and Laxey extra cars. Ridership, although modest, is increasing at rate of bout 4% per month, although some months it has been as high as a 28% increase (September 2000).

 

Rolling Stock

 

The rolling stock of the Manx Electric Railway is both distinctive and unusual. Except for one group of four cars (Nos. I 0-13) and the loss of four motor cars and seven trailers in 1930 from a fire at the Laxey car barn, every car purchased since the line’s inception in 1893 is on the property. The youngest cars (other than three 1930 replacement trailers for cars lost in the Laxey car barn fire) purchased in 1906 are rapidly approaching the century mark. Only on the Isle of Man can riders experience late-Victorian and Edwardian era trains in the 21st century.

 

A unique feature of the enclosed platform (vestibuled) motor cars (saloons) is the placement of their doors on the car ends. Instead of the standard 3-windowed ends, ME R motor saloons feature two windows and an entrance at each end. This feature allowed a single conductor to move conveniently to and from the motor car to an attached cross-bench trailer.

 

Note -- A complete roster (fleet list) of current Manx Electric trams and trailers is found on http://www.mers.org.im/fleetlist.htm

 

Article Published:  Trolley Talk, No. 261 July-August 2002. 

 


Return to the Cable Trams in the UK page.

Go to top of page.

Home /What /How /Where & When /Who /Why
Chronology/ Miscellany/ /Links /Map /Bibliography

Copyright 2003-2004 by Walter Rice. All rights reserved.
Last updated 01-Aug-2004