19th January 2021 · Three Feet on Three Legs

Presenter: Colin Brading

The Speaker for the January meeting on the subject of Railways of the Isle of Man, which had an audience of 54 people, was Colin Brading. Colin last presented to the branch exactly one year ago, but this time via “Zoom”. On the island there are “five major” steam railways and three others, Manx Electric, Horse Tramway and Snaefell railway employing eight different track gauges.

The railways started in 1870 when it was agreed to construct a railway linking Port Erin on the south west coast, Douglas on the east coast and Peel on the west. Construction took place between 1872 and 1873. A later extension to this system was added from St John’s to Ramsey was developed by a different company. Part of the construction included a breakwater at Port Erin for the ferries from both Ireland and Wales, incidentally broad gauge was used for this part of the system. The rest of the system had three feet track gauge. The Peel section opened first with Beyer Peacock locomotive No 1 – Sutherland named after the Duke of Sutherland, a wealthy contributor. Beyer Peacock produced 15 locomotives up to 1926.

The Douglas Horse Bay Tramway, designed by Thomas Lightfoot was built to transport visitors from the harbour to their hotels, nearly two miles long. It was opened in August 1876 and taken over by the Douglas in 1900 and is operated by the Isle of Man Railways. A fleet of fully enclosed trams now operate on the route, but you can occasionally see restored original open trams and double decker ones. Incidentally, the horses only do two round trips before returning to the stables, the horse’s welfare are second to none.

The Manx Electric Railway which runs some 17 ½ miles from Derby Castle, an interchange with the Horse Bay Tramway to Laxey and Ramsey. It was originally built in September 1893 to serve a new housing development on the headland. At Laxey there is a connection with the Snaefell Mountain Railway. Nearby is the Groudle Glen Railway, a 2 ft gauge railway which took tourist to a small zoo. Battery locos were tried but proved to be not successful, with Bagnall built steam loco’s being used. This line was officially closed just after World War 2. It is now operated by volunteers mainly at weekends. At Laxey, famous for the 72ft 6 in diameter water wheel, also known as Lady Isabella, the Snaefell Mountain Railway can be found. The line is 5 miles long and 3ft 6in gauge and employs the Fell Incline Railway System for breaking on the steep gradients which are 1 in 12 in places. It terminates at the summit of Snaefell at 2020ft above sea level. Whilst at Laxey we were introduced to the Great Laxey Mine Railway, an industrial railway developed to bring the lead and zinc ore from the mines at Laxey.

After the break Colin continued. He started by talking of the short line from Peel to Knockaloe. This was the site of an internment camp during WW1 and the line about 1.2 miles long was used to transport freight and supplies to the camp.

Post WW2 the railways were in a poor condition, especially the locomotives. In 1961 two diesel Railcars were imported from Ireland, even Containers on flat trucks were experimented with. In 1966 nothing operated. The system reopened with the Douglas – St Johns – Peel – Ramsey during 1967 but continued to lose money heavily eventually suffered financial collapse in September 1988. The line between Peel and Ramsey never reopened with the track bed being removed and is now a walking trail. In 1977 the Douglas to Port Erin railway was taken into government ownership.

Our speaker mentioned that in 2023 the railways on the Isle of Man will be celebrating 150 years and that he expects there to be some major events taking place. As someone who has not previously visited the Isle of Man, Colin certainly whetted my appetite to make a visit, COVID-19 permitting.