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125 years of the MER

Open crossbench car 16, built in 1898, at Bulgham Bay. Image credit: Andrew Scarffe

At first glance it may seem like a bold statement, but there really is nowhere else in the British Isles, or indeed worldwide, quite like the Isle of Man.

Situated in the middle of the Irish Sea only 19km (12 miles) from Scotland, its nearest neighbour, the Island is a transport enthusiast’s paradise with electric trams, horse trams, steam trains, a mountain railway, miniature railways and museums. At its heart is a true gem: the Manx Electric Railway. Visitors can travel on Victorian tramcars, little changed since the 1890s. Trams amble along, up and down hills and around sharp curves, through wooded glens and along rugged cliff tops with spectacular views across the unrivalled coastal scenery.

It was in early 1893 that true visionaries began the construction of the tramway northwards along the eastern coast from Douglas, the Island’s capital. Electric traction was in its infancy at the time, so it was a bold decision to build an electric tramway on an island still relatively difficult to travel to and where a public electricity supply was many years in the future.

The first section to Groudle opened in September of that year, with an extension to Laxey in 1894. The following year, the Snaefell Mountain Railway was built in just seven months from Laxey to the summit of Snaefell, the Island’s only mountain. Ramsey, the northern terminus, was reached in 1899. During the following year the tramway company, by now seriously overspent, was placed into liquidation and was purchased in 1902 by the newly-formed Manx Electric Railway Company.

Tourism was now booming as workers from the industrial areas of England’s north-west were given paid holidays for the first time and travelled to the Island en masse – a journey on an open crossbench tram must have been an exhilarating experience. Each summer, the MER, as it became known, carried over half a million visitors, but it also provided a vital year-round transport facility for local residents living in the more remote rural areas en route.

125 years of lows and highs

Despite its immense popularity, the tramway was never financially prosperous. Much of the company’s capital was raised with debenture stock and the requirement to pay interest annually to shareholders eroded profits to such an extent that there was little available to fund investment or purchase new rolling stock. As a result, and not by deliberate intention, the original rolling stock survived.

The two world wars, recession, fire and flood also took their toll. By the early 1950s, a post-World War Two tourist boom collapsed and in 1956 the tramway company, with no resources for essential track renewal, gave notice of its intention to cease trading. In a truly historic and far-sighted decision, Tynwald voted to nationalise both the MER and Snaefell Mountain Railway in 1957.

Subsequent Government ownership was not without issues, the undoubted nadir being the closure of the Laxey to Ramsey section in 1975. Intended at the time to be permanent, fortunately the line was reopened in 1977 following vigorous campaigning. Today ownership of the MER and SMR is vested with the Transport Services Division of the Department of Infrastructure. In January 2016, Douglas Borough Council announced the shock closure of the Douglas Horse Tramway, but ownership has since passed to the Department – securing the future of the world’s longest continuously-operating horse tramway.

Throughout the 1990s a series of very successful special events celebrated the centenaries of the Manx Electric Railway and the Snaefell Mountain Railway followed by the 125th anniversary of the Isle of Man Steam Railway. Unfortunately, during the following decade the Manx heritage railways appeared to temporarily lose their sense of purpose.

Investment and renewal

At the end of the 2010 season there were only five tram and trailer sets available for service on the MER, although a major track renewal scheme had just been completed. The appointment of a new management regime prompted a reversal of the MER’s fortunes and a considerable investment in the infrastructure. Thirteen trams and 14 trailers are now available for service with others planned to be returned to service shortly, the operating fleet now being in its best condition for many years.

Permanent way investment continues with recent track relaying work incorporating concrete sleepers. The improved condition of the trackwork has already been reflected in the greatly reduced maintenance requirements of the trams’ wooden bodywork.

Three-quarters of the overhead electrical wiring between Douglas and Laxey, and a considerable proportion between Laxey and Ramsey, has been renewed with grooved wire and fittings. New substations have also been constructed at Laxey and Baldrine. The refurbishment of Ballure Viaduct, built in 1899, won the 2015 Light Rail Award ‘Project of the Year’ for schemes under EUR50m.

In tandem with this increased engineering effort has been a vigorous approach to the marketing of the heritage railways, aimed at both local residents and visitors. A considerable market has been developed with visiting coach parties, railway touring companies and cruise ships. This effort has been rewarded with a continued steady growth in the number of passengers carried, 2017 witnessing the best figures for many years.

2018 anniversary celebrations

During September 2018, the Manx Electric Railway will be celebrating its 125th anniversary with a week-long series of special events. Cars 1 and 2, built by G F Milnes of Birkenhead for the opening of the tramway, will feature prominently on a number of parallel runs, including an evening parallel run along the entire length of the line. Car 1 is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest electric tramcar in the world in continuous operating service on its original line.

A Family Day at Laxey will will be joined by Douglas Horse tram number 1 which will be on display in Laxey Station throughout the day. The timetable from 1975 will also operate for one day, starting with the 07.00 tram from Derby Castle to Ramsey. Winter Trailer 57 will be fitted with exterior illuminations to match illuminated car 9 and will operate special evening services.

On anniversary day, following the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Groudle, all available rolling stock will form a cavalcade through Laxey to operate a special anniversary timetable. A re-enactment of an MER mail journey, where conductors collect special First Day Covers from the lineside post boxes will be operated and a photography evening will be held at Derby Castle depot. Goods wagons and mail vans will be in operation throughout the week.

Special services with trams hauling two trailers and combinations of goods vans will be operated. There will also be opportunities to ‘take the handles’ and drive one of the vintage trams along scenic line sections. Guided walks and talks will be held throughout the week.

The true star of the show will be newly-restored open Car 14, however, dating from 1898 and withdrawn in 1978. Car 14 is known as a ‘ratchet car’, due to its reliance on traditional handbrakes and its absence of air brakes. Its restoration began three years ago and volunteers have spent thousands of hours restoring the tram to its original livery of varnished woodwork, with maroon lining and a cream roof. The railway’s own workforce has concentrated on the refurbishment of all mechanical and electrical equipment; it is the first time that volunteers and employees have worked side-by-side on a restoration project. Car 14 will be officially launched back into service for the anniversary week, culminating in an evening parallel run from Ramsey to Laxey with sister Car 16.

The event will conclude with a horse tram cavalcade and evening service on the Douglas Horse Tramway, following which the long-awaited reconstruction of Douglas Promenade is to commence. During the work, the horse tramway is to be completely relaid and repositioned on the southernmost section between the Gaiety Theatre and Sea Terminal as a single line only.

Perhaps one day it will be possible to ride a Manx Electric Railway tram along Douglas promenade, just as envisaged by the line’s promoters, 125 years ago in 1893…

Article originally appeared in March 2018 TAUT (963).