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Manx Electric Railway
Derby Castle Station in Douglas, to Ramsey, Isle of Man, UK
Manx Electric Railway
associated engineer
Frederick Saunderson
William Knowles
date  1892 - 7th September 1893, 1894, 1897 - 1899
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Railway  |  reference  SC393774
ICE reference number  HEW 941
photo  Port Jack Depot, © Dr Neil Clifton (cc-by-sa/2.0)
A narrow gauge electric tramway (scenic railway) running generally north easterly from Derby Castle in Douglas to Ramsey via Laxey on the Isle of Man, a distance of almost 29km. It is now the longest tram ride one can take in Britain and remains a popular visitor attraction.
During the early 1890s, the north of the Isle of Man was surveyed for possible steam railway routes. Steep gradients in some areas posed a challenge to this idea, which may have encouraged plans for an electric railway, or tramway.
On 5th July 1892, Irish railway engineer Frederick Saunderson (1840-1911) and Alexander Bruce (1844-1900), general manager of the Dumbell's Banking Company on the island, obtained development permission from the Tynwald (Isle of Man Parliament). The Howstrake Estate Act enabled Saunderson to purchase from the trustees part of the estate at Onchan Head, north of Douglas, and to construct roads and tramways on the land.
A company named Douglas Bay Estate Ltd was registered on 10th September 1892, to buy Saunderson's land rights and finance construction of the first 4km of the planned tramway route — from a southern terminus at Derby Castle, along the coast road to Groundle Glen (SC451942).
The tramway is narrow gauge at 914mm (3ft) wide, with rails flush to the road surface in which it is laid — the sides of the rolling stock could only overhang the wheels by 533mm. Construction began in spring 1893, starting with a new sea wall and embankment, the infilling of Port e Vada Creek, levelling of reclaimed land, and building the Derby Castle terminus plus nearby Port Jack depot.
The line was laid with 27.8kg/m rails spiked to untreated timber sleepers (Scotch fir and larch), measuring 1.83m x 178mm x 89mm, on soil ballast. Fang bolts at the joints and centres of the rails were used, later replaced by hardwood chairs screwed to the sleepers.
The power supply for the tramway was carried on slender 6.1m tapered poles, sunk 1.5m into the ground, and originally decorated with ornamental collars. Most were 152mm in diameter at ground level and 89mm diameter at the top, though some were slightly larger. The cables were 8.4mm in diameter (0.34in, BWG section 0), suspended by Aetna type ears. Electric current was collected on the tram cars by bows designed by Dr Edward Hopkinson (1859-1922).
A single track (to Groundle) with passing loops opened on 7th September 1893. By the time it closed for the season on 28th September, it had transported 20,000 passengers. A second 27.8kg/m track was laid alongside the first (on the inland side) the following year — between February 1894 and the tramway's seasonal re-opening on 12th May 1894.
Meanwhile, the line was being extended in stages. By early 1893, Saunderson had surveyed the route from Groundle to Baldromma (SC419803) near Halfway House. His plan and section drawings are kept at the Manx Museum in Douglas.
On 7th March 1893, the Douglas & Laxey Coast Electric Tramway Company Ltd was formed to construct the section from Groundle to Laxey. On 17th November, the Douglas & Laxey Electric Tramway Act passed, conferring the power to purchase the land required, and permitting the carriage of goods, freight and mail. The Act limited the maximum gradient of the line to 1 in 20, and its minimum corner curvature to 27.43m radius. Maximum running speed was to be 12.9kph (8mph) in general but only 9.65kph (6mph) at crossings.
On 27th July 1894, engineers Colonel J.H. Rich and Major Philip Cardew (1851-1910) inspected the new line between Baldromma and Laxey. Cardew was concerned about the operating pressure of 500v, although this was common in the USA at the time. Evidently, their inspection was deemed satisfactory.
The line from Groundle to Laxey opened officially on 28th July 1894. It includes a road and rail viaduct of three 6m round-headed arches at Groundle and a culvert over Lhen Coan. The main contractor was Brebner — probably Robert Charles Brebner (1854-1930) — and the viaduct by local contractor Mark Carine.
The line’s power plant was at Laxey. Its accumulator station at Groundle used storage batteries to accommodate the fluctuating daily demand — a system not abolished until 1944. The line from Laxey’s terminus to its depot passes through an underbridge (SC432844) at Lower Rencell, constructed 1986-6.
On 30th April 1894, the company changed its name to Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd, with a new company engineer for the section from Laxey to Ramsey: William Knowles. The Douglas & Laxey Tramway (Extension to Ramsey) Act was promoted in 1896, and passed on 20th July 1897. It limited the gradient to 1 in 23 and the minimum curvature again to 27.43m radius. Preliminary work began in August 1897 to extend the line from Laxey to Ballure (SC457934), south of Ramsey. Work began officially on 1st November.
Before the 1898 season, the Hopkinson bows on the tram cars were replaced by Boston Pivotal type trolley bases and the wires suspended on arched rather than Aetna type ears. The power plant at Laxey was extended and a generating station constructed at Ballaglass (SC460897).
The tramway company was contractor on this stretch of line. The engineering works included removing 254,000 tonnes of spoil and placing 60,960 tonnes of ballast. The company’s in-house workforce consisted of between 1,000 and 1,100 men, 30 horses, a steam locomotive, 45 ballast wagons and other vehicles. Two more locomotives were hired.
The line was constructed using 31kg/m rails in lengths of 9.6m, laid on 1.83m x 229mm x 114mm sleepers fixed with Fang bolts and spikes. The maximum gradient was 1 in 24, and the minimum curvature 50.29m. The line was mostly double track. However, at Ballagorry cutting (SC454891), north of Dhoon, it was only single track.
On 15th November 1897, work commenced at Bulgham Bay south of Dhoon Glen. Here, one stretch of line was built on a rock shell with a partial seaward cantilever. The rest was constructed on top of the dry stone wall to the former coastal road. The road was re-sited 9.1m inland.
In March 1898, work at Laxey restarted. Mark Carine constructed the town’s 73.15m viaduct (SC433844) at Glen Roy in just four months. It is built on a curve with four 9.14m span round-headed arches and crenellated parapets. A flat span at the north end of the viaduct provides a bridge over Church Hill.
North of Laxey, the line crosses Minorca Hill road on a single 9.14mm span segmental arch bridge (SC440841) with crenellated parapets. Between Glen Mona and Ballaglass Glen the line runs across a three span overbridge, supported on two stone piers (the deck is now concrete, over steel beams). The tracks bridge Corrany Stream at Ballaglass Glen on a 21.3m culvert (SC461898).
By July 1898, the line was complete as far as Ballure. The company had not yet been granted permission to run trams along the fronts at Douglas and Ramsey. On 18th July, Rich and Cardew inspected the line. Rich refused to approve it owing to a lack of safety measures at the single track section through Ballagorry cutting. On 2nd August, after remedial work, the line opened to Ballure. It closed on 24th October 1898, to allow further work at Ballagorry cutting.
By May 1899, Ballagorry cutting had been widened for double tracks. Work was also underway to extend the line to a new terminus in Ramsey.
One of the railway’s major works, a wrought iron and steel truss viaduct (SC457934), was constructed at Ballure to carry the line from its temporary terminus into the centre of Ramsey. It is about 50m long and stands some 16m above the river. Two spans of four girders, each 24.4m long and 2.7m deep are set in pairs 3m apart, with one pair under each track. The deck slopes some 580mm to accommodate the gradient. Its southern bearings are of cast iron, made by Francis Morton & Co of Garston, Liverpool. Services to Ballure resumed on 17th June.
By 6th June 1899, tracks had been laid as far as Parsonage Road, just south of the new terminus, with some sections in grooved rail. On 20th and 21st July, Rich and Cardew inspected, and presumably approved, as the line opened on 24th July.
The 28.75km line, from Derby Castle to Ramsey, is Britain's longest tram ride, lasting 75 minutes. At Laxey station, the line connects with the Snaefell Mountain Railway (opened 20th August 1895, sold to Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd in December 1895).
In March 1899 Bruce had calculated the construction cost to be £3,729 per single track km. The actual cost for the 20.75km Laxey to Ramsey line was £153,412, including £73,400 for the civil engineering works and permanent way. This equates to £7,393 per km, almost twice as much as the original estimate.
In 1900, Dumbell's Bank collapsed. A liquidator was appointed for the tramway company, which by then was being run by its engineer and secretary Joshua Shaw. In 1901, an overbridge (SC454893) was constructed at Ballagorry for farm access — originally a timber structure, designed by Shaw.
On 12th November 1902, the Manx Electric Railway Company was incorporated and purchased the line the following day. Consulting engineer Douglas Cooper — probably Vivian Bolton Douglas Cooper (1858-1952) — was asked to suggest improvements. He recommended removing the cantilever at Bulgham Bay by cutting a shelf into the rock face. The work was done between February and October 1904. Some 46,735 tonnes of material were removed. In addition, rails weighing 42.2kg/m were laid at road crossings.
Passenger numbers declined during World War I (1914-18). In 1917, the refreshment room at Laxey was destroyed by fire and not rebuilt. Then on 5th April 1930, fire damaged the Laxey depot, destroying trams and rolling stock. It was rebuilt soon afterwards. In September 1930, a storm flooded the Laxey area. The weir at the railway’s power station diverted water onto Glen Road, causing flood damage and resulting in expensive litigation against the company.
In 1934-5, power delivery to the trams was changed to an alternating current system using Hewittic mercury-arc rectifiers fed by the Isle of Man Electricity Board. Automatic trolley-activated traffic lights were installed at road crossings — Halfway House in March 1934, Ballure and Ballabeg in June 1936.
After World War II (1939-45), the tramway company was in financial difficulties. Passenger numbers were falling and track and rolling stock needed upgrading. Closure of the line from Laxey to Ramsey was proposed. During the 1950s, Ballagorry Bridge was rebuilt in reinforced concrete.
In April 1957, the Tynwald bought the electric railway for £50,000 — effectively its scrap value. On 1st June, the Tynwald became the official owner and nationalised the line. In July 1959, year-round services were agreed, allowing the carriage of mail to continue.
Between 18th June 1957 and 1962, orders were placed for 544 tonnes of 29.8kg/m flat-bottomed rail. By 1963, 539 tonnes of rail had been laid to professionally designed curves, using elastic spikes and 24,000 new sleepers (many sourced locally). Rubber pads were used on a section of line at Ballagawne, north of Garwick Glen, to test whether they could eliminate the need to adze the sleepers. In 1964, a new single storey terminus station was built at Ramsey.
On 20th January 1967, a section of cliff collapsed at Bulgham Bay. C.S. Allot & Sons of Manchester was consulted about repairs, which were carried out by Fondedile Foundations Ltd (London) using the Italian technique known as reticulated pali radice (root pile) — a series of small-diameter cast in situ bored piles are used to stabilise the ground. At Bulgham Bay, 116 concrete piles of 76mm diameter were driven in four parallel double rows with some extra piles driven afterwards. The work began in May 1967, and the tramway service resumed on 10th July.
In 1968, an overbridge was constructed for railway passengers to access the Summerland leisure centre (built 1968-71, demolished) on Douglas waterfront. In 1972, flashing robot signals were installed at Halfway House, Ballageg and Ballure. In 1973, the Manx Electric Railway Society was formed to protect and promote the tramway. In September 1975, the Laxey to Ramsey section of the line closed and the mail contract lost. However, in 1977, the railway re-opened for the season in response to public demand.
In 1978, Manx Electric Railway Company amalgamated with Isle of Man Railway Company (the island’s steam railway company, established 1870) to form Isle of Man Railways. The two railways were marketed jointly and co-ordinated their timetables, together with the bus network — under the name Manx Electric Railway. In 1983, the Manx Electric Railway amalgamated with the National Transport Boards, becoming the Isle of Man Passenger Transport Board. Further repairs were undertaken on the Bulgham Bay section including the north end of the retaining wall.
In 1986, the organisation was taken into the control of the Department of Tourism & Transport (now Department of Community, Culture and Leisure). In 1989, an electricity sub-station was constructed adjoining the east parapet of Ballagorry Bridge, replacing the facilities at Laxey power station. In 1992, the span and promenade staircase of Summerland overbridge were dismantled, and the structure demolished completely in 2005.
Between November 2007 and March 2008, 5.6km of track was renewed. The track was dismantled and rebuilt, reusing as many of the existing rails as possible, laid over new ballast and sleepers.
In 2010, inspection revealed corrosion on Ballure Viaduct. Parts of the structure were carrying 90% or less of their safe in-service load capacity. In 2011 and 2013, some of the timbers between the rails and the metal girders were renewed. Between 4th November 2014 and 18th June 2015, the viaduct underwent a £1.2m refurbishment.
Viaduct works included replacing more than 700 of the structure's 17,600 rivets, replacing eight cross beams and 10 diagonals, reinforcing nine cross beams and bracing to six diagonals. All the rail-supporting timbers were replaced, and new tracks and safety guardrails installed. The whole viaduct was grit blasted and coated with 1,300 litres of marine-standard paint. These were the first structural repairs to the viaduct since its completion.
Conractor: Brebner
Contracor: Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Company Ltd
Contractor (viaducts) Mark Carine
Research: ECPK
reference sources   CEH North

Manx Electric Railway