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Thursday, 28 August 2014

Steeple Grange Light Railway

In a nutshell

Gauge:          18"

Length:         ½ mile

Opened:        1883 (Standard gauge branch opened)
                       1967 (Standard gauge branch closed)
                       1985 (Narrow gauge railway opened)




Date of visit:     24 August 2014


Key Facts

  • The railway is built on the site of a branch line to Middleton Quarry from the junction with the Cromford and High Peak Railway at Steeplehouse. The line was known locally as the 'Killer Branch' after the surname of the brothers who owned the quarry
  • The Cromford and High Peak Railway was constructed in 1831 to to carry minerals and goods between the Cromford Canal wharf and the Peak Forest Canal at Whaley Bridge
  • The first part of the 'Killer' branch, which is now the mainline for the Steeple Grange Light Railway, has a gradient of 1:27
  • There is also has a short branch leading to the limestone quarry adjacent to the station
  • A gauge of 18" was chosen to provider more variety than the more usual gauge of 2' for preserved and heritage narrow gauge industrial railways
  • The railway presently possesses sixteen former industrial locomotives
  • The Greenwood and Batley battery electric locomotive, Greenbat, is the mainstay of motive power on the railway
  • For passenger dutues, the railway also often uses a Ruston Hornsby diesel locomotive named Horwich after the BR locomotive works where she was based. She is the only surviving 18" gauge Ruston Hornsby diesel and is now in lined BR green livery
  • The line also possesses several passenger and goods vehicles in various stages of restoration
  • There are plans for the railway to be extended for another ½ mile to Middleton quarry. There is also a possibility that a branch could be laid to the National Stone Centre and Ecclesbourne Railway
  • The railway is open between midday and 5pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays from Easter Saturday to the end of September and on Saturdays in July and August. The line is also open on some days during the Autumn Half Term holiday.
  • Hot drinks and some light refreshments are available at the main station.


My Impressions

When we arrived at the railway we found the main terminus to be a modest affair but nonetheless a hive of activity. On the mainline, Greenbat was quietly ticking over - which I found intriguing for a battery electric locomotive - and its single manrider coach was awaiting its first passengers of the day.

In one of the sidings, the anatomy of a Simplex diesel was being discussed and analysed,

..... and one of the line's Clayton battery electrics, Peggy, was parked, ready for action later in the day,

.... and another Clayton, Peter, was awaiting its first passengers on the railway's branchline which runs beside and parallel with the Cromford and High Peak Trail.

Another mainstay of the line's passenger motive power, the Ruston Hornsby, Horwich, was also pottering about.

After buying our modestly priced ticket (for both the mainline and the branchline), we stepped aboard the manrider on the mainline and without further ado, set off towards the 1:27 incline.

We passed the railway's lower stock sheds situated immediately behind the main station building, where another Lister was poised and ready for action - presumably when demand rose later in the afternoon.

The sheds are served by an interesting-looking traverser which appears to have been tailor-made onsite.

 Further up the line, we passed beneath one of the railway's overbridges,

..... which is also used for stock storage. Some fascinating items of rolling stock were evident suggesting the railway would be able to run a range of passenger and goods trains on gala days.

Just beyond the bridge was another set of sidings leading to a stock shed. I found the frogless turnout to be fascinating and worthy of being modelled, particularly if my plans for a large scale indoor narrow gauge layout ever come to fruition.

Rounding a shallow curve and Killer's Dale Halt hove into view. As we were the only passengers on the first run of the day there were no requests for stopping and we pressed on up the incline.

Just beyond another overbridge .....

we came to Recreation Ground Halt. Again, we didn't stop.

 A little further down the line (but up the gradient) we came to a passing loop and shortly beyond this .......

....... we reached the road leading to the quarry.

With the guard suitably positioned to warn approaching drivers, we passed over the level crossing and ........

....... soon reached the current end of the line. As can be seen, the existing trackbed is somewhat higher than the original (since the road crossing was installed) and the railway company is presently seeking additional funds (and foundations) to extend the line to the eventual quarry terminus.

After watching our train re-cross the road ........

.... we boarded once more for the descent. Across the passing loop ......

 ..... and back to the main station, where more passengers were waiting.

 We used the other half of our combined ticket to board the branchline train to the limestone quarry.

The short trip took us into the heart of the once thriving quarry ........

.... where our driver gave us a very informative and illustrated talk about the geology, history and technology of the quarry, its stone and its workings.

Not only were the fossils in the limestone highlighted, their origins were explained - including how iron pyrites (Fool's Gold) came to be formed.

We then re-boarded our train for the return journey......

 ..... and spent a while exploring the yard, watching the trains and browsing through the postcards, booklets and memorabilia in the main station building.

The members of the society which operates the railway are clearly accumulating a considerable store of 18" rolling stock to populate the line and also to preserve what remains of this aspect of our industrial heritage. The rolling stock is all in very good condition and as such is a credit to the dedication of the volunteers who must devote much of their spare time to working on the railway and maintaining and restoring its collection. It looks as if the railway has steadily grown in size and scope since it was established around thirty years ago and it also looks to have a secure future, with not just one but two proposals on the books for extensions. The personnel I met on my visit were extremely helpful and very obliging - I felt I'd almost become one of the extended family during my visit. The fare was well worth paying to enjoy the experience and also to gain a well informed insight into the operation of this type of stock and its infrastructure.


Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Snaefell Mountain Railway

In a nutshell

Gauge:         3' 6"

Length:        5 miles (8km)

Opened:      20 August 1895



Isle of Man Public Transport
Banks Circus
Isle of Man

Date of visit:     

Key Facts

  • The line runs from the interchange station with the Manx Electric Railway in Laxey to the summit of Snaefell, which is 2,034 ft (620m) above sea level 
  • It was originally intended to build the railway to a gauge of 3' (the 'standard' gauge for the island) but was eventually built to 3' 6" (1.067m) gauge to accommodate the braking system.
  • The railway uses the Fell Incline Railway System which has a centre rail for braking on steep gradients. The centre rail is not used for traction on this railway.
  • The railway is powered by 550v DC,using overhead wires with bow collectors mounted on the passenger cars.
  • The railway was built in seven months using the Isle of Man Railway's 0-6-0 locomotive Caledonia - an additional rail at 3' gauge was laid on the track for the locomotive
  • The maximum gradient is 1 in 12 - the Fell System is now used only for emergency braking, a rheostat braking system having been installed in all cars 1979.
  • A power station was constructed just below Bungalow Station, half way along the line to minimise voltage drop on the overhead wires. When it was built, the power station was the most powerful on the island.
  • When the railway as opened in 1895 its lower terminus was beside the tramsheds on the approach to Laxey. The line was extended in 1897 to a new terminus opposite Dumbells Row and then again in 1898 to its present location beside the Manx Electric Railway.
  • The line was taken over by the Manx Electric Railway in 1902 and nationalised in 1957
  • The railway has six tramcars which were all constructed in 1895 for the opening of the line. These six cars still provide transportation on the line, though they have been remotored over the years.
  • A hotel was constructed at the summit when the line opened in 1895, it was rebuilt in 1907 and burnt down in 1982. It was reopened as a cafe two years later and then refurbished in 2011. As there is no water supply at the summit, a bowser is attached to the first train of the day to supply the cafe with water.


My Impressions

 We arrived from Douglas on the Manx Electric Railway (MER) on the trailer pulled by Car No. 20 and boarded our car (No.1) for Snaefell at Laxey Interchange Station. Car No. 1 was extensively rebuilt in 2011 and repainted in the original Prussian blue colour scheme with the original wording of Snaefell Mountain Tramway.

 While we were waiting, Car No. 6 departed. This sports the default livery for the line. The car, along with its five predecessors was built in for the railway's opening in 1895. Windows and clerestories were fitted the following year. The rheostatic braking gear on the roof was fitted to all cars in 1979 which makes the Fell centre rail braking system redundant, except for emergencies.

We set off up the line with most of the windows fully dropped as we were experiencing a heat wave during this part of August.

 Shortly after leaving Laxey and passing the tram sheds, the car stopped for a few minutes to allow we passengers to take pictures of the Great Laxey Wheel across the valley. The undergrowth appears to have been cleared at this point specifically to promote this view.

At around the halfway point up the line we could see the remains of the upper section of the Laxey Mines, which, at its peak, was part of the most productive mining system in the UK. It was also at this point that the line's original power station was located.

 After passing Bungalow Station beside the TT race track, the track spirals around the mountain, giving 360 degree views down around the island. Had there not been haze in the distance it would have been possible to have seen the coastlines of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

At the summit, we had around forty minutes to take in the views and sample the coffee and snacks on the cafe.

 I spent the majority of the time watching the train movements at the summit.

Given that the trackwork is minimalistic - with an interesting single switch blade point providing access to Up and Down tracks - the tramcars were juggled on the siding which was just sufficient in length to accommodate two tramcars.

 Eventually, we took our seats aboard Car No. 6 for the descent.

 Just past Bungalow Station we were given a fine view of the summit, before winding down the Laxey River Valley back towards the town.

On reaching the Interchange Station at Laxey, there was an opportunity to indulge in some tram spotting.

 Here we see Car No.1 arriving from the summit. The Up and Down MER lines can be seen to the right of the car heading off in the direction of Ramsey and the green Laxey Blacksmith's shed can be seen in the middle distance. This is where some of the MER vans are being restored and the Great Laxey Mine Railway's replica tub wagons were constructed.

Car No. 4 arrived and departed during this period. Car No. 4 was the last car to carry the green nationalised colour scheme which was given to the entire fleet in 1958. It was repainted in its present livery in 1963.

 Car No. 5 is the only car to show the railway's name in Manx Gaelic. It was extensively rebuilt after being gutted by fire in 1970. Whilst at the summit station there was a short-circuit under the floor which caused the fire which rapidly spread to the superstructure. It was initially thought that the short circuit was caused by the advertising boards which used to be mounted on the roofs of all the tramcars which made them rock from side to side in high winds and thereby lose contact with the overhead wires. However, it was later attributed to the practice of swapping power trucks between this car and Car No.7. When she was rebuilt to re-enter service in 1971, Car No. 5 was not given a clerestory and was initially fitted with aluminium bus-type windows. These were later removed and replaced with replicas of the original windows. The car does retain its cushioned bench seating, however; the only car on the line to have this added level of comfort.

 Until my travels on the MER and the Snaefell Mountain Railway, I had never been particularly interested in trams - much preferring the sights, sounds and smells of steam locomotives. I must confess to being won over by these magnificent vehicles. These two systems run their original Victorian stock with only the power systems having been modified and thereby give an insight as to how this form of transportation has evolved. I am still in awe of the power of electric motors - the cars handling full loads up the 1:12 inclines with apparent ease. I found the staff on the railway to be extremely helpful, providing an interesting commentary on the journey comprising a mix of anecdotes and factual information. There was clearly a blend of pride and affection in the mix which is quite understandable given the unique nature of this form of transportation.


[In preparation] 

Monday, 25 August 2014

Great Laxey Mine Railway

In a nutshell

Gauge:          19” (483mm)

Length:         ¼ mile

Opened:       1823 (manual power)
                      1827 (horse power)
                      1877 (steam power)
                      1929 Mine and railway closed
                      2004 Re-opened with replicas of original locomotives

Location and route:   

Great Laxey Mine Railway
12 Rosslyn Terrace
Ballaquayle Road
Isle of Man
IM2 5DE 

Tel:            01624 670386

Date of visit:     26 July 2014

Key Facts

  • The railway was built to serve the Great Laxey Lead Mine
  • With a gauge of 19", it is unique in the British Isles
  • The famous Lady Isabella water wheel was used to pump water from the mine workings
  • The main entrance to the mine was through an adit which located near the further end of the Great Laxey Mine Railway
  • The adit stretched for a distance of 1½ miles into the mountain. It provided access to a series of shafts which led down to the mine workings. The ore from the workings was raised to the level of the adit and then taken out along the tramway to be treated in the washing floors
  • At its peak, the mine produced more ore than all the rest of the UK lead mines put together
  • After using manpower and then ponies for the first fifty years of of the tramway's existence, two diminutive steam locomotives, Ant and Bee, were constructed by Stephen Lewins of Poole, in Dorset. 
  • These two locomotives provided the motive power for the railway, being refurbished by Bagnalls in 1905. They were scrapped in 1935.
  • Restoration of the railway was proposed by the Laxey and Lonan Heritage Trust in May 1998. Work commenced in 2000 and the railway was completed in 2004
  • The replica locomotives, Ant and Bee were built by Great Northern Steam Ltd of Darlington. Ant was refurbished by Alan Keef Ltd in 2007 and Bee was refurbished in 2008/9 by volunteers. They were both reboilered in 2011
  • The railway also has a battery electric locomotive, Wasp, which was built in 1973 by Clayton Equipment Co Ltd.  It was refurbished and regauged from 18 inches to 19 inches by Alan Keef Ltd in 2009.
  • Two passengers carriages were specially built for the railway by Alan Keef Ltd and delivered to the railway in 2004 and 2007
  • The line also has six replica ore wagons which were built by The Laxey Blacksmith in 2000
  • The railway is open at weekends during the summer months and is run by volunteers. 

My Impressions

The station is located a short walk away from the Manx Electric Railway station just below the road and railway on the Ramsey side of the town. The station is a modest affair but serves its purpose well.

Our loco for the day was Bee. She was steaming quietly on the station siding, hitched to one of the passenger coaches and awaiting its passengers.

The specially-built coach with its bench seating was designed to squeeze into the Isle of Man's only railway tunnel which is just behind the station.

I bought my ticket in the railway's ticket office and boarded the train. Once the carriage was full to its capacity of 10 passengers, we set off Down the line. Taking a 90 degree left hand bend we entered the tunnel

The tunnel is approximately 70 metres in length and its restricted size provided a clue as to the diminutive proportions of the coach and the locomotives.

 After emerging once more into the daylight, the railway winds its way along the valley, following for the most part the route of the original railway,

 ....... passing the entrance to the adit which was the main access route into the mine.

The station, Cronk y Chuil, at the upper end of the line, has basic facilities - a siding, a small shelter and a picnic site, with access to a copper mine trail.

On the siding were some of the replica mine tubs which transported the ore from the adit to the washing floors.

 The locomotive and some of the passengers waited patiently on the main line .....

..... and after around ten minutes, they departed. As can be seen, the facilities provided for the driver are minimal - but the nautical boiler is very simplistic and required stoking with pieces of timber fairly infrequently.

 I walked up the short footpath to visit the Great Laxey Wheel which was used to pump water from the mine workings below. The wheel itself is somewhat impressive, turning slowly with a gentle majesty.

 There are plenty of walks and trails around the wheel for those wishing to explore further.

 I was particularly interested in the mechanism which connects the wheel to the pumping apparatus. From the centre of the wheel, a large crank is attached to a connecting rod .........

  ..... which is supported on a long viaduct

 ...... until eventually connecting with a rocking bell-crank mechanism which presumably operates the pistons of pumps located below ground level.

I then made my way back down the path to the station and awaited the arrival of the train. There was time to read some of the information boards which gave some background to the mine workings

......... and the role of the railway.

Strolling back up the railway, I studied the trackwork and ........

 ..... pointwork which was reminiscent of the lightweight rail sections used during World War I.

The train arrived with a new set of passengers and I squeezed into the carriage for the return journey.

On arrival at the main station, I wandered over to the sheds to see Bee's sister engine, Ant .....

These remarkable little engines would be ideal in helping the uninitiated to understand the workings of a steam engine. The front-mounted water-tank is particularly noteworthy in how to cram a quart into a pint-pot - almost literally.

On the neighbouring siding was the line's Clayton battery electric, loco, Wasp. Another masterpiece in compact engineering.

Returning to the main platform road, I took a lingering look at Bee.....

...... before walking over to Lady Isabella's smaller sister, the recently restored Lady Evelyn water wheel.

I then made my way back to the Manx Electric Railway station for my journey back to Douglas.

The Great Laxey Mine Railway and its locomotives have been lovingly recreated by a dedicated group of volunteers. Not only is the railway itself unique in its unusual gauge, it is difficult to imagine where else there would be an opportunity to see steam locomotives of this size and design in operation. The railway fulfils several purposes - it provides a means of transport but more importantly it provides an insight into the ingenuity and imagination of Victorian engineers in making use of available technology to solve problems. I am glad I extended my stay on the island to seek out and experience this unique little railway.


[In preparation]