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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] 

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