Is This Any Way To Run A Railway ?

The Story of the Manx Electric Railway Since 1956.
By A. M. Goodwyn

The Way To The North : Evening Shadows At Laxey.
Photo : A. M. Goodwyn

This is the story of the Manx Electric Railway since its nationalisation in 1957 to the present unhappy time (1976). This unique railway holds an important place not only in the chronicle of the Isle of Man's evolution since 1893, but in transport technology too. By the 1950s it had become the solitary but miraculous survivor of a bygone era of electric inter-urban railways, and which flowered most fruitfully, but which time itself had faded and withered like the autumn leaf.

This railway was a jewel entrusted to the Government of the Isle of Man for future generations. It was, in fact, a way of life and has its accorded place in history. So too do those to whom its care and protection was entrusted, and who have betrayed and prostituted that charge. Through their lack of planning and expertise, through decisions defective both in principle and in fact, through almost wanton myopia and indifference, the judgement and verdict of history must be that those responsible served it poorly.

The MANX ELECTRIC RAILWAY is a remarkable institution and one which is well worth saving at a reasonable cost. Until recently it contributed very significantly to the tourist industry and provided a useful transport function. Throughout its life so far, the Manx Electric always tended to be rather unfortunate: it was never completed to its originally intended terminal near to the Victoria Pier in Douglas, whilst at Ramsey it was forced to build a "back of town" route to its terminus instead of sweeping along the sea front Promenade. Within months of its completion, it was caught up in the maelstrom caused by the failure of Dumbell's Bank in 1900 together with many other Manx businesses. The Manx Electric became a pawn under a syndicate that purchased the line from the receiver for £252,000 and which then resold it in nine weeks later for £364,737 to the newly formed Manx Electric Railway Co. Ltd. This grossly inflated price meant that an over-large capital was necessary and much of this was unwisely raised by means of fixed interest shares. In turn this meant that the railway always had to produce £16,510 each year just to pay this interest. The burden resulted in little finance being available for adequate renewals and replacements and the lack of impetus in technical and commercial development led to a policy of 'making do' with stagnation of thought and outlook. Somehow the line managed its way through the thirties and forties, and finally staggered blinking, into the 1950s.

Manx Electric Railway Car No.5 of 1894 caught at Derby Castle during 1955 towards the end of the Company ownership of the railway. No 5 carries austerity livery, typical of this period.
Photo : A. M. Goodwyn

By 1955 the arrears of maintenance had become very serious and it became clear that the impoverished company could no longer hope to overcome their difficulties. Tynwald called for a report by 'experts' from British Railways Advisory Committee who in due course submitted that the Manx Electric would need almost total replacement in order to bring it up to British Railways mainline standards, all at quite staggering cost, and concluded that it would be cheaper to replace the line with double -deck buses. This astounding report was very widely condemned: Deemster Sir Percy Cowley said that he could not find the slightest suggestion in the subcommittee's report to Tynwald that they had made any honest endeavour to put forward any realistic proposals: 'Modern Tramway' in July 1956 rightly concluded that the report - "the third in seven years from outside experts, and the second time Tynwald got a report that did not answer the question," was a waste of time and money. It was not so much an opinion on the cost of keeping the Manx Electric, more an estimate for building a completely new railway on the same site. On June 20th the report was officially rejected in the House of Keys.

Five months later a new report was submitted this time by genuine experts in electric light railway technology, and who declared that it was not only possible but also highly desirable to retain the whole of the Manx Electric at reasonable cost to the Government. The late J.W. Fowler and the late C.T. Humpidge carried out a reasonable assessment of the line, its predicament and its future. Their report recommended purchase and financial assistance. They agreed that track relaying was necessary and also recommended the purchase of four new saloon tramcars. This sound and practical report was adopted by Tynwald, negotiations with the company completed. On December 12th of that year, Tynwald voted to take over the Manx Electric on agreed terms; in opposing the motion, Mr J. Cain, a director of the Isle of Man Railway/Road Services, told Tynwald that ten buses would carry all the traffic of the Manx Electric, and in doing so was admitting that if the railway was closed, two-thirds of the traffic would evaporate altogether. The old company sold their undertaking for £50,000 complete, a price which in market terms was then only slightly more than could reasonably have been expected for scrap, and the land value was ignored. As will presently appear, among the liabilities included in the sale was the ofttimes-dismal system of management which was allowed to carry on with the motto of "It'll see our time out."

The first Manx Electric Board of Tynwald under the chairmanship of Sir Ralph Stevenson, took office in May 1957 and announced its intention to relay the track between Douglas and Laxey during the first seven years and then to deal with the Snaefell line in the ensuing three years. Relaying of the Laxey line commenced at an extravagant £20,000 per mile, using time expired and expensive manual relaying techniques. No attempt was made to use modern, economic methods of track relaying and maintenance and indeed, little if any effective follow up maintenance was carried out with the result that even new track laid at this time has become crippled and is now (1976) overdue for replacement again. This board also made its mark by painting some of the rolling stock in a peculiar shade of green. In an ill conceived attempt to recreate the partial successes of the inter-war years, two life-expired Douglas Corporation buses were acquired, and it was attempted to run a series of tours between the Bungalow and Sulby for a time, but a marked absence of passengers and the frequently unserviceable buses brought this enterprise to an end. Little time was lost in apparently attempting to create a situation reminiscent of the days when labour was cheap and time counted for little: by the January of 1958 no fewer than 110 men were at work on the line.

The 1957 season had seen a 10% drop in passenger figures and by the early Spring of 1958 Tynwald was anxious that the costs of the Manx Electric would prove to be catastrophic, and on May 22nd Tynwald voted by only 11 to 10 to retain the railway at all, and decided to run a token service during the Summertime only. The relaying programme was extended to cover 10 years for the first stage (and in the event apparently for ever, since this work was still incomplete by 1976). The Bungalow Hotel, always a popular venue, was closed and demolished, and the Board finally resigned altogether in June. A month later a new board emerged under the chairmanship of the late H. H. Radcliffe. Track relaying continued at an even slower pace and some modern switchgear was purchased for some of the electric substations, allowing token economies in manpower, whilst the staff began to appear in a unique and curious green Acadian or Ruritanian uniform.

Per Way works in progress at Mines Road, Laxey during October 1972.
Photo: George Hearse

In March 1962 T.H. Colebourne became Chairman of the new Board, and improvements on the Manx Electric included the building of a large and not very useful station building at Ramsey, and a large and even less useful shelter at Laxey. Since it had proved impossible to organise the heavy parcels traffic handled despite an inspired master plan carefully prepared and cogently argued by a particularly gifted member of the Manx Electric staff - who was almost instantly demoted - these services were substantially curtailed and (mainly) handed over to Isle of Man Road Services Ltd. The Snaefell cars acquired tape-recorded commentaries which usually produced a monologue as cars climbed up the mountain. These latterly caused some amusement as puzzled passengers tried to determine the language in use or relate the commentary to their journey when visibility was zero or the units became unsynchronised.

To all practical intent, relaying came to a standstill by 1965 and the revitalisation of the line, if such it can be termed, also came to a standstill. The Irish Sea Bubble had burst. The avowed intention to purchase four new tramcars for the basic service had stalled after drawings and prices for iron-clad monsters were submitted to meet the specified requirements of the Manx Electric's management. Offers of highly suitable and unrepeatable traction motors, control gear, traction poles and other equipments were steadfastly and resolutely rejected even when it was clear that the line simply could not afford to miss these opportunities. Since opportunities are solitary travellers, these decisions were to cost the line dearly in years to come. Just how dear only began to be obvious in 1976.

1966 was a grim year in many respects. In January the only member of successive Manx Electric Boards professionally to know anything about railways and trackwork in particular, Mr T.W. Kneale, died. His enormous expertise was of immense value, but somehow his knowledge and experience seemed to be almost resented by some. 1966 also saw the introduction of a joint ticket with the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company Ltd., which enabled a curious or masochisitc passenger to make a perculiar trip to Ramsey one way by steamer, the other by Manx Electric.

This was of course the year of the seamen's strike. Even further reductions took place with the two late evening cars cancelled whilst the Isle of Man Steam Railway remained closed throughout the year. T. H. Colebourne advocated total Winter Closure of the Manx Electric in Tynwald and also mentioned the relaying of the Snaefell rail would cost in the region of £145,000. After the Autumn General Election, Sir Henry Sugden took over as Chairman of the new Board.

Any lingering doubts that the Manx Electric Board as such had become the Cinderella club of the Keys were by this time long since dispelled. In short, it had become so weak a Board, possessing little significance and even less glamour that few really capable and outstanding Members of Keys were prepared to serve on it.

In January 1967 the line to Ramsey was cut in two by a landslide at Bulgham Bay, an event confidently predicted for some time by certain prophets of doom who interpreted correctly the unmistakable signs of subsidence at road bed level. This collapse took place at the point at which the Manx Electric track reaches a height greater than the Blackpool Tower, and it was a task of considerable magnitude to carry out repairs to both the cliff face and the retaining wall. The costs of reconstruction and reinstatement authorised without any discussion on whether it was necessary to restore the double tram track or, indeed if it was to be restored at all if the position of the Ramsey line itself was to have so uncertain a future. The two sections operated quite separately with cars scheduled to meet one another at what became known as the "Bulgham Gap" until the repairs were completed in July, and the line reunited once again.

In June, whilst the repairs at Bulgham Bay were in full swing, Sir Henry Sugden sought and eventually obtained Tynwald approval for the relaying of the Snaefell line. This work actually commenced over eighteen months later because the type of rail needed was of a sort not made for over seventy years, and the somewhat astonished rolling mils were quite naturally not prepared to make the rail unless the Manx Electric paid for the special tools necessary. It is perhaps convenient at this point to state quite clearly and categorically the facts relating to this particular programme in respect of the Snaefell line:

1. The gauge of the Snaefell line is 3 ft 6 ins., six inches wider than that of the coastal line. The wider gauge is necessary in order to accommodate the 'Fell' rail. The 'Fell' rail, so named after its inventor, John Barraclough Fell is a special double-headed rail, laid on its side in the middle of the track, and slightly above the level of the running rails. A calliper type of mechanical brake is provided on Snaefell cars. Which grips or clasps the faces of this rail. The wear on the friction brake blocks makes the operation of this brake extravagantly expensive. The Fell rail is not continuous and therefore cannot be claimed to eliminate derailments.

2. The Fell rail was adopted on Snaefell because at the time of the line's promotion, electric traction was in its infancy and it simply was not know if an electric tram could climb a gradient of 1 in 12 by its adhesion alone. By the time the line was reaching its completion, it had become certain that electric trams could climb hills of 1 in 9.5 and even steeper, but by then the Snaefell track was essentially complete and the Fell rail in position. It was therefore decided to retain it for braking purposes.

3. The Fell rail was, in the context of Snaefell, a mechanical anachronism by the time the line opened. By suitably modifying the cars braking systems, it was completely feasible to dispense with it altogether.

4. By 1960 a considerable proportion of the Fell rail showed signs of acute corrosion and it was decided to replace this rail rather than deal with the root problem.

5. It was in fact undesirable and unnecessary even to contemplate the renewal of the Fell rail at all. The few other Fell rail equipped lines in the world had all long since discarded it.

6. All of the time and money spent on the Fell rail replacement on Snaefell has been wasted.

During the period of Sir Henry Sugden's stewardship, certain of the more responsible members of the Board repeatedly asked for more frequent meetings of the Board itself. This request was denied, but those concerned failed to exploit the peculiar composition of this particular Board, where the nominee or non elected Members outnumbered the Tynwald Members of the Board, a situation that was not repeated.

About this time a dog was electrocuted on the tram track towards Port Jack during an intense sea storm. To keep dogs away from the poles and to guard against a repetition , the Board purchased some plaques to fix to the poles, and which read "Warning: Live Wires". The Island's canine population waited in vain for the provision of a scheme to teach them to read.

At the end of December 1967 the Manager, Engineer and Secretary, the late J. F. Watson retired after 38 years service. The vacancy was filled by the appointment of Mr H. Gilmore, previously Chief Assistant Engineer. The position was not advertised in the transport press and once again an opportunity may have been lost. This Board's term of office came to a close in 1971 when the late H. H. Radcliffe returned as chairman of a newly elected Board.

The entire period from 1965 to 1967 has been one of almost unrelieved gloom and decline, retrenchment and defeat. Slowly but surely the timetables have been reduced and the evening services almost extinguished. It has been declared that the evening traffic potential even during the height of the season was minimal, but no attempt was ever made to bolster, let alone encourage, this traffic. As the secular decline accelerated, some feeble and futile attempts were made to cut costs, but in fact these clumsy and misguided efforts usually produced even greater losses. For reasons which are still not clear, the winter service as such had apparently become a bone of contention. Time and time again the Manx Electric stated that, inter alia, the winter service obligation was responsible for appalling loses. Let us however, be quite clear about these losses. T. H. Colebourne in 1966 stated the losses to be £5,200. By 1971-2 the loss on winter working was quoted at approximately £6,000, but then the total operating loss for the entire year amounted to no less than £59,000 and rising in leaps and bounds. Since the winter service covered a period of 40 weeks out of each year, it is clear on this basis the other £53,000 must have been lost during the remaining 12 weeks of summer operation. On the facts as presented by the Manx Electric, it would therefore have been far more economical to close down for the summer.

Commencing with the 1971/72 winter timetable, a really savage onslaught was mounted on the remaining traffic. Schedule cuts resulted in a skeleton service of little benefit to anybody. Before these cuts were implemented, it was found and proved that a far greater saving could be effected by introducing one-man-operation of the trams. By running the cars on a "keep right" basis, all the cars became suitable for front entrance, near side loading. This scheme was carefully costed out, checked, drafted and presented, but the proposals were totally discounted. These cuts also caused the loss of the main GPO mail contract which brought in several hundred useful pounds a year for doing very little. By 1971 the closure of the entire line was under discussion and a scheme plotted which allowed a contingency plan to reprieve the Snaefell line in the event of a massive and hostile public reaction. In the event this plot was (temporarily) shelved by the presentation of a £108,000 scheme of November 1971 by Rapid Transit Technical Services Co. Ltd. Briefly this entailed the purchase of all the Manx Electric's assets with a leasehold of the land occupied. This firm believed that it could restore the line to some commercial status over a period of seven years to the extent where, after extensive rationalisation, investment and development, the railway would be almost self supporting: the profit was to accrue from various ancillary and subsidiary engineering activities although inseparable from the railway itself. Rapid Transit's scheme included the building of a new and compact workshop and administrative unit at Laxey, arranged to serve both the coastal and the Snaefell Mountain lines with the subsequent closure of the outdated and unsuitable facilities at Derby Castle, and the office at Strathallan Crescent, and with centralised radio and telephone control of new one man operated tramcars, coupled car sets, a rationalisation of rolling stock and depots, single line and loop working of the Laxey to Ramsey section, and other improvements relating to staff, timetables and schedules, advertising, ticketing, stations, current supply and collection, overhead equipment and permanent way. Subsequent negotiations between the company and the Government resulted in apparent approval in principle and agreement in detail, including deficiency guarantees for the first few years, pension fund provision, and a grant towards the costs of new workshops. Tacit support for an extension in Douglas resulted in some survey work being carried out, and even the wording of press notices announcing the transfer were agreed.

The government, having secured agreement with all parties except of course, the Manx Electric Board, the appointed a Sub-Committee of Executive Council which in the event seemed to have little idea of how to proceed. This committee, consisting of Messrs. P. Radcliffe, Chairman of Executive Council, Mr. J.B. Bolton, Chairman of Finance Board, and Mr. Clifford Irving, Chairman of Tourist Board, never met the Rapid Transit Company, but approached the department of the Environment (Transport Industries) in London, asking that the railway inspectorate assess the technical and financial merits of the proposals. Rapid Transit heard of this approach and made it very clear that it did not rate the Railway Inspectorate as in any way competent for such an assignment, a view apparently shared by the department, since they declined their assistance. Then, on November 10 1972 just over a month before the last option dates open to government were due to expire and whilst government was muttering about detail renegotiation and playing for still more time- which was not forthcoming- a little known consultancy "Transmark" was retained to "advise the government on the Rapid Transport proposals". As Modern Tramway & Rapid transit Review pointed out in September 1973 in a blistering editorial - "The expertise needed to advise Tynwald does exist, but certainly not at Transmark. Indeed it didn't, but then the last thing Tynwald may have wanted was expertise. Already there were dark suggestions that "it was totally unacceptable and untenable for a private firm to take charge ……… with a likelihood of some success……… where we, Government, have had nearly nothing but trouble for nearly twenty years."



It is often said in a court of law that ignorance is no defence. In the same way this Tynwald Sub-Committee must take the blame and the responsibility for having selected Transmark as their advisers, despite being provided with a lengthy list of eminently suitable consultants. This decision may have been the result of their enquiry to the department of the environment earlier. Transmark or " Transportation Systems and Marketing research Ltd.", to quote its eloquent and impressively expansive title, is actually a consultancy set up and run by British Railways, a body scarcely noted for its sound financial performance. There must surely be an exquisite irony in this organisation attempting through its subsidiary to "advise" on railway economic and other problems. In fact Tynwald, in its choice of consultant, was simply confirming that it had still to learn any lessons from the past, and fell into the same trap as it did 1955-6 when it appointed a singularly sterile and quite worthless emanation from British Railways. Transmark had either no previous or no adequate experience in this specialised field and displayed a lack of understanding in tramway technology.

The Transmark reports on both the Manx Electric Railway, and later on the Isle of Man Steam Railway, cost the taxpayers of this Island many thousands of pounds. In short, they told of nothing that was not already known, and explained nothing that warranted explanation. The Transmark report on the Manx Electric and its future has rightly been described by Tramway Museum Ltd. As inconsistent, illogical, inadequate and irrational, glibly reaching unsound conclusions based on unfounded reasons. Faced with circumstances and projections that were almost certainly beyond their comprehension and in the light of what the Rapid Transit Company saw as a lamentable and deplorable failure to get in touch with them at any stage during the enquiry, Transmark "misleadingly, malevolently and apparently maliciously" discounted their proposals which were found to be "unacceptable as they stood." Transmark broadly concluded that the Manx Electric would almost certainly cease to be a problem if it were closed down, and with commendable foresight noted "it might not be polite to close both the steam and electric railways in the same year." They considered that the Snaefell line might have a future if re-equipped, and this facility was cited as the only reason for temporarily retaining the Douglas to Laxey link. The closure of the entire costal section was seen as actually assisting the Snaefell line "which would profit from being alone in the field."

The Transmark technical expert was Mr. G.H. Hafter, rolling stock engineer of London transports underground railway. Whilst discounting and discarding Rapid Transport's engineering proposals, it was of interest to note that his own proposals were almost precisely and exactly identical, item by item and word by word, an "unparalleled plagiarism apparently relieved only by carelessness, ignorance or stupidity": Rapid Transit had proposed an emergency replacement programme for traction poles, but Mr Hafter only noted that "some poles suffer from a lack of verticality." So they do, but a closer inspection of most of them would have revealed a far more important lack of metal. Rapid Transit proposed the use of a replacement trolley-head to eliminate wear, but Transmark promoted the use of a different and quite unsuitable type of trolley head, which would have necessitated the rehanging of many of the 44 miles of overhead wire along the railway. Other fairly serious shortcomings in the Manx Electric's engineering went unnoted. A letter of complaint from one of the Rapid Transit partners alleged that:

"Taken all in all the report brings the inescapable conclusion that it is a pre-eminent betrayal of accepted standards and indeed constitutes a lasting and shameful reflection on both in ability and integrity of its author. No professional consultants would ever have proceeded to attempt an evaluation on (this) basis."

"A number of professional consultants are, as you are aware, extremely concerned by the assorted and sometime amateurish 'consultancies' set up by public sector undertakings in the United Kingdom and especially in respect of the damage that they feel is being done to the reputation of British Consultants overseas. It is therefore intended to take all of the records, reports, documents and their communications relating to this case in their hands for consideration."

Specifically Transmark displayed its ineptitude by the following features in the Manx Electric report, as identified by the Tramway Museum Services Ltd., experts:


1. The financial analyses are broadly misleading, inaccurate and quite unsupported by any adequate examinations;

2. The various options cited are unsupported by any estimates of costs or of cost effectiveness

3. The marketing and advertising aspects of the report, which should have been one of the strongest aspects, were in fact singularly negative and nebulous with no proper examination of the possibilities for improvement

4. Whilst advocating the retention of the Snaefell line, it was overlooked that three or four times as many people travelled on the costal line;

5. The technical proposals were neither adequately nor accurately costed "mainly because their experts apparently had no clear understanding of what was involved, nor of what would actually be required.

Having received the Transmark report there was subsequently an interesting debate in Tynwald on their proposals to cut the services. Members of the world's oldest democracy indulged in authoritative comment, criticism and discussion when, of their own admission most of them had never set eyes on either the Rapid Transit or Transmark reports. A few singularly stupid ideas were mooted: one was that the Manx Electric (with its 35ft. radius curves and gradients of one in twenty four) might be a good place to try running some steam trains off the Isle of Man Railway, since these were once again threatened with displacement from their own line between Douglas and Port Erin. Amazingly, as late as October 9 1974, the government was "still considering (Rapid Transit's proposals)… And until that Committee has reported and Tynwald has adopted or varied its recommendations, or adopted some other solution, it is not possible to give a definite reply." By that stage they had no need to bother.

This whole period was noteworthy in that it was perhaps in one of the few time in years when both the Manx Electric Board and management had showed thoroughly unmistakable signs of life, and conjoined in a successful attempt to thwart the proposals laid before the government for their imminent demise. Once the threat was repulsed, however, life appeared to settle down once again to its dismal standard of unwavering mediocrity, jealously guarding a worn-out railway with dwindling traffic, diminishing receipts, rioting costs and deficiencies. Obsolete and unreliable rolling stock picked its way along inadequately inspected and ill-maintained track work, consisting of rails eaten away by corrosion and electrolysis, inadequately fastened down to rotting substandard sleepers, resting in baths of slurry or mud, and surrounded by stone ballast of the wrong size. With rusting poles and drooping wires unequally fed from old-fashioned mercury-arc rectifiers in sub-stations geographically situated in the wrong places, and the volts and the amps finding their own way home through the paint soaked insulators and missing or stolen track-bonds, this railway surely was in a mess. It is obviously necessary to identify the things that are wrong before they can be put right, and it is fairly clear that those concerned did not even begin to accept that there was very much amiss. In the face of overwhelming odds, this moribund enterprise had gone into a coma.

Having long ago failed to provide parallel arrangements for concessionary old-age pensioners' fares when these were introduced on the all-Island bus services, and having terminated the winter Saturday tram service, which began to show signs of being heavily used, but involved the platform crews in a working week of just over the minimum 40 hours, and faced with the growing problem of deferred maintenance on the northern line to Ramsey, the Manx Electric Railway Board was then required top present its case to the transport steering committee of Tynwald, a body set up with vague and imprecise parameters to implement a form of "transport policy".

Predictably, and partly as a result of what is understood to have been a quite astounding presentation to this committee, it was decided to close the entire Manx Electric down at the end of September 1975 with only the Douglas to Laxey and Snaefell lines reopening for 1976. Needless to say that it was subsequently admitted that nobody had bothered to look at the cost implications of permanent closure and abandonment, and no independent estimates were prepared for the repair of the northern line. A con tangency plan was apparently hatched in case these closure arrangements misfired, and involved a tear-stained and tragic announcement early in the spring of 1976 to the effect that the northern line track work had been found unsafe. It was not needed.

Even the ceremonial last departure from Ramsey on the windy afternoon of September 30th 1975 devolved into a minor fiasco, since nobody remembered that the substations that supplied the current were on time clocks, set to switch off shortly after the last car of the day had departed southward. Since the departure from Ramsey was slightly delayed owing to a minor demonstration and technical contretemps, the cars set off, the time ran out, the sub-stations switched themselves off and the cars slowly ground their way towards Laxey Groping for the current at less than five miles per hour. That this was possible at all was due to the reprehensible electrical malpractice favoured by the Manx electric of feeding through almost from one end of the line to the other. On electric tramways it is usually obligatory under Statue to divide the line into half-mile electrical sections, so that any defect is adequately protected and not dependant on the melting of the overhead wire as a fuse. Ohm's law never was an Act of Tynwald. The very last car from Ramsey, number 21 with trailer 57 in fact only carried three members of the staff, leaving behind a number of angry potential passengers.

As an overture to 1976 two minor events occurred which partly demonstrated the useful employment of the philosophy that if the horse trough is empty, the best way to deal with the problem, is not to refill it, but to shoot the horses: at the end of 1975 Mr. George Lawson, the highly successful Snaefell Summit Hotel manager, was due to retire, He alone had been responsible for the consistent and substantial profits produced by this enterprise, which were indeed the only profits of any sort produced by ant activity anywhere within the aegis of the Manx Electric Board's responsibilities. As his retirement loomed, attempts were made to conclude an agreement with the Trust House Forte to lease the hotel, and thus relieve the Manx Electric of the responsibility and of course, of much of the profits. These negotiations proved fruitless so in the December the Board advertised in the Island's papers for either a concessionaire or a manager. Thus having abysmally failed to select and train a substitute for Mr. Lawson, the Board -according to their own advertisement - could no longer even make its mind up as to what it really did want. With the closure of the Ramsey line, the Manx Electric had lost 65% of its route and the most optimistic estimate of the expected reduction in the traffic amounted to 25% so it was decided that the size of the Manx Electric's headquarters general staff necessary for running this part time truncated railway ought also to reflect these cuts. So it was and the manpower force of the administrative facility was reduced at Head Office- by one.

Having quelled an internal rebellion in the ranks by apparently threatening dismissal, the Manx Electric Board asked Tynwald on December 10 1975 to "authorise" closure of the Laxey-Ramsey Section. Mr John Clucas, chairman, alleged that his Board, "needed to know if the northern line was able to be operated in 1976 because of the timetable and publicity." Miss J. Thornton-Duesbury saw it as her "duty" to second the motion, despite the fact that she purported to represent Garff, a constituency likely to be badly hit by the withdrawl of the Manx Electric's winter service, let alone a total closure, and was a Manx Electric Board member to boot. No cogent or compelling reasons were produced as to why the section had to be closed down; no mention was made of the fact that for years only minimal expenditure had been permitted on the Ramsey line and that the accumulated costs of deferred maintenance were the direct results of the prohibitation on any long-term investment north of Laxey; no real consideration was given to the likely social and economic effects of closure and no mention was made of the way in which Ramsey Town Commissioners had, in their struggle, been treated with almost outright contempt. On that bleak December day Tynwald (having recently distinguished itself by accidentally removing the Isle of Man to a point on the Mexican Gulf) was in form: Only one man, Mr. Charles Kerruish, Speaker of the house of keys, recorded his vote against the closure proposal.

The inexplicable haste with which this closure motion was rushed through Keys may have been in order to present a fait accompli to the somewhat troublesome Ramsey Town Commissioners, who, far from tacitly accepting the transparent reasons given for the closure, the Commissioners had accepted an offer of appropriate advice from Tramway Museum Services Ltd., a subsidiary of the Tramway Museum at Crich, near Matlock in Derbyshire, is known to millions. Considerable difficulty and obstacles had initially surrounded the attempt to get this independent investigation, under way and at one stage the Attorney General's Department had ruled that the Manx Electric were under no legal obligation to provide any assistance. That this legal interpretation, although correct in itself, was sought by the Manx Electric and no one else suggests that a proper investigation by genuine experts was not to be welcomed. Whilst these consultants' findings were not available in full until February 1976, by the time of the Keys' debate in December sufficient was known for it to be assumed that these experts would not only provide a sound basis for the economic retention of the northern line, but also some highly damaging comments in the Manx Electric's management and direction and on the Transmark report as well. It may have been that the government in general and the Manx Electric Board in particular were desperately seeking a scapegoat to explain away their staggering deficiencies which had resulted from the way that the Manx Electric had been run, and feebly clutching to their excerpts from Transmark were forlornly hoping that the closure of the line to Ramsey would somehow produce unexpected savings. In fact the real hope was almost certainly that this measure would tide events and retribution over until the end of 1976 when, with the Island's general election, all the terms of elected office would come to an end and the problems and the heritage would be someone else's.

But even this pious hope was not to be realised; for several years the 1895-built Snaefell Mountain trams had been increasingly prone to failure. By again employing the horse trough philosophy, fares on the mountain section were progressively raised presumably to protect the antique rolling stock and those whose unfortunate duty it was to attempt to maintain these cars in running order. When it got to the stage where, on occasion only one car out of six could be induced spasmodically in propel itself, the problem could no longer be ignored. This state of affairs was clearly foreseen several years ago by a number of people and one member of the M.E.R. Society prepared drawings and specifications for adapting highly suitable second hand trucks and equipment. These bogie trucks, built in 1952, were available at £100 per pair and the rebuilding scheme was also agreed by the original manufacturers Maley & Taunton Ltd., of Wolverhampton who were prepared to produce the new components required for the regaging and rebuilding, despite the very small batch number involved. The use of these equipments would have I turn led to substantial savings elsewhere: The trucks were fitted with extremely safe and effective multiple braking systems which would have eliminated the need for the Fell rail altogether, and with all-electric control these cars could have been adapted for one man operation with full fail-safe and dead-man safety provisions. Since the re-equipped cars would have been able to climb the mountain slightly faster than the present ones, it was possible to maintain the same frequency of service headway with only five cars instead of six. In the event only one pair of these trucks was purchased, The Manx Electric attempted to do the re-build and the butchered remains of these trucks still languish somewhere in Derby Castle Car Works. The total estimated and agreed costs of these 1970-71 proposals amounted to £18500

Faced with the Snaefell problem, The Manx Electric looked for advice: it chose to select London Transport, known for its tube trains, its double-deck buses and very little else for the purpose of obtaining its suggestions and services. Tynwald voted £9500 for "consultancy services" from London. Such of the London Transport's schemes details that have so far been published or leaked leave one gasping with astonishment. The first priority for any acceptable scheme for Snaefell is clearly the urgent and rapid implementation, since the old equipment is virtually unserviceable now. Thus the three-year time scale of the Basic London Transport proposals is quite sufficient to dismiss the whole scheme out of hand. The only suitable tramcars that London Transport found available were at Aachen. (Tynwald was informed by the Manx Electric's chairman that Germany was just across the order from Holland " which must have set at rest the minds of all those who previously believed it to be near Peru or Indonesia.) These 1956-built German trams were built for metre gauge track work and feature special compound-wound traction motors with appropriate and complicated control gear for regenerative braking. How far this search for second hand equipment extended is not known, but it is certain that ideal surplus ex-American equipment suitable for the three foot six inch track gauge of Snaefell was available elsewhere.

The scheme adopted by the Manx Electric Board is to purchase seven of the Aachen cars, which will be brought across Europe to either London Transport's Lots Road or Acton premises, where they will be ultimately stripped down and cannibalised of their traction motors, control and propulsion equipment "and their windows" which in due course of time it is hoped will be built into the 1895 Snaefell trucks and car bodies. The Fell rail brake fittings naturally will be retained "for emergency purposes only, although they will hardly ever be used (!)" and the cars will "probably be fitted with a more modern current collector" in place of the lethal bow type Hopkinson collectors, which can only be removed from the wire by a fitter with spanners or a man with an axe. One such car is expected to be ready sometime in 1977 and the remainder during 1978-9.

So much for the theory. Firstly it must be clear that the total authorised expenditure by now far exceeds what it would have cost to buy five brand new, custom-built and tailor-made tramcars in the first place. The scheme as outlined also involves important changes in the line's equipment, quite apart from the rolling stock. If the Aachen cars' special regenerative braking is to be retained, it will be obligatory to modify and protect all the power supply sub stations with loading rheostats and so on to cope with the first car out and the last one in, which otherwise would have nothing to regenerate against. Since the motors of these cars are far more powerful than the present ones it may well prove necessary to put in commensurately more powerful sub station equipment.

It is mechanically likely and economically certain to prove impossible to build the new components into the old cars, and it has already been suggested that this work is being attempted "in order to prove that it is impossible." The logic of this particular move defies explanation in rational terms, but it might help to explain why seven cars were purchased when only five are required for the service. And what is to happen if it is impossible to do this work? The truly staggering answer is that this problem will be solved by regauging the entire line's 11 miles of track work from the present three-foot six-inch gauge to metre gauge so that the remaining Aachen cars can run on it almost as delivered. Presumably at this stage the Fell rail and its fitting will at last be found dispensable. The inherent difficulties and sheer cost of this incredible re-gauging proposal leaves one stupefied. Additional cots can also be expected when it is found that these Aachen cars will not fit into the depot at Laxey on account of their dimensions. What was wanted was some replacement three-foot six-inch gauge tramcars not a new railway. Never in the history of electric traction has so much time and money, been spent in order to achieve so little.

Presumably in the wake of the Transmark report, there has been an undue regard for this Snaefell line, but it is apposite to note the curious consideration that has been accorded to the lines problems:

1958- Snaefell cars giving rise to concern; offer of five ex-Lille (ELRT) 200-class cars in perfect order at £5700 each REJECTED

1960- Snaefell situation worse: Offer of ideal traction motors (new price £3200 each) in serviceable condition at £30 each REJECTED

1961- Snaefell situation becoming desperate: offer of suitable control gear REJECTED

1965- Snaefell situation hopeless: Fell rail relaying programme advocated and eventually authorised by Tynwald despite private objections.

1970- Snaefell situation frantic: Offer of ex-Valencia modern trucks and equipment lost through procrastination; offer of ex-Toronto equipment- REJECTED offer of ex-Brussels equipment REJECTED

1971 Snaefell situation extremely serious: Car No.5 replica constructed to replace original burnt out in August 1970 through electrical fault; Offer of Maley & Taunton trucks at £100 per pair. Only one pair purchased and conversion work eventually bungled

1973- Snaefell situation catastrophic: offer of ex- Nagoya equipment - REJECTED

1975- Snaefell situation beyond belief: London Transport called in as consultants.

The costs, so far of the direct results of this continuing debacle by far exceeds the staggering total of £330,500 as detailed below:-

Fell rail renewal programme


Cost of purchase of and part conversion of M&T trucks

£ not known

Consultancy fees: London transport

£ 9500

Purchase of second-hand running rails

£26 000

Labour costs of relaying

£ not known

Authorised spending on London transport "solution"

£150 000


£ 330 500

This irrational preoccupation with Snaefell is all too clearly detrimental to the costal line. It was also somewhat surprising that the £150 000 was granted on the nod and without a division by Tynwald, in view of their parsimony only five months earlier when the Ramsey line was supposed to be under discussion. But if money on this scale is forthcoming, it ought to have been allocated to a sensible and economic scheme for the Mountain line, and the balance used for revitalizing the whole of the costal line between Douglas and Ramsey. It is nothing short of preposterous to allocate the enormous sums of money simply to overcome the accumulated shortcomings not only of successive Manx Electric Boards and managements, But also of Tynwald itself, which allowed these thongs to happen.

Thus, then to today and the 1976 season. With the Ramsey Line closed and a steadfast refusal to sell any kind of "Rover" ticket and substantially increased fares at a time when the spending power of each visitor has markedly declined, and the results are not likely to be good, and the total deficit in operation far more than the line, in its present state is worth. It would, however, be quite wrong to assume that this state of affairs is likely to prompt any urgent re-appraisal of the decision to close the Ramsey line, the savings from which are likely to have already proved totally illusory. Far from carrying out any campaign, the Manx Electric Board and management appear to have played into the hands of those who want these catastrophic results in order to prove that the whole of the costal line can now be dispensed with as useless.

In terms of achievement, it is clear that this unfortunate railway has now been brought to its knees. It has reached this tragic state as the result of any adequate or energetic direction, of planning, of policies, of management and the refusal of successive Boards to identify and tackle the root causes of their problems. Instead we have seen the seeking out of feeble, futile and naïve palliative measures aimed at dealing inadequately with the effects of problems, and an unhappy reliance on the findings of consultants who had as little direct knowledge or experience of tramway practice and technology. The anger of those who have opposed the expenditure of extensive sums on the Manx Electric, much of which has simply been wasted, is quite understandable. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that this is no fault of the Manx Electric Railway as an entity, but the fault of those in charge.

In the final analysis many of those involved in this sad and sickening story have been weighed in the balance scale before history, and have been found wanting. Too much was clearly expected of them. In less than a score of years hence, even the lives of those responsible will be beyond recall. But their doings and deeds will be remembered, for this was their betrayal, their destruction and our inheritance.



Despite the all-pervading gloom and despondency of this present spectacle, the possibility that this unfortunate railway may still have one last chance must not be overlooked. It is conceivably possible that even under Government control, the Manx Electric Railway might still be aimed in the right direction, its costs brought under control and the enterprise assured of a future. At the same time such a metamorphosis would require a considerable effort on the part of those responsible in Tynwald, and the precedent of the past two decades provides little confidence. In order to establish the foundations of a new era, the unavoidable pre-requisites are that:

1) Tynwald itself must take its responsibilities to the Manx Electric and Manx tourism seriously.

2) An energetic and wholly interested Manx Electric Railway Board must be assembled under a devoted, sincere, vigorous and able chairman.

3) The whole of the railway be retained and economically refurbished as the opportunity arises

4) The board and its management must conduct the affairs of the line positively and in a truly professional manner, and this must reflect nothing less than "the vigour, enthusiasm, imagination and entrepreneurial flair" called for in the Tramway Museum Services Report.

5) If it is not possible to arouse reasonable fervour in the management team then the team itself must be changed. In any future recruitment it is essential to obtain someone with adequate knowledge or experience of both commerce and tramway technology.

6) The Manx electric railway's track, rolling stock, depots and works, power supply and overhead equipment must be dealt with on a modern economical basis. The Manx electric railway society and other organisations are perfectly prepared to provide technical and other help and assistance if called upon to do so.

7) The advertising, marketing and promotion of the line and its services must be thoroughly overhauled and vastly improved, and all and any means of attracting and increasing patronage fully exploited. In this connection it should be noted that the surplus rolling stock offered for sale must be disposed of in such a way as to ensure ongoing publicity, wherever it may be, for the Manx electric railway and indeed the Isle of Man as a whole.

8) If Tynwald finds, for any of a variety of reasons, that it is quite impractical to organise the running of the Manx Electric on any adequately successful basis then the responsibility for the line's administration ought to be forthwith placed in the hands of competent managing agents of some sort.

Of even greater urgency is the question of the Laxey to Ramsey line and its future. It is essential that services be reinstituted for the 1977 season; it can still be reopened fairly quickly and economically provided a decision is reached reasonably rapidly. For several months after the official closure a once daily workmen's car made a trip along the line, until a local resident rote to a newspaper and suggested that this regular car might also be used for carrying ordinary passengers. The Manx Electric promptly forbade the running of this tramcar for any purpose, and the workmen made their way to and from work by road instead.

In the event of the Manx Electric Board persisting in their assertion that they are both unable and unwilling to operate the Ramsey line themselves, and indeed, since the involvement with the Transport Steering Committee of Tynwald, would have it believed that they are no longer in control of their own destiny, then the Manx Electric Railway Society would be perfectly prepared to formulate working proposals for the northern line as a separate appendage. By converting the northern line from the existing double track (economically unjustifiable for over forty years) to single line with lengthy passing loops, as advocated by Rapid Transit, by Tramway Museum Services Ltd., and even by Transmark, over 15,500 yards of track can be eliminated with commensurate savings. There is no evidence to suggest that such a scheme has been realistically examined in any detail be either Tynwald, or the Transport Steering Committee or even the Manx Electric Railway Board.

Finally it must be recognised that the Isle of Man's railways and tramways are inseparable form Manx tourism, an industry that for over a century was the real basis of the Manx economy. Since the 1960's tourism has tended to suffer a marked secular decline partly as a result of what some believe to be a government-sponsored attempt to reduce dependency on what has been described as a difficult and fickle industry. The advent of fortuitous circumstances in the offshore financial sector of banking and investment has led to a far greater dependence on this. It may well prove to be an even more fickle industry to retain, for the fundamental requirement of any offshore operation is the existence of dependable and stable governments. The island's tourist industry comes under the care of the tourist board of Tynwald, and whilst it is all too easy to criticise their endeavours, their task is made no easier by the dwindling number of attractions. The catalogue of lost and by-gone features is almost endless: the failure to attract new ones ominous. The pre-war visitor returning to the island would be saddened to find Douglas Head deserted, Garwick glen, Groudle glen, Glen Wyllin and even the Howstrake holiday camp derelict. The once thriving entertainment complex at Port Soderick is but a ghostly shadow of its former self. Gone are the trams which made the spectacular run along the cliffs to Port Soderick, gone are the famous Douglas head ferries, and gone too is the majority of the unique island network of railways and tramways. Serious doubt even surrounds the future of the world-famous Tourist-Trophy motorcycle races.

The cost of getting to the island is undoubtedly a primary factor in determining the choice of resort for many people, and it has become fashionable to blame the Isle of Man Steam Packet Co. Ltd., for the level of its fares. These do however, genuinely, compare well mile for mile, with many other sea crossings, and the steam packet's share of passengers to the island has increased, as airline arrivals have plummeted. The extremely serious decline in air travel to the island is the result of a very considerable rise in fares together with the reaction sometimes caused by anti-hijack precautions and the special branch screening.

One really commendable feature of the tourist board was the "open forum" annual meeting, where points of interest and concern to the tourist trade could be discussed. These meetings were usually extremely well attended and the full and frank debates noteworthy. Significantly, there was no such meeting in the spring of 1976.

As far as the railways and the tramways of the island are concerned, it is desirable to provide far greater publicity coverage in the tourist board guide. The advent of a joint publicity campaign between the steam and electric railways is also worthy of most serious consideration. A logical development of joint advertising would be the introduction of a "Manx Rail Rover" ticket, valid for travel on all of the islands lines, including Snaefell and the Ramsey Pier Tramway.


The present term of the house of keys expires this year, and the railways, tramways, and inseparable tourism policies are clearly a key issue in the elections that ensue. All of the Island electors are urged to determine every candidate's views and degree of concern and support for the future of the railways, which are key adjuncts of paramount importance to the success-or failure- of tourism. In addition, every householder in the island will receive a petition form which, duly completed will be handed to the constituents' representative as soon as the results of the election are known.


Copyright © 1976 Manx Electric Railway Society.
All rights reserved.