A SUITABLE SCAPEGOAT or How Not To Cure Chronic Toothache.

By R.D.F Clark

August 8th 1970

A warm mid-season day: holidaymakers sauntered lazily towards Port Jack on the roadside footpath; some, the reckless ones, stumbled awkwardly along the railway lines unmindful of the approaching tram and its barely audible gong. Inside the MER sheds five seasonal staff lazed about unconcernedly; two drivers ate pies and drank lukewarm tea. One conductor stretched out on the back bench of Trailer 62, oblivious to the world: two others discussed the merits of some scantily clad young nymphs, cavorting near the depot entrance. This, with various permutations they had been doing all day. As usual the MER was overflowing with Summer staff, and even on a hot, busy day they would not be needed for traffic; nor, by the look of it, for anything else. They were earning over ten shillings and hour.

August 8th 1976

Another hot Summer day and the electric wires at Ballaglass were disturbed only by a light soothing breeze. A thick layer of rust coated the railway track. Five rabbits lazed about unconcernedly; they sported in absolute safety for no tram had passed that way in months.

Six years apart, these two incidents are inextricably, though illogically linked. In 1970 the writing was on the wall. Some of the MER's shortcomings were so shocking and so needless that something would have to be done. After countless years producing some sort of deficit that would worry even the International Monetary Fund, the Board, in its wisdom, decided to suspend operations to Ramsey. One eminent Member touchingly voted for closure through "allegiance to the Board" (sic.) The logical inference was that the Ramsey line had been responsible for past ills; the magic wand had been waved and all would be put right. The measure taken to correct the malaise was in fact irrelevant. In medical terms the Board had attempted to cure chronic toothache by amputating the right leg. The Ramsey Line was used as a scapegoat by the MER Board to explain away its own glaring incompetence.

What are the abuses that have plagued the railway for so long ? What are the germs that seem endemic in this once healthy body ? Primarily the fault lies with the management and direction and the situation has deteriorated over the last ten years. If a man is honest, sincere, popular and experienced, he does not make a good director or manager unless he has requisite intellectual ability. The proverb of the silk purse seems apposite. Experience should be the factor in determining a candidates worth but so should lots of other things. It can be reasonably assumed that the M.E.R. would not be in a such a sad state today if more care had been taken. In the world of business, a management is at the mercy of the Directors - so too in Association Football. The tragedy is that for too long the members of this particular Board have been mostly average men with a below average knowledge of railways. Many, to be quite candid, have been hopeless. No board member has been able to identify the faults; and if he could he would have no idea how to correct them. At a recent election meeting of an unsuccessful candidate in Ramsey, the author was assured - by clear implication - that the fault lay entirely with the management; remarkably this allegation was made by a then Board member. In some naïve and misguided way this gentleman was trying to justify his own position.

During the 5 years when I was employed by the M.E.R. as a seasonal conductor, overstaffing was rife. Throughout those years (1970 - 74) extra conductors and drivers were always taken on 'just in case'. Often they stayed in the shed all day, or sat eating ice cream at Laxey Station for hours on end. I was often allowed home three-quarters of an hour early because there was 'nothing doing'; wonderful at the time, but tragic in retrospect. And I was being paid out of public funds. The blame for this situation lies squarely with the management. It would be interesting to know how many thousands of pounds could have been saved with an efficient staffing policy. To be frank, in 1970 and 1971 I shouldn't have been there at all, nor in fact at least five others.Still more money was lost by operating an obsolete timetable which basically had not altered since World War 1 - neither had the wording on publicity handouts. Cars charged about merrily at all sorts of peculiar times, often devoid of passengers. Management mourned the days gone by when the queue at Groudle was 'x' miles long; but, predictably, nobody did anything about it.

Not only was the timetable wasteful, but so too was the roster to work it. In 1972 one shift lasted only 6 hours and 45 minutes but conductor and motorman had to be paid an 8 hour minimum. This abuse had been going on for years, undisturbed. On the same shift too, the same staff often spent as much as 1 hour and 45 minutes standing around at Douglas, Laxey or Ramsey, and spent as little as 5 hours actually in motion. Indeed it was often said that any Time and Motion study expert investigating the M.E.R. would suffer immediate cardiac arrest. Many thousands of pounds must have been lost through these wasteful practices; no wonder the deficits were so appalling.

The Manx Electric Railway has always assumed a divine right to attract passengers. Hence advertising has been almost non-existent. After all, everyone knows about the M.E.R. even people from across the water. In fact, since nationalisation the M.E.R. has never carried its full passenger potential. Some imaginative and well directed advertising could have brought in thousands of extra pounds over the years. Ironically the standard improved marginally during 1976 after the Ramsey line had closed. By then the horse had well and truly bolted. Furthermore, preserved railways on the mainland had proved beyond question that the sale of souvenirs, etc., can be a highly lucrative form of income. What has the M.E.R. done ? Virtually nothing apart from the items on sale at the Snaefell Summit Hotel.

Instead of mourning the good old days, the M.E.R. should be obtaining concessions to regenerate dwindling traffic, particularly during the evenings. In 1969 Highlander Coaches sought and obtained a concession to carry patrons from Douglas to the Beach Hotel's Ocean Bar Cabaret in Ramsey. These tours proved highly popular and two or three coaches left Douglas every evening. Such arrangements would have been ideal for the M.E.R. but seemingly no effort was made. It would be interesting to know, in addition, how much pressure was exerted to stop Garwick Glen from falling into private hands, and Groudle from falling into dereliction. Both these glens were popular destinations with visitors for they combined fine scenery and satisfactory amusements with a reasonable fare. Nowadays the M.E.R. is dead between Douglas and Laxey and many thousands of passengers have probably been lost with the demise of the medium-fare destinations.

At the beginning of the 1970s four broad policy choices faced the M.E.R. Board:

1. To update the ancient stock and provide a fast, efficient public utility.

2. To cater exclusively for tourists by promoting an all-out Victorian tramway with parallel advertising and souvenirs.

3. To operate a modern service for commuters and residents but to maintain some historic cars for tourist use, or

4. To do nothing.

True to form, the Board did nothing. It floundered hopelessly in mid-stream, offering a service that was geared neither towards the holidaymaker nor the resident.

So the Ramsey line carried the can. It was supposed to be expensive to operate, in need of urgent repairs; in brief non-viable. But no efforts were made to economise. Many years ago the Ramsey line should have been made single track with passing loops, and any board or management which alleges such as system would be unworkable is in fact testifying to its own incompetence. The Isle of Man Railway has been getting along quite happily with a single line for over a century. Ramsey station was always over-staffed, and many hundreds of pounds were wasted each year. All tickets, such as they were, for few passengers emanated from Ramsey, should have been issued by conductors on the cars. Nor were any efforts made to economise on winter running except to reduce the services. Rapid Transit suggested one-man-operation but of course no notice was taken. For the M.E.R. conductor the Winter was a godsend. Perched for most of the time over a warm heater with a good magazine or paperback, and receiving adequate supplies of biscuits and apples from a philanthropic passenger, his concentration was only disturbed only by the jerk of the car or the switch of the trolley.

Pressures on conductors were never great apart from the pressures of carrying vast sums of the Board's money around. No proper system has ever been devised for the paying in of takings, and it was quite normal for a conductor to carry £70 around until he had the opportunity to pay in. It is difficult to imagine such a lax and dangerous being allowed in private enterprise, even in the Isle of Man. Maybe a lot of money could be saved by a proper paying-in system. Certainly, it was easily lost.

The answer should have been to identify the abuses and put them right, not to pick on a guiltless scapegoat. But, with the Railway on the point of total collapse, there is at least hope for the future. For the first time ever we have a M.E.R. Board of considerable calibre. Gone at least is the deadwood of the last regime, mercilessly swept away on a wave of public resentment. The Ramsey line must be re-opened immediately and some long standing faults corrected. The failures of past decades have not destroyed the nucleus of the Railway; they have merely overlaid it with the alluvial slime of incompetence. With a new team of decision makers the M.E.R. should at least be able to do itself and its staff the justice it deserves. It certainly deserves a chance.

First Published In Mann Tram No. 17 - February 1977