In the Isle of Man, if something works it doesn’t need fixing. That’s why the island is a treasure-house of Victorian transport. Eventually, though, even the simplest engineering wears out.
So Douglas Corporation, confronting its decaying promenade road-surface, has to make a decision about its unique horse-tram service. Like-for-like replacement of the present double track is estimated at between £3 and £4½ million.
2010 passenger figures for the summer-season service are up slightly over the previous year at 54,286. Last year’s annual loss is similarly down slightly to £207,700. In 1938 the horse trams carried 2¾ million passengers and contributed to the transport department’s clear profit of nearly £10,000 (over £350,000 at current values). As late as 1955 they still carried 1½ million people.
The tramway dates back to 1876, when it was built by Thomas Lightfoot, who moved to the island after inaugurating Sheffield’s horse trams. The Douglas horse tramway survived because the seafront hoteliers objected to overhead electric wires in front of their premises.
Because there’s an efficient, faster bus service alongside the horse trams they are in effect a tourist ride. The £3.00 flat fare means that nobody in their right mind uses them to travel a few stops. Their only practical use is to travel from the Sea Terminal to the Derby Castle terminus of the Manx Electric Railway.
Alternative plans being discussed include building a replacement track for the horse-trams on the broad pedestrian seaward side of the promenade, segregating them from motor traffic. Whether this would result in fewer or more collisions on the promenade is open to question: the trams would no longer provide an obstruction, enabling the boy racers to accelerate.
Deciding to get rid of horse trams is a decision most towns made 120 years ago. Maybe the 1890s proposal to electrify the line as a continuation of the Manx Electric Railway and to extend it to the railway station is worth looking at. Not only would it integrate the three rail systems and delight enthusiasts, but it would still allow the horses and horse-trams to survive as a heritage feature.
This worked well in San Francisco, where the temporary suspension of the cable-car service in effect saved the surviving electric streetcars.
Indeed, a 2013 proposal specified that the relocated single-and-passing-loops horse-tram track should be designed to carry Manx Electric “or more modern rolling stock”: http://www.iomtoday.co.im/news/isle-of-man-news/plan-for-single-track-horse-tram-to-run-on-sea-ward-side-of-prom-1-6198526.
There are detailed instructions for catching a Douglas horse tram (and for patting the horse) at http://www.iomguide.com/horsetram.php. Further information about the Douglas horse tramway can be found at http://www.douglashorsetramway.net.
Amateur footage of the tramway is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AYl4JiQ7cV8&app=desktop.
The 72-page, A4 handbook for the 2014 Manx Heritage tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.