Halfway to the clouds

Great Orme Tramway, Llandudno:  car 6

Great Orme Tramway, Llandudno: car 6

Llandudno’s Great Orme Tramway [Tramffordd y Gogarth] is the only British example of a street-running funicular railway.  It is completely unlike the San Francisco cable-cars, because its trams work in two pairs, permanently fixed to a winding cable.

It opened in two sections, the lower half on July 31st 1902, and the summit section on July 8th 1903.  The winding house was steam-powered from 1902 to 1958, and since then the cables have been electrically hauled.

The lower section of the Great Orme Tramway looks like its San Francisco cousins, because the cable is concealed for much of its length under the roadway in a conduit slot between the running rails.  The upper section, above the half-way winding house, runs on railway track, and the complex arrangement of cables and rails is visible.

Until 1991 the tramway had an overhead trolley-wire solely to carry the telephone-system so that tram-drivers could communicate with the engineman.  Now the communication-system is radio-operated and the trolley poles, which convinced some visitors that this was an electric tramway, are entirely cosmetic.

The line is operated by four trams, 4 and 5 on the lower section and 6 and 7 on the upper:  the first three numbers were taken by jockey-cars, propelled by the cable-connected trams and manhandled along loop tracks between the two sections.  Cars no 1, 2 and 3 were wagons for carrying coal for the boiler house and coffins to St Tudno’s Church:  all three disappeared before 1930.

There has been only one fatal accident:  the drawbar on No 4 snapped on August 23rd 1932, killing the brakesman and a little girl he tried to rescue by jumping from the car.  In 1963 a retired GOT employee revealed to Ivor Wynne Jones [Llandudno:  Queen of Welsh resorts (Landmark 2002)] that the Board of Trade inspector was deceived into thinking the emergency brake worked at the time of his inspection on July 30th 1902.

As a result of compensation claims amounting to £14,000, the original Great Orme Tramway Company went bankrupt, and after a completely new and still effective safety system had been designed for the lower section, a new Great Orme Railway Company was formed in 1934.

The Llandudno Urban District Council compulsorily purchased the tramway in 1949;  the UDC was absorbed by Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974.

After a collision between cars 6 and 7 on April 30th 2000, when the facing points at the loop malfunctioned, injuring seventeen passengers, the entire tramway was closed and refurbished, with an induction-loop system that electronically locates each car on a monitor in the central control-room, and the system was fully operational in time for its centenary in 2002.

Another accident occurred in 2009, when cars 6 and 7 collided as a result of a further points failure on the passing loop:  http://www.raib.gov.uk/cms_resources.cfm?file=/100816_R132010_Great_Orme.pdf.

It’s worth the ride, not only for the vintage travel-experience but also for the views from the top of the Great Orme.  Having blown away the cobwebs at the summit, the smart advice is to return to the Victoria Tram Station and visit Fish Tram Chips alongside:  http://www.thebestof.co.uk/local/llandudno/business-guide/feature/fish-tram-chips/24034.

The most recent history of the tramway is Keith Turner, The Great Orme Tramway – over a century of service (Gwasag Carreg Gwalch 2003).  The tramway website is at


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