Climbing the snow mountain

Snaefell Mountain Railway 3

The Snaefell Mountain Railway really shouldn’t exist – a line to a bleak mountain top, using barely altered Victorian technology, built to a different gauge to the line it connects with.

While Alexander Bruce was engaged in constructing what became the 3ft-gauge Manx Electric Railway he was also driving an electric-powered mountain railway to the summit of Snaefell, the “snow mountain”, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.

For this he enlisted the engineer George Noble Fell, whose father, John Barraclough Fell, had developed an Incline Railway system, involving a central third rail to provide extra adhesion.  Because of this additional rail, the Snaefell Mountain Railway has a gauge of 3ft 6in.

The line was built with astonishing speed, beginning in January 1895:  despite the “Great Snow” and a navvies’ strike, the 4½-mile route, climbing at an average gradient of 1 in 12, was complete and ready to operate – with track and overhead in place and a coal-fired power station halfway up the mountain – in less than eight months.  The opening ceremony took place on August 20th 1895.

It turned out that the six 100hp electric cars, the most powerful in Britain at the time, could cope with the gradient without the Fell drive, but the centre rail was retained for braking.

In 1896 a hotel, which became known as the Bungalow, was built at the halfway passing loop and a further battlemented hotel was constructed at the summit in 1906.

Through all the political uncertainties that threatened the island’s railways as traffic declined from the 1950s onwards, the Snaefell cars have run up and down the mountain.

Car 5, destroyed by fire in August 1970, was rebuilt and returned to service within a year;  the entire Snaefell fleet was equipped with new bogies built by London Transport and electrical equipment from Aachen tramways in the mid-1970s.

Car 3 ran away empty from the Summit in March 2016 and was derailed on the bend before the Bungalow.  It was smashed to pieces and a decision has yet to be announced about whether to build a replica incorporating parts of the original.

The Summit hotel was burnt down in 1982 and rebuilt two years later, and new car sheds were built for the Snaefell fleet in 1995.

Now, in the twenty-first century, the Snaefell line has more purpose than ever – the Summit Sunday lunches, sunset dinners, astronomical suppers (branded “Pie in the Sky”) with telescopes provided.

Only in the Isle of Man…

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.

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