Keeping track

Douglas, Isle of Man:  horse-tram 12 (September 11th 2014)

Douglas, Isle of Man: horse-tram 12 (September 11th 2014)

The Douglas horse tramway on the Isle of Man closed down on Sunday September 14th 2014 for an eighteen-month break.

Service was interrupted in 2015 while almost the entire track, last renewed in the 1930s, is moved sideways to the seaward side of the promenade, which it will share with pedestrians rather than conflict with motor traffic. This is intended to be less dangerous for boarding passengers and more comfortable for the horses:

In the process, the double track has been reduced to single track with passing loops, an acknowledgement that the customary service of two opposing cars, passing once on each journey, doesn’t require the track-capacity that existed when the tramway carried 2¾ million passengers in a summer season.

I’m not convinced that the recent operation of the tramway has made the most of its potential. Late in the day it became permissible to use Explorer tickets on the horse trams.  These cost £16.00 for a single day, £47.00 for a week, and provide unlimited access to buses, steam trains and electric trams as well as the horse-trams.

Yet I heard a palpable gulp of astonishment from a horse-tram passenger when asked for £3.00 for a single journey along the promenade: for that sort of money you can get almost anywhere on the island by bus.

Shortly before the temporary closure I listened to a Member of the Legislative Council of Tynwald, the island’s parliament, explain the financial constraints affecting his government. In that context it’s commendable that the Douglas promenade improvements went ahead, and that the horse tramway was included in the development.

By relaying the horse tramway with heavier rails the Manx Government has made it possible to extend the Manx Electric Railway from Derby Castle, the northern terminus of the horse trams, to the Sea Terminal, running the horse cars in conjunction with an electric service:

In the 1890s by the promoter of what became the Manx Electric Railway, Alexander Bruce, proposed running electric cars along the Promenade and on to the Isle of Man Steam Railway terminus at Banks Circus.  Just because he was eventually exposed as a fraudster doesn’t mean the idea of a rail link all the way from Ramsey to the south of the island wasn’t a logical and practical idea.

A pattern is emerging elsewhere to show that heritage rail transport is a money-spinner, as the authorities in San Francisco discovered when they had to close down the cable cars for a complete rebuilding.

In Whitby a consortium of public agencies has collaborated with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway to bring steam trains back to the town at a cost of £2 million, with the intention of generating up to £6½ million within the local economy:

The island’s heritage railways require a £2.3 million subsidy to keep going, yet inject over £11 million into the Manx economy:

Investing in electrification of the promenade tramway and extending it to the railway station is more easily practical now than at any time in the recent past or the foreseeable future.

It will be interesting to see whether the MER trams are equipped with traction batteries or whether Tynwald would sanction overhead wires along the Promenade, the issue that killed Bruce’s proposal in the 1890s.

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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