Wheels turn slowly in the Isle of Man. That’s why one-third of its steam railway continues to operate after 130 years, and why you can still ride on the first two cars delivered to what became the Manx Electric Railway in 1893: Senior movers | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.
Inevitably, there have been losses. There was a cable tramway in Douglas until 1929, when it was scrapped – superannuated, unloved and unbelievably noisy. The Isle of Man Railway lines to Peel and Ramsey were closed in 1968 and lifted.
But each of the surviving nineteen-century transport systems – the steam railway (1874), the Douglas horse tramway (1876), the Manx Electric Railway (1893-99) and the Snaefell Mountain Railway (1895) – has more than enough rolling stock to sustain a vigorous present-day tourist trade.
There have been misfortunes: the Manx Electric lost part of its fleet in a depot fire in 1930. Two of the six Snaefell Mountain Railway cars have in recent years run away from the summit: no 3 smashed to pieces, fortunately without injuries or fatalities, in 2016. A second runaway, no 2, with crew and passengers on board, was brought to a safe halt the following year. There was a yard sale of surplus horse trams in 2016, all of which went to good homes for sums between £1,000 and £2,800 each.
This tight little island, 32 miles long and 14 miles wide at most, is the home of a unique collection of nineteenth-century rail transport lines still in full working order.
Tynwald, the Manx government, is considering how to develop these assets in future. The steam and electric railways are already tuned to the entertainment value of heritage transport, like their colleagues across in Blackpool, but the horse tramway has become bogged down in the vexed redevelopment of Douglas promenade. There is an excellent transport museum at Jurby in the north of the island, but the vehicles have not yet provided a mobile tourist attraction to supplement heritage rail.
The practicality of supplementing modern street transport with heritage services is proven across the world, evident in the success of San Francisco’s cable-cars and streetcars, the Melbourne City Circle and Hong Kong’s double-deckers (which look traditional but despite their appearance are in fact modernised).
Heritage rail has the double advantage of attracting enthusiasts who appreciate its historic appeal at the same time as ordinary tourists enjoy an uncommon holiday experience.
Visitors to the Isle of Man, as well as Manx residents, are invited to give their views on how the heritage transport should develop, in a survey that closes on August 13th 2023: Isle of Man Heritage Railways Independent Review and Economic Impact Assessment – Cabinet Office of the Isle of Man Government – Citizen Space.
This is an invitation to think imaginatively about how to make the island’s transport even more interesting and financially secure.
But bearing in mind the current lamentable state of the horse trams, it would be wise not to expect rapid change.
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.