Discover the Manx Electric Railway
Pioneering US style inter-urban tramway
Manx Electric Railway history. Although not quite as popular as the Isle of Man Railway, the unique Manx Electric Railway has many followers worldwide. For the uninitiated, the 3ft gauge Manx Electric Railway (MER) is a pioneering US style inter-urban tramway, which is operated by a fleet of vintage 500-volt DC tramcars and trailers. The oldest MER tramcar dates from 1893, and is still in regular service, whilst, the most modern piece of rolling stock dates from 1906.
The 17-¾ mile route, which is punctuated with numerous road crossings, winds it way up the island's rugged east coast from the resort town of Douglas to Ramsey in the north, and was in direct competition with the Manx Northern Railway, which using steam traction, had take the long way a round to Ramsey via the flatter west coast.
The story of the MER starts back in late 1880s, when it was proposed to build a holiday camp at , just north of the main tourist town Douglas, with a new road incorporating a 3ft gauge tramway to the link the two. With the purchase of the Howstake estate in 1892, it gave the green light for the construction of the tramway using pioneering electric traction as the motive power.
The construction and operation of the 1-¾ mile long tramway was treated as a testing ground for a line through to Laxey. Initially, the proposed line was going to be terminated at the entrance to the Howstrake holiday camp, but was extended a further ¾ of mile to Groudle, where a new hotel had just opened.
The first section of the line, from Douglas to Groudle Glen was duly opened on 7 September 1893, operating for only 19 days and carried 20,000 passengers. Such was the success of this first section, that it was decided to double the track and push for Laxey the following year. The Laxey section was opened on the 28 July 1894.
The first section of the line was built by the Douglas Bay Estates Ltd., and by 1894 the tramway had been acquired by the Douglas & Laxey Electric Tramway Co. Ltd. which then changed its name to the Isle of Man Tramways & Electric Power Co. Ltd. (IoMT&EP) in the same year.
With Laxey now connected to main resort, Douglas, a plan was drawn up to construct a new tramway from Laxey to the summit of the island's highest peak of Snaefell mountain (2036ft) in 1895, which was a popular tourist destination with its stunning panoramic views. See the next chapter/section for the history of the Snaefell Mountain Railway.
With Snaefell conquered, in May 1897, the Douglas and Laxey Tramway (Extension to Ramsey) Act was passed and work started on construction of the line to Ramsey in the November. The extension from Laxey to Ramsey was complete as far as Ballure Glen on the outskirts of Ramsey and was opened to traffic on the 2 August 1898.
It was until the 24 July, the following year, did the line finally open to Ramsey town itself once the deep gorge at Ballure Glen was crossed with an impressive viaduct nearly 200 ft long. The section of line between Laxey and Ramsey is the most scenic, especially at summit of the line at Bulgham Bay, where the tracks cling to the cliff face some 500 ft above sea level.
The IoMT&EP went into liquidation in 1900 as a consequence of the Dumbell's Bank collapse on island. The Manx Electric Railway was sold by the liquidator to the newly formed Manx Electric Railway Co. Ltd., which took over the services in 1902.
Two years later, the MER made a bid for its main rival for the traffic to Ramsey – The Manx Northern Railway, which was all but bankrupt at this time. A takeover battle ensued with the Isle of Man Railway, who finally won and took over the Manx Northern Railway in April 1905. Had the MER won, the story of Manx railway history could have taken a far different route.
The fortunes of the Manx Electric Railway mirrors that of the Isle of Man Railway, with its golden years in the early 1920s, the battle with the motor buses in the late 1920s and early 1930s, poor returns during the two World Wars, and a post war decline due to cheap package holidays to sunny foreign destinations.
Disaster struck in April 1930, when a major fire at Laxey carshed destroyed four tramcars and several trailers, which were never replaced. By the late 1950s, the Manx Electric Railway Co. Ltd. was itself in financial difficulties, and the company and its assets were acquired by the Isle of Man Government in 1957.
The MER, under government ownership, has survived, despite nearly losing the Laxey to Ramsey section in the late 1970s, which was re-opened due to massive public pressure. The tramway was catapulted into the worldwide media attention with the heavily advertised 'Year of Railways' in 1993 to celebrate the centenary of the Manx Electric Railway with a year long programme of events including a steam locomotive from the Isle of Man Railway operating under the wires on the MER between Laxey and Dhoon Quarry Sidings. T
his celebration, and subsequent ones every year up to 2000 introduced many railway enthusiast to the delights of the island's numerous narrow gauge railways and tramways.
The Manx Electric Railway contains a number of historical item of rolling stock including two of the original three cars that opened the line in 1893 are still in regular use today, and are the oldest electric tramcars still at work on their original line anywhere in the world. The design of MER No. 1 & No. 2 predates traditional tramcar designs, and as a consequence, they have quite distinctive boxy bodies with open driving ends.
Today, as with the other railways and tramways on the island, the Manx Electric Railway relies heavily on the tourist trade. A lot of money has spent over the last decade on the MER with major track and infrastructure renewals to bring the system up to the standards now demand by health and safety and insurance.
Many would like to see the tramway used by commuters to easy the traffic congestion on the busy island's roads, however this would require further funding to improve the track and ride, and the purchase of modern stock to tempt passengers out of their cars.
In addition, the MER's Douglas station at Derby Castle is at the wrong end of the promenade, which requires passengers to interchange to a bus to reach their work in the town centre. This raises the much debated question, which was first mooted back in early 1900s, that the MER should be extended as far as sea terminal and town centre at the other end of the promenade.
© David Lloyd-Jones 2010
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