The Snaefell Mountain Railway climbs from Laxey to the summit of Snaefell, the Isle of Man’s only mountain, 2036 feet above sea level. Built by pioneering Victorian engineers, its trams were powered by electricity, a technology then very much in its infancy. Very few British cities or towns had electric trams at this time; an electric tramway climbing a mountain was without doubt state of the art technology. Perhaps even more remarkable, the railway is still in active operation today and is little changed from those Victorian times.
The success of the Douglas to Laxey Electric Tramway, which opened in 1894, prompted its promoters to turn their attention to Snaefell and the prospect of a tourist railway to the summit.
Construction began in January 1895, and the first trams ran in public service on 21st August after only eight months work!
The railway is nearly five miles long and at the time of its construction it wasn’t known if electric trams could climb the gradients of 1 in 12. It was decided to use a raised centre rail, named the Fell Rail after its inventor John Barraclough Fell, which would be gripped on the ascent by motorised horizontal wheels mounted beneath the tram, to give additional adhesion. In the event they weren’t needed but the Fell Rail was retained and used for braking on the descent. It is now the only railway in the world to use the Fell system.
Six trams were built by G F Milnes and Company of Birkenhead, of which four survive today. Each tram was originally equipped with four 25HP motors manufactured by Mather and Platt of Salford. They were the most powerful trams in Britain at the time.
The railway was an immediate success and an average of 1000 people were carried to the summit each day during the summer months. Hotels were built at the summit and at the Bungalow, next to the Mountain Road.
In 1902 the mountain railway and the electric tramway between Douglas and Ramsey were purchased by the newly formed Manx Electric Railway Company, known as the MER. The Isle of Man was by now a very popular holiday destination visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. In 1907, a charabanc service was introduced between the Bungalow and Tholt-y-Will glen where another hotel and tea room was built. During the 1920s and 1930s trams left Douglas for Laxey every few minutes at peak times; and at Laxey queues for Snaefell circled the station.
From 1950 tourism began to decline and in 1957 the MER Company, with no funds for desperately-needed maintenance, sold both railways to the Isle of Man Government which still operates them today. The original 1895 motors were replaced by second hand equipment from Germany in 1977 and, more recently, government has made considerable investment in the Manx heritage railways which are now recognised as one of the Island’s leading tourist attractions.