The Manx Electric Railway Society was dismayed to learn that on Friday, Car No.2 of 1895 with a full complement of passengers and a crew of two ran out of apparent control and at accelerating speed from a point somewhere to the North East of the upper section of Snaefell, apparently failing to stop at the Bungalow Station and hurtling out of control across the TT course and being brought to a halt somewhere beyond.
This is the second brake related incident in 18 months, the first being the destruction of Car 3 when it was permitted to roll (apparently having been parked without the brake being properly applied) from the Summit to a point where speed had accelerated so much that the tram left the track and broke up.
As the Society is well aware in the 1970’s an electro mechanical (rheostatic) braking system was installed on all of the Mountain trams which was bought second hand from Aachen. This braking system relies upon the generation by the motors of electric current from power delivered from the wheels. For technical reasons this system can fail and the trams retain the original mechanical 1895 Fell braking system as a back up. So far as we are aware the need to employ the 1895 brake has increased in recent years. Because of the secrecy of the Department of the Isle of Man Government that runs the line we do not know the reason why. We do however know that in addition to the two serious incidents in the last 18 months there have been a number of occasions when the Fell brake has had to be employed in an emergency (which would indicate a problem with the electro mechanical brake rendering it inoperable).
It was the 1895 Fell brake which saved the lives of those on Car No.2 on Friday 4th August 2017 when following apparent failure of the electro mechanical Aachen brake the crew of the tram struggled manfully to apply the Fell brake in circumstances in which witnesses suggest they could easily have been thrown from the platforms by the jolting of the tram thundering down the Mountain at speed. Before they applied themselves to the Fell brake there would have been a period in which the motorman was trying to get the electro mechanical brake to work and in itself this will have produced a time penalty in which the car accelerated and the application of the Fell brake became a much more difficult task.
The MERS congratulates the Crew and salutes their heroism.
The MERS does not however congratulate the Department of Infrastructure for allowing a state of affairs to arise in which one priceless and irreplaceable vintage tram has been utterly destroyed and another very nearly wrecked with all hands in the space of 18 months.
We believe that there should be nothing inherently wrong with the functionality of the braking systems on these trams. Our concerns are twofold; firstly that the Department’s secrecy with regard to the first incident and their dismissal of the second as a commonplace occurrence creates dangers in itself and secondly that the equipment and the system of work should be investigated by an organisation totally independent of the Isle of Man Government.
Our fear is that the present system involves general use of the Aachen brake for downhill running in circumstances in which it is known intermittently to fail. We question whether the adoption of such a system as the primary brake is the safest system. Unlike the electro mechanical brake the Fell brake requires no electrical power and requires the presence of a man to turn the wheel to apply the calliper brake to the central fell rail. It is therefore less prone to failure and is permanently available.
Between 1895 when the line was built and 1976 the Fell brake was the primary braking system and worked well as a safe system, only a single major incident being recorded which does not appear to have been the result of a braking fault.
In the late 1970’s the new system was implemented and appears to have worked well until recent times. As set out above something seems to have changed and the secrecy of the line’s management effectively prevents us from knowing what the underlying causes are.
There should be a full and open debate about what has happened and the Department should come clean about the number of incidents that are known to have occurred involving the brakes and the steps it has taken to resolve the situation.
In the meantime instead of those in charge simply congratulating themselves for a “near miss” we call for a police investigation of what has happened in the recent incident. Had a loaded ‘bus suffered a catastrophic brake failure causing it to hurtle down Minorca Hill there would have been a police investigation. Had this tram left the rails and tragedy occurred there would have been a police Manslaughter investigation. This tram crossed the Mountain Road at speed, at right angles to the traffic (we know from survivors accounts there was traffic on the road). This was a dangerous incident in which the lives of the travelling public were threatened and people were put in terror.
This involved a serious road traffic incident on a public road and should be properly investigated.
The Manx Electric Railway Society,
PO. Box 117,
Isle of Man.
Originally formed in 1973, the MANX ELECTRIC RAILWAY SOCIETY is charged with the express purpose of protecting and promoting the retention and development of the MER and other Island tramways at a reasonable cost. It successfully campaigned for the reinstatement and re-opening of the Laxey - Ramsey section of the MER during 1975-77. The Society became a Registered Charity in 1978.
The Society proposed the 1993 "Year of Railways", a series of events to mark the Centenary of the MER. Initially brushed off by management who had planned "a special tram with some ham sandwiches", the Society persuaded politicians who in turn put pressure on Isle of Man Transport and the opportunity was eventually embraced, producing some 25,000 extra visitors during the year, and inspired a series of follow up events throughout what was left of the 1990s.
In 1999, the MER Society vigorously and successfully opposed a new bus service, the 11B, which would have followed the same route as the MER, leaving 5 minutes before every tram and charging bus fares at least half the price. This was seen at the time as the biggest threat to the survival of the railway since the Ramsey line closure in 1975.
Since its formation, the MANX ELECTRIC RAILWAY SOCIETY has continued to offer help, advice and assistance to the railway, and remains as a resolute and constant guardian in an unpredictable and at times hostile world.
The MANX ELECTRIC RAILWAY SOCIETY is the only Island based organisation concerned with all aspects of Island transport and pursues an active and direct interest through its comprehensive and fully illustrated magazine, MANX TRANSPORT REVIEW. This journal deals with road, rail, sea and air transport topics, and is distributed free to members. As well as a round up of news and comment, the magazine contains special features, historical and technical articles and forms a vital forum for the exchange of views.
In February 2015, the Society officially launched its new website, designed to complement the magazine with historical and political content aimed at promoting interest and retention of the MER, and featuring public and members only pages and online membership to extend further the reach of the Society to a worldwide audience.