A cautionary tale...
The Department of Infrastructure is responsible for the reconstruction of Douglas promenade. Having assured the public at the beginning of last season that all would be made good on time it turned out that there were serious problems re-laying the promenade which resulted in it remaining a construction site throughout the season and the horse tram service which we, and others, fought to keep open as a connection between the Sea Terminal and the MER was heavily curtailed to the Derby Castle end of the former line. Numerous businesses along the Prom have complained that their takings were down as tourists stayed away.
It has therefore come as a surprise to the authorities to discover that takings on the shortened horse tramway are well down and that the receipts of the MER and Snaefell lines are also down, the MER reportedly by 45%. This unfortunate state of affairs should be seen in the context of a remarkable turnaround and improvement to the passenger figures and no doubt profitability of the MER achieved by Mr Longworth in his final year, culminating in the record passenger figures for TT 2018. It is no coincidence that at the end of that season the double track, end to end horse line was ripped up and the slump commenced.
Since the foundation of the MERS in 1973 we have campaigned to keep the horse tramway open as a feeder for the Manx Electric Railway as well as because it was a wholly unique historical line; the last of its kind in the world. It will be recalled that the Minister for Infrastructure (the man ultimately responsible for the mess on the promenade last year) sought to curtail the horse tramway, cutting the route completely between the Broadway and the Sea Terminal. We successfully sought to persuade the MHK's to keep the line open along its entire route but succeeded only in securing the retention of single track upon the threatened section.
A consequence of the compromise on single track working is that horse trams would from time to time (since the single track is to run down the road) be travelling in the opposite direction to vehicular traffic. It will be recalled that a vast sum was spent on consultants and we have now been told that these consultants apparently failed to foresee the need for signalling to prevent head on collisions. We have now been told that signalling would cost a vast sum to install. If not installed then the tramway will fail to connect with the Sea Terminal overriding the will of Tynwald with long term consequences to tourism on the Island and the viability and survival of the MER.
Behind all of this is a sorry tale of failure on the part of those who had a duty to advise that a reduction to single track would necessitate such expenditure. Those responsible for this failure should be made accountable whether they be politicians or consultants and if the latter, through their professional indemnity insurance.
The recent drop in traffic on the MER reflects both the poor appearance of the promenade last year and the curtailment of the horse line as a feeder for the MER; It is to be hoped that when the line eventually re-opens along its full length that traffic will recover. The extent to which that will be the case may be difficult to predict. Until last year 50% of horse tram passengers caught an MER tram and the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway is therefore a vital source of passengers for the MER.
The following factors may in any event cause long term damage to MER traffic;
- Permanent damage to the traditional appearance of the promenade Conservation Area as a direct result of the so-called "improvements". (unsympathetic paving, traffic calming measures, removal of traditional street furniture and the permanent removal of fairy lights for which Douglas Promenade was once famous).
- The removal of the entire traditional track bed of the horse tramway and its replacement with an ugly and unsympathetic highly coloured warning tarmac route marker.
- The removal of the original horse tram depot and its replacement with an (albeit plausible) imitation.
- The single track constriction at the Sea Terminal end may reduce the traffic that the line can carry.
On a more positive note however, the considerable improvements in the standard of appearance of a number of horse trams (which are for the first time restored to museum display standards to the credit of both management and volunteers) may serve to increase the popularity of the horse line when it is running the full length of the promenade.
Providing the signalling issue is overcome it may also be possible to run the MER (at certain times outside the running of the horse tram timetable) down the Prom to the Sea Terminal; something which should attract new passengers for the line, enabling commuter runs without undermining the Douglas Bay Horse Tramway.
Only time will tell but it is clear that we were right all along when we pointed out the value of the horse tramway as an integral part of our Island's vintage transport infrastructure; it ill behoves those responsible for the present unhappy mess to jump to the conclusion that the fall in traffic, which is a direct result of their poor management of the project, means that the vintage railways are irreparably damaged and should be removed.
They have caused this problem and they should put it right.
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.
The Manx Electric Railway Society,
PO. Box 117,
Isle of Man.
Email: [email protected]