THE MARITIME INFLUENCES affecting the Island's climate spare the inhabitants from the worst rigours of climate. Views of palm trees have always adorned the pages of promotional literature, but the absence of severe frost in Winter permit palms to flourish, is balanced by cooler Summer's, tempered by the onshore breezes. Sea mists and fogs add to the weather view and give the Manx a characteristic climate that is often at odds with the UK extremes beamed in by TV news.
Heavy snowfall is likewise rare and it was with some surprise that the population awoke on Wednesday February 23rd to find the Island cloaked in white and virtually brought to a standstill by an overnight fall of snow. Manx Radio reported schools closed for the day and many businesses gave up, experiencing staff shortages due to snowed-up employees or others having to cope with offspring enjoying an unscheduled school holiday.
The West of the Island was particularly badly hit, with huge snowdrifts completely sealing off many communities . The East and South was less severely affected, but normal road traffic on all but main roads was effectively halted. As the children ran out to build snowmen and taxi drivers radioed localised road reports to each other, life on the MER was coming to terms with one of the heaviest snowfalls to affect the line on twenty years.
Most railed vehicles are by nature well equipped to cope with snowfall. Whilst their rubber-tyred counterparts slide perilously about, attended to by an army of snowploughs and gritting lorries, a tramcar in particular can continue almost unaffected. People living in Canada and parts of North America take the wintertime reliability of the trams for granted, whilst Britain slides unceremoniously to a standstill at the first hint of snow.
It was hardly surprising therefore that the MER has likewise, proved on the rare occasions it has been necessary, to cope with even the Manx brand of snow and Car 20 was soon ready poised to take the 9.30am service - all the way to Ramsey. Driven by motorman A.M. Goodwyn, the tramcar stood in splendid isolation at Derby Castle, the Head Office all but empty and the roadway virtually silent. News was in that Poles & Wires Car 7 had become marooned at Ballajora, and a team of Per Way staff were to ride on the service to offer assistance.
With a ding, a toot and a hiss, the car left Douglas bang on time, with around 15 passengers and made its way northwards. Routine Winter maintenance work means that cars often have to crossover to run wrong line, and a shunt was effected at Onchan Head, putting the Car onto the wrong line as far as Groudle. The main effect of the snow covering the tracks and clinging to the overhead wire was the periodic breaking of the power supply, causing the saloon lights to flash erratically. The interruption of the current was only brief, and not sufficiently long enough to make any appreciable impact on the speed or progress of the car. On the nearby roadway, Assistant Chief Engineer George Lawson shadowed the tram along King Edward Road. Partly to satisfy himself that all was well, and partly to observe the tramcar under these conditions and to take a few photographs for the archives.
Now running on the proper landside line, the Car headed round Groudle north curve towards Eskadale, whereupon the view from the saloon windows took on a most wondrous appearance. Most attractive at any time, the wooded slopes around Lhen Coan had become transformed into a scene from a Disney cartoon. The tree branches laden with snow, glinting and glistening in the watery sunlight, and the adjacent roadway all but unmarked by passing traffic.
The tramcar glided its way through the idyllic setting, those on board rendered speechless by the overwhelming beauty of the scene. As the Car brushed past overhanging branches, bowed down by the weight of encrusted precipitation, icicles and snow fell from the overhead, leaving an icy cloud in the tramcar's wake. At Halfway, the main Laxey road was deserted, and what few motorists that had made it out, crept along what had become their own tramtracks, made in the snow earlier by all wheel drivers. Meanwhile, Car 20 glided along as usual, the snow having little effect. Climbing effortlessly up to Ballabeg and then dropping down to Laxey, it became apparent that the snow was having the effect of silencing the ride, with the noise transmitted from the rails through the interior significantly reduced.
At Laxey Carsheds, the Car paused only to pick up the Laxey based Per Way crew, and continued to the station, where children building snowmen and throwing snowballs, paused in wonder at the Victorian tramcar that had made it through the snow to this otherwise deserted spot.
Heading off to Ballaragh top, wrong line again, the Winter wonderland scenery once again made its appearance felt. Only about 5 minutes down - thanks as much to wrong line working, the tram was making its way along a featureless trackbed, a smooth carpet of snow giving no hint of the rails beneath. Snow drifts on the landside track meant that the coincidental use of the much clearer seaside line for the Northbound journey was quite fortuitous.
Approaching the Summit of the line at Ballaragh, a group of wild goats was spotted. As they hopped along the line in front of the tram, a baby goat was seen to be in difficulty, stumbling along at the rear. As the tram approached, the pathetic beast's surefootedness left it as it fell down a culvert. Immediately the tram stopped and the crew jumped down to offer assistance. Rescuing the goat, its condition was assessed, and the prognosis prompted dismay. Back on its feet, the little creature was pushed in the direction of its bigger brethren and a decision was made to continue to Ramsey and check on the little goat's condition on the return run.
As the tram flitted through the Maughold countryside, now running right line through Ballaskeig and over Ballafayle Kerruish's, the outline of the marooned Per Way Car on the seaside track at Ballajora came into view. Car 20 built up speed as it approached the snowdrift which it hit, clearing the line whilst sending snow spraying like a bow wave either side. The per way crew who had travelled with the Car from Douglas and Laxey dismounted as Car 20 stopped at Ballajora, to shortly clear the snow from beneath Car 7's wheels.
The climb from Lewaigue crossing is short but steep, beginning from a statutory 4mph. The ice and snow bound rails would have challenged any 1990s all wheel driver. The 1890s all wheel driver took the climb in its stride. Creeping along the grooved track at Walpole Road towards Queens Drive, Ramsey. The contrast between the calm, controlled progress of the tramcars and the slippery uncertain progress of road motor vehicles became juxtaposed.
Ramsey Station was a picture postcard view of snowy whiteness populated by children and a pipe smoking Snowman. Just 6 minutes late, Car 20 hissed to a halt and discharged its complement of passengers. Two had travelled all the way. Others had joined the tram North of Laxey. Car 20s Ramsey-end dash was coated in snow. Snow had reached parts of trucks, prying fitters hands rarely reached. As the passengers disembarked to take their photos, 20s Motorman filled a bucket with hot water and began to wash and thence de-ice the tramcar. Shortly after, a snow free Car 20 stood glistening in the sunshine, offset amongst the pure white cyclorama of Ramsey Station, poised to make a return adventure to Douglas.
Grateful passengers dismount after
car 20 arrives in Ramsey – six minutes down. Minutes later, a
bucket of hot water obtained from the new Vailant gas heating
system installed in Ramsey station, was being used to de-ice the
The little goat died. The conditions had been just too harsh. Many road motor vehicles were dented and tens of thousands of Isle of Man workers had an unscheduled holiday. But the MER, in its 101st year continued.