Although vocational training has taken place on the MER and other electric tramways in most cases since before they were even open for public service, very little of this aspect of operation has ever been chronicled. This outline describes how an aspirant is trained on the M.E.R.
Most boys of an earlier generation, whistled at some stage to become engine drivers but many of the boys who grew up to become members of the M.E.R. Society and readers of this journal may well have harboured a more sophisticated ambition to become electric tramcar motormen. Some never got the opportunity, but every year a very fortunate few are selected for training as M.E.R. motormen, and following a rigorous medical examination, finally make their way to Derby Castle Car Depot, Douglas on the appointed day. In general most M.E.R. employees "sign on" at 8.00am, although their are numerous exceptions: by 8.00 am the rolling stock superintendent and some other engineering staff will already have completed part of their mornings work; others will arrive later and finish accordingly. A particularly dim view is taken of anyone who lacks punctuality. In earlier times it is said that a member of staff only had the opportunity to arrive late for work twice. After that he was looking for other employment.
On the novitiate's first morning at the M.E.R., he will usually be introduced to the other staff. And provided with a guided tour of the car depot and works, with the functions and responsibilities of each department explained. In the course of this expedition the location of the first aid and fire-fighting equipment will be pointed out, together with the potential hazards that inevitably exist, in the shape of open pit roads, moving tramcars, belt driven and self-starting machinery, the possible perils of the 600 volt DC traction engine and other sources of danger. He will also be shown the whereabouts and procedures for signing-on and off, the official notice boards, duty roster lists and the provisions for reporting faults and accidents of any kind.
The bulk of trainee motormen come to the M.E.R. with at least some prior knowledge of the line or a developed interest of the technology of the tramcar. To anyone devoid of these attributes, the way ahead may be torturous, difficult and prolonged. A few might arrive with the happy notion that tram-driving skills can be acquired almost overnight. And so they can, perhaps but the whole essence of the M.E.R.'s training is not only to install the basic art, but to familiarise the learner with precisely what to do on those occasions when everything seems to be going wrong- misfortune is rarely a solitary traveller. A few never complete the training, one side or the other recognising that the difficulties are too many or the aptitude or the attitude inappropriate. Those who also pictured the motorman's job as consisting parading at the helm of a tramcar on the open road, also find the preconception is not wholly appropriate, for the traditional tramway motorman has much more to do than his motor bus counterpart.
Having been shown the car depot and works, if time permits, the trainee is then provided with a close quarters introduction to the anatomy of the electric tramcar, with the different types of car body, trucks, traction equipment and componentary explained and demonstrated, and its maintenance needs defined. He will be shown how to oil the different types of traction motor without getting oil in the motor casing, and the three types of axle box, and how to detect the possible presence of water in the axle box packing by poking a finger in it. The couplers, hand, air and emergency brake systems and sanding gear will also be shown and explained, together with the path of the traction current, from the trolley wheel through automatic circuit breaker and canopy switch, controller barrels, wiring harness and resistance to the motors. The action of the controllers will be demonstrated with the controller cover of and the arc-shute swung back, and the importance of always moving the controller handle correctly, will be emphasised.
Throughout this initiation, the pupil will be clearly told not only the right and proper ways of effecting any given action but it will also be made clear what the results of any transgression are likely to be. He is also given the opportunity to ask any appropriate questions as the tour proceeds.
By this time the employee will have every opportunity to read his copy of the current rule book, which does not differ to any enormous effect from the earlier 1926, edition. The M.E.R.'s rules are remarkably detailed and well repay extensive study. It has to be read and read very thoroughly; staff are not normally expected to be able to recite the content in parrot fashion but they will normally be required to know them sufficiently well to quote the rule number the rule number that is likely to be applicable to any given set of circumstances. It is often useful to learn why a particular rule exists or was first introduced. All platform staff are required to know very intimately the rules and procedures to be followed in single-line operation, the use of flags, the significance of the warning boards at certain curves of the Douglas-Laxey section, the special requirements at the three traffic-light controlled crossings Halfway, Ballabeg and Ballure, and the procedure to be followed in the event of any untoward occurrence.
The rules also cover the internal bell signals between conductor and motorman; one bell to the motorman is to indicate a need to stop the car at the next orthodox stopping place; to bells indicate the orthodox go-ahead and three bells indicates the need to stop at once. From the front platform, one bell from the motorman means that he wishes the conductor to come to the front platform; two bells to the back platform, the need to apply the trailer brakes and so on. No car may move at all until the motorman receives two bells and the motorman has also received permission for the movement intended from the stationmaster at Douglas, Laxey or Ramsey, or the yardmaster at Derby Castle.
Before even attempting to move, the motorman will have completed what might be termed a "pre-flight" check, easily remembered by the mnemonic FEAST standing for:-
Flags - One red and one yellow flag must be aboard the car; in the salons these are invariably clipped inside the vestibules, but on the open crossbench cars they may be clipped under the canopy or inside the locker underneath either of the platform seats. A red flag cannot be run past under any circumstances. The yellow indicates the need to proceed with extreme caution and be ready to stop at once.
Extinguishers - All M.E.R. cars are equipped with fire extinguishers that must be checked before starting out. E also stands for electric lights, which must be checked and tested.
Air - No car is normally permitted to move before the gauge of the compressed air system shows that 60 pounds per square inch is available. The air brakes and air whistles must be checked and tested.
Sand - No car may move without sand in the hoppers, under the seats, and the sand tramp or foot pedal must always be in position at the appropriate end of the car.
Trolley - The trolley wheel, head and rope must be checked, and it is also a mandatory requirement that a spare trolley rope is aboard the car since this can have a number of uses in addition to the obvious one.
The process of the induction of a trainee can and is modified according to the individual. Some people can seemingly gobble up and assimilate great chunks of knowledge at once; others need to have the information spread gradually over a period.
Initial motorman training on the line is always carried out between Douglas and Laxey, interposed between service cars and driver training is often carried out on car number 5 which is virtually always maintained in near idyllic condition. The instruction of the trainee is almost carried out by the yardmaster and chief motorman, Mr, J.B. Matthews (now retired) whose skills in both handling tramcars and in teaching has produced many successful graduates from the M.E.R. motor school over the years.
On the first trip out from Douglas, The pupil is given a demonstration run, usually as far as Groudle, with every action movement and sequence, being explained in detail. Then comes the magic moment (for some) when the pupil steps behind the controls and makes his first essay into trying to drive a tramcar. Suddenly the smooth nonchalance of the experienced motorman seems light-years away. For a start there is a particular knack to be acquired in almost (but not) simultaneously releasing the air brake and applying the first series notch of power in order to start away without a jerk. It tends to be forgotten in the excitement of the moment that the single notch movement brings in 100-horsepowers worth of traction motor power. The need to notch up according to the load, gradient, curve, weather and so on is inculcated, as too the requirement never to stay on any of the resistance notches for longer than is absolutely necessary. The trainee is taught the necessity of switching off cleanly, in the same single movement of the hand. A peculiarity of the M.E.R. technique that has often baffled close observers is the practice of switching back from top parallel notch to top series position. The explanation lies in the widespread use of trailer cars, where no matter how meticulously the working parts of the draught gear and couplers is maintained, there is bound to be some free movement (otherwise the car and trailer could never be coupled) and the process of switching off and picking up power notches again would often result in one and possibly two distinct jerks, most noticeable to the passengers aboard the trailer car.
The pupil is also taught how far the tramcar will coast along after the power has been switched off, slowing down as traction and rotational resistance (and other factors such as curves) eats into the kinetic energy stored in the moving car. The use of brakes, and the air brakes in particular, demands good judgement. On the M.E.R. there are three air brake application valves in use: The original Christensen, the Westinghouse type 7 (virtually identical to the Christensen) and the sophisticated self-lapping Westinghouse type W fitted only to cars 21 and 22. On the Christensen and Westinghouse type 7, the air is nibbled off from the high-pressure reservoir pipeline to the brake pipe by an acquired (and sometimes painful) supple wrist action, until the required amount of air (and retardation) is obtained. Because the co-efficient of sliding friction is not constant, the braking effect will increase as the wheels slow down, and to prevent a violent stop or the possibility of a lock-up and skid, the pressure must be judiciously bled off to exhaust as the car slows to a standstill. Once the car is at a dead stand, the brake is reapplied to guard against any movement during loading or unloading. The correct running position of the handle is the centre of its quadrant, but inevitably some valve face wear takes place from time to time, and it is regarded as good practise to move from the centre to the exhaust position and back again from time to time when running.
The Westinghouse type W valve is a mechanism of transcending complexity and exquisite performance. The infinitely variable braking effect is dependant upon the position of the handle; any normal leakage that takes place at the cylinder is automatically made good by a special internal valve arrangement. The farther to the right the handle is moved, the greater the braking effect. In all case the air brake is released by moving the handle to the left or clockwise.
It is obviously of critical importance to know, virtually all of the time, what the reservoir pressure is, as indicated by the air gauge. No low-pressure alarms are fitted and nor should they ever be necessary. In practice it becomes second nature to know what the pressure is at any given time, close observers will have noticed how the average motorman's eyes tend to almost unconsciously brush across the gauge at intervals, and almost always whenever a brake application is contemplated.
The electric tramcar has always been an inherently safe vehicle, and should compressed air not be available, or for parking purpose, all M.E.R. cars (and trailers) possess very powerful handbrakes, applied either by wheels as on numbers 1,2,16,26 etc or by traditional goose-neck handles, such as 19-22 32-33 etc.
The use of the handbrake is preferred by a few motormen, despite the physical effort, on the grounds that it is virtually impossible to jerk or snatch a car and its occupants by its use, and by virtue of the fact that the motorman can feel (through the palm of his hand.) just how much brake he is applying. Releasing the handbrake by simply kicking the dog or pawl out after a stop is never recommended, and nor is leaving any part of the human anatomy, within range of a flying handle. The traction motors too can be used as an emergency brake by putting the forward/reverse barrel of the controller into the opposite direction of travel. This is a formidable and sometimes highly expensive way of stopping a car dead, but is to be used only in the last resort. The procedure is demonstrated to trainee motormen with the car just rolling, and even then the howl of protest from the car is an adequate indication of the mechanical and electrical agony that is being inflicted on the machine.
In the course of a series of training runs to and from Laxey the pupil motorman will also be forcefully introduced to the geography of the line itself. Most railways and many tramways were occasionally in the habit of expressing curved or graded track as a percentage of the whole; on the M.E.R. things are different, for a glance at either a map of the line or the gradient profile shows that in the 173.4 miles between Douglas and Ramsey, there is barely half a mile of dead straight and level track. The line abounds with curves down to 90ft radius, whilst the gradient profile has been likened to a cross-section of the Swiss Alps with inclines (some of them very lengthy) of anywhere between one in 23.5 and one in 550. Each curve and incline possesses an optimum speed of approach and transition. In addition there are countless unguarded level crossings where a moment's inattentiveness or lack of judgement could have the most serious consequences. On top of everything else, there are a total of no less than 63 possible stopping places in addition to the obvious ones of Douglas, Laxey and Ramsey. True a large number are infrequently used, but they have to be learned.
By the time that the trainee has completed around a dozen closely supervised trips to Laxey and back, and depending upon aptitude, he will be capable of driving, at least by rote, and will be competent to apply power appropriately and brake reasonably smoothly. At this stage he is then transferred for more training to a service car on the main Douglas-Ramsey run, usually under the expert tutelage of Mr. Tony Gillet, who, apart from a lengthy railway career in the U.K. and on the M.E.R., also happens to be a professional teacher as well. For two, three, or more weeks, the trainee motorman will be required to drive on the service, with the instructor initially calling out the notches as required, explaining when and where to start breaking, where to release, and where to coast. Since the bulk of training work is carried out before the beginning of the season, when major engineering work are still being finished off, there is a likelihood that this period will involve single line working, and if any doubts existed beforehand about the procedures to be followed, the repeated experiences will engrave themselves on the trainee's heart. If by this stage the trainee motorman has become deluded into thinking that he now knows more than something about driving an M.E.R. tramcar, the experience of being at least partly responsible for the safety and comfort of real passengers, and trying to run to time under all kinds of varying conditions, is usually sufficient to enforce a realisation of just how far he has yet to go.
This period also sees a growing familiarity with detail: the precise positioning of the car at stopping places, and the observance of various stop lines painted along the track at Douglas, Laxey and Ramsey, and the fouling of clearance points, used when shunting. The close shunting to couple-up trailers is easier said than done, but can be acquired with practice. The coupler bar is always fitted to the trailer, and the motorcar runs up to it. The aim is to land the end of the bar inside the mouth of the coupler, which requires a degree of skill and precision but seemingly presents not the slightest problem to other experienced men. If the car lands just short, the practice is to inch in on the first power notch against the brake, something that is not enjoyed by either the motorman or the controller. The shunting of trailers is greatly done by hand, aided by a favouring gradient. However some trailers are noticeably less inclined to roll easily and in some cases a considerable physical effort is needed. In the last resort, the layout of double crossovers makes it possible to run the motorcar around the trailer, but this is a procedure to be seen once or twice a season. The trainee is also taught to examine the car before and after a journey for possible defects, how to isolate motors or motor groups, the procedure to be followed to cover any sort of contingency, and the thousand and one other things that come only with practice, such as braking whilst motoring on top series power notch in order to get out a skid on slippery rails, and how and when to apply sand. The trainee quickly learns that there is little to be feared from rail conditions in a downpour when everything is soaking wet; it is the period as the rain starts, or the early morning dew, or during what the Irish would term a soft or misty day, that can be fraught with peril. Since the construction of the Douglas breakwater, it seems that tidal patterns in the bay have changed considerably, and it is by no means unusual for an on shore wind to lift green seawater across the promenades. Similarly the exposed line past Derby Castle and up to Port Jack is quite frequently lashed by flying sea spray, making rail conditions very bad indeed. It is often said that the Isle of Man is one of the few places on earth where it is possible to find all four seasons of the year all in the same day, and sometimes all in the course of one trip form Douglas to Ramsey, but the weather, in all its forms, inevitably plays a very direct and important part on driving conditions on the M.E.R.
By the end of this training period, the pupil motorman will have been assessed by internal process, and if his grasp of the fundamental art of safely driving a tramcar is considered sufficient, a likely examination date will be fixed for his test. A few however will not have sustained either their hopes or efforts, and will have departed for pastures new, for the motorman's examination is not to be regarded as anything less than a formidable ordeal.The examination of motormen can be undertaken by a certain few of the line's most senior officials, and are were usually conducted by Mr. Maurice Faragher (now retired, driver exams are now usually taken by George Lawson), the engineering superintendent, in person. Whilst those involved undoubtedly do in all their power to put the applicant at ease, there is no question in most people's minds that they are on trail for their lives. The test usually starts on board the ten am. Service car from Douglas, meeting the southbound car somewhere between Ballagory and Cornaa, where the examiner and his aspirant will change over to return to Douglas. The test may well be extended or abbreviated according to circumstances and the satisfaction or otherwise of the examiner. The test is indeed a moment of truth, for every moment and action is carefully monitored and evaluated. If the applicant manages to past the first part of the examination by driving acceptably, the scene is then set for the second part, which consists of a very lengthy oral examination on rules and procedures. The past rate is not high for first time attempts, but assuming the applicant is successful, he will then be permitted to sign the register of motormen, and will be allowed to perform his first solo run on the same day. This is an experience that is never likely to be forgotten, for by then the euphoria of actually passing the examination has evaporated, to be replaced with considerable nervousness when the realisation dawns that no matter what difficulty arises, you are now very much on your own. It is also said with great justification, that only after the applicant has passed his examination, does he then really learn, notwithstanding all that has gone before.
The fundamental requirements of a motorman's performance consist of safety, comfort economy and other factors, at least as important, including respect for the tramcars themselves, courtesy and punctuality, both personal and in maintaining the service if required to do so. There are many ways in which the various curves and gradients can be tackled, and only experience in all weather an under all conditions of load, can produce a knowledge of the best way. As this experience grows, there comes a time when it is possible to reach a pitch or rich and immense enjoyment in the job, a state of mind not difficult to achieve since the vast bulk of the customers themselves are there to enjoy themselves and no two runs on the M.E.R. are exactly identical. There is something that is enormously exquisite about the M.E.R. not least the ever-unfolding vistas, from the high rock cliffs and seascape at Groudle and Ballaragh, to the tranquil serenity of Ballaglass and Dreemskerry. As the last traces of snow melt from the hidden cervices of North Barrule, a carpet of fresh green grows ever more abundant; buds unfurl into flower with the spring; the sunlight, ever stronger, lights a blaze, of gorse and a mist of bluebells. The summer sun draws the scent of pinewoods and salt air as then line side crops ripen and the hay-making begins, heralding the coming of early autumn, a time of diminishing traffic as the holiday season falters and draws to a close, the seasonal staff become thin on the ground. Finally, there is a wage packet, which contains a note thanking you for your services, and bringing your employment to an end. The withdrawal symptoms can be very traumatic, but there ought to be the realisation that a job on the M.E.R. is something quite unique, and which is unlikely to be reproduced anywhere else in the world. The M.E.R. unlike so many of the preserved railways and tramways still fulfils its original function; it is a transport utility and used by many as such. And even after a day which ended with a torrential downpour, when one was miles from anywhere in an open crossbench car, and the rain had soaked through every stitch of clothing, and even filed up your shoes, as you squelch across the yard at Derby Castle to sign off, you can still rest assured that there is nothing like it on earth. One motorman albeit given to some overstatement, when asked if he liked his job, replied that he thought he had died and gone to heaven. Only it wasn't an overstatement at all. This is the M.E.R.