Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. The Tempest
With only one double track rail connection to everywhere else, Britain is an island remote enough to sustain different ways of doing things. Whilst the world adopted Stephenson gauge, they didn’t go for the country’s tiny trains. As for Ireland, well, it’s a big island, but with an Irish gauge that exists only there, in Brazil, and some bits of Australia – it connects to no other system.
Things on islands do get the opportunity to be a bit non-standard and often thrive – a kind of engineering Galapagos. They are prone to extinctions and strange survivals. For the Reverend Wilbert Awdry the only place Thomas the Tank Engine could exist was on a fantasy island. For a while Thomas enjoyed no location. When one had to be found the only space for it to materialise was in the empty Irish Sea. Sodor fills the in that watery gap between the wild Cumbrian coast and the Isle of Man. Only on an island would it make sense for things to be quite this different – a place where every type of locomotive was a class of one example [OK – there are twins]. This is a one-by-one Noah’s Ark.
As the Railway Series developed, Awdry transported oddities and strange survivors and dumped them all on Sodor – the Ravenglass and Eskdale clone, the ersatz Talyllyn, china clay harbour lines, the redressed Snowdon Mountain Railway. Here were all the survivors from other remote places – an asylum for runaway engines.
On maps of the island [there are maps!] it looks like there’s channel a few miles wide between the fantasy land and the hard reality of the Isle of Man. But Awdry seems to have imagined no bridge nor did he ever import any of the real life Manx railway fauna.
If you wake up with that hotel room question ‘where am I?’ and the sound coming in from outside is of a heavy horse hauling something on rails – then you’re back in the real world – in Douglas. The horse tram is just one of half a dozen extraordinary lines that have managed to survive on the island.
Like a lot of islands, a number of operators had crowded onto the land in an effort to try and squeeze a profit from of it. The system they gifted was once much more extensive – the steam traction IMR is now fifteen miles long, about a third of the scale of the system before the closures of the ‘sixties. But enough scraped through the dark times and what remains seems viable and worthwhile. The whole island is a parallel universe micro-Britain.
The three-foot gauge steam trains [‘standard gauge’ in Manx-speak] leave Douglas from the big station beside the Tesco Superstore. They charge down past the airport [Ronaldsway is the halt] and visit Port Soderick, Castletown, Port St Mary and finally, Port Erin. These proud high-stepping little Beyer Peacock tank engines were built in Manchester from 1873 right up to 1926 when the final one arrived. Of the original sixteen, fourteen and a bit survive. The engines get cycled through a rebuild process and the oldest working right now in 2020 is ‘Fenella’ who started work in 1894.
This is the only country in the world with no road speed limit – during the TT, motorbikes race down lanes at well over 100 mph. In island tradition the gutsy little tank engines dash through the countryside at a speed British preserved lines would no longer dare do even when no-one’s looking – none of the mainland’s maximum 25mph Light Railway Order nonsense for these engines and crews.
There’s more than a hundred kilometres of extraordinary Victorian railway still covering the island. There’s a tiny and glorious two-foot gauge line of almost of about 900 metres at Groudle Glen. And the magnificent Victorian interurban electric railway makes request stops at farm gates, connects at its southern terminus with the horses, and further north with the Snaefell Mountain Railway.
The horse tram is a bit curtailed at the moment but there’s lots of steam, electricity, lots of miles, and it’s amazingly close at hand. Little is ‘preserved’ in the usual sense – it just managed to survive. It costs the Manx taxpayer money – but in a normal year amply repays in terms of visitors and in creating that island ‘Manxness’. And like Sodor, at least on Douglas sea front, some of the motive power is sentient and could probably find its own way back to the depot.
Meanwhile on the Isle of Wight it’s accepted now that the way run railways is to take old London Underground trains, which after connecting with ferries, travel inland from the end of a pier quite a way out at sea. Ryde tunnel has presented a clearance issue since ’66 and only trains with a limited loading gauge like tube stock will do. Hence the strangeness of the only third-rail electrified island in the world.
A whole fleet of London South Western tank engines – the O4 class 0-4-4s from the 1890s, retired from London commuting, and modified for the island, had the place to themselves until the Beeching closures of every Wight route but one. Their unlikely replacement was by trains dating from 1923 and built for the London Electric Railway – predecessor to the Underground. They lasted until the ‘90s when they were in turn replaced by youngster tube cars from 1938.
Retired like pit ponies to light duties above-ground the trains have bounced and rattled from Ryde to Shanklin in the salty Channel climate for three more decades than their allotted lifespan. Their timber frames are now pretty much expired, as is the traction equipment. At 82 they are the oldest national stock in daily use. And they run for the final time this year.
At last the line is getting the big boost it deserves. It will be closed for some months for £26 million worth of work that will increase frequencies. And the next generation of stock will of course be more London Underground trains. This time beautifully rebuilt D stock engineered by Vivarail as Class 484 – these are the larger sub-surface trains of the District and Metropolitan Lines. They are going to have wi-fi, and power sockets and CCTV. And they will be taught to use only three rails and not four.
This is a place of survivals – Brading was the last BR station to be lit by gas. And a single example of those twenty-three O2 tank engines – W24 ‘Calbourne’ – survives on the next-door Isle of Wight Steam Railway – a line that seems to be slowly merging back into the system to rebuild a little of what the Victorians intended for Vectis*.
* Vectis – Roman name for the Isle of Wight. The island’s primary bus operator, at one time owned by the Southern Railway and now part of Go-ahead Group has been branded ‘Southern Vectis’ since 1924.
The British Empire built railways wherever it could, and also in parts where it should have been impossible, but lines haven’t survived at all on islands such as Malta and Cyprus. However, a fine old railway time can still be experienced in Majorca. The original system was almost all abandoned from 1960s onwards until the government of the Ballearic Islands noticed their mistake and set about rebuilding everything. In the twenty-first century.
What they have ended up with is a brilliant narrow gauge commuter system centred on a giant underground interchange in Palma at Plaça d’Espanya. The station has had its problems – not least of which was the use of diesels underground and a bit of flooding. It’s all fixed now and the entire system was electrified in January 2019. But the real gem is only a few metres away on the surface.
In 1913 the Ferrocarril de Sóller was opened to traffic to carry oranges, lemons and passengers from the northern port of Sóller to the capital. Today, whilst the train is slower and more expensive than the bus that drives through the mountains via a new tunnel, the line is an extraordinary treat that climbs over the Tramantunas in a breath-taking display of railway as a work of performance.
Almost everyone who catches the train from Palma is there for the fun of it. People call this ‘The Wooden Train’. The old timber-bodied, 1929, German-built electric locomotives head out from Palma along city streets hauling passenger cars that are like something from the Wild West. Running down streets in the east of the city boy racers sometimes play chicken with the train, it then leaves town, it crosses the plains, and then begins a climb through thirteen tunnels. It’s a tempestuous ascent that dashes in and out of alternating hot and cold air. The total climb is a hundred and ninety-nine metres in seven kilometres. If you can get yourself a place outdoors on the veranda of the rear car [staff don’t always permit it], then you are in for one of the world’s great sensory railway treats. Diving into the longest tunnel, the portal of light from the outside world recedes, getting ever smaller, until it’s blinked out as you pass over the summit itself still within the tunnel, itself nearly three kilometres long. Then the only light is from the saloon lamps in the carriages and the flashes from the 1200 volts powering the train from overhead. The experience is straight out of Indiana Jones.
Emerging above terraces on the far side of the mountains is a symphonic reprise, a calm after a storm of electrically powered climbing. But surprises and delights are not over. Sóller terminus at the northern end of the main line seems to be the oldest station building in the world. Built in 1606 as the very fine Ca’n Mayol, three hundred years later the railway company drew the line to arrive at the building that had already stood there for three centuries and now became, hey, presto, the local station.
But the railway as island world of art has still more to offer. Walk from platform level down the wide stone stairs and in the main booking hall and there are rooms to left and right. The one on the left is a gallery of the ceramics of Pablo Picasso. On the right is a permanent exhibition of the great Catalan artist, Joan Miró. You don’t get that at Milton Keynes Central.
On Ballearic islands, towns were often built inland by a few kilometres – a defensive move against pirates and kidnappers. Despite being built in the twentieth century the Sóller railway also ends several kilometres inland. To make it to the sea at Port Sóller you will have change to the railway company’s three foot gauge vintage tram service running first through the town square, then back lanes and gardens, until you reach the wide open space of the port with its cafes and yachts.
It’s an extraordinary survival, and the line has seen some hard times, but it hung on until the arrival of significant tourism in Majorca. In 2019 there was even a hostile bid from a consortium to take over and allegedly improve the line. The railway company is owned locally and local people didn’t take kindly to the move. We’ll see what happens. People are protective of the railway, its uniqueness and its culture – and it’s enormously welcoming. It’s all very non-standard, weird and wonderful, it’s a survivor – go there. It’s almost stranger than Sodor.
There are plenty of other railways and other places that survive as non-standard oddities and so often it’s also because for some reason they’ve been a bit cut off. The Harz system, isolated in Communist East Germany or the Great Little Trains of Wales. Given how cut off we’ve all been in 2020, we are going to need our railways. We’re going to need the weird and the unusual, the non-standard and very much-loved. So, visit them, support them, ride on them, travel as soon as you can to strange and wonderful places – after this year of 2020 they need you, as much as we need them.
Photograph of tunnel on the Soller railway: via creative commons by Tommie Hansen.