Tuesday 19th May 2020
The Isle of Man is a treasure trove of transport delight. An efficient bus network; an electric tramway including to a mountain top; a steam railway; and a seafront horse tram. And they’re all included on an integrated visitor ‘Go Explore’ smartcard available for 1, 3, 5 or 7 days from a number of outlets including the arrivals hall at the island’s airport; and there’s a comprehensive timetable book with handy network and town maps. Brilliant.
I last visited four years ago in May 2016 and back last October thought it was high time to make a return trip so booked flights and a hotel for a visit this coming bank holiday weekend. A shout out and thanks to Premier Inn for already refunding my booking, and fingers crossed EasyJet will get round to refunding the air fares at some point. I thought I’d implement a disappointment containment and mitigation strategy by digging out the timetables and visitor information leaflets from 2016 and browse through a few photographs taken last time.
The Isle of Man population is 84,000 about the same size as Guildford, Aylesbury or Stockton-on-Tees and about 60% of the Isle of Wight’s 142,000. It’s around 30 miles long and roughly 10 miles wide with an area of 221 square miles – about a third bigger than the Isle of Wight.
There’ve been 335 cases of coronavirus and 24 deaths on the island, 20 of which are linked to one nursing home in Ballasalla which has since had its licence suspended. The island has been sealed off since 27th March with only those having prior approval from the Manx government allowed to travel to the island with 300 residents repatriated after being stranded abroad via weekly sailings from Liverpool since mid April. Buses are running for essential journeys but the trams and railway have been suspended.
The island capital, Douglas, is located two-thirds of the way down the east coast with Ramsey, the second biggest town towards the north on the east coast. Peel lies midway on the west coast with Port Erin in the extreme south west coastal corner.
Main bus routes from Douglas (and much simplified for the purpose of this summary – they love complicated number and letter route variations on the island) are the 1 and 2 south to Port Erin every 20 minutes; the 3 north to Ramsey every 30 minutes and the 5 half hourly east to Peel then hourly north to Ramsey. Half hourly or hourly local routes serve the environs of Douglas and Ramsey. and there’s an hourly route from Douglas via Peel to Port Erin. There’s a main terminal point in Douglas town centre comprising a string of shelters.
It’s a tidy network offering great views of the island operated by a mixture of single and double deck buses. The former are mainly Mercedes Citaros with a handful of StreetLites and the latter are Wright bodied Volvos. Oldest buses in regular service date from 2009.
The interiors are bright with cloth covered comfortable seating but the exterior livery is a rather uninspiring plain silvery grey.
Ticket prices for longer staying visitors offer reasonable value – the 7 day GoExplore card is £50 whereas a one-day card is a bit pricey at £17 but it does include all travel modes. There are cheaper fares for residents with a Go Card. Cash payments have ceased and passengers either use the Go Card or contactless bank cards.
The ‘bus station’ at Ramsey is a blast from the past. I thought at first it might be a museum….
.. but it turned out to be a fully working garage and enquiry office.
The electric trams – they’re called Manx Electric Railway – run up to every 30 minutes in peak season between Douglas and Ramsey.
The almost 18 mile route hugs the east coast offering some great scenery along the way. There are sixty nine ‘tram’ stops/stations on the seventy-five minute end-to-end journey.
In Douglas trams depart from the Derby Castle terminus at the northern (Onchan) end of the Promenade. Closed and open carriages are often linked together so passengers can choose the level of exposure to Manx air. Mostly a motor car pulls a single trailer. The interiors of the closed carriages are rather luxurious….
… compared to the rather spartan open carriages.
Half an hour north of Douglas is Laxey where there’s an interchange with the Snaefell Mountain Railway.
This is a must-ride tram taking you up 2,000 feet to the top of Snaefall offering truly spectacular views. At the mountain top, there’s enough time for a quick drink in the cafe and take in the sights including views of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – providing it’s a clear day.
The weather on Snaefall is as famous as the railway – it might be sunny and clear in Douglas but a completely different story on the maintain top. The day I visited it was foggy on arrival, but then almost instantly cleared as I took photographs ….
… offering spectacular views.
In peak season trams run every half an hour and the journey time is half an hour. Handy connections in Laxey are available with the Manx Electric Railway. There’s a ‘halt’ station halfway up the mountain called Bungalow Station.
I was a bit taken about to spot RM 1152 on a 12 to Shepherds Bush passing by just as the tram went through on the day I visited.
You never know what you might see on the Isle of Man.
The island’s steam railway runs south from Douglas via Castletown to Port Erin.
It’s less frequent at six journeys a day in the peak season as well as extra ‘dining experience’ trains in the evening. Journey time is an hour. The day I travelled I found it very busy with coach parties reserving many of the carriages so it was quite a squeeze to get on; in the days before social distancing obviously.
It’s a great ride and also offers some spectacular views of the southern end of the island, however, I found I enjoyed the views better on the double deck ride on bus route 1 covering much of the same territory.
My favourite journey experieince during the visit was a couple of round trips on the seafront horse tram.
It’s the oldest horse-drawn passenger tramway remaining in service anywhere in the world. It first began in 1876 and until 2015 was operated by Douglas Borough Council but in 2016 passed over to the island’s transport department. In 2019 a shortened route had to operate due to works on the seafront Promenade road.
Back in 2016 when I visited it was the first year after the Council had given up and the tram cars still operated from the old garages on the seafront which I understand have now closed. The horses are stabled elsewhere and I was fascinated to turn up first thing to see the first tram car being hauled, literally, out of the garage…
…as the horse was walked up from the stables, located elsewhere, to commence its duty.
It’s a fascinating juxtaposition of old propulsion technology, albeit the most environmentally friendly available, and modern technology issuing ticket machines.
It was a lovely touch to see the horse name on the ticket rather than a fleet number.
The duties of the conductors and conductresses involve a rather precarious system of walking along the outside ledge of the tramcar to collect fares….
… which I’m sure has been risked assessed as she wore a high-viz jacket!
The interiors aren’t the most comfortable with swing back seats so they can be forward facing in both directions.
On one of the journeys I made we encountered some inconvenient parking by a coach alongside the tram tracks…
but our driver and horse skilfully got the tramcar to pass by successfully.
The island’s quirky mix of transport modes also includes The Great Laxey Mine Railway.
This uses replicas of the former tramway which once ran deep into the Great Laxey Mine.
It’s a quarter of mile in length through the longest railway tunnel on the island and passengers clamber into tiny carriages to travel along the line.
At the Valley gardens end of the line it’s a short walk to the amazing Laxey Wheel …
… which you can climb up to enjoy more spectacular views.
A visit to the Isle of Man is highly recommended. In fact, I’d say two visits to the Isle of Man are highly recommended, except I’ll only be able to vouch for that when Covid-19 has been sent packing and I can rebook.