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Trams & Trains That Climb Mountains

Trams & Trains That Climb Mountains
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The Great Orme tramway climbs the hill by a cable operated system from the North Wales coastal resort of Llandudno. It carries holidaymakers almost to the summit of the mountain. 

nce the preserve of Oxbridge graduates, following the growth of prosperity and the expansion of railway travel during the reign of Queen Victoria, enjoying mountain scenery became open to anyone with the desire to explore the wilder regions of their countryside.   Easy access from the industrial Midlands and North West saw hordes of visitors trekking each summer to north Wales’ seaside resorts where, after a short ride along one of the railways snaking up from the coast, they were able to gaze on the dramatic beauty of mountains surrounding Snowdon, the second highest point in the British Isles.

Attracted by the dramatic peaks towering above their heads, visitors began to explore the higher ground, but not all had the confidence to find their way in safety amongst the peaks and crags.  Quick to grasp the opportunity of an easy income from guiding individuals and groups, shepherds cashed in on their intimate knowledge of the hills, with many turning it into a full-time occupation.  Unfortunately some were not as knowledgeable as they thought, while others tried to turn a day amongst the peaks into something more like an alpine expedition; some even demanded the need to carry provisions more suited to a military expedition, even down to the provision of vast quantities of alcohol!

One of the diesel locos operating the line

With serious hill climbing beyond the ability of the bulk of potential peak-baggers, many were tricked into attempting climbs that were frequently dangerous and life-threatening.  It was with this in mind that the idea of a railway to the summit of Snowdon, the most popular mountain was put forward. The suggestion was far from new, trains had been climbing Swiss mountains for a decade or more, so the technology was there, it only needed capital and the encouragement of one or two entrepreneurs to get it off the ground in more ways than one.

The man who first had the idea of building a railway to the summit of Mount Snowdon was Sir Richard Moon, Chairman of the London and North Western Railway.  In 1869 he came forward with a design using the Swiss ‘rack and pinion’ system where locomotives literally clawed their way up and down steep gradients.  The cost to be borne by the LNWR was a staggering £63,800 (almost seven million pounds in today’s money).  Naturally this did not meet with immediate approval, with the opposition led by a local landowner, George William Duff-Assheton-Smith, but seeing the potential he became one of the leading members of the Snowdon Mountain Company, with his wife Enid cutting the first sod in a track from Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon.

At that time the most popular footpath route to the top of Snowdon was from Portmadog by way of Snowdon Ranger on the mountain’s west flank and for a while building the line as a branch of the Portmadog/Carnarvon line had its backers.  However, the northern route from Llanberis was chosen as the means of easing the local economy already suffering from the decline of the Welsh slate industry. Dug by men wielding picks and shovels helped by dynamite alone, working in whatever weather the mountain could throw at them, amazingly it only took fourteen months for the single-track line to reach the summit.  The first commercial train ran in time for the summer rush of 6th April 1894.  Reaching the summit in good order, unfortunately this journey ended in disaster on the way back down to Llanberis.  Possibly due to overloading, locomotive No. 1 Ladas towing two coaches lost the track and ran out of control.  The locomotive derailed on the narrow col above Clogwyn Halt and fell into Cwm Glas Mawer on the Llanberis Pass.  Amazingly only one passenger died, from loss of blood after jumping from the carriage.  This luck continued when due to miscommunication a second downward train hit the carriages of the first, with no fatalities.

Snowdon

THE SYSTEM 

and its ROUTE TO THE SUMMIT

The original plan was to use a two-rail system, relying purely on wheel friction for grip.  Following the disaster of the first journey, it was decided to adopt the Swiss system and use the rack-and-pinion method for both climbing and descending.  A large cog beneath each locomotive was fixed to either side of a central point on the axle and alternately connects with each section of the toothed rack made in the shape of an inverted ‘L’ cross section.  The cog alternately connects with individual sections of the rack and literally claws its way up and downhill.  Two sections of the line, at the top and bottom being relatively level, do not have a central rail and the boilers on steam locomotives slope downwards in order to keep them as level as possible.  Although the majority of trains are pulled by steam engines, there are four diesel locos operating.  Five halts are made on the way to the summit and its busy café.  Not many passengers use them and their main purpose is to create passing places.  

Reaching the topmost station it is a rare day when passengers can sunbathe beside the summit cairn built by Ordnance Surveyors; Snowdon has some of the wildest mountain weather in Britain.   Below the cairn and a few yards from the summit station platform, the welcoming café offers simple refreshment to shivering would-be mountaineers.  The present café stands on the site of earlier attempts to provide hospitality.  Originally all that was on offer was a cluster of crude wooden huts later followed by a 1930s structure which by the twenty-first century had become rather scruffy.  The present building, Hafod Eryri (literally translated from the Welsh into English as ‘high mountain residence of Snowdonia’ was opened by First Minister Rhodri Morgan on the 12th June 2009 and cost a staggering £8.4 million.  Strangely in a region sitting mostly on slate, stone used in constructing the building had to come from Spain.

Trains run to a daily schedule from mid-March to late October, weather permitting.  Pre-booking is essential – phone 01286 870223.  Single tickets up and down the mountain cannot be pre-booked and are only available on a stand-by basis.  The journey takes about one hour each way.

Dogs except support dogs are not allowed on the trains.  Children under 16 MUST be accompanied by a parent or guardian whilst travelling on the railway. 

Not quite as dramatic as the Snowdonia mountain railway, the Great Orme tramway climbs the hill by a cable operated system from the North Wales coastal resort of Llandudno.  It carries holidaymakers from just above the town centre, almost to the summit of the mountain.  Here footpaths radiate in all directions, one especially to the self-guided remains of a copper mine first dug by Bronze Age people.

Run as a commercial concern rather than a preserved line, the tramway uses electrically powered under-road cables to haul tramcars similar to the famous ones in San Francisco (and Matlock at one time); as one car descends the steep hill it helps the other to ascend, and half way up passengers have to alight and walk a few yards to another tramcar in order to complete the journey.  As a convenient way to ascend the Great Orme it may leave something to be desired, but as a holiday novelty and an insight into Edwardian engineering skill (it was opened in 1902), it is well worth the price of a ticket.  The lower tram terminus, imposingly named Victoria Station is situated on Church Walks, at the western end of Mostyn Street, one of Llandudno’s main shopping facilities.

The Great Orme cable operated tramway runs on most days, weather permitting.  There is a small display near the top station, it covers the natural and political history of the mountain, including reference to its herd of wild goats that occasionally raid nearby gardens when conditions become difficult. There is also a café/restaurant close by and the copper mine is further downhill to the lower side of the tramway. And, we must not forget the tram that still climbs Snaefell, the highest point on the Isle of Man with its views of all four parts of the British Isles.  This one manages the 2000 feet climb by the conventional overhead electric cable system. 

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