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Evolution of Man

Rail Track renewal

Its rolling stock may be 100 years old and going strong, but track on the Isle of Man's railway needed a new lease of life. Diarmaid Fleming reports.

Nestling high along a mountain side overlooking a deep blue Irish Sea, a gang of railwaymen put the finishing touches to a stretch of track. The scene is reminiscent of a Mediterranean holiday location, but for the workers toiling in the blazing sun, the day is far from leisurely.

'It might look pretty now, but it could be pretty rough in the winter, ' says Isle of Man's head of railways Paul Ogden.

He is in charge of as different a railway refurbishment as you could possibly imagine.

The site is on the line of the Manx Electric Railway, one of three railways funded by the Isle of Man government that run largely unchanged from when carriages first trundled along their tracks in the 19th century.

Up to £10M has been provided to renew the track and overhead lines on the railways between 2000 and 2010.

'Over the past five years, we've relaid around 60% of the track, with new sleepers, ballast and drainage, ' says Ogden.

The latest stretch to be refurbished covers 4.5km of the 28km long, 914mm (3 foot) gauge railway. The railway operates from Easter to October and is a tourist attraction.

'The trackwork was getting near the end of its life, so we decided to make enhanced provision for the replacement of the track and overhead lines, ' says Ogden.

'In the past we've re-used or cascaded rail from other parts of the railway where it was less worn, such as from the Isle of Man Steam Railway, which uses heavier 75lb rail. But this is the first in-house scheme where we've used entirely new rail and sleepers.'

Refurbishing working railways in mainland UK would normally have to be scheduled within possessions, but the island line's winter closure simplified things.

This closure was lengthened by one month when the government demolished its Summerland leisure complex beside the route of the railway in Douglas.

'The loss of the depot during the demolition of Summerland meant we had no maintenance facility, so we couldn't provide a reliable service. So we closed the railway around a month early in 2005, ' says Ogden.

Specialist contractor RMS Locotec from West Yorkshire won the contract for the electric railway work, supervised by consultant Collinson Dutton.

The first challenge for the contractor was finding a workhorse to shift materials to the railway.

A walk along stretches of the track shows why. The line winds sharply in sections, snaking up and down steep slopes with a ruling gradient of 1 in 24 exceeded in places.

'The Manx Electric Railway has some severe gradients and curves, so it's unusual to get a diesel locomotive working on it.

'You want the locomotive to be light enough with a short enough wheel-base for the gradients and curves, but with enough power to move ballast, rail and sleepers around, ' Ogden explains.

'The contractor sourced a diesel loco, which hadn't worked for around 30 years, from an old iron ore line at Irchester near Northampton. It might perhaps have been a little like something stuffed on a plinth, but it was brought back to life.'

Ogden says part of the track was in poor condition, with incidences of gauge spreading.

'Some of the track was originally laid on mines and quarry workings.

'We needed around 150mm ballast below sleeper level, so we would normally try to raise the track level to improve drainage and bring the track out of the muck, ' he explains.

Refurbishment work on the latest stretch of railway is costing £1.5M Work began in November and it was completed just in time for the island's most important tourist event, the TT races.

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