The Culdee Fell Mountain Railway - A History

Culdee Fell Mountain Railway - A History

The Culdee Fell Mountain Railway was opened in 1900.  The Mid Sodor Railway had been keen to exploit the natural beauty of the Peel Godred District of Sodor, and were hopeful of extending their line to the head of the valley of Kirk Machan where the passengers would link up with a Mountain Railway.  However, the scheme continually came up against opposition from Lord Peter Barrane, whose property would be severely affected.  Lord Peter argued against the potential disfigurement of the natural beauty of the mountainside and thus, the project was frozen for a number of years.


The Skarloey Railway seized the opportunity to gain where the Mid-Sodor was losing, and took advantage of a point which allowed for easy access to a shorter path up the Mountain.  These Culdee Fell Excursions were well advertised, and quickly had a depressing effect on the tourist trade in Peel Godred and Kirk Machan.  The people of this district appealed to Lord Peter again to reconsider, and this time, he kindly relented.  In 1897, construction of the Culdee Fell Rack Railway began, with Lady Elaine Barrane, Lord Peter’s eldest daughter, cutting the first sod at Kirk Machan.


However, Lord Peter made sure that he had some level of control over the construction of the line.  Through his chairmanship of the sponsor, The Culdee Fell Tramroad and Hotel Company Ltd, established the year before, he saw to it that the lower section made a detour, skirting around the edges of his property instead of straight through it and up the hillside as had originally been proposed.  Expertise and advice was sought from the Snowdon Mountain Railway, which had opened shortly before, and upon their recommendation, the “Abt” rack system was adopted.


Construction proceeded smoothly and within three years, the railway was passed for passenger traffic by the Board of Trade, with locomotive No.4 Culdee performing numerous operational and safety tests for the satisfaction of the inspectorate.  The railway officially opened for business on Whit Monday 1900, and for a month, all went well.


However, there was a tragic turn of events when locomotive No.1, Godred, left the rails at Devil’s Back and hurtled down into a ravine below.  Both passengers and crew remained calm and thankfully remained unhurt, and the coach stayed upright and on the rails.  When found the following day, Godred was found to be beyond economical local repair.  Given that the railway was still at a very early stage in its development, there were insufficient finances to rebuild the engine, and so the remains were taken back to Kirk Machan and provided a useful source of spares for repairing the other locomotives.


It is believed that a stone lodged between two teeth of the rack-rail had caused the accident, but this has never been proven.  The line was closed for a year, while stringent measures were taken to make sure that similar incidents could never occur again.  The railway reopened on Easter Monday 1901 and the line’s operations have carried on with an unblemished safety record.  Although there have been minor incidents in the years following this, none have resulted in injury to passengers, and at worst have only included minor inconvenience and annoyance.


In more recent years following the accident, rumour has had it that Godred’s ghost still haunts the mountain, warning engines when they may be in danger.  The most notable instance of this came in 1996, when a coach carrying a working party due to attend to repairs at the Summit derailed, and with the Driver of Diesel engine No.10, Betty, being alerted by a loud whistle which caused him to use the Dead Man’s Pedal (ERS #58).


The railway was bolstered by three brand new steam locomotives and rolling stock in the mid 1960s to accompany their existing stock.  The Barrane family continued to retain shares in the railway company, and under new management in the 1970s began an expansion programme to give guided tours of the mountain and the local countryside with special coach trips, which would often culminate in a trip up the Mountain Railway.


These ventures proved fruitful, however, over time the costs of running a fleet of steam engines became too great for the company.  Alternatives needed to be sought, and so the management again turned to the Snowdon Mountain Railway for advice.  On a goodwill visit to Llanberis in the early 1990s, they observed the operations of the Snowdon Diesel locomotives, which were reducing the running costs of the locomotive fleet considerably, and had seen two of the steam fleet out of service.


The Culdee Fell team immediately placed an order for two Diesel engines of the same specifications, and for a Diesel Railcar to ease the requirement for steam locomotion. The three engines arrived in March 1996, and following successful trials, entered service in time for the opening of the season in April of the same year. 

In recent years, the line has caught on to the modern ideals of the world to keep up in the money cuts. A big topic of this is converting the engines into oil-burners, with Culdee being converted as an experiment and announcements of a new oil-burning engine, to the engines, particularly Ernest's, concern! (ERS #178) Along with that, the steam engines have been side-lined to ‘heritage’ status on the railway, while Norman and Betty took over normal passenger services to save money the railway was spending on servicing each steam engine and carriage when in service (ERS #205). With this new roster put in place, the railway had a surplus of steam engines to keep out of service at a time. This lead to Eric, and his coach Stephanie, being sent to the Vicarstown Railway Museum, as a way of publicity for the railway.