Originally opened in 1853, the Sodor
and Mainland Railway (S&M) line operated on the Eastern side of
the Island of Sodor, eventually reaching Kirk Ronan in 1865; it was
at this time that the small fishing port grew into a substantial
town. Although plans were drawn up to commence a ferry service
between the town’s port and Dublin, these eventually came to naught
and the port saw mostly ore traffic from the railway, courtesy of the
Crovan’s Gate Mining Company.
The line never particularly thrived
during the 19th century, and the three Nielson box tank engines that
worked the line failed to see much work other than local passenger
and light goods duties. Although an A5 Class engine (Sharpe)
was loaned from the Furness Railway in the early 20th century the
lack of prosperity continued, eventually causing the S&M to
collapse in 1910. Due to financial issues, all stock had previously
been sold and (with the exclusion of Neil) scrapped. However,
the permanent way was kept intact, and the Furness Railway continued
to operate services on the branch line with the sole occupant,
To commemorate the service that the S&M
had provided the town a statue of the former Neilson tank engines was
created by a local scrap merchant and placed on a plinth in the
centre of Kirk Ronan.
Following the amalgamation of the
Sudrian railways in 1914 engines from the former Tidmouth, Knapford &
Elsbridge and Wellsworth & Suddery Railways assisted in providing
motive power, together with engines loaned from the Midland and
Furness Railways (MR and FR) sent to assist in coastal defence during
World War I. These engines included Sharpe, who was kept on,
and the MR 1116A Class Gwen.
Once the First World War reached its
conclusion traffic levels dropped again, and the stocklist of the
branch line was reduced to three; Gwen, Sharpe, and the
newly transferred MR 2000 Class Alex. Duties again resorted to
local passenger and ore traffic, until the establishment of a daily
ferry service between the port and Dublin in 1920. Passenger numbers
soared and the town council, in conjunction with the North Western
Railway (NWR), saw the port increase from a minor fishing dock to a
mid-sized harbour. A small boat train was launched, and the number of
permanent residents in both the towns of Kirk Ronan and Rolf’s
Castle drastically increased.
Following the Grouping in 1923 the NWR
resisted the proposed amalgamation into the newly-formed London,
Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS). The relationship between the
two companies remained tense until an agreement was reached in 1925;
an agreement that allowed the NWR to retain its’ independence.
However, a condition of the agreement was that daily Dublin ferry
service be reduced to two days a week; Tuesdays and Fridays. This
downturn in passengers saw the boat train replaced by an altered
regular timetable, and the economy of Kirk Ronan drastically weakened
during the subsequent years.
During the 1930s the Great Depression
saw a continued downturn in economy, and increased competition from
the roads saw a steady decline begin to occur for the branch line.
Although passenger numbers remained reasonably steady the level of
goods traffic dropped dramatically, so much so that it was decided to
withdraw Sharpe from service.
However, these events were quickly
turned around by the advent of the Second World War, during which
time the Kirk Ronan dock was again seen as an important shipping
port. Traffic levels soared; although a lack of maintenance to the
lines’ infrastructure during the war would see several near-misses
occur with Alex.
Immediately following the war passenger
levels increased dramatically, although goods traffic continued to
dwindle; as it had in the previous decades. However, this reversal of
fortunes did not last, and before the decade was out Alex was
found to be more than capable of handling the branch’s entire
During the 1950s and 60s Alex
continued to be the lines’ sole occupant (with the exception of
Gwen at the docks), although a British Railways Standard Class 2
2-6-2T (Kenneth) was at one point drafted in to assist in
1955. However, this was deemed to be surplus to requirements, and
transferred back to the Mainland within several months. Although
rumours existed that an incident occurred between this engine and
Alex, with may noting that Alex’s paranoia was not
apparent prior to this engine arriving, it was later revealed that an
encounter between Alex and the recently-arrived ex-Caledonian
Railway 828 Class Douglas was the trigger for these paranoid
delusions, with Alex coming to believe that he would have the
same fate as his classmates forced upon him – scrap.
In 1963 Rolf’s Castle attempted
reverse this trend by converting the old castle into a conference
centre, but this returned only mediocre results and had little affect
on the drawing the attention of investors. Passenger levels showed a
slight increase, although this was only short-lived.
An incident in which a line of trucks
was incorrectly placed occurred at the Kirk Ronan dock in 1966, which
resulted in a minor derailment and the spilling of a load of paraffin
oil. This caused difficulties in unloading a shipment of fish from
the quay, which were subsequently spoilt as alternative arrangements
were made. Procedures for dockside shunting were altered, despite the
protests of shunter Gwen that she was not the cause of the
accident. Many years later, it was revealed that Alex was in
fact the culprit for the accident, fleeing the scene before being
discovered and allowing the blame to be pinned on Gwen.
In 1971 the Kirk Ronan council
presented a plan to rejuvenate the town’s economy through an “urban
renewal” of the dockland industrial district, which had been
languishing for several decades. Land near the waterfront was sold
off to developers, with a large commercial and ‘culture’ region
eventually created. This saw much of the dockside industry that
remained, which the newly developed art galleries, theatres and cafés
did not wish to associate with, shifted to the south of the town.
Through some well-discussed deals the Fat Controller saw that large
amounts of the materials transported by rail, and to assist with the
increased rail traffic the Fat Controller saw the Midland Railway 3F
Simon transferred from the main line to the branch.
The development of this district saw an
increase in the number of residents in both Kirk Ronan and Rolf’s
Castle, and it was soon realised that allowing Simon to take
over goods duties would allow Alex to give a more reliable
passenger service to these residents. This trend continued as the
restructuring continued through the decade and early into the 1980s.
privatisation of British
Rail in 1994 the long-standing agreement of a twice-weekly ferry
service (originally drafted in 1925 by the LMS and inherited by
B.R.) became moot, and a joint meeting between the Fat
Controller, the Kirk Ronan mayor and the Sodor Tourist Board saw
plans drawn up to re-establish the daily Dublin ferry service. The
docks were enlarged to allow for improved passenger service, although
the additional work was found to take a strain on the engines drafted
in to assist (NWR #9 Donald and #10 Douglas). It was at
this point that the Boat Train was re-established.
By the early 2000s Kirk Ronan had
become known as the ‘cultural capital’ of Sodor, and commercial
trade had reached its’ highest point since the 1920s. Visitors
would come via the branch line not only to see the ‘quaint’
engines running it, but also to experience all that the two towns
along the route had to offer. To further increase this appeal to
tourists the council of Rolf’s Castle voted to restore the town’s
namesake castle, which had been used as a conference centre, into a
historic tourist attraction in 2007. However, a contract with the
leaseholders of the castle would not see this work commence for a
further two years.
A scare for the steam traction occurred
in 2008, during which time a local group of environmentalists and
shopkeepers protested the emissions given off from the locomotives.
However public consensus, together with a meeting between the Sir
Stephen Topham Hatt and the Kirk Ronan mayor, saw that these protests
came to naught. A meeting between the Fat Controller and P&O
Cruises was also conducted that year, and a deal struck to have Kirk
Ronan listed as a major stop for international cruise liners.
In 2009, former Manchester,
Lincoln Railway 6D Class Parker was loaned from the
newly-formed Vicarstown Railway Museum to run on a short
demonstration line set up in the town center. During this run a brake
fault caused the engine to damage the locomotive statue, who was
revealed to none other than Sharpe atop a plinth (having
undergone a repaint and the addition of side tanks).
In the spring of that year works
refurbishment of Rolf’s Castle commenced, together with upgrades to
the Kirk Ronan docks to accommodate the forthcoming Ocean Liners from
P&O Cruises. A new Pullman boat train entitled “The Sodor
Explorer” was launched, with ex-British Railways (B.R.) Battle
of Britain Class 697 Squadron (affectionately referred to
as ‘Squaddie’) becoming the unofficial mascot and main engine
of the train.
The Halloween Night of 2009 saw two
special visitors arrival at the town of Kirk Ronan, albeit briefly.
Due to poor conditions at Liverpool the Prince and Countess, who were
enjoying themselves on a sailing trip, found themselves unable to
dock. Whilst making alternative arrangements the Fat Controller
kindly offered them a space to berth, together with clearing a path
for the royal train to meet them at Kirk Ronan – an arrangement
kept so secret that it, together with some trickery by Simon
and Squaddie, had Alex believe that it was in fact a
ghost train, and Gwen under the illusion that the royal boat
was in fact the specter of a shipwrecked boat coming back from beyond
Throughout the latter half of the 21st
Century's first decade the loads of goods being moved through the
Kirk Ronan docks had been steadily increasing, and by early 2011
alternative shunting procedures were implemented to maintain
reliability targets. Unfortunately an incident involving failed
brakes on a BR Low-loader Flat Truck (Croc) resulted in the
failure of the shunting engine Gwen. This in turn saw the
return of the environmentalist group, who began to declare that steam
traction was finally being removed from the branch line. Although
this did not come to pass, a new campaign to turn the town more
environmentally-friendly grew from it in an attempt to see it come to
fruition – the mysteriously-titled “Operation: Green Scheme”.
However, following an accident at the
quayside that saw Alex nearly pulled into the ocean when
rescuing a grounded tugboat, all references to the project began to
disappear. It was eventually revealed that a large crate that was
knocked into the sea during the tugboat rescue contained a
experimental “green” engine, the prototype for a fleet of
environmentally-friendly buses. The destruction of this prototype
left the environmentalist bankrupt and, having again failed to see
the steam engines made redundant, caused them to leave town in
To date the line is still steam
powered, although Main Line diesels are not unknown to spend time on
deliveries. Future expansion of the Kirk Ronan is currently being
discussed at council, with Rolf’s Castle conducting viability
studies into further tourist attractions.