The Kirkronan Branch Line - A History

A History Of The Kirkronan Branch

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, Sharpe.

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 timetable.

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 to 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.

Following the 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, Sheffield & 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 to the 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 the grave!

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 disgust.

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.