The Mid Sodor Heritage Railway - A History

Mid Sodor Heritage Railway History


Written by Loey Machan & Ryan


With the rediscovery of Mid Sodor Railway No.1 Duke at the former Arlesdale sheds in 1969, interest in the former railway began to resurge, sufficient that in the early 1970s it was proposed to found a Heritage Society dedicated to preserving its memory.

The Mid Sodor Railway Heritage Society was official established with the holding of its first meeting in Ulfstead Castle in 1972, one hundred years to the day that the original company was founded. Equally fitting was that this was the same place in which the meetings leading to the creation of MSR was held, and that the Earl of Sodor, Richard Robert Norramby, was in attendance, just like his Great-Great-Grandfather, John Arnold Norramby. In a further symbolic gesture, Richard was elected by the members as the Chairman of the new society, mirroring John’s chairmanship of the original MSR.

The new society immediately began looking to establish a permanent museum dedicated to the life and times of the MSR, and were fortunate to find a willing supporter in the form of Elizabeth Carpenter, resident of Kirk Machan and independent MP for Sodor East. The political influence of Ms Carpenter and the Earl were together able to secure the society a 99-year leasehold on the former station site at King Orry’s Bridge from the Sodor County Council, who were using it as a lockup for their Highway Maintenance equipment (including a very cantankerous steamroller). In addition to the station, a sympathetic landowner donated to the society the half-mile of trackbed immediately to the west, on which they planned to establish a demonstration line.

The site of the former station had remained relatively undeveloped during its years with the council, and due to its sheltered location in the lee of Peel Godred’s town walls the abandoned buildings had aged well, and were quickly renovated and developed into the Mid Sodor Heritage Railway Museum, which opened in 1974, just in time to celebrate a century since the original railway opened for passenger traffic between Arlesburgh and Arlesdale. In 1975, a 180hp Diesel Locomotive was acquired to help lay the half-mile demonstration line and operate trains on it, and kept sheeted under tarpaulins for the better part of six months while a supply of rails and sleepers was located, as well as rolling-stock with which to run short trains.

The spring of 1976 marked the groundbreaking ceremony on the new line, and it was at this time that the new Diesel earned her embarrassing moniker of ‘Buzz’. After initial teething problems however, the volunteers laid track west, gained HMRI certification, and soon visitors to the museum could enjoy a pleasant (if short) train-ride beside Peel Godred’s mighty fortifications, using two vintage MSR bogie saloons graciously sent on ‘long-term-loan’ by the Skarloey Railway.

1980 marked the Centennial of the opening of the MSRs Peel Godred Extension. To celebrate the society made arrangement with the Skarloey Railway to hire their No.8, ‘The Duke’, who celebrated his 100 birthday in the same year old, along with a third surviving MSR saloon. The event, featuring a complete MSR-trainset, was a huge success, and the sight of steam returned to King Orry’s Bridge catalysed the ambitions of the society’s membership, to restore as much of the railway as possible!

Of course it was all very well saying ‘we’re going back to Arlesdale’, but actually achieving it was another matter entirely. The most evident problem was that after the line had closed the Official Receiver had disposed of the land. Sections containing road crossings had been purchased by the county council to ensure their upkeep, others by farmers, and the entire Ulfstead Road to Arlesdale section had been purchased by the Sodor Island Trust (SIT), with the majority being used as a footpath, and the remainder as an access road to their tourist information centre at Cas-Ny-Hawin. The challenge seemed enormous, and while initial enquiries were smooth, the debate was soon to become fractious. While the council and many landowners were willing to sell off their sections of the trackbed, others were not so welcoming, and relations with SIT turned from cordial to downright militant, and soon the locals began taking sides. The argument was made that the railway when it closed was uneconomic, little-used, and that the section to be restored, the Mountain Road, had failed as a tourist attraction as early as 1936.

“…The Mid Sodor Railway Heritage Society,” said one particularly inflammatory (and anonymous) letter published in the Peel Godred Gazette, “seem so determined to play trains, that they are ignoring the lessons that history taught their forebears, and in stirring up old arguments they seem set to lead the entire district to Hell in a handbasket. Their motivations are questionable, their business strategy unsound, their attitude high-handed, and their sole objective seems to be to destroy the beauty and serenity of the Cas-Ny-Hawin valley, by laying a railway along what is now an extremely popular footpath…”

In response, Ms Carpenter, newly re-elected to Parliament in the 1983 General Election, made a public statement, pointing out that the tourist trade that made Sodor so wealthy was a market created by the efforts of the original Mid Sodor Railway, and that its decline was due to economic conditions, loss of local traffic, and the ending of steamer services that brought tourists in to ride the line. “In the current market”, she concluded, “further business and prosperity could be restored to the region by making it possible for people to easily enjoy the beauty of Cas-Ny-Hawin, rather than the SITs policy of footpath access only. In stubbornly maintaining this elitist policy, which denies everyone the chance to enjoy what our island has to offer, it is not the MSRHS that are acting against the common interest of the people, but their opposition!”

Despite these efforts however, the situation continued to decline. Then in 1986, the society successfully purchased the remaining goodwill of the original MSR from the Arlesdale Railway, who themselves had acquired it in the legal proceedings to build their own line. This allowed the society to reincorporate the defunct MSR as the Mid Sodor Heritage Railway Company, and transferred into the new company’s Recievership of all of the original railway’s surviving powers, emblems, documentation and archives. Detailed scrutiny of these archives, particularly those concerning the disposal of the railway’s assets after closure, revealed that the Reciever had NOT sold off the trackbed, but merely granted leases, subject to the leaseholders paying annual fees for use of the land. Payment of these fees however had never been upheld due to his untimely death, and subsequent confusion of the paperwork.

This changed everything. In not paying their fees, the leaseholders had legally violated their agreement. In principle the railway could have dragged them kicking and screaming into a courtroom and demanded not only their land back, but also forty years worth of unpaid fees, plus interest, all adjusted for inflation, resulting in a total outstanding sum of some seven digits! There was indeed talk of legal action, particularly when rumours began that the SIT had been aware all-along of their obligation to pay for use of the trackbed, but had instead tried to cover it up!

The railway however decided to settle things peaceably, even though they had everyone else involved over a barrel. Several meetings were held where the railway generously offered that if the trackbed was turned over to them, they would not demand payment of back fees. With the SIT they were even more giving, asking only for the section of track in use as a footpath, deciding (for now), that their best option was only to extend as far as Cas-Ny-Hawin, which was an ideal terminus with the good road connections and ample parking available at the Tourist Centre.

The result was a peaceful settlement, and in 1988 legal proceedings were ended, relationships had been restored, and it was with the goodwill of the people that the new Mid Sodor Heritage Railway, and its volunteer arm the MSRHS, could began to push rails back along the trackbed.

On Machan’s Day, April 30th 1989, in a symbolic gesture to bury the hatchet once and for all, the Chairman of the MSHR (The Earl) and the Chairman of the SIT (Mr Jeremy Catherick), together cut the first sod of the extension to Ballamoddey. Work was able to progress quickly, as in the years that had been spent in fiery debate the society had not been idle. A stock of good track was ready, along with a willing supply of ballast, several pieces of rolling stock that were brought, borrowed (and according to one story, stolen), and most importantly, there was a ready and able supply of manpower.

Preparing their groundwork in this manner ensured that when they gained access to the trackbed, the volunteers were ready to immediately begin work. The first task was to clear 42 years of overgrowth from the four-point-five miles of trackbed between King Orry’s Bridge and Ballamoddey. Many of the members were intimately familiar with this section, as it had been a custom in earlier years to hold annual sponsored-walks along the line, until the situation degenerated to the point that they were chased off by shotgun-wielding farm-hands!

After the ownership debate was settled, one last sponsored walk along the trackbed was held two days before the sod-cutting ceremony. The walk was carried out in pouring rain, and the money used went towards purchasing a Landrover Defender 127 to help with the construction work. This 4WD car proved extremely useful in transporting people out to worksites, though it quickly earned the dubious nickname of ‘Bottom’, a nod to the many soggy-bottoms that were endured to purchase it.  The particular vehicle had been used for many years by the society before, however, the member who owned him was reluctant to part with him. 

Ballamoddey Station had been looked after in the years following closure.  As the line drew popularity with Hillwalkers, it was converted to a Bothy as a pet-project by Mountain Bothy Association members, Jim Forbes and Mick Reilly, to meet the needs of walkers who would be seeking shelter or accomodation before setting out again on their journeys.  Up until a few nights before the return of the railway, the station building continued to serve this purpose, and it almost burnt down as a result with embers from a fire becoming caught in the rafters.  Thanks to quick thinking and the presence of a train crew, the station was saved in time.

With vegetation cleared by summer 1990 it was now necessary to survey the line and determine its condition. Though the only major structure on this section was a single road-underbridge, there were many culverts and several large embankments and cuttings. Many of these had degraded over the years and required remedial work, which was tackled by volunteers using hired-in plant. Many sections of the line soon gained amusing monikers, such as Submarine Cutting, Washout Hill, and Dambuster. As can be guessed, the work was often wet and uncomfortable, yet the dauntless Restorationists (as they came to be known) laboured on, unblocking cuttings, making culverts sound, rebuilding embankments, and laying rails ever closer to Ballamoddey, which was reached by train (‘Buzz’ propelling two flatbeds loaded with rail) for the first time in triumphant style, in August of 1995.  However, disaster struck in February of 1996 when a flood saw Buzz toppled from the track and into the river - putting the extension in jepoardy until she was repaired.  Thankfully, the Skarloey Railway was able to assist, calling back Peter Sam from Wales to allow Edwin Richard to go and assist with the final phases of the work. 
Through this year the line was made good, and the decayed structures at Ballamoddey station were restored to their original state (plus the addition of a toilet block). Finally the extension was certified and ready for traffic in time for the spring season of 1997.

The opening ceremony was a grand affair. While Buzz had laboured on the extension a diminutive Hunslet named Evan had been leased from the Skarloey Railway in 1991 to operate the museum’s demonstration line, and he and Buzz were joined for the extension’s opening by Duke (on temporary loan) and Edwin Richard, who was to help provide a more intensive service through the Summer months, and then returned to the Skarloey Railway by the end of August. 
During the winter before opening, the borrowed MSR saloons were returned to the Skarloey Railway, for the railway had now taken delivery of five 39-foot carriages built by Winston Engineering. These bogie saloons were of similar design to another batch of coaches being built at Winston for the Welsh Highland Railway (Caernarfon), but featured end-steps much like the coaches of the original MSR, and painted from end-to-end in Prussian Blue.

The opening train was double-headed by Duke and Buzz (the former and current MSR #1s), with the Earl on Duke’s footplate and the Lady Elizabeth Carpenter (now retired from public life and elevated to a peerage by HRH) on Buzz’s. Many notable guests were present, including representatives from all Sudrian railways, Mr Catherick of the SIT, Nigel Dreswick (Canon of St. Luoc’s Cathederal and descendant of noted historian Canon Nicholas Dreswick) and the rector of Kirkleas Church, the Rev. Peter Herey, who provided an opening address before the Earl and Lady Carpenter cut the ribbon.

Music was provided by the brass band of the Sodor Regiment of the Territorial Army, who played a fanfare to welcome the Guest of Honour and former regiment leader, Colonel Ranald Drixon, Lord Of Arlesdale (who sadly was of ill health at the time and would pass away by the end of the year). The remainder of the regiment paraded through Peel Godred to the station in full dress colours and fired a canon from the town wall to signal the opening train on its way, while people crowded the lineside and cheered the victory of the Mid Sodor Heritage Railway all the way to Ballamoddey, where they were greeted by Evan and Edwin with much whistling and yelling. It truly was a day to be remembered.

The railway now consolidated its position and saw in the Millenium in fine style. Passenger figures remained consistent, and while Evan operated around the museum Buzz hauled the actual trains.  Help was given by visiting Skarloey Railway engines, but eventually in 2004, Edwin Richard arrived on a permenant basis.  During these years the original station was found to be too constrained to act as both a museum and a terminus, and so in 2000 the line was extended several hundred yards east, over the main road on a single-span bridge, to a new car-park and a dedicated terminus, built as a replica of the MSR’s Arlesburgh Bridge Street station complete with wooden overhead roof, large station building, plus carriage and engine sheds all duplicated from original plans found in the archives. The station received an award for the quality of the workmanship and accuracy to replicated the original buildings, and was partly financed by a Heritage Lottery Grant.

Thus, after five years running trains, work could be gotten down to of extending services two-point-five miles west to Ulfstead Road. Although only half the length of the section currently in operation, the gradients stiffened fiercly, so that by the time the summit was reached at Ulfstead Road the line had attainted 867 ft above sea level, a climb of some two-hundred-feet from Peel Godred. The reward for this severe climbing is awe-inspiring scenery, as beyond Ballamoddey the line ascends above the treeline giving open views towards the summit of Gob-Y-Deighan and the pass in the valley below.

Construction progressed at a good rate, as during the period of consolidation volunteers had ‘on the cheap’ begun remedial work where it was needed. The only other major obstacle was to replace the bridge over the valley road immediately beyond Ballamoddey, and a steel girder bridge was craned into place on the same day the original span was removed.

The line was opened through to Ulfstead Road on May Day 2005. It was a more low-key ceremony than the Grand Reopening of 1997, but also featured the debut of the line’s new engine, built at the Crovans Gate Works of the NWR.

The Society had approached the NWR management in 2003 with the proposal to contract out a new locomotive to them and prior to this a design had been finalised, with initial proposals of building a replica of a previous MSR being rejecting on grounds of insufficient power for the heavier traffic expected on the line. At this point Mr Ivo Hugh, retired Chief Engineer of the Skarloey Railway, proposed building an engine inspired by one of the few other 2ft 3in gauge locomotives to operate in the UK, a design of powerful 0-6-2T supplied by Andrew Barclay to the Campbeltown and Machrihanish Light Railway of Scotland.

Mr Hugh’s suggestion found favour and the design was worked out and amended by;

Joanna Farrier, CME of the Arlesdale Railway (b. 1971)
(daughter of CME Ivan Farrier, appointed to his position on his retirement in 1996)


David Hugh, CME of the Skarloey Rly (b. 1950)
(son of CME Ivo Hugh, appointed to his position on his retirement in 1991)

After the proposed design was accepted and agreement reached with the NWR, the locomotive was erected at Crovans Gate Works (with the option to order a second member of the class at a later date), under the oversight of the NWR’s CME, Caradoc ‘Strongarm’ Qualtrough.

Construction started in 2003 and was somewhat piecemeal due to the cost being spread over multiple payments, some of which were delayed. In mid 2004 however after progress stalled, Sir Stephen Topham Hatt stepped in and offered to pay for the remainder of the locomotive’s construction as a charitable gesture. He felt that this was only appropriate as building the locomotive from scratch had raised a lot of free publicity for his works and helped his engineers hone their skills.

The locomotive’s final assembly was fast-tracked with the cost now paid off and was delivered to the Skarloey Railway for testing in February 2005. As delivered it was named Thorfinn after a former Norse ruler of Sodor, the name chosen to honour the engine’s Scottish roots. This caused a small backlash however as many of the MSHRS members felt a name ‘closer to home’ would be more appropriate. While the controversy boiled, ‘Thorfinn’s’ testing continued, which revealed the engine to be somewhat rough-riding and cantankerous. After derailing while running in reverse it was found that the springing on the trailing axle was the cause of this, and after adjustment in the Skarloey workshops it was declared ready for service. Just before it was delivered to Peel Godred a secret ballot among the MSHRS had decided on a new name, Rognvald, to honour one of the sons of legendary Sudrian heroine Sigrid of Arlesdale. This also left a spare name in the wings for the possible second engine of the class, that of Sigrid’s other son, Edric.

Rognvald was steamed for the first time at Peel Godred a week before the opening of the extension, and having been tested thoroughly hauled the opening train, and was named by the good Canon Dreswick as sadly, the Rev Herey, first choice to name the engine, had passed away in January aged 88.

The extension to Ulfstead Road proved a great success, and two-train operation was now implemented using a second rake of carriages delivered from Winston ahead of the opening. Trains now passed at Ballamoddey, and waited for an extended period at Ulfstead Road. Since the lengthier break gave people more of a chance to enjoy the awesome scope of the scenery, this was considered no great loss.

After another brief period of consolidation, work got underway on the next extension to Cas-Ny-Hawin, some six miles beyond Ulfstead Road. This was however the most difficult phase of construction as it featured three of the four tunnels that so hindered construction of the original railway.  Of these, two (T2 & T3) were built to extremely narrow clearances, far too small for the new locomotives and stock to fit through. As such they were enlarged to allow for trains to pass, which required an outside contractor being brought in to carry out the work.  T4 however as one of the first tunnels to be built (before the original MSR’s wallets ran thin) is to larger clearances and will not pose any difficulty.

The other complexity was in providing a new footpath between Ulfstead Road and Cas-Ny-Hawin, to replace the current footpath along the trackbed. This was a mitigation measure agreed upon between the MSHR and the SIT. The footpath was surveyed to follow the inside lip of the valley, following the railway at a lower level wherever possible, and a contract for its construction was let to Sudrian contractors and engineers Thomas Cousins in 2005. The footpath was completed in time for the summer of 2006 and during this period, Thomas Cousins (based on their exemplary work) received the contract to open out the tunnels and ensure the stability of the ledges and retaining walls supporting the track.  Only after these steps were completed in summer 2007 was tracklaying be allowed to commence.

The new terminus at Cas-Ny-Hawin is much bigger and a half-mile closer to Arlesdale than former halt, and features two L-shaped platforms, much like Tan-Y-Bwlch on the Ffestiniog Railway. A large station-building will be constructed in similar style to existing MSHR structures in the coming years, and immediately adjacent to the site is the SIT’s shop, tourist centre and car park. The car park was recently expanded to accommodate the railway and a new project, where the SIT intends to offer guided tours of the unflooded levels of the former lead mines in the valley. The prospect of this, plus the restored MSR, promises to make Cas-Ny-Hawin a first-class tourist destination. 
Cas-Ny-Hawin was opened formally in the autumn of 2009, with all three Skarloey Railway based ex-MSR locomotives present, along with the return of former MSR No.7, Jim, repatriated from South Africa by Richard Hatt.  His NGG16 Garratt, The Devil, was also present on static display as part of a fundraising appeal.  This engine has been promised to the society on long-term loan following its restoration at the Vicarstown Railway Museum.
Work on the Cas-Ny-Hawin station building was finally completed in the spring of 2010, ready for the first official season of trains running into the station.

Beyond the Cas-Ny-Hawin station site is the gaping portal of tunnel T1, and from its opposite end the five miles of trackbed to Arlesdale have been developed as the access road to the tourist centre, but this is now up for reconsideration. With the number of arriving cars expected to rise it is now felt that this narrow road (which becomes a single carriageway in several spots) will be too much of a liability. As such talks have recently begun between the Council, the MSHR and the SIT to build a new road on the opposite side of the valley, improving road access to Cas-Ny-Hawin and the village of Kirkleas, currently only served by lanes. If this goes ahead, then the former MSR trackbed will be open to reuse as a railway, allowing services to once again return to Arlesdale.

This bears consideration. As when the Arlesdale Railway looked at operating into this site there is very little space for expansion, and as demonstrated by Duke’s experiences the terrain has become unstable. This is due to minor earth tremors caused by a small fault-line in the mountain above the station. A section of the Mountain Road near tunnel T3 is located on a ledge above this fault and likewise had a history of geological instability, which necessitated a speed restriction in MSR days and is believed to be the cause of Falcon’s famous ‘leap’, perhaps by a disloged piece of stone falling across the rails. Part of Thomas Cousins’ contract is to reinforce the formation and shotblast all the tunnels with concrete to ensure no future repeats of this incident.

With this in mind it is unlikely that anything more than a run-round loop and two platforms could be provided without massive work and expense to stabilise the hillside and clear several hundred tons of dislodged rubble and earth that has buried much of the site over six decades, though it is alluring to consider excavating the original locomotive sheds and workshops. Even if these were exposed however, it is unlikely to become the main MPD of the railway due to limited space and poor road access, factors in which the station at King Orry’s Bridge has no trouble. In addition, since the majority of passengers ride from the Peel Godred end of the line, it makes little sense to relocate operations to Arlesdale.

Likewise there is no room to build a car-park without ripping out the heart of the village. However, the considerable parking facilities of the Arlesdale Railway’s terminus are only a pleasant ten-minute walk away, so it is possible that a Park-And-Ride facility could be established. Alternatively, visitors could be encouraged to park at Cas-Ny-Hawin and ride to Arlesdale on the railway, allowing them to explore this beautiful area without filling the village with cars. There is also the chance of extending to a new site adjacent to the Arlesdale Railway’s terminus, but this will require a new formation on an incredibly steep gradient, which makes the proposal somewhat unfeasible. Either way, it seems apparent that the primary station for this end of the line will remain to be Cas-Ny-Hawin, even if an extension is built.

There is much potential in this scheme, but until definite plans are made regarding the road, it is very much just a scheme, though a very alluring one…