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Significant Events in the History of the Line
with brief notes on its construction, equipment and operation

Compiled by Noel Walley

PART 2 – FROM 1935

under new ownership

The Great Orme Tramway ran a successful 1934 season and was sold in December 1934 to a syndicate of former shareholders for £5,600. The six new owners formed a private limited company called Great Orme Railway Ltd to which they transferred their holdings, and under which name the tramway was in future operated.

March 30th 1935 – A change of name from ‘Great Orme Tramways’ to ‘Great Orme Railway’ and a new automatic brake on the lower section, but the livery was still royal blue and Mr Henry Sutcliffe continued as Manager. Nothing else changed save that an Act of Parliament (The Great Orme Tramways Act of 1936) was needed to regularise the increased fares that had been in operation since 1918.

Llandudno U.D.C., who were already operating their own tourist charabancs to St. Tudno’s and round the Orme on Sundays, granted the new owners permission to operate trams on Sundays for the first time. The writer recalls travelling to the halfway station on a Sunday morning and walking via the Pink Farm Café (where refreshments could be obtained) to attend Sunday morning open-air service in Saint Tudno’s Churchyard at 11 o’clock.  Seasonal tramway operations continued without interruption throughout the 1939-45 war, but with the hotel in RAF hands as a wartime radar station, the golf course was closed never to re-open. The future looked secure and in October 1945, Mr C. Rhodes was appointed Manager in succession to Mr Sutcliffe.

Two years later, in 1947, Llandudno U.D.C. chose to exercise its option under the Act of 1898 and gave six months notice of their intention to buy the line. The Council had intended to take this action in 1940 but the outbreak of war on September 3rd 1939 put their ambitions on hold. The company, calculating the sale price on the total capital outlay at the time of construction of £19,464 plus interest from that date, arrived at a price of £26,000. The local authority claimed the price should be based on the sum of £6,970 paid by Great Orme Railway Ltd in 1935. Mr Justice Jenkins in the High Court ruled in favour of Llandudno U.D.C., which resulted in the council paying around £8,500 after interest.

January 1st 1949 – Ownership passed to Llandudno U.D.C., Mr Rhodes remained in post as Manager and the line continued to be called Great Orme Railway. The private limited company Great Orme Railway Ltd closed its books in 1950 with a final distribution to shareholders of £1-13s-9d for each £1 share.

1949 – The 29 bedroom Hotel and the Golf Course were rehabilitated following the RAF withdrawal and offered for sale as the ‘Great Orme International Sporting and Holiday Centre’ but it failed to find a buyer. Later the golf course was sold to local farmer Howell Jones and returned to sheep farming.  The hotel finally sold for £10,000 to Randolph Turpin who with partners hoped to develop similar sporting holidays.  This venture also failed and following Turpin’s bankruptcy, the building was bought by Llandudno U.D.C.

Municipal operation of the line commenced at Easter 1949 with an immediate fare increase from one shilling to 1s.6d. return, granted by the Minister of Transport under the Defence Regulations. The single fares for residents, from the Victoria Station to Black Gate and First Station remained at one penny and two pence respectively – just as they had always been.  In 1949, the passenger receipts totalled £9,888, which was more than the council had paid for the line, but in the post war years costs had rocketed. An increase in fares to 2s.0d. return was granted for the 1955 season under the Transport Charges (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act of 1954.

For the 1951 season, Llandudno U.D.C, which already operated the Marine Drive Tours, introduced a bus service via Tyn y Coed to Saint Tudno’s Church and this service continued during the winter months as far as the Tyn y Coed estate. This convenient year-round bus service had a significant effect on local passenger traffic on the tramway, although local passengers continued to be carried and school children have often used the tramway as part of their homeward return journey during the tramway operating season.

By 1956, the steam winding gear was showing its age and the main boiler was nearing the end of its operational life. Additionally, conversion to electric haulage promised significant savings in running costs (£1,400 or approx 10% of current costs) and a contract was signed with the English Electric Company in 1956. The steam plant was shut down for the last time in October 1957 and electrical haulage started at Easter 1958. An electricity sub-station was built and English Electric supplied the control gear and winding machines. The upper section uses a ⅞ inch diameter cable and is powered by a 75 h.p. electric motor. The much steeper lower section uses a 1¼ inch cable and a 125 h.p. electric motor. Trams on the upper section run at 7 m.p.h. with a journey time of 4½ minutes and those on the lower section at 5 m.p.h. with a journey time of 5½ minutes.

In 1962/63 the cars were repainted in a lighter blue livery with black lining but still lettered ‘GREAT ORME RAILWAY’.

In 1963 there was a minor collision involving a motorcar at the crossing with Ty Gwyn Road at Black Gate. Users of this five way road junction include many residents; delivery vehicles and the regular bus service to Tyn y Coed and St. Tudno’s, as well as tourists travelling by car to locations on the Great Orme.

Fares were held at 2/- return until 1965 when the fare became 2s. 6d., only to rise the next year to 3/-. In the period of rapid inflation during the late 1960’s, and throughout the 1970’s and later, frequent fare increases occurred.

In 1965 a brick built passenger shelter was provided at the summit station. This was the first time that accommodation had been provided for passengers waiting at the summit.

In August 1966 a slight mishap occurred when the rear bogie of a summit bound car took the wrong line at the passing loop causing the two cars to collide. There were no injuries and repairs took only a few days.

In 1967 the cars were reverted to the darker royal blue livery but with the upper parts painted in cream but still lettered ‘GREAT ORME RAILWAY’.

In 1968 Mr Rhodes retired and the tramway management was transferred to Eric Woodyatt, manager of Llandudno U.D.C. road transport services, which department already included the tourist motor coaches that the council had operated for many years. These coaches formed a transport pool that was available to substitute for the trams at quite short notice and at low cost in the event of any breakdown that might occur leaving tramway passengers stranded at the Summit or halfway station.

In 1969 the tramway faced serious competition from the newly constructed and privately owned Great Orme Cabin lift offering a nine minute ride in 42 four-seater cabins on a 10,750 ft continuous steel cable supported by nine pylons in a straight line from Camera Hill above the Happy Valley to the Summit (just east of the hotel).

On Tuesday July 31st 1972, Llandudno celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the line with the latest in commemorative trends, a special pictorial postage stamp cancellation. On the previous day a large gathering had marked the end of the first 70 years with participants in Edwardian dress. A special guest was Mr E. Johnson as representative of Messrs R. White and Sons of Liverpool. who had supplied the original tramway equipment.

In 1973 the Great Orme Railway, became a member of the ‘Great Little Trains of Wales’ Joint Marketing Panel formed to promote the tourist railways of the Principality.

On April 1st 1974 the nationwide local government reorganisation saw Llandudno U.D.C. absorbed into the newly formed Aberconwy Borough Council, which continued the operation of the line as part of its Tourism & Amenities Department. Maintenance was seen to improve under the new council and especially in the fitting of nylon bushes to the cable pulleys on the lower section, resulting in quieter low-maintenance operation.

In 1977 the tramway celebrated its 75th anniversary and to mark the event the cars were repainted in bright Trafalgar blue under a job creation scheme with paint donated by DULUX and the name of the line was changed at the suggestion of tramway enthusiasts to ‘GREAT ORME TRAMWAY’ in old style lettering. The undertaking was, of course originally called ‘The Great Orme Tramways Company’ and early photographs show the name ‘Great Orme Tramways’ in full.

During the winter 1977/78 lower section track repairs costing £38,000 prevented the operation of an Easter Service.

On July 31st 1982 the 80th anniversary was marked by the attendance of the Mayor and the Town Band. Passenger numbers had been declining steadily since the mid 1970’s and in the early 1980’s as numbers continued to fall the operation ran at a loss for several years. At that time the tramway was not operating on Saturdays.

On September 27th 1982 car No. 7 whilst standing at the summit was blown over onto its side by strong winds. The service was disrupted for several days.

In 1987 the council advertised the tramway for sale or for lease. Significant interest was expressed by several prospective operators including a firm called Bolton Trams Ltd (a modern restorer of old trams) who became the preferred bidder for a 21 year lease at a modest annual rent. That company was set to take over the operation in 1988 when it was discovered that the local authority had no legal powers to lease the tramway to another operator.

In 1989, following a very successful year with a profit of £35,000, the Council reversed its policy and decided to continue local operation along with the Council’s bus and tourist motor coach services under Grŵp Aberconwy, its own direct services organisation. Successive managers under Llandudno U.D.C. and later Grŵp Aberconwy were Bill Langham, Derek Roberts and from 1991 to 1997 Mrs Rosemary Sutton with the title of Marketing Assistant.

On March 6th 1990, faced with major expenditure on deferred maintenance, and revised proposals from Bolton Trams Ltd, the Council had hard decisions to make but chose to continue with the tramway under its own management.

On April 1st 1990 the Aberconwy Borough Council’s direct services organisation became known as Grŵp Aberconwy and, following the threat of closure of the upper section on safety grounds, the Great Orme Tramway embarked on a major investment plan initially of £255,000 over 3 years for works necessary to meet the requirements of the Railways Inspectorate and further expenditure of up to £145,000 over five years to in respect of passenger amenities.  The Grŵp Aberconwy Director Mr Ian Trevette and his Transport Manager Mr Derek Roberts had overall responsibility for Tramway management and operation. Thus the Council committed significant sums to meet the costs of deferred maintenance and on June 28th 1990 following the consolidation of the embankment and relaying of the upper section with new heavier rail (except on the passing loop) and new sleepers by W. Hocking & Co. Ltd of Cardiff and the provision of new haulage cables, the upper section re-opened for a very successful 1990 season.

Mrs Rosemary Sutton, Grŵp Aberconwy Marketing Assistant embarked in 1990 on a marketing publicity campaign producing new posters and brochures and undertaking a marketing survey. 1990 was seen as a year of preparation for a re-launch in 1991 with a smarter and brighter image – new blue and gold livery on the tramcars.  Staff were issued with smart new blue and gold uniforms to a traditional early 1900’s tramway uniform design. Improved station facilities and colour schemes were put in hand – including a tea garden at the Victoria Terminus. New bargain family tickets and group discounts were introduced. Attractive tickets were designed and introduced as a free souvenir as well as the normal passenger control function. This new image was backed up with bold new publicity material.

In 1990/91 the overhead copper wire, used for telegraph communication with the winding house was heavily worn and in need of replacement and the decision was taken to replace the telegraph system with a radio telephone installation. The trolley system had its disadvantages, if the trolley, for any reason, became detached from the wire, communication was instantly lost. It had been necessary always to have a second crewmember, who travelled on the rear platform to watch the trolley and, in event of disconnection, restore the connection quickly. Introduction of radio control (using a system, designed by Airlink of Llandudno, which incorporated a ‘dead-mans’ pedal) permitted the single-manning of the cars.  The operation of tramcars with open unmanned rear balconies was not, however, considered safe and the fitting of waist height doors became necessary. These were designed, made and fitted by another local company Sutton Engineering and the entire installation met with the full approval of the Ministry of Transport.

October 30th 1991 – A press release announced that a tramcar was to be taken off the Great Orme at 10 am that day. This was the first time in the history of the line that a bogie tramcar (Car No 7, from the upper section) had been removed from the tramway. The operation involved a large mobile crane and a low-loader to take the tram to Grŵp Aberconwy’s Llandudno workshops – it was returned in April.

The latest passenger car livery change came in 1991 (lower section) and 1992 (upper section) when, following major maintenance work, the cars were painted in a slightly darker ultramarine bodywork, cream round the window openings, with a very elaborate golden cream lining with reversed rounded corners and attractive insignia.  The cars were given names on the cant rail calling to mind the ships of the Liverpool & North Wales Steam Ship Co., which of course were also the names of local North Wales saints.  No. 4 St Tudno, No. 5 St Silio, No. 6 St Seiriol and No. 7 St. Trillo. Traditional style drivers’ uniforms were also introduced.

In February 1992, Mrs Rosemary Sutton wrote to all the leading postcard makers drawing their attention to tramway’s new livery and bright new image and most responded by producing new postcards for the anniversary season.

From the start of the 1992 season, traffic lights at the Black Gate five-road junction were equipped with special signals for the tramway and linked to sensors under the track operated by transponders fitted to the tramway cars.

On Friday July 31st 1992, the 90th anniversary of the opening of the tramway was celebrated with the co-operation of the Museum of Fare Collection, which is a section of the Museum of Transport, Boyle Street, Manchester.  Six uniformed volunteers from the Museum assisted the lower section drivers by issuing souvenir tickets punched by heritage ticket machines from the museum’s collection. The six volunteers each signed an undertaking to be bound by the operating instructions for the event. The lower section operated from 10 am to 9 pm and during the evening the fine new tramway station building and an extended visitor centre at the Summit was officially opened by Mrs Eurwen Jones, Deputy Mayor of Aberconwy. The Llandudno Town Band played ‘Congratulations’.

The 90th anniversary celebrations were further marked by the publication of the tramway’s first ever official guide book. “Great Orme Tramway” written by Rosemary Sutton and published by Grŵp Aberconwy.

Grŵp Aberconwy were perhaps disappointed with the 1992 anniversary year traffic results (at only 126,000, 1992 was 15,000 down on the 141,000 passengers of 1991).  But 1992 was in fact the year of the opening of the Conwy Estuary Tunnel, which gave a boost to tourism in north-west Wales at the expense of north-east Wales.

June 10th 1993 brought exceedingly heavy rain that caused major flooding over a wide area. Flooding on the Orme was extensive and much of the flood water was channelled down the tramway, down Old Road and through the Victoria Station.  W. Hocking & Co. Ltd of Cardiff returned to help reinstate the damaged track and the tramway was able to re-open on July 2nd.

In 1996, following further local government reorganisation throughout the country, ownership passed to the newly formed Conwy County Council.

April 30th 1998 – A minor breakdown late in the day on the upper section required the hiring of a bus to bring passengers from the summit. The bus driver, wrongly believing that the entire tramway had closed, took the direct route to Victoria station down the very narrow Old Road. The bus met an oncoming tram at Tabor Hill, the steepest part of the line. Its brakes failed to stop the bus in time and it collided with the tram on the 1 in 4 gradient.

April 30th 2000 – An accident, which injured 17 people, occurred when two trams, each carrying 40 passengers, collided on the upper section owing to a facing points failure. Following this incident, the upper tramway remained closed for repairs to be carried out and for a report and decision from the Inspector from the Government Health and Safety Inspectorate.

August 14th 2000 – Following a breakdown, the lower section was also closed. Both sections were to remain closed for a further year pending the design and installation of a new control system for the tramway. Doppelmayr Tramways of Switzerland in conjunction with Briton Engineering, the U.K. manufacturer of ski lifts, supplied and installed a state-of-the-art communication (remote control and remote supervision) system incorporating a trackside inductive loop cable. The new system, amongst other things, shows the winding engineer the exact location of each tram. Other work completed during this period of closure included the complete mechanical refurbishment of each of the four 100-year-old tramcars (at a total cost in excess of £25,000 each) and the construction of the fine new winding house and station buildings.

September 20th 2001 – The new Halfway Station buildings were opened.

July 31st 2002 – Celebrating the Centenary of the Original first tram on that date 100 years earlier, over 1,000 passengers joined 100 invited guests on that day alone ‘Riding the T’ as modern publicity puts it! The Llandudno Town Band was in attendance as it had been 100 years earlier and played the ‘National Anthem’ just as it had previously done.  Perhaps the greatest difference, the nine-penny return fare of 1902 had become £3.95. The Centenary Celebrations were organised on behalf of the Conwy County Borough Council by the Manchester based Unit Communications Group who have been masterminding the publicity of the Tramway since its reopening in 2001 with a modern approach to the presentation of an unique heritage transport experience that additionally leads to a wide range of pleasurable tourist and educational activities.

2002 – The fare of £3.95 (compared with 9d in 1902) is remarkably good value when one considers that the tramway that in 1902 cost less than £20,000 to build, including £4,000 promotional and parliamentary expenses, is now the subject of major restoration work costing more than £4,000,000 (of which £1,000,000 was given by the Heritage Lottery Fund in 1999 and a further £1,000,000 was awarded by the European Union in AD 2000). This includes the recent construction of the new winding house and the new halfway station building, the installation of the modern control gear, the refurbishment of the tramcars, and the lower section track renewals (over several winters and in progress during January 2003, January 2004 and also January 2005) and finally an extension of the Victoria Station facilities planned for completion by 2006.

2005 – The final lengths of lower section track renewals, carried out over three winters, were completed in time for the 2005 season reopening in April. The lower section rails are now set in concrete rather than on buried longitudinal wooden sleepers.

The above notes have been compiled from many sources over a lifetime of interest in the line and the writer is most grateful for all the advice he has received.

For the Great Orme Tramway Centenary, Johanna Firbank prepared a fine popular guide, published by Conwy County Borough Council. It contains considerable background information, especially regarding current and former staff and the current (and highly technical) method of operation of this most unusual line. Indeed she gives us a certain insight into the technical nature of current operations to the highest safety standards when she tells us “Your tram driver will insert a two-pin prong on his wrist band into the tram’s controls when he receives the signal to move from Halfway Station.”  This excellently produced popular work joins the Tramway’s first official guide produced in 1992 by Mrs Rosemary Sutton and the valuable and detailed research into the history and operation of the line during its first sixty or so years and published in the ‘Great Orme Railway’ by R.C. Anderson, A.M.Inst.T. (later editions of Mr. R.C. Anderson’s booklet were titled ‘Great Orme Tramway’).  The Great Orme Tramway also featured in Narrow Gauge Railways of North Caernarvonshire by James I.C. Boyd that was published by the Oakwood Press in 1986.   These were joined in 2003 by a further well illustrated history ‘The Great Orme Tramway – Over a Century of Service” by Keith Turner published by Gwasag Carreg Gwalch, Llanwrst.

There is one truly remarkable fact about this tramway which makes it absolutely unique.  The Great Orme Tramway has operated a passenger service almost every summer, for over a hundred years, using the same four carriages with a total passenger capacity of just 192 seats.

Noel Walley,  Revised August 2005.

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