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The Giant's Causeway and The Bessbrook & Newry Tramways

ROBIN LINSLEY

I have always thought that the importance of these two electric tramways in Ulster has been greatly underrated and the purpose of this article is to identify the features which made them world leaders in the history of electric railways. If Berlin and America were, in their time, the cradle of electric railways, Ulster was the kindergarten.

This article is based on a study of electric railways and experimental lines built between 1879 and 1885. Appendix A describes the evolution of electric traction from 1835 to 1885. Appendix B summarises the basic details of 30 systems of the 61 which the Author has been able to trace, so that the unique features of the Giant's Causeway Tramway (GCT) and the Bessbrook & Newry Tramway (B&NT) can be seen in the context of the other electric railways built during the period. Though details of some the lines traced are sparse, it is not thought that any additional information about them will weaken the case made for the two Ulster lines. Appendix C lists sources consulted and acknowledgements.

The Giant's Causeway Tramway (GCT) was almost certainly the world's first electric railway to provide a daily public service between two towns when it began regular electric service on Monday 5 November 1883. It was also the first electric railway to carry goods traffic, and the first British railway to include the use of electric power in its Parliamentary Bill. It was also the first commercially successful line to obtain its electric current from an external source of supply remote from the car.

The GCT received the Royal Assent to its Bill on 28 August 1880 to build a line between Portrush and Bushmills, a distance of six miles. However, the onward line from Bushmills to The Causeway could not be built owing to the opposition of a local landowner. A planned line from Bushmills to Dervock on the narrow gauge line from Ballymoney to Ballycastle was also dropped.

Before the GCT's Parliamentary Bill, the only electric railway to have operated successfully was the ‘demonstration' line at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition in 1879. The engineer of the line was Werner Von Siemens. A four-wheel locomotive hauled three cars each seating six people round a circular track 300 metres in diameter. The line was metre gauge and the voltage was 150, fed to the locomotive by a centre third rail. The line operated for three months and carried 80,000 passengers.

To propose building an electric railway six miles long by the side of a public road between the towns of Portrush and Bushmills only a year later was an extraordinarily bold step by the Traill brothers, who were the driving force behind the GCT. By contrast, the next electric railway opened by Siemens in 1881 was a metre gauge line 1.5 miles long linking Lichterfelde station in the Berlin suburbs with a Cadet School using the track bed of a disused railway; the voltage being 180 and fed by the two running rails to tramcars. Though an experimental line, a limited daily public service was provided.

Returning to the GCT, the first sod was cut on Wednesday 21 September 1881, Siemens was the engineer and Dr Edward Hopkinson his resident engineer and representative. Initially, the intention was to use the two-rail system for current supply. A Siemens dynamo driven by a 25hp agricultural stationary steam engine in the Portrush depot was used to provide power for these trials. The two-rail system was found to be unworkable, and the use of a side conductor rail was found to be more satisfactory. The conductor rail was mounted on wooden posts and was 17" above track level and 22" from the running rail, placed between the running rail and the roadside wall. The GCT was for most of its length a road-side tramway. At roadside gates, the conductor rail was interrupted, and the cars had brushes mounted at each end of the car to bridge the gap. A more serious drawback to the use of a side conductor rail was that it was quite unsuitable for the street sections of the tramway. Hence two steam tram locomotives had to be ordered to haul the trams through the streets of Portrush and Bushmills. This was the first use of the side conductor system to supply power to an electric railway, a system which in its final form was used on electric railways in many parts of the world.

Another first was the use of a hydro-electric power station to provide the electric power. The power station was at Walkmills, about 3/4 mile from Bushmills, using the 26ft Salmon Leap fall of the River Bush to drive two 45hp turbines which in turn drove a Siemens dynamo generating electric power at 250-300 Volts. Because of legal problems over the water supply, work could not start on the construction of the power station until March 1883; the station was completed in September 1883.

Construction of the tramway, including a mixed- gauge section on the Belfast & Northern Counties Railway's Portrush Harbour branch, was completed by December 1882. The inspection of the line by the Board of Trade's Inspecting Officer took place on Friday 12 January 1883 and included a short trip by electric car. The public opening was on Monday 29 January 1883, using the steam tram locomotives.

The official opening of the line by Earl Spencer, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, using electric traction took place on Friday 28 September 1883; however, due to further problems the regular public service electrical operation did not start until Monday 5 November 1883. The use of the steam locomotives continued, albeit at a decreasing level, until by 1914 only about 5% of the total mileage was steam-worked. However, the occasional use of the tram engines continued until 1926.

The tramway finally fulfilled its name when, after another Parliamentary Act in 1885, it was extended from Bushmills to the Giant's Causeway on Friday 1 July 1887, bringing the total length of the line to exactly eight miles. Goods traffic ceased to be carried in 1893. Following the electrocution in 1895 of a cyclist who fell onto the side conductor rail, an overhead wire system was installed and opened on the Wednesday 26 July 1899. From October 1925 until 1940, the tramway closed during the winter, but during the 1939-45 war a winter service resumed. Sadly, the GCT failed to open again after the end of the summer season on the Friday 30 September 1949.

To sum up, the GCT was the first electric railway in the world to:

·   provide a regular public service between two towns

·   carry goods

·   use a side conductor rail

·   use water power to generate its electric power supply.

It was almost certainly the first British railway to include the use of electricity as a source of power in its Act of Parliament.

The Bessbrook and Newry Tramway (B&NT) was the first public electric railway, as far as I can discover, to use a single overhead conductor wire to supply electric power. It was also the first electric line to use automatic crossing gates and to carry goods traffic in vehicles able to run either on rails or roads and thus avoid the need for transhipment. The B&NT was also the first electric railway to use bogie vehicles and the first to use coupling rods, which served to couple the wheelsets of the power bogies on its first two power cars.

The B&NT was basically a line built to facilitate the movement of goods and workers between the Bessbrook Spinning Mills and the port of Newry, a distance of some three miles. When it was first approved by a Provisional Order in 1881, electric traction had not been considered. However, Mr. H Barcroft, a director of the Bessbrook Spinning Mills, suggested to Dr Edward Hopkinson that electric traction could be employed, using a hydro-electric station to supply the power. Dr Hopkinson was later Managing Director of Mather & Platt Ltd, the well-known electrical engineers of Salford, Lancashire. Though the first B&NT sod was cut on Thursday 8 September 1883, it was not until July 1884 that a contract was given to Dr Hopkinson to supply the equipment to electrify the line, most of which was made by Mather & Platt. The contract also called for a number of conditions to be met when the line became operational, and when the conditions had been met, the tramway company would purchase the equipment. The conditions were met and the purchase took place in April 1886. The gauge of the line was 3ft, electric power at 250 Volts was supplied to a centre conductor rail from a hydro- electric power station at Millvale on the Camlough stream, and motive power was provided by two power cars, no doubt based on Giant's Causeway experience.

The Board of Trade (BoT) inspection took place on the 10 September 1885; but permission to open the line was withheld until level crossing gates had been provided at a number of crossings. Public traffic commenced on Thursday 1 October 1885.

The Bessbrook & Newry Tramway was the first electric railway, and possibly the first railway of any kind in the world, to use goods vehicles which could be used equally well on road or rail. The goods vehicles were basically horse-drawn carts, but they could run on the railway because outside the running rails was another set of rails at a slightly lower level, so that the running rails acted as check rails to the wheels of the carts or wagons to keep them on the subsidiary rails. Goods vehicles ran behind the power cars. At each of the line's two terminals a siding was provided to run the wagons on or off the rails. When the wagons ran on the roads, shafts were provided to enable a horse to pull them. When travelling on the tramway, the shafts were removed and the swivelling front axle was secured. This system allowed goods to be loaded in the mill and taken to the dockside and vice versa without transhipment. In later years tractors were used as well as horses.

At Millvale the tramway crossed the main road at an oblique angle. Originally the Company did not intend to provide crossing gates. However, the BoT Inspecting Officer insisted that gates must be provided and that they be closed to the tramway except on the approach of a tram. Mr Barcroft devised a hydraulic system that allowed the trams to open and close the crossing gates automatically and thus avoid the need for a crossing keeper. As a tram approached the crossing gates, it struck a lever which operated the gate opening mechanism. When the tram had crossed the road it operated another lever which closed the gates behind it. This was the first use of an automatic level crossing on any electric railway in the world, possibly also on any railway, whether electrified or not.

Another feature of Millvale level crossing was the power supply for the trams. The width of the crossing was 150ft and the use of the centre third rail for current supply was not possible. To bridge the gap, two copper wires were provided rather like a pair of scissors so that each provided power for half the width of the crossing, and they were suspended from cross bars mounted on posts at each side of the crossing. The wires were a minimum height from road level of 15ft. To collect the current, the tramcars were equipped with a roof-mounted framework of iron bars, the top bar rubbing on the underside of the copper wire to collect the current. As far as the writer is aware, this is the first use of a single overhead wire to supply current to an electric train for collection by a form of pantograph. The system was devised by Dr John Hopkinson, brother of Dr Edward Hopkinson, and it has since been used all over the world.

For the period between 1879 and 1885, the writer has assembled details of some 61 other electric railways (Appendix B), and he has found only two other lines which used a single overhead electric conductor. Both opened in 1885. One, a mile long, was in Toronto in Canada and linked a railway station to an exhibition site. The tramcars were almost certainly the first to use a 'trolley pole' with a wheel to collect power from an overhead wire. The other line was in Baltimore, USA where the Hampden line was the second electric railway in America to operate a regular passenger service. The line was a street tramway using a centre third rail laid along the street or road side. The tramcars were drawn by small locomotives. At street intersections, an overhead conductor of gas piping was used to bridge the gap, and a pole carrying a brush mounted on the roof of the locomotive collected the current. This system was moderately successful, but was later replaced by the overhead trolley system.

The B&NT continued to operate with little change until it closed on Saturday 10 January 1948.

To sum, up the writer believes that the B&NT was the world's first electric railway to:

·   use a form of pantograph to collect power from a single overhead conductor wire

·   use goods vehicles that could run on both roads and rails and thus avoid the need to tranship goods

·   use an automatic level-crossing operated by the passage of the vehicle

·   use bogie vehicles and to use coupling rods to couple the wheelsets of power bogies.

I hope readers will have found this article of interest. The writer would be pleased to receive any comments or suggestions for additional research which would add further weight to the information in the article.

 
APPENDIX A

EVOLUTION OF ELECTRIC TRACTION 1835 TO 1885.

In 1835, although electricity and batteries and motors had all been invented, the battery was the only source from which electrical energy could be obtained for driving motors. The cost of the battery was very high and the cost of the chemicals it used was sixteen times that of the coal needed to produce the same amount of energy with a steam engine.

The electric traction story starts in 1835, when Thomas Davenport, the village blacksmith in Brandon, Vermont, USA, built a small model car driven by electric motors with current supplied by batteries carried on the car, which ran on a small circular railway.

Then in 1842 Robert Davidson, of Aberdeen, Scotland, demonstrated his battery-driven electric locomotive called 'Galvani' on a short stretch of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway, probably only a quarter or half a mile, but it is not recorded which end of this 45 mile route was involved, nor whether the gauge was 4’81/2“ or smaller. His locomotive had four pairs of electro-magnets, weighed five tons, with batteries carried on the car, and reached a speed of 4 mph. A surviving poster from 1844 announced and illustrated a display of Robert Davidson's 'Exhibition of Electro-Magnetism as a moving power', arranged under the patronage of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London. The poster stated that admission was one shilling, and a locomotive engine was carrying passengers on a circular railway.

The illustration shows 'Galvani' pulling a four-wheel passenger car with six rows of transverse seats and a roof on top. As this was on a circular track inside a hall, it must surely have been narrow gauge, which suggests that the 1842 Scottish demonstration probably was also narrow gauge, despite always being quoted as on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway.

The idea of using rails for carrying current was patented in 1840 in England by Henry Pincus, but nothing was constructed. In 1847 Professor Moses Fanner operated a small experimental model electric car which carried two passengers at Dover, USA; Lilley & Cotton also demonstrated a model of the two-rail system at Pittsburgh. In 1850-51, helped by Thomas Hall, Fanner exhibited a model railroad at Boston, USA, on which a car ran back and forth and automatically reversed its direction at each end of the track. This is the first recorded instance of use of the rails to carry the current from stationary batteries to the motor on the car. It also had the motor running at high speed and geared down to a lower speed on the car axle, which allowed a smaller and cheaper motor to be used. But the very expensive as well as heavy batteries led to failure, and the dynamo had not yet been invented.

In 1850, Professor Charles Page, of Washington DC, USA, made an electrical locomotive which had a reciprocating motor, with two solenoids used to pull back and forth an iron piston rod, which was joined to a flywheel by a connecting rod and crank; his battery locomotive was claimed to have reached 19 mph. He tried several other similar motors, which gave good speed and power, but then abandoned his experiments because the battery was so heavy and expensive. In 1855 Swear patented the overhead wire system in England, but no major developments are then recorded for more than a dozen years.

Simple basic dynamos had existed earlier, but a dynamo suitable for electric traction was not invented until 1864. Even then nobody realised until many years later that it would be far more economical for railway use than the prohibitively expensive battery. Apparently electric traction progress ceased until 1875, when George Green, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA, used a motor with an iron bobbin armature on which was wound a coil of fine wire joined to a two-part commutator, this reversing the current in the armature twice in each revolution. His dynamo was in a fixed site on land, and the current was taken to the motor on the car by an overhead line, using the track as a return.

In 1879 Stephen Field, in America, made an improved traction motor, but he was handicapped by lack of money and by the necessity to buy a dynamo from Europe as there were none suitable in the USA. Power for most early dynamos was usually supplied by a gas engine. In 1879, Siemens & Halske in Germany exhibited at the Berlin Trades Exhibition, the first electric railway on a practical scale. This railway is described in greater detail in the main article.

In 1880, Egger demonstrated a model electric railway in which current came to the motors by one running rail and returned through the other, but this system was impractical because it would have given a shock to a horse or a man if they touched both rails at once. In 1880, Edison made various improvements which led the way for at least 31 experimental installations in 1880-85.

Siemens now took the lead in developing electric railway traction. He pursued various experiments and improvements. He was the first to suggest placing the armature of the motor directly onto the axle of the locomotive or car instead of separately inside the bodywork. On Thursday 12 May 1881, he opened the world's first commercial electric tramway to offer a public daily service as distinct from previous exhibition and trial systems. This was a line from Lichterfelde station to the Cadet School in the suburbs of Berlin. This line is described in greater detail in the main article. Siemens also exhibited an electric tramway at the Paris Exhibition in 1881, this collecting its power from two hollow slotted copper tubes mounted overhead and to the side of the line. The vehicle was an open-top double-deck car fitted with electric motors. Flexible cables linked the sliding shuttles in the tubes to the car, which had knifeboard seating similar to the horse trams of the time. At the Crystal Palace in London between 1881 and 1883, Siemens demonstrated, at several exhibitions, a small electric car which offered short rides to the public.

In 1882, several developments took place, Henry Binko exhibited a line with a two-rail current supply at the Crystal Palace; it ran until 1884 when it was transferred to Edinburgh and exhibited as Binko's International Electric Railway. Amongst its passengers were the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister.

Dr Finney invented the trolleybus, using two parallel overhead wires, positive and negative, to supply power to a road vehicle. Ayrton designed a battery tram which ran at Leytonstone in Essex.

Meanwhile demonstration railroads were built in 1883 for the Chicago Railway Exposition under patents of Edison and Field, and also by C J Van Depoele. Leo Daft built a third-rail electric locomotive for the Saratoga & Mt McGregor Railroad. Reckenzaum conducted trials in London with a horse tram equipped with accumulators and a Siemens dynamo acting as a motor.

The Giant's Causeway line opened in 1883 as did Volk's little two-rail line at Brighton.

In 1884, pioneers Daft, Depoele, and Edison continued their experiments. In July 1884 Bentley & Knight, in Cleveland, Ohio, opened a slotted conduit railroad, with a wooden conduit between the rails and a motor hung from the car body midway between the two axles. A conduit line was also demonstrated by Van Depoele at the 1884 Toronto Exhibition.

In 1885, there were several developments. In Kansas City, J C Henry introduced an overhead line system which had a limited success. In this system there were two trolley wires on which ran a small four-wheel carriage ran called a 'troller'. A flexible cable delivered the power from the troller to the car. In Baltimore, Leo Daft installed a centre third rail system on the Hampden tram route, using small electric locos to tow a conventional horse car. At street intersections, an overhead conductor consisting of gas pipe was used and contact was made by a brush mounted on a pole on the locomotive roof. Van Depoele introduced an overhead system in Toronto, Canada, using a trolley pole to make contact on the underside of the wire; this became an almost universal system.

Many other things happened in 1885. The 'series' system was demonstrated, in which conductors were so sectioned that all the cars on one route were in series, an electric locomotive ran on the Ninth Avenue Elevated line in New York. Van Depoele built overhead trolley tramways at South Bend, Indiana, and also at Minneapolis, USA, whilst at the end of the year Sprague built for the 34th Street branch of the New York Elevated Railroad, the first single-gear motors centred on the axle and flexibly suspended from the truck frame; these latter were the originals of the modem type of electric railway motor. The Bessbrook & Newry tramway opened in September 1885.

In 1885, battery traction was not yet quite obsolete, however, because Julien won a competition for his battery tram at Antwerp in Belgium, and Reckenzaum operated a battery tramcar at Battersea in London, the latter being an eight-wheel bogie car, the first of its kind. In 1885, Blackpool scored a first for Britain, with the opening of an electric conduit tramway, worked by ten open-top double-deck trams, which ran for many years before being converted to the overhead-wire system.

APPENDIX B

EARLY ELECTRIC RAILWAYS AND TRAMWAYS UP TO OPENING OF B&NT IN 1885

NOTES

S.tubes = slotted tubes.  In this system a pair of tubes, one positive, one negative, with slots underneath, were mounted above and to the side of the line. Inside each tube ran a piece of metal like a shuttle; cables then ran from the shuttles through the slots, taking power to the car.

Troller = a system in which a small wheeled trolley ran on a pair of elevated lines or conductors (positive and negative); cables from the troller took the power to the car.

Conduit = a system in which the positive conductor was contained in a trough between and under the rails; a plough or shoe underneath the car collected the power, the running rails providing the return.

C.rail = centre rail; Demo = demonstration, Exhib. = exhibition, R.rails = running rails, S.rail = side rail; t.way = tramway

 

No.

Date

Location

Type

Length

Gauge

Vehicle

Power Supply

Volts

Engineer

First electric railway to carry passengers

1

1879

Berlin

Exhib.

328yds

metre

loco

C.rail

150

Siemens

2

1880

Menlo Park

Trial

0.3 miles

3’ 6”

loco

R.rails

110

Edison

First electric railway to provide a daily public service

3

1881

Berlin

Demo/Public t.way

1.5 miles

metre

car

R.rails

180

Siemens

First use of slotted tubes

4

1881

Paris

Exhib.

500 yds

 

car

S.tubes

 

Siemens

First use of the troller system

5

1882

Berlin

Demo

1.86 miles

 

car

Troller

90

Siemens

6

1882

London

Exhib.

 

1’ 8”

car

R.rails

 

Binko

First electric industrial railway

7

1882

Saukerode, Germany

Industrial line in coal mine

 

 

loco

Troller

90

Siemens

8

1882

Menlo Park

Trial

2.5 miles

3’ 6”

loco

R.rails

150

Edison

First use of the troller system in the USA

9

1882

Pittsburgh

Trial

few yds

 

car

Troller

90

Finney

First use of the conduit system

10

1882

Halifax

 

150 yds

3’ 0”

car

Conduit

 

H. Smith

11

1883

Chicago

Trial

400 yds

 

car

Conductor

 

Depoele

12

1883

Chicago

Exhib.

550 yds

 

loco

Copper strips

 

Edison

13

1883

Brighton

Demo

440 yds

2’ 0”

car

R.rails

 

Volk

14

1883

Chicago

Exhib.

 

 

car

Troller

 

Depoele

First commercial public electric tramway

15

1883

Mödling, Austria

Public t.way

2.75 miles

Metre

car

S.tubes

500

Siemens

At the time of opening, the world’s longest electric railway

16

1883

Giant’s Causeway

Public t.way

6 miles

3’ 0”

car

S.rail

250

Siemens

17

1883

Saratoga

Trial

1.5 miles

3’ 0”

loco

C.rail

40

Daft

18

1883

Cleveland

Trial

1.5 miles

 

car

Conduit

500

Batley

19

1884

Frankfurt

Public t.way

3.75 miles

Metre

car

S.tubes

500

Siemens

20

1884

Manchester

Demo

100 yds

 

car

Conduit

 

H. Smith

21

1884

Cleveland

Public t.way

2 miles

 

car

Conduit

 

Batley

22

1884

Kansas City

Trial

0.5 miles

 

car

Troller

 

Henry

23

1884

Toronto

Exhib.

1.75 miles

 

loco

Conduit

 

Depoele

24

1884

Philadelphia

Exhib.

100 ft.

 

car

Pair

 

Bidwell

25

1884

Coney Island

Exhib.

 

2’ 00”

loco

C.rail

 

Daft

26

1885

New York

Trial

2 miles

4' 81/2

loco

C.rail

 

Daft

27

1885

Baltimore

Public t.way

2 miles

5' 41/2

loco

C.rail

 

Daft

28

1884

Toronto

Exhib.

1 mile

 

car

Trolley

 

Depoele

29

1885

Blackpool

Public t.way

2 miles

 

car

Conduit

 

H. Smith

30

1885

Bessbrook & Newry

Public t.way

3 miles

3’ 0”

car

C.rail

 

Hopkinson

APPENDIX C

Comments and Acknowledgements

The author is well aware that some of his claims on behalf of the two tramways are open to interpretation and he will be pleased to discuss points which readers may wish to raise. Correspondents are invited to write to the author at:

Robin Linsley, 7, High Ridge Rd., Hemel Hempstead, Herts., HP3 OAG

I owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael Pollard and to the late John Gillham for their help in preparing this article. John Gillham provided the text for Appendix A.

Thanks are also due to Roger Hennessey who provided useful information and new sources to research; he also pointed out that the B&NT was the first electric railway to use bogie vehicles and coupling rods. Mark Kennedy provided details of vehicles from the two tramways now preserved at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

I must also thank my wife and our friend Sheila Miller for checking the text and suggesting improvements in style and punctuation.

Illustrations

Many thanks are due to the following for their help in commenting on or providing illustrations:

M Pollard, C. Friel, E. McKee, D. Fitzgerald, H. Beaumont, D. Coakham.

Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

Sources

Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineers, paper 2266 and subsequent discussion.

The Giant's Causeway Tramway, J.H.McGuigan, Oakwood Press. 1964.

The Bessbrook & Newry Tramway, A. T. Newham, Oakwood Press 1979.

History of Tramways from Horse to Rapid Transit, R.J. Buckley, David & Charles, 1975.

Tramways & Electric Railways in the 19th Cent. Cassier's Electric Railway Number 1899. reprint by Adam Gordon, 1992.

History of Baltimore's Streetcars M.R. Farrell, Greenberg Publishing, 1992.

History of Water Power in Ulster, R.D. Gribbon, David & Charles 1969.

Railway Magazine, May 1936, article on GCT by Charles E. Lee.

Railway Magazine, May 1940, article on B&NT by H. Fayle.

Pioneers of Electric Railroading, J.F. Stevens, Electric Railroaders Association. 1991.

Histoire de La Traction Electrique, Vol. 1, Origins up to 1940, La Vie du Rail, 1980

The Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, 53, Bangor Rd., Cultra, Holywood, Co. Down, N.Ireland, BT18 OEU, tel. 028-9042-8428. The Museum has on display, GCT Saloon trailer No.2, "toast rack' trailer No.5 and B&NT power car No.2.

The Transport Museum of Ireland, Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, is restoring GCT car No.9

The remainder of this article appears in IRRS Journal number 177, published February 2012

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Revised: April 09, 2012 .