Irish Railway Record Society
The Giant's Causeway and The Bessbrook & Newry
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
sum up, the GCT was the first electric railway in the world to:
a regular public service between two towns
a side conductor rail
water power to generate its electric power supply.
was almost certainly the first British railway to include the use of
electricity as a source of power in its Act of Parliament.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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
B&NT continued to operate with little change until it closed on Saturday
10 January 1948.
sum, up the writer believes that the B&NT was the world's first electric
a form of pantograph to collect power from a single overhead conductor wire
goods vehicles that could run on both roads and rails and thus avoid the need
to tranship goods
an automatic level-crossing operated by the passage of the vehicle
bogie vehicles and to use coupling rods to couple the wheelsets of power
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.
OF ELECTRIC TRACTION 1835 TO 1885.
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.
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.
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.
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 &
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Giant's Causeway line opened in 1883 as did Volk's little two-rail line at
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.
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
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.
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.
ELECTRIC RAILWAYS AND TRAMWAYS UP TO OPENING OF B&NT IN 1885
= 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.
= 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
= 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.
= centre rail; Demo = demonstration, Exhib. = exhibition, R.rails = running
rails, S.rail = side rail; t.way = tramway
electric railway to carry passengers
electric railway to provide a daily public service
use of slotted tubes
use of the troller system
electric industrial railway
use of the troller system in the USA
use of the conduit system
commercial public electric tramway
the time of opening, the world’s longest electric railway
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:
Linsley, 7, High Ridge Rd., Hemel Hempstead, Herts., HP3 OAG
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
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
must also thank my wife and our friend Sheila Miller for checking the text and
suggesting improvements in style and punctuation.
thanks are due to the following for their help in commenting on or providing
Pollard, C. Friel, E. McKee, D. Fitzgerald, H. Beaumont, D. Coakham.
Folk & Transport Museum
of the Institute of Civil Engineers,
paper 2266 and subsequent discussion.
Giant's Causeway Tramway,
J.H.McGuigan, Oakwood Press. 1964.
Bessbrook & Newry Tramway,
A. T. Newham, Oakwood Press 1979.
of Tramways from Horse to Rapid Transit,
R.J. Buckley, David & Charles, 1975.
& Electric Railways in the 19th Cent. Cassier's
Electric Railway Number 1899. reprint by Adam Gordon, 1992.
of Baltimore's Streetcars
M.R. Farrell, Greenberg Publishing, 1992.
of Water Power in Ulster,
R.D. Gribbon, David & Charles 1969.
May 1936, article on GCT by Charles E. Lee.
May 1940, article on B&NT by H. Fayle.
of Electric Railroading,
J.F. Stevens, Electric Railroaders Association. 1991.
de La Traction Electrique,
Vol. 1, Origins up to 1940, La Vie du Rail, 1980
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.
Transport Museum of Ireland, Howth Castle, Co. Dublin, is restoring GCT car No.9
Copyright © 2012 by Irish Railway Record Society Ltd.