The Mid Sodor Railway (abbreviated as MSR) was a 2'3" (narrow gauge) railway which operated from 1880 to 1947 and ran for 25 miles. Some 10 miles of the line were rebuilt in 1966/7 for the 15" gauge Arlesdale Railway.
When it was first promoted, the Sodor and Mainland Railway had canvassed support from investors in the Peel Godred area with a promise to build them a branch from Cronk. As the years passed, it seemed increasingly less likely that this project would ever be implemented. By 1870, the people of Peel Godred had come to the conclusion that if they were ever to have a railway, they would have to build it themselves.
A line southward down the valley was favoured at first. This, on the face of it, would have been simplest and cheapest, but it would have involved a junction somewhere with the S&M, and since that Company was then teetering on the verge of bankruptcy most felt that to embark on such a project would be the height of imprudence. It behoved them to look elsewhere. Some six miles to the west, mine owners at Cas-ny-Hawin had combined with others in the Arle Valley to build a tramway to the port town of Arlesburgh.
The Peel Godred Committee approached the mining companies who saw advantages in the Peel Godred connection, and following a series of meetings at Ulfstead Castle chaired by John Arnold Norramby, Earl of Sodor, the Mid Sodor Railway Company was formed in 1872. They bought up the tramway and relaid it to Board of Trade passenger carrying standards, and opened it in 1874. There were four stations, Arlesdale, Marthwaite, Ffarquhar Road and Arlesburgh. A road coach link was provided from Peel Godred to Marthwaite pending the completion of the mountain section. They were thus prudently in a position to earn revenue while the most difficult part of the line was under construction.
The site selected for the summit station at Ulfstead Road stood at 867ft above sea level, 264ft higher than Cas-ny-Hawin, though the two places are, as the crow flies, only 1½ miles apart. Mr C. E. Spooner of the Ffestiniog Railway was consulted, but as he was then much occupied with the North Wales Narrow Gauge Railway, the actual survey was undertaken by his son Edwin, who advised that the railway should climb in a series of loops, thus effectively increasing the distance between the two places to 6 miles, and reducing the gradient to manageable proportions. He advised that the actual length of climb should be for 5 miles at an average of 1 in 100, and that it should be arranged in “steps” with level or nearly level stretches between them. He explained that this would allow ”labouring” locomotives to ease off and blow up steam, or alternatively to gain speed and therefore impetus before tackling the next climb ahead.
Edwin Spooner's survey and estimates were accepted. It necessitated the cutting of four tunnels, and it was here that the company's troubles began. Having cut two tunnels, it was found, inevitably, that their expenses far exceeded estimates and, with two more tunnels in prospect, money was running short. They economised by cutting down clearances to those which had been allowed on the Festiniog Railway, but even so they had little money left for the last few miles to Peel Godred. Fortunately there were no expensive civil engineering problems here, and the only casualty was the fine Central Station they had planned for the town. They had to settle instead for a temporary terminus on cheaper land in the outskirts alongside the Arlesdale Road. A branch line to Ulfstead had also been planned, and this had to be dropped too.
The line was opened throughout in October 1880, with No. 1 The Duke hauling the Opening Train. They had hoped for a June opening following the Board of Trade Inspection; but the Inspector, disturbed by the scanty clearances in the mountain section, refused to allow this even though he could not fault anything else. When, however, it was pointed out by the Spooners that the clearances to which he took exception were, if anything, more generous than those which had been allowed and passed for the Ffestiniog, he paid the line a second visit at the end of September,and reluctantly passed it on condition that similar safety precautions to those enforced on the Ffestiniog should apply, namely that all carriage doors should be locked between Arlesdale and Ulfstead Road. This was no real hardship. On the Upward journey water-stops were needed at both places anyway, while for down trains at Ulfstead Road the routine brake test which common prudence required before starting the descent, also gave ample time for attention to the carriage doors.
Natives soon accepted this door drill as a matter of course, but visitors to the Island were apt to complain at ”being imprisoned without trial”. The Company’s servants however never heeded such complaints. To them, as Sudrians born and bred, tourists were decent enough folk, but like all foreigners, particularly English and Manx, they were probably not quite right in the head.
The bulk of the passenger traffic was between Peel Godred and Arlesburgh, but it was the mines which provided the railway with its chief revenue. Local goods and passenger traffic was slow in developing so, bearing this in mind, the Mid Sodor set itself from the first to encourage visitors and tourist traffic. Proposals made to the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company met with a favourable response. It was arranged that steamers should call at Arlesburgh twice daily in Summer, and twice weekly in Winter. Arlesburgh became the port for Peel Godred, and between 1890 and 1923 the railway enjoyed a period of moderate prosperity.
The normal journey time between Peel Godred and Arlesburgh, a distance of 25 miles, was, for local trains, 1½ hours; but the pride of the line were its Boat Expresses run in connection with the Isle of Man Steamers. The line had to be clear to allow these trains free passage, and woe betide anyone who hindered the smart running of these trains. With two stops at Arlesdale and Ulfstead Road respectively, they covered the 25 miles in the very creditable time (for narrow gauge), of 1¼ hours. Special Observation Cars were built at Arlesdale Works for these trains, The usual load was four bogie coaches strengthened at busy times to six.
Holiday-makers in the Island were catered for during the Summer by a train which came to be known as "The Picnic". This train, put on between Easter and Michaelmas, left Arlesburgh at 10am, and was given a very easy timing. It would stop, on request, at beauty spots and places of interest, to set down ramblers and picnic parties. The return train left Peel Godred at 3.30 to pick up the parties at the places where they had been set down. This train was timed to reach Arlesburgh at 5.10, thus returning passengers in good time for High Tea at the sacred hour (to Sudrian landladies) of 5.30.
The Culdee Fell Railway, though built and operated by a separate Company, was nevertheless the brainchild of the tourist conscious Mid Sodor Board. Once it was actually under construction the MSR had intended to extend their line round the head of the valley to a joint station at Kirk Machan, but the whole extension would have involved expensive engineering works for a line which would, at most, only be worked profitably for part of the year; so this project was prudently dropped, but the MSR did take the opportunity of moving their terminus from Ulfstead Road to a more commodious site near King Orry's Bridge. This was much more convenient for those who wished to reach the shopping centre of the town, and since King Orry’s Bridge provides the only access to the town from the south, this station became the valley’s railhead for the next thirty years.
While the mining companies had their "block trains" and paid well for the convenience, local goods traffic was slow in building up. At first the Guard's vans of local trains sufficed for parcels and small freight, but did not suit larger items. Mixed trains were then tried, but passengers complained so bitterly at delays caused by shunting operations at stations, that the Company put on a daily goods train each way which took anything and everything. It stopped to shunt anywhere on the least provocation, and was allowed a time of two and a half hours in which to cover the 25 miles, hence its name "The Horse & Cart" given to it by travellers and traders. Passengers were also carried in the brake van on payment of half 3rd class fare; but the Company, wisely, would not guarantee the time of arrival at any station.
The Mid Sodor served the valley well for nearly 40 years. It was well loved, and had become a part of the landscape. Even its vagaries were a part of local tradition. People assumed that it would last forever. It survived the First World War, though stretched to the limit, and had nearly succeeded in making good most of its maintenance arrears when it received a blow from which it was never to recover.
In 1923, just after the Grouping, the Peel Godred Power Company (a subsidiary of the British Aluminium Company), obtained powers to build a dam and hydro-electric power plant a mile or so north-west of the town. The Power Company had at first considered using the port of Arlesburgh and the MSR for the transport of their equipment; but while the port facilities were adequate, the slim clearances on the mountain section of the MSR proved an insuperable obstacle. Accordingly they agreed with the North Western Railway for the construction of a standard gauge branch line from Killdane.
The opening of this line had a disastrous effect on the MSR. Passenger and goods traffic to and from Peel Godred steadily fell. Except in summer, when the tourists came, passenger trains on the mountain section ran almost empty, and by 1935 when the Isle of Man steamers ceased to call, even this meagre traffic had disappeared. The section was closed to all traffic in 1936. Three of the six locomotives were sold in an effort to keep the Company’s head above water, and with them went the bogie saloon stock used on the Boat Trains and the Picnics. These later found homes all over the Island. Their buyers put them to use as summer-holiday chalets, henhouses and garden sheds.
The engines which remained, The Duke, Falcon and Stuart, were those in the best condition, and they, together with the four-wheeled passenger and goods stock sufficed for the mineral and such goods and passenger traffic still offering in the Valley. When this local traffic took to the roads, the line became just what it had been at first - a mineral tramway - with trains running only as and when required.
The Second World War brought an upsurge of traffic, but while the locomotives were lovingly maintained as far as possible, both track and goods stock suffered. The mines suffered too. They were stripped almost beyond safety margins to assist the war effort, and in consequence were closed one by one during 1945. That at Cas-ny-Hawin alone remained, but when this was abandoned because of flooding in December 1946, the railway, having no longer any reason for existence, was abandoned too in January 1947.
Two of the locomotives, Falcon and Stuart, were bought by the Sodor Aluminium Company to assist in an expansion project they had on hand. This was completed in 1951, and the two engines, after standing sheeted under tarpaulins for the better part of a year, were sold in 1952 to Sir Handel Lloyd Brown for the Skarloey Railway at the knockdown price of £25 each. They restained their old numbers (3 & 4), but after rebuilding they were given SR livery and renamed Sir Handel and Peter Sam respectively.
The third and oldest engine, Duke, perhaps on account of age, had found no buyer, for interest in veteran steam locomotive preservation had in those days hardly begun. Duke was left oiled, greased and sheeted up in Arlesdale Shed, until 1969 when he was recovered. He was restored at Crovan's Gate Works and reunited with Stuart and Falcon on the Skarloey Railway.
The closure of the Mid Sodor also forced the virtual closure of the NWR's Arlesburgh Branch Line. In 1964, due to congestion at Tidmouth and Knapford Harbours, Sir Topham Hatt made several visits of inspection to the area. He found that while his line was heavily overgrown, the abandoned MSR trackbed was virtually weed free. On enquiry, he was told that the MSR had, from motives of economy, used spoil from the lead mines as ballast; material which they could take and use merely for the asking.
Once exhaustive tests had proved that this spoil really was weed-resistant, Sir Topham suggested to the management of the Culdee Fell and Skarloey Railways that they join the NWR in a consortium to exploit it, and that a railway along the Mid Sodor's former trackbed could be laid to take it away. The section between Arlesburgh and Arlesdale was relaid with minimum gauge rails, and reopened in 1967 as the Arlesdale Railway.
Most of the MSR trackbed not used for the Arlesdale Railway has now been converted into roads and scenic footpaths.
There were two stations in Arlesburgh. Arlesburgh Bridge Street, the more convenient of the two, was the terminus; only trains connecting with the boat and mining block trains used the harbour station, Arlesburgh West. Arlesburgh Bridge Street had two platforms with a timber roof and an extensive yard for goods, locomotives and carriages.
Ffarquhar Road station had one platform and a shelter made from granite.
Marthwaite had a station building, loop and goods yard. From the loop was a branch which swung northwards to a granite quarry a mile and a half from the village.
There was not originally a station at Arlesdale Green, as the station at Arlesdale was considered near enough; there was only ever a wooden hut on the site and a patch of gravel for a platform. A platform, nameboard and a corrugated building were later provided.
Just before Arlesdale was a junction from the mainline to a quarry and some railway cottages. Arlesdale station had a loop and locomotive and carriage sheds. The line then started to climb into the mountains, turning back on itself, passing through a tunnel and stopping at Cas-ny-Hawin. Another three tunnels were passed through and Ulfstead Road was reached, the line climbing all the time.
Ulfstead Road had a curved station and was the summit of the line. It had a passing loop, platform and a road overbridge.
- The Mid Sodor Railway was primarily based on the Corris Railway, with features of the Ffestiniog Railway and the Snailbeach Railway.
- In the television series, the railway shared several sets with the Skarloey Railway.