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The Culdee Fell Railway is Sodor's only rack railway. The railway's track gauge is 2ft 7 1⁄2in and it is 8 miles in length. Lord Harry Barrane is Chairman of the board, while Mr. Walter Richards acts as its current Manager in The Railway Series. Mr. Percival is in charge of the unique railway in the television series.
The Culdee Fell Railway was the brainchild of the Mid Sodor Railway, which had, from the first, set itself to encourage tourism in the Island and the Peel Godred District in particular. It had been the Mid Sodor‘s hope to be able to extend their line round the head of the valley to Kirk Machan where passengers could join a mountain railway for their ascent to the peak.
Lord Peter Barrane was the landowner whose property would have been most severely affected by the scheme and he, while in favour of railways in general, was nevertheless reluctant to allow a railway to be built up his mountainside in view of possible disfigurement to its natural beauty. Thus it was that for some years the project hung fire.
This gave the Skarloey Railway an opportunity which they were not slow to seize. They were in a position to provide easy access to a shorter route up the mountain, and saw to it that their Culdee Fell Excursions were widely advertised. These became very popular. Trains were met at Skarloey station by wagonettes which took excursionists to the point where the ancient path crossed the moorland road. The short climb proved most attractive, and the Skarloey Railway’s enterprise had a depressing effect on the people of Peel Godred and Kirk Machan who saw their tourist traffic dribbling away to the other side of the island. At length, however, their woeful complaints culminated in a deputation to Lord Peter with the request that he change his mind.
Thus it was that in February 1897 the first sod of the Culdee Fell Rack Railway was cut by the Lady Elaine, Lord Peter’s eldest daughter, at Kirk Machan. The sponsors were The Culdee Fell Tramroad and Hotel Company Ltd. which had been formed a year before under Lord Peter‘s chairmanship. He was therefore in a position to ensure that the lower section of the line made a detour skirting the edges of his property instead of cutting straight through it and up the hillside as had originally been proposed.
The Snowdon Mountain Railway had been opened shortly before this, and on their advice the “Abt” rack system was adopted. Construction too was greatly helped by the Snowdon Company’s expertise. It is not surprising therefore that the two railways are similar in many respects. The main difference is that while the Snowdon Railway’s climb is short and sharp (43/4 miles only), the Culdee Fell line is twice that length with easy gradients at the foot steepening finally to a fierce 1 in 5 on the last half mile to Summit Station.
Construction proceeded smoothly,and the line was passed for passenger traffic in March 1900 by the Inspector from the Board of Trade, after rigorous tests both of operational methods and safety precautions. It was opened to the public on Whit Monday, and for just over a month all went well. Then, on a return journey No.1, Godred, left the rails at Devil’s Back and fell down a ravine. Happily the passengers kept calm and no one was injured; but the engine, when recovered next day, was found to be beyond local repair. Rebuilding at this stage was financially out of the question, so Godred’s remains were put at the back of Culdee Fell Railway Engine Sheds where, for the next few years, they provided a useful collection of spare parts for repairing the others.
It was generally believed that a stone lodged between two teeth of the rack-rail had caused the accident, but this has never been proved. The line was closed for the rest of the summer while stringent measures were taken to eliminate the possibility of accident in the future. Re-opened on Easter Monday 1901, the Culdee Fell Railway has operated ever since with an unblemished safety record. There have, of course, been minor mishaps such as such as those involving No. 6 but these are rare, and though they cause annoyance and inconvenience have never resulted in injury to any passenger.
Following farmers’ complaints of their isolation and lack of transport, the Culdee Fell Railway laid in sidings at Shiloh and provided wagons for a goods service. Business was brisk for a time; but since mountain railway charges are inevitably higher than those of ordinary lines, there were many complaints, and when road improvements had been made by the Island Council, local goods and passenger traffic dwindled away. The CFR disposed of the wagons and lifted the sidings but kept the station.
The line was first run by Godred, Ernest, Wilfred, Culdee, and Shane Dooiney, who arrived on order from Switzerland for the opening of the line. Although well maintained, Culdee and Shane Dooiney needed heavy overhauls years later. Three engines - Lord Harry, Alaric, and Eric - were later purchased. Lord Harry came first allowing Culdee to be sent off to Europe, and Alaric and Eric arrived six months later, allowing Shane Dooiney to leave for Switzerland. Ernest and Wilfred were superseded by the arrival of the more modern locomotives.
Starting from the station at Kirk Machan, the line climbs up to the summit, calling at Shiloh, then runs along the wildlife sanctuary at Poll-ny-Chrink. After that it makes stops at Skarloey Road (where trains are met by Sodor Roadways buses), "Devil's Back", and Culdee Fell, the summit of the line. The line is open from Easter to Michaelmas, with winter being when repairs are made to the line.
- Due to the stringent safety precautions and limited traffic of a mountain railway, this railway has only been featured in one Railway Series book. It was, however, mentioned in Thomas and his Friends.
- The line was inspired by the famous Snowdon Mountain Railway, home to the real-life counterparts of this railway's engines. Gunvor and Peter Edwards went there to gain inspiration for the pictures.
- Before 1964, if an engine needed repairs, it would either be sent to its manufacturer in Switzerland or to an unnamed works in England to be mended. After Shane Dooiney's return from being mended in 1964, all of the repairs were done at Crovan's Gate Works.
- The Culdee Fell Railway was mentioned for the very first time in the television series in a learning segment about the differences between narrow gauge and standard gauge. According to the segment, Mr. Percival is in charge of the railway.
- Culdee Fell was featured in Railway Adventures, but was portrayed as a standard gauge station.