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The Great Orme Tramway (Llandudno, Wales)

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This is Great Britain's only remaining cable operated street tramway and one of only three surviving in the world. Operation of the tramway differs from the famous and unique San Francisco system in that, like the Lisbon lines, it is a street funicular, where the cars are permanently fixed to the cable and are stopped and started by stopping and starting the cable.

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    • More +
      05.11.2009 18:29
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      A must for anyone visiting Llandudno

      Most people have seen (at least on TV) and marvelled at the San Francisco cable car network. It's a long way to go for a ride, but you can get a similar experience, if on rather a smaller scale, much closer to home. There are in fact only two other cable-operated street tramway systems remaining in the world, and they're both in Europe. There's one in Lisbon, but if even that's too far then you can ride the other in the north Wales seaside resort of Llandudno! It's been running for more than a century now, and hasn't changed a great deal outwardly, although behind the scenes there have been a number of changes, such as the move from steam to electric haulage in the 1950s.

      There are plenty of reasons to visit Llandudno anyway, but you'd be mad to miss out on a trip up the Great Orme (the substantial headland to the west of Llandudno Bay) on the Great Orme Tramway. There are other ways up the Orme, and they all have their attractions, but I think the Tramway is the best of them all. For one thing, this is a *steep* hill - steeper than 1 in 4 in places - which means that walking can be very tiring. Driving up is less taxing, but there's a toll to pay, while the infamous cabin lift (so called to avoid the confusion that would result from the use of the term "cable car") is an experience I've had once - and that was quite enough, thank you!

      The trip up the Orme is in two sections; you have to change trams in the middle, at the appropriately-named Halfway station, because the winding house is in the way! Assuming you're beginning your round trip at the bottom, to find Victoria station from the promenade you should go to the roundabout near the pier entrance and then walk up the fairly steep Church Walks. The station is a few hundred yards along on the right, but it shouldn't be too hard to find as it's right on the road and has a great big sign telling you what it is! Note that parking at this end of the journey is close to non-existent in the summer; it's best not even to try.

      The platforms at Victoria are not particularly spacious, and it can be quite a squash on a sunny day in mid-summer. There's no real boarding control once you've got a ticket, so try to position yourself close to where you think the door will stop; seasoned commuters should be used to this sort of thing! Once everyone's aboard, it's time to start the trip. Don't expect a wild ride, as the trams are limited to not much more than walking pace, but then there's no reason to go any faster, and it gives you more time to admire the views. If you want to enjoy the stunning vistas over Llandudno's beautiful bay then you'll want to face downhill, but the hillside scenery itself can be enjoyed in either direction.

      The first part of the line, which is also the steepest, is the section which justifies the "street tramway" name: the roads are only open to local traffic these days, and there's only one traffic light to negotiate, but nevertheless it's quite an experience, and you'll really feel the strain being put on the winding cable. You might think the tram lines in parts of Sheffield are steep, but you've seen nothing until you've experienced this! You might see a few remnants of the old overhead wiring, but this was never used for power: the link was there for telegraph messages to be passed along. Communication is now carried out by radio, so there is no longer a need for an overhead or trolley poles.

      Beyond the five-way road junction at Black Gate, the tramway leaves the streets and starts off along a dedicated track laid up the side of the Great Orme itself.  During this part of the journey there are some fine views to be had over towards Snowdonia, and if the weather is as changeable as it usually is in north Wales there is likely to be an ever-changing scene. It's at this point that I should point out that the trams have no windows, so if it starts raining then I'm afraid you're just going to have to put up with getting wet! For that reason, I'd advise not travelling without some sort of waterproof in reserve.

      At Halfway station, everyone has to pile out of the tram, and walk through a passage inside the winding house in order to complete the climb. You are able to break your journey here if you like, though not many people do. The main reason to do so would probably be to visit the Great Orme Copper Mines, a fairly short walk away across the rough grass. For those staying on board, the second half of the Tramway is operated on the same cable-hauled basis as the first, but the tracks and cable are no longer buried in concrete and instead appear much more like a conventional railway. This part of the journey enjoys a considerably less steep incline.

      From Halfway to the terminus at Summit station, the focus of the journey is on the spectacular surroundings: if it's slightly disappointing that a clear sight down to Llandudno Bay is only available for a fraction of the time, this is more than made up for by the expansive views available elsewhere: whether the long stretches of open grassland on the Orme itself, the jagged mountains of Snowdonia or the sheltered bays that open into the glittering Irish Sea, there's always something to look at. After this, Summit station itself comes as a slight shock to the system with its cafés and car park, but if the weather is good you can walk around and take in the views, while if it's less good then a seat inside with a bowl of soup can seem very attractive!

      The Great Orme Tramway runs from late March to late October, with trams every 20 minutes seven days a week from 10am until 6pm (5pm in low season). A return ticket in the 2009 season cost £5.40 for adults and £3.70 for children; as is the way of things, these prices may increase slightly for next year. There are discounts available for families and groups; a ride on the Tramway is a very popular school outing! Disabled visitors should note that the traditional design of the trams means that there is no level access to the tramcars from platform level. There is space for two folding wheelchairs, but this has to be shared with pushchairs. Toilets exist at all three stations, but those at Victoria have no disabled facilities.

      If you are staying in Llandudno, or even visiting the town for the day, the Great Orme Tramway should be very high on your list of things to do. Like all the best historic attractions, it remains a genuine working concern rather than being artificially preserved in aspic; this gives it a feeling of authenticity that adds to the visitor's enjoyment. There may be little in the way of creature comforts - and yes, if it pours with rain you'll get soaked - but the scenery is so good as to make that worth the risk on all but the worst of days. And the most physical effort you'll have to put in will be in walking up the hill to Victoria station in the first place!

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      • More +
        29.11.2004 17:59
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        A great way to travel up the Orme

        So what is all this 'Ride the T' about then?

        Well the 'T' as it is nicknamed is the Great Orme Tramway here in Llandudno. It travels from the town to the summit of the Great Orme. I won't go into detail about the Orme itself here as this review is purely about the Tramway, but I have written a comprehensive review about the Orme if you fancy learning more about the place.

        Anyway back to the Tramway.....

        What is so special about it?

        Well it is unique in the United Kingdom for a start as it is our only funicular Tramway and it is one of only two in the whole of Europe! Incidentally the Cambridge Dictionary defines the word funicular as follows - 'a special type of railway which travels up and down steep slopes, with the carriages being pulled by a strong metal rope'.

        It is the only cable hauled Tramway in Great Britain that crosses public roads, and still uses the original Victorian carriages.

        Where is it?

        As I said in the introduction is travels up and down the Great Orme in Llandudno, North Wales. The lower station, Victoria Station, is located on Church Walks a short but uphill walk from the roundabout by the pier. The upper station is located at the Summit Complex of the Orme where there is a restaurant, gift shops, amusement arcade, pub, children's play area, information centre and pay and display car park. The upper station for the cable car which also runs up and down the Orme is also here at the summit, the lower station being in Happy Valley at the base of the Orme near the pier.

        There is also a halfway station where you have to change trams to get to the summit or you can get off here to visit the tea rooms or the Great Orme Copper Mines (yes, I have done a review about these too!) and resume your journey on a later tram although in the height of the season you may struggle to get a seat.

        There is on road parking in the streets around Victoria Station but it does get pretty busy during the peak season.

        There are toilets at both the Summit Station and Victoria Station.

        How much does it cost?

        Return fares are currently £3.95 for adults and £2.80 for children, with discounts for school parties, families and large groups. You can also purchase single tickets if you fancy walking one way or maybe combining the Tramway and the Cable Car by going up one way and coming down the other? There are also tickets available which combine the cost of the Tramway with admission to the Copper Mines.

        How often does it run?

        The trams run every 20 minutes from 10am until 6pm from the beginning of April to the end of October each year. Unlike the Cable Cars they are not usually affected by inclement weather although it can get draughty as the trams do not have any windows! Each tram can seat 48 passengers so, even in high season; you don't usually have to wait very long.

        So what about the technical stuff then?

        I left this bit until after I had explained the where, how much and how often so that those of you not interested in this bit could skip it and get off to 'Ride the T'!

        The full technical name of type of tramway on the Great Orme is a double reversible funicular with passing loops. How's that for a mouthful? No wonder they call it the 'T'!

        There is 800m of track to from the base to the halfway station and a further 750m from there to the summit. The track is single with a passing loop on each of the two sections, as the trams run two at a time - one going up as the other comes down.

        The lower section operates by means of a winch drive with the haul ropes in a slot below street level. The two ropes each wind to pull one car up and the other one down, with the weight of the descending car helping to raise the ascending car.

        The upper section is more complicated and has three ropes, one which links the two cars over a pulley at the Summit Station and the other two going from each car to the winding drums, with a system of weighted pulleys taking up any slack cable.

        The cars are permanently attached to the cable and the speed is controlled by the engineers in the winding house.

        Communication between the cars and the winding house is obviously essential as the cars need to meet at the passing place and a Swiss-designed inductive loop system was introduced in 2001 so that all the engine drivers know exactly where all the other cars are on the system.

        The four trams (two on each section) are made from wood and are named after Saints. They are each 37 feet long and 7 feet 6 inches wide and seat 48 passengers in wooden seats in blocks of four - two facing two.

        So what about the history?

        As Llandudno increased in popularity in the 19th century local businessman decided to build the Tramway to make the ascent to the top of the Orme easier for the visitors and the first Trams ran on the lower section 31st July 1902 and on the upper section on 8th July 1903 - so it has recently celebrated its 100th birthday! These first two years saw the Tramway carry more than 70,000 passengers each year!

        Victoria Station was built in 1903 and has changed little from that day to this.

        Here has only ever been once serious accident on the Tramway in over 100 years and it happened on 23rd August 1932 when the steel drawbar broke on one of the cars and broke free from the cable. The car was descending the steepest section of the track at the time and, although the driver applied all the brakes, the tram hit the wall where the track curved killing the driver and a 12 year old girl. The trams did not run again that year.

        A new brake device was installed in 1933 which now means that the cars will be brought to a halt automatically in the speed exceeds 6.5 mph - so don't expect a white knuckle ride then will you?

        In 1956, with the trams carrying in excess of 250.000 passengers a year, the winding gear was converted from steam to electric drive.

        The Great Orme Tramway has recently undergone a £1.3 million pound refit which included the relaying of the entire track during the winter - not a job for the faint hearted, it gets pretty cold up on the Orme in the winter weather!

        So what else is of interest?

        When you reach the Halfway Station to change trams for the remainder of your journey you walk through the station where you can see the winding gear and machinery and there is lots of information about the Tramway and its history with some great old photographs.

        The visitor centre at the Summit Station has lots of information about the Orme itself and its flora and fauna and it also has the light that was used in the Great Orme Lighthouse now a Hotel.

        So would I recommend it?

        YES, YES, YES!!!

        It really is worth a ride if you want to get the top of the Orme. It's a long steep walk and its 207 metres high so you'll need to be fit to attempt it.

        The views from the Tram over Llandudno bay are amazing as are the views across the Orme itself often dotted with sheep and the pure breed Kashmir goats.

        So the simple answer is try it for yourself - it is well worth the money!

        Is it suitable for disabled people?

        Well as I have already mentioned the walk up to the lower station is a steep one and there is only on road parking facilities at that end.

        As I have also already mentioned there is a car park at the top so you could drive up and do the Tramway down and then back up.

        As for wheelchair access I don't think that the Tram would be able to carry a wheelchair as it is, but they would be able to carry them folded as they do with pushchairs, if that's any help.

        And finally ...

        The website address is www.greatormetramway.com

        The telephone number is 01492 575275

        The address is

        Great Orme Tramway
        Victoria Station
        Church Walks
        Llandudno
        LL30 1AZ

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