Carstairs House Tramway

By David Craig
Article From Trolley, Summer 2016

While several experimental electric tramways were developed in the early days of the technology near the end of the 19th century, notably, the system exhibited at the Edinburgh International Exhibition of 1886 which demonstrated the value of electric over horse drawn systems, most of these were of a demonstration or short lived non passenger carrying type. However, in spite of the interest shown in the technology by large municipal councils at the time, it was in the unlikely location of south Lanarkshire that Scotland's first permanent electric powered passenger carrying tramway was installed and became operational in 1889 ahead of any municipally sponsored system.

The installation at Carstairs House was the first permanent electric passenger carrying tramway in Scotland. It was used to transport both passengers and goods from Carstairs Junction Station, then part of the Caledonian Railway, through the grounds to the home farm and house. While there is no evidence of the tramway in existence today, as most of the installation was sold for scrap in the early 1930's, the hydro generated power station that provided power for the system and house was still in use as a source of power for several small businesses within the area well into the 20th century and the building can still be seen today.

Carstairs House was the residence of the Monteith family and at the time of the development and installation of the tramway and its associated hydro electric power supply was then owned by Joseph Monteith. Contemporary accounts of Joseph show a man who was fascinated by technology and who dabbled in several sciences through experimentation which eventually would produce the electric tramway within the estate.

Whilst at the time several systems were either being developed or had shown to be workable, notably the Volk's Railway in Brighton, from which similar areas of development can be identified in the design for Carstairs. No system had been proposed for permanent installation within Scotland at the time of the Edinburgh exhibition. It is believed that after visiting the exhibition Joseph started to formulate his ideas on how the tramway would operate and could be made to work on his estate.

The system design was notionally produced by Joseph himself, however he did employ an electrical design company, Anderson and Munro of Glasgow, a leading specialist in electrical installations of the time to provide the technical support necessary to produce both the power and transmission systems. The plans for the tramway were developed around a gauge of 2ft 6in with a power supply of nominally 250 volts to the track pickup points. The power was supplied from a hydro electric power installation.

This was located near the Cleghorn falls, some three miles from the estate. It used a Goolden type Dynamo operating at 400 volts producing 49 amperes. This was all driven by a Leffel turbine powered by the water sourced from above the falls. Typical for its day, the power was then taken across country to the house by overhead bare conductor wires supported on fluid insulators. The electricity initially supplied power to the house for use in electric lighting. The tramway track ran for approximately 1900 yards from the house to the station with branches at the station and home farm for the haulage of goods. The maximum gradient reached on the track was 1:75 with the rails being supported on sleepers spaced 24inches apart.

The delivery of power to the vehicle proved to be a more challenging issue. The solution, by modern standards would be considered dangerous, but in its day considered to be novel if not experimental and would be totally unsuited for use in a street environment. To avoid the use of overhead cables supported on poles through the estate the power to the vehicle used a design developed for the Volk's railway. The power to the vehicle was provided by two parallel running bare conductors. With one conductor positive and one negative supported either side of the track on foot high steel poles. The poles were fixed to the wooden sleepers using specially designed insulators to carry the current. Pickup points attached to the vehicle supplied power to the 8 hp motor specially designed for the system using the Gramme principle. At certain points along the tracks length the conductors were removed to allow road crossings, at these points the vehicle was speeded up to allow it to coast over the point. The design also allowed for the conductors to be positioned on one side of the track to overcome local installation difficulties particularly at terminuses. It is reported that during trials of the system speeds of up to 35 mph were achieved.

Quite an achievement for what was a technology in its infancy at the time and considering the legal road limit of just 12mph for powered road vehicles was in force. The passenger stock consisted of three passenger carrying vehicles with various other vehicles suitable for goods haulage. The initial vehicle is reported to have been built on the estate and consisted of a powered passenger saloon car mounted on a four wheel truck. The driver stood at one end of the car on a platform with both controller and brake mounted on the platform. Also novel for its day interior electric lighting was provided for its six passengers during night use. No steps from the vehicle were provided and, at either terminus, platforms were provided for passengers to access the compartment without coming into contact with the live conductors.

The line operated electrically until around 1905 when its use was changed to provide horse drawn goods haulage from the farm to the station. Whilst it is believed that this situation arose because the owner Joseph Monteith died from an electric shock sustained while falling onto the live track side conductor, no contemporary reports support this reason. It is more likely that the development of motorised transport at the start of the century was responsible for the change of use and the initial euphoria of this novel system of transport wained as better alternatives became available. The electric powered vehicles were removed from use and left in storage until the system was finally closed in 1935. Whilst the tramway was still in use during this period it was only during the First World War that it was intensely used to transport from the estate sphagnum moss which was used as a substitute for American cotton and used in the manufacture of munitions. The estate was sold by the Monteith family in 1935 and it was then the system was closed and shortly after this scrapped. Like its electric predecessor the horse tramway succumbed to the advancement of motorised vehicles such as the tractor and lorry.

This ended the life of what was Scotland's first operational passenger tramway and unfortunately the credit for this overlooked by the untimely death of its developer and operator Joseph Monteith. Ironically, shortly after the line opened, proposals were made to develop a tramway in Lanarkshire using the principals developed by Joseph and to harness the power of the Clyde river at the falls of clyde. Whilst this proposal did not go forward it eventually took place as two separate schemes. The generator station was built by the Clyde Valley Power Company at the falls and the tramway initially developed as the Hamilton, Motherwell and Wishaw Tramway. This was later to become the Lanarkshire Tramway of which the museums No 53 tram is an example. For those interested to find out more about this system and other systems in Lanarkshire can I recommend reading A W Brotchie's book Lanarkshire's Trams for which I am in debt for the source of much of the information contained in this article. .

1898 Ordance Survay Map, National Library of Scotland