Historic and high tech combine on the Isle of Man

July 13 2018  

Horse drawn trams, heritage railways and the annual TT motorcycle race draw big crowds to the Isle of Man. Now the Crown Dependency has its sights set on embracing future transport thinking, reports Mike Walter.
We have a whole world of travel experiences here and I don’t think there is anywhere else with so much in such a condensed space,” remarks the Isle of Man Government’s Infrastructure Minister Ray Harmer. First time visitors to the island’s capital Douglas are unlikely to disagree. 
Trams pulled by horses shuttle back and forth along the town’s promenade, while the Manx Electric Railway takes visitors north towards Ramsey and a steam railway heads south to Port Erin. But while the island is proud of its transport heritage, it is not stuck in the past.
Plans are being taken forward to test autonomous vehicles on a former airfield in the north of the island and the Government is keen to encourage the greater use of electric cars. Transport smartcards and contactless payment are now in use by many public transport passengers and the Isle of Man will soon begin a trial of demand responsive travel, where people living in outlying communities can request a service to come to their door. The island also hopes to become a leader in active travel through promoting cycling and walking.
The horse trams – a feature of the Douglas promenade since 1876 – will remain, but part of their route is set to be realigned onto a footway; reducing the chance of collision with motor vehicles and affording tourists on board a better view of the sea.
“Infrastructure is really important to the island and our work to redevelop the promenade will help to transform Douglas,” the Minister says. “We are also looking to extend our facilities for cruise ships and may bring the electric railway closer into the town.”
Department of Infrastructure highways director Jeffrey Robinson says the island has developed an autonomous driving code of practice and stands ready to work with manufacturers of self driving vehicles to test their technology in rural areas.
“If we are ever going to see level five autonomous vehicles, they are going to have to cope with places like the Isle of Man,” he explains.
“In half an hour you can go from a windswept, foggy, sea environment through to the top of a mountain side in sunshine and on to narrow roads with dappled sunlight and no white lines. Within a very small footprint we have got a huge variety of roads, climate and altitude.”
In the more immediate future the Isle of Man is focusing on promoting pure electric – rather than hybrid – vehicles and Minister Harmer says the island is the perfect place to deploy them widely. Motorists on the small landmass are unlikely, he says, to have too many concerns over ‘range anxiety’.
The Minister is keen too for the island to develop its active travel ambitions. “We are looking to become the first active travel nation in the world. The way I see it is that people should be able to use a car when they want to enjoy a drive, such as through the mountains, and choose to walk, cycle and use buses at other times.”
Taking a lead on active travel is the head of highway and asset management Tim Cowin, who has appointed sustainable transport charity Sustrans to work with the Isle of Man. There are two strands to the work: promoting walking and cycling within a 2.5 mile radius of Douglas and liaising with schools across the island to encourage pupils to travel in a more active fashion, which may also persuade parents to follow suit.
Hard infrastructure to be introduced will include several cycle lanes linking Douglas with housing and industrial estates as well as bicycle storage facilities. Other initiatives will include working with employers to help their staff purchase electric bicycles.
“Congestion and air quality are not our biggest problems, but we have the same public health issues as the UK,” Tim says. “We hope our focus on active travel will encourage people to incorporate daily exercise into their daily routine and influence those with a sedentary lifestyle.”
For the first time this summer local people are being asked to take part in a national travel survey so that the island’s Government can gather the views of residents to help it best direct investments. The island is also set to develop an Intelligent Transport Systems strategy to improve traffic flows, is developing a new road safety strategy and continues to update highway design guidance for developers.
Improving road condition is another priority on the Isle of Man, despite its highways appearing to fare well compared to the mainland. “There are 698 miles of carriageway on the island, which is very high for the population we have,” Minister Harmer says.
“People arriving from the UK constantly tell me that they cannot believe how good our roads are. But we are pushing forwards this year with getting work done within 24 hours and carrying out proactive maintenance. We have high expectations.”

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