The Great Orme Tramway is not only a unique Victorian innovation, but it is also without doubt the most spectacular of all the UK's funicular railways. Constructed predominantly by R White and Son, the Great Orme Tramway was originally conceived in rather unusual circumstances. A local doctor held the belief that this high, windswept promontory above Llandudno was possibly the healthiest place in Britain, and would be an ideal site to build a Sanatorium.
Great Orme Tramway is, in effect, two separate tramways working in unison and known technically as a 'double reversible' tramway with passing loops. The first section of line to be built was the lower part, extending from Victoria Station in the old town to the Halfway Station on the Great Orme proper, a distance of 2,640ft (800m). Work commenced in the spring of 1901, with the line officially opening on 31st July 1902. The upper section, an extension of some 2,475ft (750m), runs from Halfway Station to Summit Station and was opened less than a year later on 8th July 1903. Finally, Victoria Station was built in 1904, following the demolition of the Victoria Hotel.
Two independent sections of track were required because different winding arrangements had to be employed to cope with the gradient variances. The lower section utilises a winch drive system, with two independent haul cables situated in a conduit below street level, where one cable winds up to raise a car and the other winds down to lower a car. For the upper section, however, a 'tail rope' system of three cables was used. Here, one cable links the two cars via a pulley, with the other two going directly to the winding drums. Another noticeable difference with the latter arrangement is that the cables run above ground on a series of rollers, as opposed to a conduit beneath it. Originally the winding engines were steam driven, but were replaced by electric motors in 1958.
Halfway Station, which was rebuilt in 2001, is the dynamic heart of the system and houses the winding gear for both the upper and lower sections of the tramway. Glass partitions have been installed as part of the new design, giving passengers an opportunity of seeing and understanding the mechanics of the tramway as they change trams for the second leg of the journey.
The original tram cars, constructed by Hurst Nelson of Motherwell, are still very much in use today. Made from timber with unglazed windows (providing a 'bracing' experience on an inclement day), each car can carry 48 passengers in 24 pairs of seats separated by a central gangway, and are attendant controlled, via a footplate at either end of the car.
History of the Great Orme Tramway has been largely uneventful, but one dark day is remembered. On 23rd August 1932 car number four became detached from its cable, leaving the rails at Tabor Hill reverse curve and ploughing headlong into a stone wall. An attendant and a twelve year old girl were both killed, with ten other passengers suffering serious injuries. As a consequence of this tragic accident, and the potential compensation claims, the Great Orme Tramway Company was eventually forced into liquidation.
Purchased by the Great Orme Railway Company Limited, the line was re-opened in 1934 after extensive new safety measures had been put in place. Notwithstanding the accident, the tramway proved to be just as popular, and even managed to remain open throughout the Second World War. In 1949 ownership passed to the Llandudno District Council, with overall control passing to Aberconwy Borough Council in 1974. Within three years the line was once again known as the 'Great Orme Tramway', and is today under the control of Conwy County Borough Council.