Lartigue Monorail Locomotives.

Updated: 23 May 2011
Link to Lartigue film added
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The astonishing device below is a Lartigue monorail steam locomotive that worked in south-west Ireland from 1888 to 1924 on a 9-mile route between Listowel & Ballybunion in County Kerry.

Left: A Hunslet works photo of one of the Listowel & Ballybunion Lartigue locomotives

The main brake reservoirs are mounted under the boilers. Below them is an angled frame to push obstructions aside.

There were only three locomotives, designed by Anatole Mallet (yes, that Mallet, the man who introduced an articulated compound system that had a rear rigid chassis carrying two high-pressure cylinders, and an articulated front driving truck with two low-pressure cylinders) and manufactured by the Hunslet Company of Leeds, in Britain. Nos 1 and 2 left the Hunslet works on 10th October, 1887, and No 3 followed a week later.

One of the more radical features was the use the twin boilers, one each side of the central rail. While this was a less than desirable scheme, involving the duplication of many parts, it is hard to see how else the weight of the locomotive could have been balanced. The two boilers were linked by water and steam pipes to keep the water levels equal.

Left: Two sections of a Listowel & Ballybunion Lartigue locomotives

The left section is through the driver's footplate, looking forward.
There are three control handles below the driver's window, but unfortunately their labels are not legible.

The right section is through the driver's footplate, looking rearward to show the tender.
The big handwheel, I believe, operated the friction clutch that engaged the auxiliary engine on the tender. Just below it can be seen the head of one of the auxiliary cylinders. The vertical pipe is the exhaust from this cylinder.

Left: Two sections of a Listowel & Ballybunion Lartigue locomotives

The left half is an end section of the tender, looking forward.

The right section is through the tender at the first motion shaft, looking rearward.

Each locomotive had three double-flanged wheels, driven by two cylinders mounted between the boilers at the front, and connected on each side by coupling rods set at 90 degrees as usual. The outer wheels had a tread width of 1.5in, while the middle wheel was 2in wide to allow for curves. The tender had two double-flanged wheels which could also be driven by a geared auxiliary engine for dealing with heavy loads on gradients; when in use it was engaged by a friction clutch, so the machinery would not be driven uselessly in normal operation. (In the event the boilers were unable to generate enough steam to run the auxiliary engine, and it was never used) This makes a wheel configuration of 0-3-0 + 0-2-0, which must surely be almost unique in the history of locomotive engineering. However... see the Feurs et Panissières line below. There are two steadying rails towards the bottom of the trestles. It is not at all clear that this is cheaper than conventional track, though that presumably was the motivation behind it.

Above: One of the locomotives at Ballybunion station. Date unknown.

It was said that balancing freight loading was a problem; a cow could only be conveyed if you had another cow of the same weight on the other side. The line closed when, like so much Irish railway infrastructure, it was sabotaged in the Irish Civil war and closed in 1924.

Lartigue was born at Toulouse in 1834.

Here are some nuggets of fact:
Loco wheel diam
2ft 0in
Tender wheel diam
2ft 0in
Loco wheelbase
2ft 0in
Main cylinders
7in diam x 12in stroke
Working pressure
150 lb/sqin

Above: A Lartigue loco, with its huge headlamp, running off the turntable at Ballybunion station.
The turntable on its pivot can be seen just to the rear of the loco.

Above: A loco on the turntable. This was the only way of moving from one track to another.

Left: How to cross tracks with a Lartigue; a loco moves onto the turntable at Ballybunnion station.

This photograph was reproduced as an etching several times, including in the French journal La Nature.

Picture courtesy of Alan Reynolds

Left: A film of the Lartigue in operation exists

It commences with one of the locomotives lurching somewhat as it leaves the engine-shed, then moves on to show the unloading and loading of passengers on a mixed passenger/freight run. It closes with an example of the lifting bridges that crossed the railway. Judging by the cloche hats on the ladies, it must have been made around 1920-30.

See it on YouTube.

The contemporary description of the Lartigue railway reproduced below comes from the 10 January 1920 issue of The New Illustrated, a weekly that began in 1914 as The War Illustrated:


"There are in this world of ours a remarkably high number of freakish transport concerns labelled as "railways" and one of the most peculiar of them is the Listowel and Ballybunion line, in the county of Kerry, Ireland. This railway was built in 1888 for the special purpose of developing Ballybunion (Lord Kitchener's birthplace) as a seaside resort. It took only six months to build, is nine and a half miles long, and cost three thousand pounds per mile, an extremely low figure, as many other British railway companies could testify.

Instead of a gleaming metal track, the permanent-way consists of light A-shaped trestles, about three and a half feet high, and placed across the ground at about the same distance one from another. The object of a permanent-way of this description is to obviate the heavy expense of levelling the ground. By slightly varying the lengths of the trestles the line can run fairly evenly over the grass, up hill and down dale.

A heavy rail runs from the apex of each A-shaped trestle, whilst two lighter "guide rails" are attached about two and a half feet lower down each side; but the engine and carriages run on the top rail, which bears all the weight. The effect is something like that of a series of short, squat pegs jammed across a clothes-line.

There are three locomotives, but only one is used at a time. The two most efficient ones work a week each in turn, while the third is kept In reserve for special occasions.

Naturally, having to run on a single elevated line of rail, the engines have to be so constructed that they will balance, or, to use naval language, maintain an even keel. This is ensured by making each locomotive with two boilers, two funnels, two tenders, two smoke-boxes, stacks, etc. In fact, a Listowel and Ballybunion locomotive is just like two ordinary ones joined together in the middle. Each has two wheels coupled together and fitted between the twin boilers, together with four smaller wheels at the sides to engage the two check-rails. It is claimed that these engines can haul a load of two hundred and forty tons over the trestleway at thirty miles per hour.

The passenger coaches and goods waggons are, of course, built on similar lines each consisting of a double interior and as it is necessary to have some connection between each half of the passenger vehicles, a stairway is provided via which travellers can pass from one side to the other, over the top of the coach.

Altogether, there are eleven passenger coaches, providing seating accommodation for fifty-two first-class and two hundred and twenty-eight third-class passengers. There are also seventeen sand waggons and five goods waggons, with two brake-vans. Truly an imposing array of rolling-stock.

Naturally enough, the level crossings over which this line runs are peculiar affairs. That portion of the trestle-way which obstructs the road is bolted to a turn-table, and the turn-table being moved swings the permanent-way round at right angles to open the road for the passage of horses, etc. Afterwards, the line is turned back into position, bolted there, and then the train may amble along as soon as it likes.

Perhaps the most amusing thing of all to English visitors is the shunting. The various sidings on which vehicles are to be arranged, or "marshalled", are all disconnected from the main line, and before a vehicle can be pushed on or drawn from off such a siding, a portion of trestle-way must be swung into position to connect the two.

Imagine, then, the nature of each shunting operation. A waggon has been placed on line No. 1. The next vehicle is for line No. 3. So the trestle track has to be unbolted from the ground, disconnected with line No. 1, moved into a position that will connect it with line No.3, connected up, bolted down, and then - well, there we are! How very different to our method of merely pulling over a lever to alter the points.

Connecting with the Ballybunion terminus of the line is a short branch of half a mile whereon sand waggons are loaded. This branch line is cleared once a day, and since it runs along the main road, the trestle track can only be allowed to remain fixed in a position during the hour or so when the train is running along it. After that it is uprooted and left lying along the roadside for the rest of the day. Just before the train comes along on the morrow, a railway official will arrive to reconstruct the permanent-way.

A ride over the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway is an experience not likely to be forgotten. As the time for departure draws near, the loading of the passengers has to be adjusted in order that the train shall balance evenly. The weight of travellers in the left half must be approximately equal to the weight of those in the right half.

Guard and stationmaster jointly arrange the balancing, walking each down one side and calling to the other the number in each half of the coach. If perchance there should be twenty in one half and only twelve on the other, four of the twenty have to leave and proceed via the portable bridge to the other side of the train.

Local residents assert that one day there arrived at the station just before the train started two engaged couples, a very fat pair and a very lean pair. The first-class carriages, for which these people held tickets, only hold two on each side, and the two fat ones climbed in one half, while the two thin ones sat in the other. This, of course, quite upset the balance of the train, and eventually someone - it needed an Irishman, too - intimated to the devoted lovers that they must part company. So a fat male and a thin female exchanged places, and so well did the alteration suit, that when the train reached its destination the change of partners had been made permanent.*

It is not a little surprising to find that a freak line of this description pays its way so much better than the up-to-date railways with which we are accustomed to deal. Yet such is actually the case. In normal times the annual receipts total close upon seven thousand pounds, whilst the expenditure is six thousand pounds, enabling payment of a dividend of, roughly, four per cent.

There are no stations such as we are accustomed to, but a marked-out piece of land serves. The General Manager's office is about the size of an ordinary platelayer's cabin, and this official undertakes every administrative duty connected with the line, being Passenger, Goods, and Locomotive Manager, Permanent-way Inspector, and Lord High Admiral of everything."

* A saucy joke for the times, but S T James unwittingly relates it wrongly- surely the two men thus ended up together on one side and the women on the other?

Amazingly, the Listowel & Ballybunion railway has been partly rebuilt. It only has one locomotive, and that is powered by a diesel engine, but you can't have everything. See more about it here.


Left: The Feurs-Panissières Line.

The cheap seats are on top of the carriages.

The Feurs-Panissières locos were not made by Hunslet, but by B

Left: The Feurs-Panissières Line

Wire has been added to keep the upstairs passengers inside the loading gauge. (I assume)


The Magnesium Monorail: 1924

Probably the last Lartigue monorail was built in the Mojave Desert, USA, by the Sierra Salt Corporation in California. It carried magnesium salts from their mine in the Crystal Hills to the railhead at Trona, across difficult terrain in the Salinas Valley. (Inyo County) The line was successful but only lasted 2 years before modern developments in magnesium extraction put the mine out of business.

No details of the locomotive can be seen here- in fact it is not even clear if there is one in the picture. The umbrella to keep the sun off is however clearly visible.

The Magnesium Monorail: 1924

Another picture where no steam locomotive is visible. At first I thought that this railway was worked by cable haulage, but there looks to be a petrol engine installed in the first car. The engine cover can be seen between the umbrella and the man's legs.

Picture courtesy of G Dombroski

When I started this page, I was amazed to find even one photo of the Lartigue locomotive. It took a long time to unearth the few you see here. But now this remarkable book tells you all. Available from:

29/11/07 Unfortunately I have just been told that this book is now out of print. Haven't contacted the publishers to check.

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