Sail on The Rail

Updated: 8 Sept 2015

Sail in USA added
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Sail power has never found much popularity on railways. It is easy to see why- for a start, tacking into an opposing wind is going to be a very difficult business. One could also anticipate problems when a four-masted schooner-rig express engine encounters a tunnel.

The examples below are in chronological order.


Left: Sail on the South Carolina Railroad: 1830

“On the 22nd of January, 1830, a car which had been constructed to be propelled by a sail, was carried along at the rate of 20 miles an hour, the whole length of the rail [six miles]. The preparations for sailing were very hastily got up, and of course were not of the best kind; owing to this circumstance the experiment afforded high sport.

"The wind blew very fresh from about northeast which, as a sailor would say, was ‘abeam,’ and would drive the car either way with equal speed. When going at the rate of about twelve miles an hour and loaded with fifteen passengers, the mast went by the board, with the sail and rigging attached, carrying with them several of the crew. The wreck was described by several friendly shipmasters, who kindly rendered assistance in rigging a jury mast, and the car was again soon put under way…it was ascertained that the car would sail within four points of the wind…when a northwester’ was blowing, it would be dragged out to the farther end of the Mount Clair embankment, and come back, literally with flying colors.”

From the Charleston Courier for 20 March 1830

On the 16th of December 1831 the Dundee and Newtyle railway opened in the Strathmore valley in Scotland. Its main purpose was to get produce from the Strathmore valley to the city of Dundee. At this early date it was a completely isolated line.

"William McIntosh, a surgeon of Strathmore has left an interesting account of the horse-operated service that linked Coupar Angus and Ardler between 1837 and 1841. The solitary passenger vehicle had masts fitted at the corners and when the wind was right a tarpaulin was stretched between the poles. With this spread of canvas and a brisk wind the carriage could achieve a speed of 20mph. The horse trotted behind the carriage ready to take over if the wind dropped."

From Forgotten Railways: Scotland by John Thomas, pub David & Charles 1976. The original account was published in the Dundee Weekly News for 5 November 1898

The line closed in 1955.

No sooner had I uploaded this page when a number of correspondents pointed out that 'Spooner's Boat' is a regular feature on the Ffestiniog Railway in Wales. This extraordinary rail-mounted boat is a replica, completed in 2005, of an original vehicle used both as a private vehicle and as an inspection carriage by Charles Easton Spooner, manager and engineer of the Ffestiniog Railway during the mid-19th century.

Left: The reconstructed 'Spooner's Boat' on the Ffestiniog Railway

The date of construction of the original rail-boat is unknown, but is considered to be before 1863. It was destroyed when Mr Spooner left Tanygrisiau in the rail-boat, to travel down the line under gravity, but without carrying the train staff. (a wooden staff that would have given him authority to travel on that section of single line) Predictably, the rail-boat crashed into an up train at the north end of the old Moelwyn tunnel in February 1886. Those on board jumped clear and no-one was killed, but most were injured.

The reconstructed rail-boat is currently fitted with a dipping lug rig, and with this fitted she has reached 20 mph. (17.4 knots)

You can find out a good deal more information from Festipedia, which is like Wikipedia but specialising in the history of the Ffestiniog Railway .

You can see Spooner's rail-boat getting up a fair turn of speed on Youtube.
Apparently the Bishop of Bangor is on board.

Thanks to Jon Legge and Ed Harris for information


Left: Sail-hauled guano in the South Pacific: 1889

This sail-powered tramway was used on Malden Island in the South Pacific to transport guano five miles from the fields being worked to the pier. The guano was being exploited by Australian interests for fertiliser. The empty trucks were moved by hand to the excavation area, and when loaded were sailed to the pier making use of the prevailing southeastern winds. Apparently it would capsize if the sail was hoisted without a load of barrels. The tramway was still in use up to 1924, and the trackbed still exists today.

From The Railroad and Engineering Journal Volume 63, Number 4, Page 200, April, 1889.

The Spurn Railway was a military line, built on the Spurn Peninsula, at the south-east tip of Yorkshire, when it was decided to fortify the Humber Estuary at the start of the First World War. Several "sail bogies" were at use on this line from the end of the war onwards.

Above: A four-wheel sail bogie at Spurn Point: 1933

It is standing near the lifeboatmens’ look-out hut on Spurn Point. The sail bogies were built and used by the local lifeboatmen and men working for the War Department.

For more information see the Spurn Railway site. Thanks to Keith S Angus for drawing my attention to this railway.


Left: Sail power on the rails in Kent: 1931

Or should that be "off the rails"? It is now known that this sail-powered trolley was used on the Francis Cement Works tramway at Cliffe in Kent after the works closed in 1921; the trolley was run down to the shore at Cliffe to dig worms and inspect the sea defences.
See 'The Cement Railways of Kent' by B D Stoyel & R W Kidner, p64. (Oakwood Press 1990)

I think the "locomotive" is gaff-rigged, but given my general lack of knowledge on seagoing matters I wouldn't take that on trust if I were you.

From the British journal Railway Gazette 22 May 1931, p772

Left: Sail power on the rails in Kent: 1931

Another view of the sail-powered trolley. This shows that it had a relatively complex rig with two masts, and a single jib. (the triangular sail at the front)
In the opinion of Mike Munro, it was converted from a side-tipping vee-skip wagon.

Mike Munro has an excellent web-page on sail-powered rail vehicles.

Photograph by kind permission of Mike Munro

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