The Lartigue monorail in Listowel

In early May 2010 I visited the monorail museum in Listowel (Lios Tuathail), about 45 minutes from Tralee in Co Kerry, Ireland. The museum is devoted to the railway that used to run from Listowel to the coast at Ballybunion, about 9 miles away. The Listowel & Ballybunion Railway (1888-1924) was no ordinary railway and not even a narrow gauge one, but a monorail line on the system devised by the French engineer Charles Lartigue. The track consisted of a single carrying rail on A frames, with two light guiding rails down each side of the frames. The rolling stock ran on the carrying rail and was kept upright by the guide rails. The A frames were originally mounted on iron sleepers.

Lartigue’s idea came from the pannier loads hung on mules and camels in the desert in Algeria. In 1881 he constructed a 90km monorail line in the desert which was powered by mules. An advantage of this kind of railway is that it can cope with uneven terrain with less surface work. The height of the A frames can be varied to suit the ground level. The system has its drawbacks of course: loads have to be balanced on each side of the track, crossing the line is difficult and it is impossible to use ordinary railway points. Despite all this the little Listowel and Ballybunion Railway did excellent service for several decades until it was severely damaged during the Irish civil war of 1922-23. The concern was wound up in 1924.

The locomotives of the L&B were designed by no other than Anatole Mallet, who is best known for his design of the Mallet articulated locomotive. The three locomotives were built by Hunslet of Leeds. They ran on three wheels, making them an 0-3-0, and had a booster engine in the tender. They had two boilers hung side by side, which gave them a low centre of gravity and must have made them much more stable than we would imagine. Photos and drawings of the original locomotives can be found HERE. Very little is left of the original railway. What is left can be seen HERE.

Little is known about the unsuccessful Lartigue monorail line in France, between Panissières and Feurs, which was due to be opened in 1895 but this had to be postponed several times as additional work was needed. In 1897 the company gave up the struggle and it was wound up in 1899. The tale is told however, in French, on panissieres.net. Be certain to visit the other pages on this website: monorail2 and 2002_monorail. The latter shows photos of the replica Lartigue steam locomotive mounted on a plinth in the centre of the village.

After many years of fund raising and preparation, in the year 2000 a start was made to build a museum in Listowel, featuring a working replica of the Lartigue system. In the former broad gauge goods shed, adjacent to the old monorail terminus, a museum was opened with a narrow site extending along John B Keane Road. This contains about 1km of track, turntables and curved switch tables, and platforms. A replica monorail train was constructed resembling an original locomotive and two carriages, and this is used to transport passengers and illustrate the operation of the Lartigue system. The locomotive is diesel-driven of course, which is a sensible solution in view of the investment needed for a steam engine.

When I arrived at the museum, about an hour before closure on a Friday afternoon, I was the only visitor. Despite this I was given a complete tour and invited on the locomotive for a footplate trip down the line. The museum people went out of their way to show me everything: the engine was parked on a turntable for me to inspect and photograph, and the entire shunting operation was performed for me. At the end they showed me the only remaining film of the original railway dating from around 1920. The ride is less bumpy than I had imagined as the track is surprisingly solid, although the old film shows the train lurching a bit from side to side. On this page my photos and videos, made with thanks to the museum staff, can be viewed. Click on any image to enlarge or to start the film. The website of the museum is of much interest, at www.lartiguemonorail.com. If you come to Co Kerry, this museum is well worth a visit. It can be found in John B Keane Road in Listowel, and there are signs on the main road as you enter the town.

Video - 13 minutes: click on image to start.

A steam impression on video.

What if this was a real steam loco and no diesel-powered replica? Click on the image to start.

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