The History Thread Rides a Genuine, Bonafide, Steam-Powered Irish Monorail

In 1880, the wider world came to the Kerry market town of Listowel with the arrival of the Limerick & Kerry Railway. Immediately thereafter, with the promise of easier access to education, a boost to tourism and a market for the town’s seaweed and phosphate-rich sand, the small seaside town of Ballybunion began clamouring for a connection. Plans for a narrow-gauge railway or a tramline were bandied about but ran into opposition from landlords and ratepayers, who protested against having to pay for a railway which would not benefit them personally, and the whole project stalled.

Meanwhile, far away in Algeria, a French engineer named Charles Lartigue had a moment of inspiration. As he watched mules and camels laden with panniers full of Esparto grass, he began to consider a railway which ran along similar principles. In 1881 he tested his idea and built a 90km line through the Algerian desert, with wagons pulled by mule teams, which convinced Lartigue that he had a railway that could be built cheaply, repaired easily and wouldn’t require extensive civil engineering to lay. In ’82 Lartigue obtained his patent, forming the Anglo-French Lartigue Construction Company, and three years later he was in London, building a test track in Tothill Fields to advertise his new, low-cost railway as a possible resolution to the Kerry railway problem. Lartigue won the contract, agreeing to build a line between Listowel and Ballybunion that would cost just £33,000. The Tothill locomotive was shipped over to help build the line, which was completed in just five months, and the line opened on the 29th of February 1888. Because the most revolutionary thing about Lartigue’s railway, the thing that made it so cheap to build, was that it was a monorail.

A French solution to an Irish problem – monorail!

The rail sat atop an A-shaped trestle on which the locomotive balanced, driven by a 24-inch powered wheel. Smaller wheels inside the tender could be engaged for extra power on hills. The trestle stood about three feet high, and two unpowered horizontal wheels on the locomotive engaged with two guide rails at either end of the crossbar of the A-shaped trestle to stabilise the train. The track was kept stable by sinking the trestle legs into the ground, reducing the need for expensive sleepers and ballast. The three rather odd-looking locomotives were designed by Anatole Mallet (better known to railway buffs as the pioneer of articulated locomotives) with a firebox and boiler on each side.

“It seems strange, but it is not less true that a remote village on the coast at Kerry should have been selected for the first experiment in a railway system which promises a revolution in the construction of our iron roads. […] The Lartigue system is about as different from all preconceived notions of railways as it is possible to imagine.”

The Irish Times, 6 March 1888

Monorails are the great also-ran of rail-based transport. Every generation has seen the potential advantages of monorails – usually the fact that they can be raised up above ground level, reducing the need for complicated ground level infrastructure. However, they always end up crippled by the chief disadvantage of the monorail – the fact that you either have to build all your infrastructure at monorail height, or keep your monorail on the ground and build even more complicated infrastructure. So it was with Lartigue’s design, which had a number of quirks.

Since the railway was basically an elaborate cast-iron fence, the main and most obvious challenge was crossing the line. Where roads crossed the track, seventeen small drawbridges (the “flying gates”) were built. Where farmers needed access across the line, special turning sections of track were installed so that the farmer could “open” the line in the fashion of a gate and let animals through. The other problem, of course, was foot traffic. To allow passengers to cross the track while the train was in the station, steps were installed on the back of the carriages (plus at least one “bridge wagon”). Points (or switches, to Americans) involved a turntable.

The line’s only intermediate station, Lisselton, which demonstrates how complicated changing lines was.

The other main quirk was the necessity of balancing the train’s load. It was reportedly an unusual and somewhat queasy ride, since third-class passengers faced outwards in the carriages, though if you paid for first-class, you could sit in the traditional manner. Staff quickly learned how to diplomatically reassign passengers to opposite sides of the train to achieve optimum balance. The most famous anecdotes about the line, though, revolve around transporting cows. The classic version is the man who bought a cow in Listowel, then borrowed another to balance the load on the way home to Ballybunion. Once there, he had to borrow another cow in order to return the first loan, and… well, you can see where this is going. In one version of the anecdote, he keeps moving cows up and down the line until he has to sell his original cow to pay the train fare. In another version, this is the mythological origin of how the line really solved the problem – some bright spark instead lends the man two calves to balance his cow, and on the way home, the calves balance each other.

Some wonderful footage of the line in operation, showing the turntables, the flying gates and just how complicated it was to cross the line. The British Pathé person who posted this on Youtube appears baffled – “Perhaps it is some kind of joke?” It wasn’t.

Alas, the Listowel – Ballybunion monorail was always busy but almost never turned a profit. The Lartigue system also never became the industry disruptor its creator hoped for. In 1895, a project in the Loire Valley went bust before it even opened, and in 1899 Parliament rejected a proposal to build a 30-mile Manchester-Liverpool monorail. The company was wound up in 1906, and Lartigue himself died the following year. The Listowel-Ballybunion line soldiered on until the 1920s, but its final years were a slow, painful demise through a decade of war and disruption as WW1, the War of Independence and rural Kerry’s collapsing population took their toll. The line was badly damaged in the Civil War of 1922/23 and lasted one more year before the decision came down that Great Southern Railways, the newly amalgamated Free State railway company, would not be absorbing the unique line. On October 7, 1924, according to the Irish Times a High Court Justice, evidently a fan, stated “with regret” that the Lartigue’s receivers could sell off the railway’s assets. The last train ran on 14 October 1924, and Ireland’s only genuine, bonafide, steam-powered commercial monorail was scrapped. 

Too Weird To Live, And Too Rare To Die

The story of the Lartigue Monorail wasn’t quite over, though. In 2003, 1km of the old monorail was opened once again in Listowel to run as a heritage railway, and a new (diesel-powered) engine, #4, chugs happily up and down the short track, giving tourists a small taste of what it was like to ride a Kerry Monorail.

And that just about wraps up the second chapter in my series on The Strange Railways of Ireland. If you’re interested, I may have at least one more strange railway in my back pocket. The story involves rat viscera, a series of tubes and also possibly breaking a land-speed record… by accident.

Sources and Further Reading

https://www.markholan.org/published-stories/138-2
“Along the line” hosted at https://ifiplayer.ie/along-the-line/
https://www.narrowgauge.nl/site/english/listowel.htm
https://rogerfarnworth.com/2018/12/31/the-listowel-and-ballybunion-railway/
https://www.lartiguemonorail.com/