09 July 2019
How the Lartigue monorail was
brought back to life in Listowel
For a long time, I thought Lartigue was an Irish place name. I had seen signs for Lartigue, and thought it was a townland or a village on the road between Listowel and Ballybunion, with an old railway station on a long-closed train line.
I had seen the signs … and I was wrong.
Last weekend, I visited the Lartigue Monorail and Museum in Listowel, Co Kerry, and heard the story of a steam-powered monorail that ran for 15 km between Listowel and Ballybunion on the coast from 1888 to 1924. And it was designed by Charles Lartigue, an inventive French engineer.
This unique railway has a special place in Irish railway history as the only monorail of its type to operate successfully on a commercial basis. It carried passengers, livestock and freight along a rail supported on A-shaped trestles. But the original Lartigue Monorail also created interest, curiosity and amusement.
The weekend visit included a short demonstration journey on a full-scale diesel-powered replica of the original monorail. On the journey, volunteers showed the unique features of the monorail and its ingenious switching system.
The Listowel-Ballybunion Railway opened on 1 March 1888. It ran 15 km between Ballbunion and Listowel and was the only railway of its type in the world.
The monorail was invented and developed by Charles Lartigue, who had built a prototype monorail in Algeria that was 90 km long and was used to carry esparto grass across the Sahara. The cargo was carried in pannier-like wagons slung on either side of a single rail, mounted on A-shaped trestles. The wagons were connected to bogies whose wheels ran along the rail.
Lartigue’s design is said to have been inspired by watching camels carrying large loads in panniers balanced on either side of their backs. The single raised rail was a distinct advantage in the desert where shifting sands made a conventional rail line virtually unusable.
Lartigue brought a length of his line to an exhibition in London in 1886, in the hope of selling his idea as a viable railway option. At the same time, people in North Kerry were lobbying for the railway to be extended to include a link from Listowel to Ballybunion.
The decision was taken to try out Lartigue’s idea on a Listowel-Ballybunion line. The new railway opened in 1888 at a cost of £30,000. The train carried passengers, freight, cattle and sand from the Ballybunion sandhills. The passengers included Ballybunion children on the way to school in Listowel, people from Kerry and Limerick making their way to the beach resort of Ballybunion and golfers going to the new golf course at Ballybunion.
But the line was barely financially viable and never made a real profit. Its closure was hastened by severe damage during the civil war in 1921-1923, and after 36 years it closed in 1924.
To mark the centenary of the line in 1988, local historians Michael Guerin and Michael Foster published histories of the line, and Michael Barry of Lisselton assembled 50 metres of salvaged track and an original carriage.
A Lartigue Restoration Committee set up in 1990s was chaired by Jimmy Deenihan TD, with Jack McKenna, who had travelled on the footplate of the original Lartigue, as President.
Work on building a new Lartigue began in 2000. The building work was carried out by the Restoration Committee and a team of FAS workers, and the train went into operation in June 2003.
The railway has about 1,000 metres of monorail track, three switches, two turntables and three platforms representing Listowel, Lisselton and Ballybunion. There is one engine, which is an exact reproduction of the original engines, although this is diesel driven, and two third-class carriages, modelled on the originals. The replica engine, carriages, switches, turntables and the track were built by Alan Keef Ltd of Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth, builders of many theme railways in Britain.
The present journey on the Lartigue starts less than 100 metres from the point where the original Lartigue began its journey to Ballybunion. The site of the original Lartigue Listowel Terminal is preserved in a park beside the new Lartigue, along with the bases of two switches and the foundations of the Engine House.
Before the journey, I visited the museum to see a video presentation of the original monorail and models, displays and memorabilia of the Lartigue and mainline railways.
The original GW&SR (later CIE) goods shed for the main Limerick-Tralee Line has been restored and converted into a museum and interpretative centre. This also acts as the entrance hall and ticket office.
The museum exhibits include memorabilia, photographs, posters, tickets, signs, lamps and newspaper cuttings. An audio-visual room has film footage of the original steam-powered Lartigue. There are scale models of the original Lartigue train, a model of the Lartigue station and the mainline station, and interactive models of some of the unique features of the Lartigue line. A touch-screen PC has original photographs, documents, and video clips illustrating the history of the Lartigue railway.
The Lartigue Railway and Museum in Listowel, Co Kerry, are open this summer (1 May to 7 September and 15 to 30 September 2019) daily from 1 pm to 4.30 pm.