The Listowel and Ballybunion Railway

Over Christmas 2018 I was looking through a number of old issues of The Railway Magazine. In the May 1950 edition, I came across a short article about the Listowel and Ballybunion Railway. [1]

The line was over 9 miles long and operated on a system which I believe was not replicated elsewhere in the UK or Ireland. It was a unique form of monorail. I have known of the existence of the railway for sometime and had thought that I would one day get round to writing a little about it.

The Railway Magazine article was written around 25 years after the closure of the line in the 1920s. It says: ” The permanent way in use was described by its inventor M. Lartigue, as being on the monorail system; but, although the weight of the train was taken by the carrying rail supported on trestles, two guiding rails, one fixed on each side, near the feet of the trestles, were used. The trestles were 3ft high, and the line practically followed the natural contour of the country; any slight excrescences were levelled so that the carrying rail was everywhere 3ft above surface level. Stability was obtained by sinking the legs of the trestles to a sufficient depth in the ground, and attaching a crosspiece to each pair of legs. The saving in cost was thus great in respect of preparation of roadbed and ballasting, both of which, as known in standard permanent-way construction, were, so to speak, non-existent. Switching and turning were effected by means of pivoting sections of track.” [1. p337]

“The reason for the adoption of the Lartigue system was cheapness of construction. The sea sand at Ballybunion, a small seaside resort on the Atlantic, in County Kerry, near the mouth of the Shannon, had been found to be particularly rich in phosphates; and Lord Devon, who owned considerable estates in the West of Ireland, was anxious that it should be available for fertilising purposes over a wider area. When it was explained to him that a railway for the purpose could be constructed very economically on the Lartigue system, he warmly in supported the scheme; and it was decided to build such a line to Listowel, a small market-town between 9 and 10 miles inland, served by the Limerick-Tralee line of the (then) Waterford, Limerick & Western Railway.”

“The late Mr G.A.Sekon, writing in The Railway Magazine in November 1924, stated that on 16th April 1886, Parliamentary sanction was obtained for the construction of the Listowel & Ballybunion Railway on the Lartigue monorail system. ‘The route mileage,’ he continued, ‘was 9.25, but as the peculiar conditions requisite for the working of the railway required considerable auxiliary lines, the track length was 10.25 miles.’ The capital was fixed at £22,000, with £11,000 borrowing powers, from which it will be observed that the total estimated for the purchase of land, construction of the railway, and provision of rolling stock was only £3,300 a mile. It is of interest to note that, following the passing of the Act, a full-size model railway on the Lartigue system was built on the site of Tothill Fields Prison, Westminster, in July 1886. On this line were gradients of 1 in 10 and curves of 49ft. radius.” [1. p337]

These drawings can be found in the Gallery on the website of the present day heritage attraction. [5]

Construction began in August 1887 and the line opened to traffic on 1st March 1888. There was an intermediate station at Liselton and two places that the train would stop when signalled to do so. Later, a second intermediate station was added at Francis Road. Speed seldom reach 20mph and over 40 minutes were timetabled for the journey. In winter 2 services were provided in each direction. This increased to 5 regular services with son additional ones added as required.

These drawings can be found in the Gallery on the website of the present day heritage attraction. [5]

The railway at was not a financial success. Its highest receipts were taken in 1913 – £740. Usually the railway ran close to break even. In 1897, the company passed into the hands of receivers and remained so until its closure in October 1924. At that time the permanent-way and rolling stock were dismantled and sold for scrap.

The rolling stock was necessarily of twin design. An unusual feature of operation was the necessity for the guard to ‘balance the train’ by ensuring the loading of an approximately equal number of passengers or weight of goods on each side. There were three locomotives, and at one time there had been a fourth; the last-mentioned had been built abroad and was smaller, and was possibly used at Tothill Fields. The other three were built by Hunslet Engine Co. Ltd., Leeds. Each had two parallel boilers, and was suspended on three coupled axles, with wheels 24 in. in diameter placed between the twin boilers. The tender also could be made to exert driving power; it was carried on two coupled wheels, 24 in. in diameter, with a wheel base of 4ft 3in., and was driven by two cylinders, 5in. diameter by 7in. stroke.” [1, p337-338]

Having read the article in The Railway Magazine it seemed that a little research online would be appropriate. Some further information about the railway and its method of operation came to light. It also became apparent that a modern facsimile has been built which has become a visitor attraction in Co. Kerry.

The Lartigue System

The Lartigue Monorail system was developed by the French engineer Charles Lartigue (1834–1907). He developed a horse drawn monorail system invented by Henry Robinson Palmer [4] in 1821. [2] The most well-known example of the system was that constructed between Ballybunion and Listowel, but another line, 17 km (11 miles) long, was built in 1895 between Feurs and Panissières, in the French departmente of Loire. The adjacent image shows a locoi motive and carriage from that line.

Lartigue saw camels in Algeria carrying heavy loads balanced in panniers on their backs. This inspired him to design a new type of railway. Instead of the conventional two parallel rails on the ground, it had a single rail sitting above the sand and held at waist height on A-shaped trestles. The carriages sat astride the trestles like panniers.

By 1881 Lartigue had built a 90 km (56 mi) ‘monorail’ to transport esparto grass across the Algerian desert, with mules pulling trains of panniers that straddled the elevated rail.

However the Lartigue system as built was not truly a monorail, since it was necessary to add two further rails, one on each side, lower down the A frames. These did not carry any weight, but unpowered stabilising wheels fitted to all the engines and wagons contacted these extra rails to prevent the vehicles from overbalancing. [3]

The Wikipedia article about the line notes:

“Locomotives were specially built with two boilers to balance on the track, and consequently two fireboxes, one of which had to be stoked by the driver.” [3]

“They were also fitted with powered tenders for auxiliary use on hills. The tender wheels were driven by two cylinders via spur gears. Two small chimneys were fitted to each tender to discharge the exhaust steam from these cylinders. A smaller engine, nicknamed the “coffee pot”, was used in the construction of the railway, having been used previously on a demonstration line at Tothill Fields in London. It can be seen on an early photo of 1888.” [3]

Loads had to be evenly balanced. If a farmer wanted to send a cow to market, he would have to send two calves to balance it, which would travel back on opposite sides of the same freight wagon, thereby balancing each other. Another problem with using the Lartigue system in populated areas was that, due to the track’s design, it was not possible to build level crossings. In order for a road to cross the track, a kind of double-sided drawbridge had to be constructed, which required an attendant to operate it. [3]

A picture of a level crossing taken from The Railway Magazine, May 1950. [1]

A similar road crossing in the down position. [5]

“Where farmers’ tracks crossed the line there were level crossings based on the principle of a turntable. These were locked and the farmer in question provided with a key. Once unlocked, the track could be swivelled to one side to allow the crossing to be used. Both the swivelling and drawbridge type crossings were automatically linked to signals, which stopped any approaching trains; road traffic was always given priority under this system.” [3]

A picture of a farm track crossing taken from The Railway Magazine, May 1950. [1]

Passengers could not pass from one side of a carriage to another while in motion. A kind of footbridge was built into one end of some of the passenger coaches, while at least one such bridge was carried on a separate wagon. This allowed passengers to cross from one side of the line to the other when the train stopped at a station.

“Conventional railway points could not be used, so a similar function was fulfilled by a large number of curved movable pieces of track which, when rotated one way, would connect the main and one direction; when turned end-for-end, the curve went in the opposite direction, and so connected the main and a different track. These could not be called turntables since they could only be moved when there was no rolling stock on them.” [3]

The line closed in 1924 after the track was damaged during the Irish Civil War, and everything was scrapped, except a short section of the track. [3]

I have found videos on YouTube about the Listowel to Ballybunion line:

It is fascinating to note that a stretch of this line has been reconstructed to give modern holiday-makers a taste of what the line was like in the early 20th century. Nowadays, a visit includes a short demonstration journey on a full-scale diesel-powered replica of the original monorail. During the journey people experience the unique features of the monorail and are able to observe its ingenious switching system. Before or after a journey, it is possible to visit the Lartigue Museum to watch film of the original Lartigue and see models, displays and memorabilia of the Lartigue and main-line railways. [5]


1. The Listowel and Ballybunnion Railway; The Railway Magazine, Volume 96, No. 589, May 1950, p337-338.

2. “The Lartigue Railway”. Australian Town and Country Journal. NSW. 19 March 1887. p. 32. Retrieved 23 February 2013 – via National Library of Australia …. reviewed on 31st December 2018. The text of that article was as follows:

The Lartigue Railway.
The Lartigue railway system is that of a series of cars drawn by horse-power or a specially constructed locomotive, running on a single rail elevated a few feet from the ground. The system has been in use since 1883 in several parts of Europe and Africa; and a model line has recently been shown in action near Victoria Street, Westminster, London. The main features of the system, which is applicable to military, agricultural, or manufacturing lines, are as follows:
The line, which is exceedingly portable, is composed of one rail, of the shape of a flat bar, extremely rigid when subjected to vertical pressure, but easily bent horizontally. This rail is supported above the ground by A-shaped trestles, or frames, made of angle, or some very stiff section of iron. The upper extremity of these trestles is bolted to the rail; and the lower extremity rests on the ground, being supported by a bed-plate or sleeper, to which the frame is firmly secured. The sleepers may be of different sizes, and shapes, and may farther be secured in their places when required by long pegs driven into the ground through holes drilled near the extremity of the sleepers; thus preventing the line from shifting. If a river has to be crossed, some light piers can be made, or two wire cables may be stretched across to receive the trestles of the line; while if a ravine, has to be traversed the line can either be carried directly over the gap, or taken down the gorge by means of a zig-zag length, which can be connected by curves of as small a radius as 10ft. Moreover, it is possible to use gradients as steep as 1 in 17. On passenger lines guards, to prevent the swinging of the cars, and points, sidings, signal, &c., have been introduced; and everything has been constructed with a special eye to simplicity. The cars are fitted with two grooved wheels; which run on the rails; but are fashioned according to the purpose for which they are intended. The passenger carriages, as well as the locomotives, are fitted with horizontal grooved wheels, which run on side guide lines, attached to the trestles by the side of the main line, thus imparting steadiness. As our sketches (above) show, it has been tried in Russia, both for the transport of troops and of military invalids; in the Pyrenees it is used for carrying ore, while its facilities, for passenger traffic were tested at the short line at Westminster. It has been shown at various European exhibitions, and is in use in Algeria and Tunis for carrying esparto grass. Indeed, it was while seeking to solve the problem of carrying the grass from the plains to the mainlines of communication that the idea of the single-line railway first occurred to the inventor, M. Lartigue; the appearance of a caravan of camels in the distance laden with bags on each side of their humps furnishing the starting point. The advantages claimed for the line are its extreme simplicity and portableness. Unevenness of the ground can be balanced by different lengths of trestles, while the motive power can be, either electricity, horse traction, or steam. The inventors say that during a trial in Russia 6ft 6in were laid down in six minutes by six men, so that a mile could be completed by thirty men in eight hours. In this instance the line was raised 3ft 3in above the ground.

3., accessed on 31st December 2018.
4., accessed on 31st December 2018.
5., accessed on 31st December 2018.

4 thoughts on “The Listowel and Ballybunion Railway

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Monorails of the 19th Century | Roger Farnworth

  2. Ken Johnson

    This wonderful system was really designed for railways across deserts, where a conventional railway would quickly be covered by sand.

    There is a story that the Listowel and Ballybunnion was once called upon to transport a piano from Listowel to Ballybunnion. It was loaded at Listowel and counter-balanced with a cow, borrowed from a nearby farmer. At Ballybunnion the piano was unloaded and for the journey back the cow was counterbalanced by two calves, again borrowed from a local farmer. Back at Listowel the cow was unloaded and returned to her owner and one of the two calves was loaded into the opposite side of the wagon so that the two balanced each other and the train could return to Ballybunion.

    I’d rather have a Lartigue railway than HS2 any day of the week.

  3. Peek Monster

    One small typo at the start of 6th paragraph: “Construction began in August 1887 and the line opened to traffic on 1st March 1988.”


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