Fell Type Mountain Railways


An Englishman abroad could be said to have built the first mountain railway in Europe. Well, the railway engineers and builders of the day used an invention from that man, with both English and French patents, to construct a mountain railway – the first – between France and Italy, in the 1860s. It was an international project, and had the backing of both French and Italian governments of the day. But it was partly its novelty and cost that led to its European demise, since it was built in parallel with another project on the same route that constructed a rail tunnel under the same alpine pass.

Ironically perhaps, the Lake District – home to some of England’s highest mountains – does not have a mountain railway. Wales does of course – the Snowdon Mountain Railway – as does the Isle of Man – the Snaefell Railway.

All railways use the adhesion of steel wheel on steel rail for traction, but the addition of the toothed gearing of a central rack rail, allows trains to climb steeper gradients. In the 1850s, this was not then around, and a simpler form of assistance was provided on some early mountain, narrow gauge, and mineral railways.

The later rack railways might have evolved ideas from John Blenkinsop’s locomotive with its toothed wheels, but for narrow gauge, mineral and other lines, a system was devised using a raised, third rail, in the centre of the track, to be gripped by additional wheels mounted below the locomotive.  The steam locomotives used on these systems had two sets of cylinders, the primary used to turn the coupled wheels, and a second, or auxiliary pair used to drive the horizontal wheels that gripped the centre rail.  This was the system developed and introduced by an engineer, who spent his formative years in and around Lakeland – John Barraclough Fell.

Fell was born in London in 1815, moved to West Cumberland (now part of Cumbria) in 1835 and in the early 1840s was at work on the mineral lines of the Cumberland coast. In addition he worked with and for the Whitehaven and Furness Junction Railway, although not in connection with any proposal to construct a line through, across or over Lake District fells or mountain passes.  By the 1850s, John Fell was living in Italy, and became closely involved in the building of a new railway over the Mont Cenis pass, to link Italy and France by rail.

Fell had worked on a number of the early French and Italian railways, between Calais and Brindisi on the Adriatic coast, in partnership with Thomas Brassey. The object of which was to provide a dedicated route for postal services to part of the British Empire – notably India. This was known as the ‘All Red Route’, but in the case of the rail connection across Europe, the Alpine barrier had to be crossed, and which is where John Fell’s invention came to be used at Mont Cenis

Early Trials

Fell’s invention – it was patented in 1863 in both England and France – was tried on the Cromford and High Peak line in Derbyshire, but also in the iron mining district of Furness, in North Lancashire. This was an experimental mineral line, and laid out in 1868, from a siding provided by the Furness Railway at Roose. It was built to connect to the rich iron ore deposits at the Yarlside mines, a mile away from the Furness Railway’s main line, and was initially horse drawn. A couple of years later, Fell built the Yarlside Iron Mines Tramway, this time an elevated tramway, with an endless steel hauser, pulling the waggons across the 8ins gauge line. The line was described at some length in The Engineer for 30th September1870, including this interesting extract:



The images shown above are reproduced here courtesy of: “The Engineer”

Clearly shown in the lower view are the guidewheels – not for providing extra adhesion, but using the same principles, as defined in Fell’s patent, to ensure the wagons remained on the elevated guideway. The principal applied to larger, standard and metre gauge railways gripped the rails, as on its application to the Mont Cenis Railway.

The Fell system’s initial advantage over other rack systems in that the third rail is not toothed, but rather a smooth bar/rail that is “hugged” by a set of horizontal wheel pairs under the special locomotives for that system. The concept in application was clearly intended to speed up railway building in hilly, or mountainous areas, and the ideas expanded to include special purpose and military applications, but its advantage disappeared on standard gauge routes, and as the rack and pinion technology advanced.

First Mountain Railway in Europe

The railway was to be financed entirely privately, and with the formation of the Mont Cenis Concessionary Company in 1864 permission was requested from the French and Italian governments to build this railway. It was to include space for a road alongside, which created some construction challenges along the way, especially in many places where the trackbed was built on a shelf on the side of the mountain.

Overall, the railway was 77 kilometres (48 miles) long, with a gauge of 1,100 mm, and in essence designed by John Fell, to incorporate his newly developed three-rail adhesion system

Some of the people involved and subscribers to this new venture included some famous names in the railway, civil construction, and engineering world, including:

Engineers list


A Mont Cenis Railway (MC) train in the Italian French border area, hauled by 0-4-0 No.10. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the coaches from this railway has been preserved at the Blonay-Chamby Museum Railway in Switzerland.

Following trials on site in 1865, the line was given the go ahead, but almost before any ground was cut, the contractors went bust, and additional finance was needed, with direct labour on the French side, and another contractor Gianoli & Canova on the Italian side, under John Fell as Managing Director. The railway was built as the Mont Cenis Railway Company (Limited), with locomotives to be built at Brassey’s Canada Works, in Birkenhead – although French law prohibited the import of these and Ernest Goüin et Cie of Paris was used instead. Coming from the background where in England, Alexander Allan and Robert Stephenson style of valve gear dominated, the valve motion on these early locomotives seems to exhibit characteristics of both designs – adding to the complexity!

That said, when the inspection of the completed line was undertaken in 1867, the French locomotives were not ready, and for testing the second of two British-built engines, built by James Cross at St Helens in 1864 was used. Chevalier, Cheilus & Cie of Paris, built the rolling stock, and some were delivered in time to start services in June 1868.

Of course things were complicated in the 1860s – aside from the terrain and geology, the international nature of the project, the relatively new form of transport, to say nothing of the inclusion of Fell’s centre rail technology – it’s amazing the railway was built at all. Overall, it was stated that the line cost some £392,000 to build – or just under £8,000 per mile.

The gradients in the Mont Cenis Railway alignment were too severe for normal adhesion alone to be used, and Fell’s system included a rail, fixed centrally between the two running rails, and gripped by additional wheels carried below the locomotive. The brake vans on these trains also carried additional wheels that engaged with this raised, centre rail – and the system could be used to provide additional assistance whether driving or braking.

At the time of its completion, the railway represented the final link in the chain of railways that were built, or directly involved John Fell and Thomas Brassey between Calais and Brindisi. The starting point for this missing link was the Paris-Lyon-Marseille (PLM) Railway station at St Michel. Here, arriving passengers simply crossed the platform, to board the Mont Cenis line train, which at the time typically consisted of a Goüin locomotive, a guard’s van, a goods van, and three coaches. The other end of the line was at Susa, where the train connected with the Società per le strade ferrate dell’Alta Italia (Upper Italian Railways, SFAI) in Italy’s Piedmont region, taking passengers to Turin and beyond.

In the same article in “The Engineer” above, Mr Fell was keen to indicate that the railway’s detractors – who had suggested it would not be a profitable enterprise – were not correct. He commented:

“It had been predicted of the Mont Cenis Railway that to attempt to carry the traffic over such a line by locomotive engines would be impracticable, and, if possible, would be dangerous. ‘We can now reply to these doubts by the result of two years and three months’ working of the summit line. During that period trains have run a distance of more than 200,000 miles, and have carried between France and Italy over 100,000 passengers without injury to any one of them, and, besides, have effected the transport of a considerable merchandise traffic.

However, at the same time of course, the tunnel through this section of the Alps was being progressed, and the Fell Railway was seen as a temporary measure, until the tunnel – on which progress was slow at first – was completed. In fact work progressed more quickly as tunnelling techniques improved, and it opened for traffic in September 1871. However, the mountain railway, which had been opened in 1868 was at this point effectively redundant, and resulted in not inconsiderable financial loss for those involved.

To some extent though, some of that loss was recovered in South America, where the Fell system was once again deployed on a mountain railway.

The ‘Fell System’ described in ‘The Engineer’ in 1870 introduced the possibility of even more innovative designs for what Fell described as narrow gauge, and smaller, for areas where populations were sparse or access difficult. At the same time these narrower than narrow gauge designs were being proposed they were described as being cheap to build and operate, but they were suspended on timber or steel supports, and with an 8ins to 18ins gauge. This was one of the designs proposed:

Narrow Gauge Suspension Railway_1

Fell’s proposal for the railway from Ouchy to Lausanne in Switzerland. It quite literally never got off the ground, but was certainly a novel idea.

The Mont Cenis and its related proposals was not the only innovative design Fell produced for a European railway, whilst Fell had suggested that surveys in India – especially the Ghats surrounding Mumbai (Bombay) – could be climbed more easily, and cheaply using the Fell System. Similar suggestions for the ‘Fell System’ were said to be suitable for use in Spain and Italy.

Coffee from Brazil

Following the success of the Mont Cenis Railway, Fell’s next application was in Brazil. In fact one of the only two Fell Railways in the Southern Hemisphere was the Estrada de Ferro Cantagallo (EF Contagallo), which opened for traffic in 1873. This was Brazil’s first mountain railway, and was built to transport coffee from the plateau area, down to the coast for export to the rapidly expanding global coffee market.

The railway, a narrow gauge line, set at 1,100mm, ran from Niteroi on Guanabara Bay, opposite Rio De Janeiro to Nova Friburgo, a distance of a mere 130km (85 miles), but climbing from sea level to almost 845metres (3,000ft), with very steep gradients and sharp curvatures. The maximum gradient was 1 in 12, and the sharpest radius curve between 33metres (111ft) and 100metres (328ft.).


Fell locomotive ascending the Serra do Mar on the EF Contagallo, clearly showing the raised centre rail. (Photo: Matheus Peixoto)

The EF Contagallo was opened just 5 years after the Mont Cenis Railway, and a couple of years following the opening of the Fréjus Rail Tunnel that still carries rail traffic between France and Italy under the same mountain pass. In fact, as a result of the success of the rail tunnel, infrastructure, locomotives and rolling stock from Mont Cenis were initially used in Brazil.

At the same time, the Contagallo Railway bought three new 0-4-0 steam types from Manning Wardle’s Boyne Engine Works in Leeds, but these were very light weight – only 14 tons, and would have needed the extra adhesion from the centre rail to haul any vehicles. The locomotives were delivered in 1872, with the friction wheels gripping the centre rail through spring pressure, and driven by an additional set of cylinders on the locomotive. The two outside cylinders were used on the easier sections of this line, driving the coupled wheels in a more or less conventional manner.


A close up view of the centre rail driving wheels as used on the EF Contagallo Railway. (Photo: Matheus Peixoto)

10 years later, the Contagallo Railway ordered much bigger engines from Baldwin in the USA, which were significantly bigger, weighing in at 44 tons, and did not carry the Fell equipment. By that time, the Fell system was retained for braking purposes only, with the locomotives having sufficient weight and power to operate as adhesion only.


One of the later Baldwin built 2-6-0 types, still sporting slide valves to the two main outside cylinders. (Photo: Matheus Peixoto)

Towards the turn of the 19th century the Contagallo Railway had been extended to Macuco, and Carmo, where a connection was made with the Leopoldina Railway, and which acquired EF do Cantagallo in 1911, making the Leopoldina’s first connection with the state of Rio. After the takeover, a range of different locomotive designs was tried, but the most successful were four small Garratt types were employed, but without the Fell complexity on the engine itself. This additional power proved very successful. The Contagallo Railway, under its new ownership declined in use over the years, partly due to the opening of new lines from the Minas Gerais coffee growing state to the state and port locations in Rio, but also it has been suggested down to its obsolete technology and poor management. By the 1960s, trains were regularly using the Recreio – Campos dos Goytacazes or Auxiliar lines, between Paraíba do Sul and Japeri, and it finally closed in 1965. Almost 100 years for this technical curiosity.

New Zealand – The Rimutaka Incline

The Rimutaka Incline was a short, but spectacular section of the railway between Wellington and Masterton on New Zealand’s North Island. It was a was a 3-mile-long (4.8 km), 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge line with an average gradient of 1-in-15 between Summit and Cross Creek stations, opened in 1878, and closed in 1955. The incline was part of the 107 miles (127km) Wairarapa Line, over the Rimutaka Mountains, taking the railway into the sheep farming and dairying district of the Wairarapa Plains.

Rimutaka 1

One of the last trips up the Rimutaka Incline in New Zealand, with multiple steam locos in 1955, shortly before closure. (c) RPB Collection/GEC Traction

The line followed the Hutt River valley from Wellington for around 20 miles, before reaching the western slopes of the Rimutaka Range, then on gradients of 1 in 35 to 1 in 40, a further 15 miles before Summit station was reached. Then, a very sharp descent over just 3 miles or so to Cross Creek, with gradients between 1 in 13 and 1in 15, along with curves of no more 330ft (100 metres), close to the shores of Lake Wairarapa.

The illustration below shows one of the final steam trains climbing to the summit, behind the by then standard motive power, the Class H locomotives.

Rimutaka 2

A typical Rimutaka train, taken on one of the last trips up, when a certain laxity with passengers was permitted. It was common however, for passengers to get off and walk, and then climb back on, for the upward journey. (c) RPB Collection/New Zealand Government Railways

Maxwell_Cutting on Rimutaka Incline.tif

Postcard view of the Maxwell Cutting on the Rimutaka Incline showing the track with the raised centre rail. Photo: Murray Maxwell Collection at Upper Hutt City Library http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/ 

The incline itself was constructed under two contracts, one for the Summit station, yard and tunnel, with works carried out by the New Zealand Public Works Department. The second contract for the incline itself was awarded to Charles McKirdy – although his work was only to provide the trackbed and formation, with the remainder of the activity undertaken by the Public Works Department.

This incline was the second and more direct option, with the first, or ‘Parliamentary Line’ involving conventional gradients, but a longer and more tortuous route. But, it included some very sharp curves, and unstable terrain, and was ruled out, leaving the Rimutaka Incline as the preferred option.   Here too, the soon to be Abt and Riggenbach rack and pinion technology was not fully developed, and so in order to meet the requirements on the Rimutaka in the 1870s, the ‘Fell System’ was deployed.

In 1874, the Avonside Engine Co. in Bristol found itself with an order for four locomotives, fitted with the Fell equipment, and the centre rails that would be fitted to the track sleepers. The rails, as on the other two examples were bullhead, or double-headed variety, and secured to the supports mounted on wooden sleepers, to provide the necessary extra height so that the ‘gripping wheels’ could engage with the rail. In total the centre rails were 6.5ins above running rail height, and another 4.63ins above the sleepers to which they were bolted.

Avonside delivered these four locos in 1875, and in 1886, two further locomotives arrived, from Neilson & Co.’s Hyde Park Works in Glasgow. All six were 0-4-2T, and ‘Class H’, with running numbers 199-202 (Avonside), and 203-204 (Neilson), and weighed in at just under 40tons. They were four cylinder types – but with two of the cylinders driving the rear pair of coupled wheels, and the other two driving the spring-loaded gripper wheels for the centre, ‘Fell rail’. In service they were numbered H199 to H204, and lasted from 1878 toi 1956, when they were all retired. The first of the class H199, was the only member rescued for preservation, and remains today at the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston, New Zealand as the only surviving steam locomotive of its kind. Ironically perhaps, H199 also carried the name ‘Mont Cenis’ – a marked reference to the first application of the Fell system to a mountain railway.

The ‘Fell System’ appeared – at least in part, on two other steeply graded lines on New Zealand’s South Island, after good reserves of coal were found in the Paparoa Range. The Roa Incline on the Blackball Branch on the western side of South Island, and an incline on the Rewanui Branch was fitted with the Fell centre rail, and the system was deployed on the brake vans only. The Rewanui Branch also served the coal deposits in the Paparoa Range, from the western terminus of the Midland Line at Greymouth.


Locomotive on the railway line between Blackball and Roa, West Coast, photographed circa 1940s-1950s. Photo: By The Press – http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23181741, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44269511

The demise of the Rimutaka Incline route was hastened by the need for improved communication between Wellington, the Wairarapa district and the East Coast increased during the inter-war period, and a tunnel was approved before WW2, to remove this bottleneck. This became known as the Rimutaka Deviation and involved constructing 14 miles of single-track railway, with a 5 miles long tunnel, connecting the station at Cross Creek, to Upper Hutt. The tunnel that was built became the longest in New Zealand, longer even than the Otira Tunnel, and reduced the distance over this section of railway by some 9 miles, and eliminated the dramatic ascent of the Rimutaka Incline.

The first blasting took place at Upper Hutt in 1946, with the construction works carried out by the Public Works Department, but in a reversal of the construction of the incline route, the deviation and tunnel was completed by a private contractor in 1955, and opened on 3rd November the same year. On 8th November 1955, the incline route was closed and the demolition work and removal of track was completed less than 6 months later. Some of the vehicles – the brake vans – were sent to the Roa and Rewanui Branches.


This is the only example of a Fell type locomotive – H199 at the Fell Engine Museum in New Zealand. © Simon Robinson, 2002, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3948207

Thankfully that preserved example of a unique and highly innovative railway design remains today, and the work carried out by John Barraclough Fell on the Furness Railway, the Yarlside Mines near Barrow-in-Furness, and from Switzerland to Brazil and NewZealand remains an important tale in railway history.


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