The Oddest Locomotive?

Updated: 7 Jan 2010
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I don't think that there will be much argument if I say this is one of the strangest locomotives in the Museum. However, there is once more a good reason- or at any rate a reason- for what looks like pure lunacy.

Left: The Laferrère System Locomotive.

This remarkable locomotive is a conversion. The upper part of this construction is a fairly normal 0-6-0 locomotive built for the metre gauge tracks at the Chaillone ballast quarry. However, the need arose to run it on the standard 1.435 m gauge, so rather than rebuilding it, the locomotive was placed on another frame carrying another set of suitably spaced wheels. The idea originated in Geneva, with an engineer called Laferrère.

The original locomotive looks as if it was built somewhere around 1850. The date of the conversion is uncertain but it was reported in the Scientific American Supplement for 23rd June 1888 that it had been working in this form since 1876. The improved picture is taken from that article, which was based on an original article in French in Le Genie Civil.

The original engine weighed 10 tons. The front two original driving axles were disconnected by removing the coupling rods. The cylinders continued to drive the original rear axle, because it carried the eccentrics for the valvegear. The original rear axle was connected to a jackshaft at the rear of the frame, which in turn drove three new driving axles, with wheels on a wider spacing, that were placed in a new frame below the original one. The main connecting rods had a joggle at their ends to allow for the different gauge.
It has been said that the three lower axles and the operational upper axle were all braked, but this is not obvious from the only image that exists of this strange machine, (above) which appears to show a crude wooden block bearing on the forward driving wheels and nothing else.

It at first appears doubtful if this is really a sound idea; apart from anything else, the centre of gravity is considerably raised. What effects this may have had on stability may however have been counteracted by the greater track width, and strange as it may seem, a low centre of gravity on a locomotive is not necessarily a good thing. Nonetheless, it worked. The Scientific American Supplement reported that the modified locomotive had moved about 20 million cubic feet of ballast since 1876 in the form shown, with no accident or damage being reported.

The market for this sort of conversion appears to have been very small, and the Laferrère System failed to catch on. The locomotive shown here appears to have been a one-off.

The lower nameplate reads: "Entreprise Geneve Laferrère". The smaller plate above it appears to read "Call et Cie" who were presumably the original makers.

OTHER GAUGE-CHANGE LOCOMOTIVES

The Laferrère was not the only locomotive that dealt with adaption to the standard gauge by being mounted on a truck with another set of wheels. The tramways of the Guinness Brewery in Dublin had the very narrow gauge of 1ft 10in, but the tiny engines could be used on standard gauge by mounting them on a truck much wider than the locomotive. They were lifted by a hydraulic hoist which stood astride a short section of dual gauge track, and a "haulage wagon" was then propelled under the narrow gauge engine, which was lowered between the frames of the wagon. Both ends of the locomotive were engaged in the wagon and the narrow gauge wheels rested on rollers geared to the running wheels of the haulage wagon at a 3 to 1 reduction ratio. Clearly the conversion process was much faster than that of the Laferrère. Whether the Laferrère principle was the inspiration for the Guinness system is currently unknown.

This apparently ramshackle arrangement was actually very effective, and it operated from 1888 to 1964 at the brewery. However, once again it does not appear to have been copied elsewhere.

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