From The Engineer 150 years ago


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The illustrations above were published without description in The Engineer in September 1868, but here is an outline of the railway and its story.

The Mont Cenis Railway was the first mountain railway in the world and operated briefly from 1868 to 1871 while the Fréjus Rail Tunnel through the Alps between south-east France and north-west Italy was being constructed. The railway designed by John Barraclough Fell was 77 kilometers (48 miles) long, with a gauge of 1,100 mm. It was used to transport English mail to India as part of a 1400 mile rail connection between Calais and Brindisi, much of it built by Thomas Brassey and John Barraclough Fell.

Until this railway was built, rail passengers had to cross the Alps by horse-drawn stage coach in summer or sledge in winter.

A British company was established in 1864 by a number of British contractors, engineers and investors to obtain permission from the two governments to build the railway. These included: Brassey, Fell, James Brunlees and Alexander Brogden. Having obtained permission, they established the Mont Cenis Railway Company to build and run the railway. Although it would shortly be superseded by the tunnel, they believed that, during its life the cost would be repaid with a profit. The company used British engine drivers and workmen.

Following delays it did not start until 15 June 1868. Meanwhile, the tunnel was progressing faster than expected as new tunneling methods were developed. It opened on 16 October 1871. This meant that the mountain railway was active for an even shorter time than expected, leaving the proprietors facing a considerable loss. However, the technology proved itself and was used on a number of other mountain railways.

Alexander was appointed locomotive engineer and Brassey's Canada Works selected to build the locomotives. After they had built one, the directors discovered that French law prohibited importation of foreign machinery subject to a French patent. Fell had taken out at least one French patent.

By then, the most reputable French manufacturers were busy, so they used Ernest Goüin et Cie. of Paris despite Alexander having reported on them unfavourably. The locomotives were to be delivered in February, March and April 1867. The locos were designed by Alexander and his designs were passed by the board. The rolling stock was built by Chevalier, Cheilus & Cie of Paris.

The company asked the French and Italian regulators to come to an inspection on 20 September 1867, with a view to open for freight as soon as possible and for passengers in October. They were optimistic. However, later in September they had a private test using the No. 3 locomotive, the first from Goüin. The test was a disaster. Not only No. 3 but two other locomotives broke down in the attempt to complete the test. Goüin had used inferior iron on the rocking shafts, rather than first grade iron or forged steel as specified, and as a result the shafts had failed in the test. Moreover, the trailing axles could not accommodate the tight curves and had to be removed. As a result the rear driving wheels would need additional bearings and springs.

The trial period was completed on 2 June 1868.

In July 1870 there was a petition to wind up the company. The railway continued to run until the tunnel could take over, but trade was hampered by the Franco-Prussian War and the revolution in September. Paris was a major source of traffic and the siege of Paris reduced traffic by two thirds.

The tunnel breakthrough took place on Christmas Day 1870. The first train ran through the tunnel on 16 Sep 1871.