Ffestiniog Railway: Queen of the Narrow Gauge

 

1. Porthmadog Quay 6. Blaenau
2. Quarry Engine 7. Fairlie's Patent
3. The Longest Grade 8. Downhill Run
4. On Dwyryd's Flank 9. Evening Chores
5. Deviation

 

Seven: Fairlie's Patent

 

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The marvelous
Fairlie Patent Iarll
Meirionnydd

steams by the
Blaenau platform.

After stowing my wounded lens, I set off for the depot to catch the return service back to Porthmadog.  Just as I crossed onto the footbridge leading down to the platforms, a shrill whistle signaled the approach of the train.  At its head steamed an apparition-- a kind of two-headed monster of a steam locomotive. Two fireboxes, two stacks, two sets of cylinders, two sets of drivers: two complete locomotives, each pointing in the opposite direction, joined at the hip by a single cab.  One look at this engine, and an image from childhood came rushing back to me.  When I was very small, I had a much-loved bedtime book. It had pop-up pictures which unfolded as you turned the pages, and it told the story of Dr. Doolittle and his amazing animal friends.  I hadn't thought of that book in years, but the strange steam engine brought it all back in an instant-- for here before me stood none other than the Pushmi-Pullyu!  The two-headed llama; the dear, wonderful creature who never knew whether he was going or coming!  It was unmistakable.  It was laughable.  It was glorious.

 

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The Iarll shows
off the essential
features of the
Fairlie design.


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Pulling up to
the carriages.
I knew what the engine really was, of course: a Fairlie Patent.  Indeed, it was one of the reasons I had come.  In all the globe, the Ffestiniog is the only place one can ride behind this rarest of engines. The Fairlies were the brainchild of their namesake, Victorian railway engineer Robert Fairlie.  George Hilton, dean of the U.S. narrow-gauge historians, ably retells his story. "Fairlie," Hilton writes, "had become convinced that existing locomotives had a common defect: they wasted weight on unpowered wheels and on tenders that were totally useless except to carry fuel and water."  A simple problem, to which Fairlie proposed a radical solution: "The design entailed two simple four-wheel engines, each mounted on a swiveling bogie under one of the two boilers [sic--actually under each end of the boiler]. The couplers and buffers were mounted on the bogies.  All of the locomotive's weight was on the powered drivers."  Nothing like it had ever been seen on British rails, and the design met with a cool reception from the conservative master mechanics of the great standard gauge lines.  In 1869, however, the Ffestiniog offered Fairlie a trial.  In tests run that year and the next, Fairlie's Little Wonder proved a stunning success.  Hauling a test train of over 133 tons burden up Ffestiniog's 14-mile grade, the engine sustained the unheard-of speed of 23 miles per hour.

 

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Firman Michelle
Gammidge pilots
the Fairlie in to a couple.


"Ambitious, articulate, and untrammeled by modesty," Fairlie immediately set about trumpeting his triumph to a skeptical world.   He argued that by combining his patent locomotives with a narrow gauge, railways could be built for half the cost of the ordinary plan, with no reduction in capacity.   Fairlie proved an able promoter.  By 1870, delegations were arriving from around the world to see the "Fairlie system" of bogie locomotives and narrow gauge rails at work in Porthmadog.  A no-doubt-bemused FR management soon played host to guests from Imperial Russia; Europe; the British colonies; and even-- in the person of none other than the Rio Grande's General William Jackson Palmer-- from the American west.   Grateful for the Ffestiniog's cooperation, Fairlie granted to its managers an unlimited license to his locomotive patents.  FR was welcome to build as many Fairlies as its heart desired.

 

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Detail of the bogie
power truck.
In the annals of steam locomotive design, the Fairlie proved a dead end.  Under anything less than perfect maintenance, the flexible steam pipes connecting the boiler to the pivoting bogies leaked atrociously, robbing power from the cylinders. Coal and water storage was criminally small, a direct consequence of Fairlie's insistence that all the fuel be carried on the locomotive itself to aid adhesion.  This meant frequent stops at best, and a very real risk of running out of fuel or water between stations at worst.  Yet if others were disappointed in the design, it served the Ffestiniog well.  FR's designers and workmen crafted several of the engines in the railway's Boston Lodge shops, including some of impressive dimensions.  And it was one of these engines, Iarll Meirionnydd, a newly-built 1979 Ffestiniog original, which had just steamed into Blaenau.  I watched with glee as fireman Michelle Gammidge and driver Colin Dukes uncoupled the engine, refilled its boiler-side watertanks, and then piloted the strange beast back to a coupling with the downhill end of the train.  This day, I would ride behind a rare recreation of steam's earliest engineering history.

 


 

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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.