The Broadest Railway Gauge… Ever. Ever.

In an earlier article, I wrote about the Middlesbrough Transporter Bridge, which I found to be wonderfully quirky, with elements of boat, railway and gantry crane about it. This time, though, we look at what you’d get if you could crossbreed a seaside pier, a pleasure steamer, and a tram.

Magnus Volk had already had a success with his Electric Railway in Brighton. It opened in 1883, the third such railway or tramway in the world, the first in the UK and the oldest surviving one. In the summertime you can still go for a ride along the same seafront track, in a funny little yellow carriage.

With a successful passenger transport business in place, Volk wanted to extend the line eastwards, but found that he would need to ascend to clifftop level – a costly and difficult proposition.

So what do you do?

You build your railway in the sea, of course! (In this, Volk may have been inspired by the Pont Roulant, a ‘rolling bridge’ that ran on submerged rails, across the harbour entrance at St Malo in France. That wasn’t self-propelled, though.)

Volk had two 825 mm gauge tracks laid down on land that was exposed at low tide, running all the way to the village of Rottingdean, some 4½km away. These were no ordinary narrow gauge lines, though: they ran parallel, the whole way, and the vehicle that was designed to ride on the rails straddled both – giving it a gauge of 5.5m.

The tram itself was called ‘Pioneer’, but most people called it Daddy Long Legs – and at 7m, they certainly were long. Pioneer’s main deck was 13.7m by 6.7m, and featured a glazed cabin with leather-upholstered seating, and a second promenade deck on its roof. Because it was technically a seagoing vessel, it had to have a qualified captain at the helm, and was equipped with life preservers and a small boat on davits. (In this pre-Titanic era, it seems you weren’t obliged to have enough lifeboat space for everyone…)

Poster advertising Pioneer

A Sea Voyage, on Wheels. Six pence.

At 46 tonnes, it may have been the biggest thing that the Gloucester Railway Carriage & Wagon Company ever made. A single trolleybus-style cable stretched along the whole of Pioneer’s route, providing power at 500V (DC). Current was returned via the rails, and via the sea itself when the tide was high. (This was long before anybody ever muttered those killjoy words, “Health and Safety.”)

Equipped with a pair of 25hp (18.65kW) motors from General Electric, Pioneer was horribly underpowered, and struggled to push its way through a high tide. It wasn’t very well streamlined, but it was tremendously popular.

Volk’s sea tram, underway

They certainly don’t make ’em like they used to…

The railway opened on November 28th 1896, but there was a terrible storm a week later that caused Pioneer to slip her moorings and roll away down the track. Pioneer ended up lying on her side, badly damaged. Repairs began straight away, but it wasn’t until the following July that the line reopened. Nonetheless, 44,282 passengers were carried that year.

Presently, shifting of the stones beneath the track’s sleepers forced a closure for repairs in the middle of the tourist season. Then in 1901 the council announced construction of a beach protection barrier that would have forced Volk to divert his line in order to avoid the new obstacle. He chose to close up shop instead: the world’s only seagoing tram was moored at Ovingdean Gap until 1910, when the whole lot was cut up for scrap. Today, all that remains of the railway is some of the concrete sleepers, visible at low tide.

This 3D modelled reproduction gives some idea of the scale of the Pioneer. [Animation by Delaney Digital]

Clearly, the Brighton to Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway never worked very well, and it didn’t bring in enough money to justify costly track alterations… but if it had somehow avoided the scrap man’s oxyacetylene torch, what a wonderful tourist attraction it would make today!

Inadvertently, in the process, those Victorian engineers built the widest railway ever. The tongue-twisting Lärchwandschrägaufzug in Austria has a broader gauge, at 8.2m, but that’s a funicular railway, and basically a repurposed goods lift that now carries tourists. If you feel that a funicular qualifies, then there’s the ship-lift at the Krasnoyarsk Dam, with a track width of 9m… but is either a ‘railway’? Hardly. Disappointingly, I can’t cite the Montech water slope either. It’s a mind-boggling contraption that uses a pair of permanently connected diesel locos on either side of a canal, working to to raise 1,500 m³ of water (and boats)… but the whole thing runs on pneumatic tyres, not rails.

So… for my money, Volk built the widest railway the world has ever seen. His 5.5m dwarfs even the Nazis’ daydream of connecting all their conquered territory with the 3m gauge Breitspurbahn – itself monstrous when compared to the 1.435 m (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) of our standard gauge.

The idea of using water where the land doesn’t offer suitable geography has recently popped up again, with the Thames Deckway project. The proposal is for a 12km, floating toll path running from Battersea to Canary Wharf, for cyclist commuters during rush-hour and tourists at other times. Although expensive, it appears to be reasonably benign in environmental terms: one of those ideas to file under “so crazy it might just work”.

Thames Deckway concept

Thames Deckway concept [image: River Cycleway Consortium]

I’d much rather relax with a Pimm’s on the foredeck of the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, though.

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