Portable railways: a history

Small narrow gauge railways intended to be laid, picked up and relaid, time after time. Prefabricated track panels and light-weight rolling stock were supplied from stock by a number of large manufacturers, usually to be hand- or horse- worked, but you could buy tiny locomotives to suit. Rail weights were 6, 9, 14 and 20 pounds per yard, and gauges 18 inch and 24 inch in the British Empire and 40, 50 and 60cm in Europe. The most popular uses were on construction sites, farms, peat workings, sewage works, battlefields and quarries.

Early portable railways

The first known reference to a railway designed to be portable was in 1795 by John Holt in his ‘General View of Agriculture of the County of Lancaster’, in which he describes “a road made of iron, cast in bars of 6’ long, and joined together with dove-tailed steps resting on wooden sleepers. Upon this road a horse will, with ease, take seven wagons of marl or sand, of 6cwt each. The extremity of the road… is changed daily, and a single person will, with ease, take up, remove and lay down two hundred yards of it in a day”. This line was used in the reclamation of Trafford Moss – now Trafford Park Industrial Estate.

Yet even in the 1840s people across the country were still struggling, all day, every day, to move heavy items or bulk materials. The worst case scenario was probably trying to move root crops off waterlogged farmland. They had available the wheelbarrow or the horse-drawn tip cart. The progress of the wheelbarrow could be aided by laying down a track of planks or iron plates. 

William Crosskill saw this as a business opportunity. An imaginative engineer working in Beverley, East Yorkshire, he was famous for his factory-built wagon wheels, farm wagons and agricultural machinery. In 1847 he first offered for sale his “portable railway”. It consisted of a standard range of equipment which could be bought “off the shelf”: 2’6” gauge straight tracks, curves, turntables and points, ¾ ton capacity platform wagon and tip wagons, all made of “best red deal” and iron.

He promoted his railway for agricultural use and by 1851 had sold over 18,000ft of track to 27 different country estates. Crosskills were at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (London) where the railway was also offered in 3’ gauge with 2 ton capacity wagons and 12’ track panels. The 2’6” railway continued to be offered in the company’s catalogues until the 1880s (through changes in ownership and name) with no significant changes. Two Crosskill wagons may be seen in the Ramsey Folk Museum in Cambridge.

Crosskill defined the concept of the portable railway: a set of cheap, factory-made, standard components which could be easily assembled to meet a temporary transport need, then dismantled and re-used elsewhere, time and time again. Although hand-propelled, the railway reduced labour costs, and clearly established the utility of the principle.

The rise of the portable railway

The entrepreneur Paul Decauville of Evry, just south of Paris, owned a large farm, quarries and an engineering works. In 1875 he had difficulty bringing in the sugar beet crop because of waterlogged ground. His answer was to construct a very small railway, all in metal. Tiny 4-wheel wagons (sold in 1877 for 28/- each) carried demountable iron baskets (1877 12/- each) fitted with wooden handles. These baskets were filled in the field, lifted onto wagons and run to the farm’s own small sugar refinery. The railway was soon in use in the quarries and workshops as well. Always with an eye for business, Decauville offered the system for sale, and extended the range to include 50cm and 60cm versions as well as the initial 40cm. In the first 16 months 44,870 meters of track were sold to 195 different customers. 

The age of the portable railway had arrived! The new steel furnaces provided cheap steel, of reliable quality, in quantity. Decauville was able to manufacture a railway more practical, more robust and cheaper than Crosskill’s and the track cost was reduced still further by using a much smaller gauge (40cm). Decauville had recently visited England, and in his early catalogue uses the same engraver as Crosskill (Hare) so it is fair to assume that his inspiration came from Yorkshire. However, in 1869 William Peake of Liverpool, and in 1872 G. J. Cross of Deptford, had advertised all-metal portable railways, though neither was heard of a second time. 

Decauville mass-produced a vast range of portable railway equipment, made to a consistent quality and sold at competitive prices around the world. His customers included the British and Russian military, sugar plantations, brick works, salt works, water works, quarries, mines, civil engineering projects, archaeological sites, engineering factories etc., and in the late 1890s, even York Waterworks! As time passed the company diversified into metre gauge and standard gauge rolling stock, cycles, automobiles, civil engineers’ plant, munitions and tipper truck bodies. 

Decauville was the agent in France for Fowler steam ploughing engines and in 1877 Fowlers became the agent in England for the supply of Decauville’s portable railway. This relationship soon soured when Fowlers introduced their own “Greig’s Patent Portable Railway”. But the portable railway had returned to Yorkshire!

The ubiquitous portable railway

As Fowler’s railway developed it became “over-engineered”. It was appropriate for certain applications, but the mass market was for cheap and functional. Robert Hudson understood this, and grew to become a huge supplier to Great Britain and the Empire, with factories in South Africa, India and Australia. 

Many others entered the business: Howard, Bagnall and Stuart Kerr in England, Petolat and Popineau in France, and Koppel, Krupp and Dolberg in Germany. Arthur Koppel have a Yorkshire connection. In the early 1900s they appointed Francis Theakston (son of the Masham brewers) as a salesman attached to their London office. At about that time Littlethorpe Pottery, near Ripon, bought a German portable railway to serve their clay pit, and this line remains in use today. 

Other applications were in mines, quarries, sewage works, construction sites, archaeological sites, tunnelling, military campaigns, farms, peat workings, engineering workshops, sugar plantations, canal dredging, salt works – can you add to the list? – anywhere bulky or heavy loads need to be moved on a temporary basis.

The most extensive use was on the battlefields of WW1. The French already had 60cm gauge railways in place, supplied by Decauville and using Pechot 0-4-4-0T locomotives. The Germans bought similar lines and flexible wheelbase 0-8-0T locos. The British soon found out that their motor lorries and carts could not cope and ordered huge quantities of 60cm equipment. Advance and retreat led to both sides using each others’ rolling stock! 

Such small railways could be seen everywhere until the 1950s when those two evil monsters, the fork lift truck and the dump truck, began to take their place! The new machines were expensive, but THEY DID NOT NEED TRACKS, and by the 1980s had displaced all but a few portable railways. The restricted space in which sewer tunnels are constructed ensures that at least this job still requires a small railway. 

In 2010 our purpose-bulit museum - the "Musée Decauville" - was completed to house the collection of historic portable railway equipment which includes items made by Decauville, Hudson, Fowler, Howard, Kerr Stuart, Wm. Jones, and Koppell. 

  Ripon & District Light Railway - - +44 (0)1765 690906