Fontaine locomotive – wheels on wheels

As the need for more powerful steam locomotives became obvious, engineers looked at various ways to improve the design and layout of locomotives to gain that extra power.

As with all forms of design and experimentation, there were several designers who looked “outside the square” for more power. One of these was Eugene Fontaine of Detroit, who came up with a very novel way of trying to increase the power of a steam locomotive.


The 1881 Fontaine locomotive, with driving wheels placed on top of each other.

As can be seen from the above illustration, Fontaine’s answer was the arrangement of the driving wheels. Instead of having driving wheels driving in unison via coupling rods, Fontaine’s design featured driving wheels on top, resting on a smaller set of treads below, driving these by friction. These treads were an outward extension of a wheel, larger in diameter, which actually made contact with the track.

Track conditions were part of the reason for this unusual design. European designs, with large driving wheels and a high centre of gravity, were unstable on American tracks. Safe operation required a lower centre of gravity and smaller driving wheels. While compensation for the smaller driving wheels could be gained by increasing the revolutions of the engine, this put extra stress on the cylinders, pistons, wheels and valve gear.

Two prototype Fontaine locomotives were built in 1881 by the Grant Locomotive Works of Paterson, New Jersey for the Canada Southern Railway. A top speed of 90 mph was claimed, but it seems that this figure was never achieved. The Fontaine locomotive was tried on a wide range of passenger and freight trains, but the expected power advantages over conventional locomotives never materialised. After many modifications, the Fontaine locomotive was rebuilt as a standard 4-4-0 locomotive.

The main source for this entry was “World Railways of the Nineteenth Century – A Pictorial History in Victorian Engravings” by Jim Harter, JHU Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005, pp. 78-79




Queensland Railways 0-4-4-0/0-6-6-0 Double Fairlies

These ungainly locomotives were possibly the most unsuccessful locomotives in Australian railway history.

These articulated locomotives were the first of this unique design to come to Australia. Patented by Robert Fairlie, the Double Fairlie arrangement allowed for a flexible form of ‘double’ engine which in theory would provide more power over steep and winding terrain. The engine was powered by two boilers, which were fed by one common central firebox. The symmetrical layout gave the engines an unusual “coming or going” appearance.

The Queensland Railway ordered three engines from the firm of James Cross, who were based in St Helens, England. They were delivered completely-knocked down in late 1867. One engine had been fully assembled by December of that year, and ran a short trial at Ipswich. Problems were immediately apparent – it was difficult to maintain steam pressure, while the engine spread the rails through some curvesdue to its weight. QR engineers subsequently discovered that while the weight of the engine was claimed to be 30 tonnes, it actually weighed 36 tonnes! QR engineers also believed that the steaming efficiency of the engine could have been improved by fitting a divider in the middle of the firebox, thus giving each boiler an even amount of fire.

The locomotive ran another trial the following month, this time on the main line through the Little Liverpool Range where again the engine lost steam, ran out of water, threw numerous curves out of true and finally derailed after only 30+ kilometres of running. As result the engine was shipped to James Cross, along with the two unassembled engines.

One would have thought that QR would have learned a lesson about Double Fairlie locomotives, but in 1876 a demonstration 0-4-4-0 built by Vulcan Foundry arrived and started trials on the Toowoomba Range. Being a little more successful than the 0-6-6-0, the 0-4-4-0 was purchased and giving the name Governor Cairns


The engine was out of service by 1879 due to flexible steam pipes fractures caused by the sharp curves of the area in which it was operating. However in 1880, the locomotive was repaired and forwarded to Brisbane where it worked metal trains over the Ipswich line. The engine continued to give trouble, and as boiler repairs were necessary, the engine was written off in 1892, and was sold for scrap in 1902.

The following books were consulted in the preparation of this entry:

Leon Oberg, “Locomotives of Australia – 1850s – 1990s”, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW 1996, page 27

Jim Turner, “Early Australian Steam Locomotives – 1855 to 1895”, Kangaroo Press, East Roseville, NSW 1998, page 56