John Barraclough Fell

John Barraclough Fell (1815 18 October 1902), was a British railway engineer and inventor of the Fell mountain railway system.[1]

Fell spent the early part of his life in London, living with his parents. About 1835 he moved with them to the Lake District. In 1840, he married a 25-year-old woman named Martha in Kirkstall, England.[2] In this area he worked on the first of several railways he would help construct: the Furness and Whitehaven Railway.[3]

He continued working professionally on railways while living in Italy in the 1850s. Fell helped construct several early Italian lines, including the Central of Italy, the Meremma, and the Genoa and Voltre. He frequently crossed Mont Cenis, between Italy and France by road, and this reportedly inspired him to create his Fell Centre-Rail System.[3]

The Fell Centre-Rail System tackled the problem of trains climbing and descending steep grades, which was often necessary until improvements in tunneling were developed. In Fell's system, a third rail was run between the two rails of the train tracks, and was gripped on its sides by additional drive wheels on a specially designed locomotive as well as the brake pads of a special brake van. Back in England, a patent was issued to Fell for the idea in 1863.[4] Fell conducted experiments with his idea in 1864-65 on the Whaley Bridge Incline of the Cromford and High Peak Railway located in Derbyshire.

The tests attracted attention of the governments of Britain and France, and the first railway using the Fell Centre-Rail System was a temporary one built in 1866-67 over the Mont Cenis Pass, the same Mont Cenis that had served as Fell's inspiration. This railway, was used from 1868 to 1871, primarily to transport English mail to India as part of the All Red Route. It was replaced by the then in progress Mont Cenis Tunnel after only three years because improvements in tunneling shorted construction time of the 13.6 kilometer tunnel.[3][4]

Its worth proven in practice, some other railways subsequently used the Fell system, including the Estrada de Ferro Cantagalo (Cantagalo Railway) in Brazil, and the Rimutaka, Roa, and Rewanui Inclines belonging to various railways in New Zealand. Many of the railways used the system for many years, sometimes only for braking.[4] The Snaefell Mountain Railway on the Isle of Man still uses the Fell system for braking.

Fell also experimented with other kinds of railroads, including early light rail systems and rapid construction field railways for the British War Office. His son, G. Noble Fell, helped him with some of his research.[3]

John Fell related in his later years his three greatest achievements:[3]

  1. launching the first steamer on the English Lakes
  2. starting the first railway in Italy
  3. carrying the first railway over the Alps

The controversial academic Dr. Barry Fell was a grandson.


  1. See Rigg, A. N. "John Barraclough Fell, Railway Contractor." (1996, Reeds Limited)(no ISBN).
  2. "Bilbroughs of Gildersome and Morley, Third Generation",
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 "Obituary of John Barraclough Fell"
  4. 1 2 3 "Fell's patented centre-rail system", Rimutaka Incline Railway, retrieved 10-14-2009

Further reading

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