Lever-Drive Locomotives

Gallery opened: 1 Mar 2014

Updated: 15 June 2018:

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The vast majority of steam locomotives have a direct path from the piston rod to the connecting rod, which is attached to the driving wheel crank. However, some steam locomotives were built which had a more indirect method of power transmission, using a pivoted lever to re-direct the thrust from the piston rod.

Remarkably, Googling "lever drive locomotive" brings up nothing relevant. This must be a more obscure subject than I thought. Hopefully this modest page will change that.



This locomotive made use of a rocking-shaft drive system.

Left: The "Lablache" 0-4-0 with rocking shaft

The "Lablache" was built by E B Wilson & Co of Leeds in 1848, for trials on the Midland Railway. The plan was to avoid the directional instability that could result from having heavy pistons pushing at different times in the cycle on each side of the locomotive. Two- at least I assume it was two, to avoid dead-centre problems- conventional cylinders were mounted under the front of the boiler and imparted a rocking motion to the central shaft. This drove both front and back wheels at the same time so the forces cancelled out. The cranks on the rocking shaft were set on a 1ft 9in radius, while the wheel crank throw was 1ft. E B Wilson & Co also tried to make the design of the vibratory-piston locomotive Albion, which used a similar lever-drive arrangement, into a practical proposition but gave up on it.

After running as shown for a relatively short time, it was then converted to a conventional layout, so it looks as if something didn't work out.

The name is of puzzling origin. Probably it was named after Luigi Lablache, (1794-1858) a famous Italian opera singer, most noted for his comic performances.

The rocking shaft should not be confused with the use of a rotating jackshaft to drive the main wheels. A number of such designs were built in the early days of English railways, such as the "Folkestone" class of Cramptons (Nos. 134 to 143) built for the South Eastern Railway from 1851 onwards.


Though designed by an engineer with a big name in fireboxes, the purpose of the lever-drive on this locomotive is currently obscure. The aim may have been to keep the weights on the three axles equal by putting the weight of the cylinders over the two rear axles, as opposed to overhanging at the front, with the aim of improving adhesion.

Above: Lever-driven locomotive No 761, designed by Belpaire and Stevart, and built by Carels in 1873. It appeared that year at the Vienna Exposition.

450 x 600 mm
Wheel diam
1.70 m
Safety valves
Boty variable
This loco "never gave full satisfaction". I know the feeling. The path from cylinders to the exhaust in the smokebox was too long, and the reaction forces of the rocking levers tended to distort the framing. The snag with this lever business- and I don't think it's that obvious- is that if you are transmitting a certain force through the piston rod, then the reaction force on the bearing of the lever is twice that. Maintenance would have been somewhat greater, and I should think any leaks of steam from the cylinders would have been likely to obscure the driver's view.

Note the Boty variable exhaust in the technical data; this was presumably a variable-aperture nozzle to opimise the draught. The name is unknown to Google.

No 761 was retired in 1901. Since it gave more than 25 years service, it can't have been too bad a design. It is however an unresolved question as to whether it kept its lever-driven system for all its life. It is unknown to Google, apart from on this site.

This locomotive can also be seen in the Strange Doings In Belgium gallery.


The "Systeme Brown" had a central rocking lever which allowed a reasonable length of connecting rod to be fitted into a short wheelbase, and Brown valvegear. Connecting rods cannot be made too short because this increases the angles at which they operate, and leads to excessive side forces in the crossheads, and increased friction and wear. If a central lever is used as shown below, the cylinders can be tucked above the front wheels, reducing the overall length of the engine; this was an advantage on tramways and mountain railways built with sharp curves. Another advantage is the very short pipe runs to the cylinder and back from it to the blast-pipe. The system was introduced by an Englishman, Charles Brown, of whom more below. A full description of the Brown gear was published in the Proceedings of The Institution of Mechanical Engineers for January 1880.

Left: Lever locomotive 0-4-0 No 11: built 1881

This lever-driven design was the first steam locomotive to work through the Gotthard Tunnel when it was completed in 1882; it pulled a postal train. It is shown here in the Swiss Transport Museum at Lucerne. In the background the dining car that was used as cafeteria and the Gasoline Rack Railcar of the Furka Oberalpbahn.

Because of the difficulties of ventilating an unfinished tunnel, compressed-air locomotives were used during its construction.

Builder's number: 11
Builder: SLM
Operating weight: 14.68 tonnes
Length between buffers: 6.60 metres
Maximum speed: 50 km/hour
Gauge: standard

I do not think that the Gotthard tunnel has bends, but since this first trip was made before the tracks leading to the tunnel were finished, a short and light-weight locomotive may have been highly desirable, and No 11 was very suitable.

The builder "SLM" was the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works (in German: Schweizerische Lokomotiv und Maschinenfabrik) which was based at Winterthur, in Switzerland. One of its specialities was mountain railway equipment.

Surprisingly, the Swiss Locomotive Works was founded by an Englishman, Charles Brown. He was was born in Uxbridge, Middlesex, on 30 June 1827. In 1871 he left Sulzer in Winterthur, and formed SLM, famous for its tramway and rack locomotives. He was involved in the development of electric locomotives in the 1880s, and died on 6 October 1905 in Basle. He was the Brown in the well-known firm of Brown-Boveri

Left: Another Systeme-Brown engine: built 1892

This Systeme Brown locomotive was built for the Sihltalbahn (today the SZU) which connects the Sihl valley with Zürich. It was built in 1892 with its sister engine No 4. Alfred Moser (see below) says that they were very economical in operation. The Sihltalbahn opened in 1892 so these were clearly amongst its first locomotives.

Note the small balance weights on the wheels compared with those on conventional locomotives.

Left: Another Systeme-Brown engine: date unknown

This locomotive is clearly similar to the one above, but there are some differences in construction. Here the cab seems to have three windows rather than two, and there no all-round handrails.

I have to admit I have shamefully copied this photograph of a Systeme Brown locomotive from this site, which is well worth a look. I would of course have asked permission, but the site is in a language I can't even identify, let alone speak. If anyone can mediate, I apologise in advance.

The question arises as to why the locomotives above were built the way they were. The system required two substantial levers, mounted on strong bearings to withstand the forces involved, and two more connecting rods; all bringing more cost, weight, and extra points for lubrication. Since the levers appear to have equal lengths above and below the central pivot, there would be no changes in piston speed or stroke compared with a conventional layout. The cylinders are raised well above the track by this method, possibly to keep them clear of dust and dirt? If anyone knows the answer I would be glad to hear it.

Left: A Systeme-Brown engine in steam in 1992

This photo was sent to me by Andrew Kirkham. He tells me that this locomotive (No 1267) was still at work in the Von Roll foundry at Delemont in Switzerland in 1992, making it a candidate for the last steam locomotive doing real industrial work in Western Europe.

It was built by the Schweizerische Locomotive & Maschinen Fabrik in Winterthur in 1900.

It is clearly the same design as the locomotive pictured just above.

Left: A German Systeme-Brown engine: built 1910

This narrow-gauge Systeme-Brown locomotive was built by the German firm of Linke-Hofmann, more famous for building the R-planes during the First World War.

The slotted links of the valvegear can be seen to the right of the cylinder. It appears to be driven directly from the rocking-lever.

What is mysterious is that the connecting rod between the lever and the wheels cannot be seen here, and the bottom of the lever seems to be behind the coupling-rod.


Five 0-6-0 pannier-tank locomotives on the Brown system were built by L. Corpet of Paris, presumably under licence. They had the narrow gauge of 600mm. (1 ft 11-5/8 in) Similar locomotives were also supplied to contractors and West Indian sugar estates. Remarkably, three out of the five of them have survived. There's hope for the world yet.

Left: No 439 Minas de Aller at Statfold Barn

This locomotive was built in 1884, and carries works number 439. It worked at the Minas de Aller coal mine complex in Spain, and carries that name.
It lives at the Statfold Barn Railway in Staffordshire, where it has been restored to operating condition. Browns valve gear is fitted. The driver has to reach round the front of the cab to operate the regulator.

Photo by kind permission of Stephen Holland

Left: No 439 Minas de Aller at Statfold Barn

This close-up of the drive mechanism shows that it is similar to the 0-4-0 Winterthur locomotives above, with a hefty central rocking lever. However here it drives the front axle, not the rear one, and of course there are three axles coupled together.

Photo by kind permission of Stephen Holland

Of the three locomotives left, the only one working is No 439 at Statfold Barn; another (No 542, built 1891) is in the Museo del Ferrocaril de Asturias, (Railway Museum) in Spain, and the third (No 467, built in 1888) at Lousal in Portugal. It seems that Minas de Aller also built one themselves in their workshops. Aller is near Ujo, some distance south of Oviedo in Spain.

Here are two early Corpet-Louvet locomotives with Brown valve gear.

Left: No 536, named E. EUSTACHE: 1890

This 0-6-0 locomotive was constructed for Monsieur Emile Bougenot and used on an 1167 mm gauge system serving the Usine de Galion, (link to page in French) a cane sugar factory in Martinique, West Indies.

Eugène Eustache was the founder of the factory; on his death, Emile Bougenot took over its running.

Left: No 627, named 1 CHARLEVILLE,: 1895

This 0-4-0 locomotive was an 800mm gauge contractor's engine delivered new to Entreprise Beldant Frères & Baert, for construction work on the Chemins de Fer des Ardennes (French Wikipedia), which was a narrow-gauge network using both 800mm and metre-gauge track. Corpet-Louvet also supplied all the locomotives for the operation of the network, but they appear to have been of conventional construction.



Left: Camden and Amboy Railroad 0-8-0 'Monster': 1837

This remarkable freight locomotive was one of several built for the Camden and Amboy Railroad (one of the first railroads in the USA) between 1835 and 1837, its grotesque appearance earning it the title "the Monster". It was No 17 in the company roster.

The inclined cylinders drove a front lever that in turn drove the third axle via a connecting rod with truss bracing. Only the third and fourth axles were connected by the coupling rod, the second axle being driven by gearing from the third axle; the second axle then drove the leading axle through another coupling rod. The front two axles were free to swivel to a limited degree, making the locomotive essentially articulated; this was the reason for the gearing between the two pairs of driving axles. These gears were highly stressed and there was trouble with teeth breaking off.

It has been said: "Both the boiler and running gear were marvels of independent, if not necessarily practical, invention."

Rather surprisngly, the C & A acquired five more Monster-clasa freight locomotives in 1852 and 1854. Nos. 33, 34, 42, and 43 were built by the Trenton Locomotive and Machine Company, while No. 35 was built at Bordentown.

Left: Rebuilt Camden and Amboy 'Monster': 1837

All the Monsters, except for the original which was retired, were rebuilt along somewhat more conventional lines, probably in the 1860s. The newer five were remodelled as 4-6-0 with a conventional 4-wheel leading bogie, and the rear three axles coupled in the normal way, but retaining the lever drive. This eliminated the troublesome gearing.


A major user of lever-driven locomotives today is the Snowdon Railway in Wales. It is built to the common mountain railway of gauge of 800 mm (2ft 7.5in), and uses the Abt rack system. Its first five locomotives were built between 1895 and 1896, comprising: No 1 LADAS, No 2 Enid, No 3 Wyddfa, No 4 Snowdon, and No 5 Moel Siabod. LADAS was scrapped after being destroyed in an accident on the day the line opened. None of these locomotives were superheated.

Left: No 2 Enid on the Snowdon Railway

The lever arrangement is different from the Systeme Brown locomotives above. The lever is mounted at the front of the locomotive and pivoted at the bottom, giving an even more compact layout, with the piston stroke longer than the crank throw. Note that the connecting rod does not share the coupling-rod pin.

These Snowdon Railway picture were sent to me some time ago and I am unsure of their provenance, though I have checked that they have not simply been copied from the Snowdon Railway website. If you think I have infringed any copyright then please let me know.

The boiler of Enid is inclined at an angle to ensure that the boiler tubes and the firebox remain submerged on the slope, as was usual for mountain steam locomotives. The locomotive goes chimney-first up the mountain, not turning around before backing down it, so the inclination is always the right way. The water gauge is set halfway along the boiler so the indicated water level does not change with gradient; this would seem to make it difficult to get at the vital gauge test cocks.

The use of lever drive is more explicable here. The wheels are very small, to get a high tractive effort, and there is probably not room to get a decent-sized cylinder in line with the axles. Also, the lever is proportioned so that the piston has a 50% greater stroke than it would have if directly connected to the wheels, giving presumably giving better cylinder proportions- longer and thinner rather than short and fat.

A later batch of steam locomotives: Padarn No 6, Ralph Sadler No 7, and Eryn No 8, were built between 1922 and 1923 with a different lever arrangement, as seen on Padarn below. The mechanism is fitted between double frames at the front, giving a more rigid arrangement. These engines were superheated.

Left: No 6 Padarn on the Snowdon Railway

Here the lever is still mounted at the front of the locomotive, but is pivoted in the middle. The lower part of the lever is shorter than the upper so once again the piston stroke is longer than the crank throw.

The water gauge is just below the steam dome.

Both series of locomotives use compression braking for the descent. The connections to the steam cylinders are altered so they become air compressors and convert mechanical energy into heat. Water is sprayed into the incoming air to cool the cylinders, so steam is emitted during braking.

Both series of locomotives were built by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works at Winterthur.


Left: Aix-Les-Bains front-lever locomotive: 1892

This single-track rack railway runs from Aix-Les-Bains up to Mount Le Revard in Savoy, France. It works on the Abt rack system. The severe gradients account for the sloping locomotive construction.

This 0-4-2 front-lever locomotive was built by the Swiss Locomotive and Machine Works at Winterthur in 1892, and carried works number 747; it became No 6 on the Aix-Les-Bains railway. While the basic layout is the same as for "Padarn" on the Snowdon railway, every detail is different.

Manufacturer's photograph

Here the wheels are very small, and the proportions of the lever show that the piston stroke was about twice that of the crank throw.


The original steam locomotives on the Schafbergbahn (Schaf mountain railway) in St. Wolfgang, Austria, used bottom-pivoted drive-levers like "Enid" above. The locomotives were numbered Z1 to Z6. Z1 "Schneeberg", Z4 "Bergprimel" and Z6 "Berganemone" are still used for scheduled operation. Z1-Z4 were built in 1893, and Z5-Z6 in 1894.

Left: Locomotive Z4 on the Schafberg railway in St. Wolfgang, Austria

Z4 in operation on the Schafbergbahn. The valvegear rods can be seen inside the frames. It was built by the Krauss locomotive works in 1893, and carries the works number 2823 on the steam dome. Just behind the funnel (which rather suggests a Giesl ejector, but is probably a cinder-catching arrangement) is the turbine-driven electrical generator for lighting.

The Schafbergbahn railway is metre gauge and works on the Abt rack system. It rises 1200 metres over a length of 5.82 kilometres, an average gradient of 1:4.85. This accounts for the sloping construction.

The white area in the foreground is not snow, but the sunlit platform in August.

Picture kindly supplied by David Talbot.

Once again the lever allows the piston stroke to be almost twice the distance of the crank throw.

Left: Locomotive Z3 on display at the Lokwelt Freilassing

Locomotive Z3 "Erika" is on loan to the Lokwelt Freilassing locomotive museum in Bavaria. She is shown here on the appropriate gradient.


The standard textbook on Swiss locomotives is "Der Dampfbetrieb der schweizerischen Eisenbahnen" by Alfred Moser. (German Wikipedia)



There is a well-known mountain in the USA called Pike's Peak, home to the Manitou and Pike's Peak Railway. (aka the Pikes Peak Cog Railway) This has gradients of about 1:6 with some sections at 1:4, and is worked using the Abt rack system. Gradients of 1:4 are close to the upper safe limit for the Abt system. The Baldwin Locomotive Works built a number of lever steam locomotives for the line. All had their boilers set at an angle to make them horizontal in use.

Construction of the railway began in 1889 and the first three locomotives were delivered in 1890, with three more arriving later.

Left: Baldwin lever locomotive for Pike's Peak

The configuration was 0-4-2T.

The Vauclain compound system was used, in which the high-pressure and low-pressure cylinders are mounted parallel and drive a common crosshead; the cylinder diameters of 9" and 15" give a cylinder volume ratio of 1:2.78. The stroke was 22".

Source: The Railroad & Engineering Journal Vol. 66, No 8, August 1892.

Thanks to Kerry Stiff for providing this information.

On the preserved locomotive seen here the lever is pivoted at the bottom, and drive goes to the front axle. The piston stroke is almost twice the distance of the crank throw.

Left: Pike's Peak No 5 locomotive

Some of the other Pike's Peak locomotives had the lever pivoted in the middle, with a short connecting rod driving the middle axle.

Other design differences include the water tanks and the shape and position of the steam dome.

Left: Pike's Peak No 1 locomotive

Configuration 0-4-2T.

Ths preserved Pike's Peak locomotive also has the lever pivoted in the middle, with a short connecting rod driving the middle axle, but has water tanks and steam dome shaped as in the old black and white photograph above.

This looks like the first locomotive converted; presumably the bottom-pivoted lever proved unsatisfactory in some way.

For Russian lever-drive locomotives, (some with jackshafts too!) see the Russian Reforms gallery.

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