CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: The Legendary Albatros and the Fastest Steam Locomotive Mikado

Railway Giants: The Legendary Albatros and the Fastest Steam Locomotive Mikado
photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain/Vojtěch Kryšpín
07 / 02 / 2024

The journey of Czech genius Vojtěch Kryšpín began in his youth, with a clear direction toward locomotive construction. However, his contributions weren't limited to design; he also created their markings. Discover his principles in the latest episode of the series "Railway Giants."

Destined from Youth

The year is 1876, and we are at the eastern edge of Bohemia, in the village of Bystrém, 12 kilometers southeast of Polička. Here, in a region that has been part of the flourishing Austro-Hungarian Empire for 350 years, a boy named Vojtěch is born to the family of head teacher Josef Kryšpín and his wife, Žofie. The young Vojtěch receives his primary education from his father—a logical choice, given his father’s profession. For further studies, he departs from his family at a young age, a necessity given the scarcity of schools, which are mostly located in major centers.

Vojtěch graduates from the Gymnasium in Prague, in the Lesser Town. Post-graduation, in 1894, he starts working as a technician at the First Czech-Moravian Machine Factory. Alongside his job, he excels at the Czech Technical University. His burgeoning career is briefly interrupted by a year of military service in the navy, which unexpectedly opens new doors for him.

By coincidence, Vojtěch will return to Českomoravská after his military service, but now to the locomotive design department. At that time, the factory has a large order for the production of the largest high-speed locomotive in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Already during its design, Vojtěch, under the leadership of Ing. Mařík, showed immense imagination and creativity. The result is an absolute sensation. The locomotive reaches a speed of an incredible 140 km/h on tests. Vojtěch, who actively participates in the tests, comments: "... we were approaching road bridges so fast that it seemed we couldn't fit under the bridge, so I always ducked..." The Minister of Railways, Wittek, also congratulated the company on this achievement.

In 1902, Vojtěch is promoted to head of the design office, thanks to his exceptional talents. Under his guidance, the production sees continuous improvement. A notable achievement is the 109.22 series locomotive, which wins a gold medal at the 1906 Milan Engineering Exhibition, where Vojtěch himself is awarded a silver medal.

This success emboldens Vojtěch to start his own venture, initially focusing on smaller locomotives before progressing to faster freight models. In 1912, the legendary five-wheeler hits the rails, followed by locomotives for the Balkan railways. Even the First World War barely hinders his production, instead providing him the opportunity to design a locomotive numbering system that would soon become historical. / Public domain

How to Mark Locomotives

Czechoslovakia's locomotive marking system was virtually non-existent post-independence, necessitating standardization. Vojtěch Kryšpín devises a solution in 1920: a marking system comprising 3 large numbers and 3 to 4 smaller numbers. The first large number denotes the number of driving axles; the second, using a formula symbolizes the maximum speed. The calculation [(digit + 3) x 10] determines the maximum speed in km/h, with the digit 9 representing speeds above 120 km/h. The third large number, through a formula, indicates the maximum permissible weight per axle, adding the digit to 10 to calculate the weight in tonnes.

Jan Lánský / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia commons

Now, let's move on to the smaller numbers. The first small digit symbolizes the type of construction group of the locomotive (0 means the first series). The remaining 2 or 3 digits together form the inventory number of the locomotive within that construction group. Later, this system will be supplemented with a letter that will be placed before the 3 large digits. This will indicate the type of locomotive (e.g., T=diesel locomotive, S=electric alternating locomotive, Ř=control car). If there is no letter before the digits, it is a steam locomotive.

For clarity, let's provide an example. A locomotive marked 4342186 will be a steam locomotive with 4 driving axles, a maximum speed of 60 km/h [(3+3) x 10=60], and a maximum axle load of 14 tons (4+10=14). It will belong to the 3rd construction group (2+1= 3), and its inventory number within this group will be 186.

This system was a sensation and was adopted in 1923. The fact that it lasted, with minor modifications, until 1988 speaks volumes. By that time, it had become inadequate because a large portion of the locomotives had higher parameters than could be recorded using Kryšpín's marking system. It was replaced by a new system according to UIC (International Union of Railways) standards. However, the release of this system was far from the end of Vojtěch's design career; if anything, it was just the beginning.

Head of ČKD

Until the end of steam locomotive production, it would be hard to find any newly designed locomotive in the Czech lands that Vojtěch Kryšpín hadn't had a hand in. This involvement wasn't just technical; it extended to the quality of the design. Notable is the legendary "Albatros," which achieved international recognition at the 1930 exhibition in Poznań. Another gem Vojtěch contributed to was the "Mikado" locomotive (series 498.1; number 498.106), which set a Czechoslovak speed record of 162 km/h. Vojtěch could scarcely imagine that nearly 100 years later, no track section in Czechoslovakia would exceed the "Mikado's" speed record.

Herbert Ortner / CC BY 4.0 / Wikimedia commons

It beautifully illustrates Vojtěch's character that, despite his success, he devoted himself to training a whole generation of young designers. Under his leadership, the locomotive company could fulfill orders for a series of production locomotives within three months! Vojtěch reached the pinnacle of his career in 1929 when he was appointed director of Českomoravská-Kolben-Daněk. However, he wouldn't bask in the glory for long, as he was retired by 1933. Nevertheless, he continued to serve as an advisor to ČKD.

Lukáš Kalista / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia commons

In retirement, he settled in his newly built house in Davle in the Posázaví region, dedicating time to painting. He became a consultant to academic painter Kreibich, assisting primarily with drawings of steam locomotives. Vojtěch Kryšpín breathed his last on October 5, 1959, symbolically as the era of steam locomotion on railways was coming to an end.

This concludes the story of a brilliant railway designer responsible for most of the locomotives of his era. A man who brought order to locomotives and indelibly marked the history of technology in the newly formed Czechoslovakia. A man whose life was symbolically extinguished at the time when the boilers of steam locomotives were permanently silenced, replaced by the beauty of combustion engines.