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  • The Seventies Railway by Greg Morse

    A Class 46 on a 'parcels' in 1975, by which time Post Office traffic had dropped from its peak. (c. Colour-Rail, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    My earliest memory of the real railway is of the prototype High Speed Train plunging under a bridge near my Swindon home, but I got a much better look later in 1975 when a certain D1023 brought a long (long!) freight to a stand at the station while I was there with my Mum and Dad.

    I was completely rapt by the locomotive, which was long, blue and sleek, which seemed to block out the sky.  Though I was yet to start taking numbers, I did notice a long, black nameplate on the side. It said Western Fusilier.  I had no idea what a fusilier was, of course, but I knew I liked the word.

    All-too-soon the signal went green, the right of way was received and the big beast growled and moved forward. Before I knew it, the brake van's oil lamp was twinkling in the moonlight and it was gone.

    The end is nigh as Class 52s D1013 Western Ranger and D1023 Western Fusilier bring the 'Western Tribute' railtour into Bristol Temple Meads on 26 February 1977. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)



    I only saw one more ‘Western’ – though I didn’t know it – for I was witnessing an end and not a beginning. Anyone older (and wiser) than me would probably have been chasing the class on railtours like the ‘Westerns South Western’, ‘Western Talisman’ or ‘Western China Clay’, or making pilgrimages to the Graveyard – the Graveyard of the Diesels at Swindon Works, where many withdrawn examples sat forlorn, their fading paintwork peeling slowly in the sun.

    The writing had been on the wall not long after they’d started entering traffic in 1961, BR deeming their hydraulic transmission systems non-standard just four years later. Though the ‘Westerns’ and some of their five counterparts had been largely successful, all British Rail’s other regions were equipped to maintain diesel-electrics, which were also cheaper to build and maintain. Withdrawals were such that by April 1975, the ‘Westerns’ were the only type left in service. As they lacked the room to house the electric train heating equipment required by BR’s newer carriages, and as more of their work was taken (first by Class 50s usurped from Anglo-Scottish services by electrification, then by brand-new HST), their numbers ebbed and ebbed to the point that by February 1977 it was almost all over.

    It's around 21.15 on 26 February 1977, and with the suitably adorned D1023 now leading, the 'Western Tribute' tour prepares to leave Taunton for the final run back to Paddington. (c. Rail Photoprints, The Seventies Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Imagine it’s Saturday 26 February, it’s half-eight, it’s sunny, it’s cold and you’re at Paddington for BR’s ‘Western Tribute’ tour. The action’s all on Platform 2, where a phalanx of spotters, rail fans and enthusiasts vie for a view of Westerns Ranger and Fusilier at the country end. Cameras click, microphones rise, rubbings are taken – you’d think the nameplates were seventeenth-century church brasses.

    Departure comes with an almighty roar, as the mighty duo draw the train over the points and on towards Westbourne Park. By the time they return – having taken in Swindon, Bristol, Bridgend, Swansea, Plymouth, Taunton and Reading – it will be twenty-to-midnight. Fusilier will return to its birthplace to be preserved for the nation; Ranger will make for Plymouth Laira, where it’ll shunt a few wagons on the Monday morning, before towing the ‘Tribute’s’ two understudies – Campaigner and Lady – to Newton Abbot. When the driver powers down, takes out the master key and climbs from the cab, that’ll be it…Ranger will range on BR no more.

    The End was covered on the local television news, it was covered in The Guardian too. No one had shed many tears when BR’s early diesel failures had been withdrawn, but those had died in the days of steam. The ‘Westerns’ might have seen off the Great Western’s mighty ‘Castles’ and ‘Kings’, but for younger believers, they were a favourite and their loss was much mourned. Of course it all made perfect sense if you were trying to run a railway, but still... thank goodness for memories. Thank goodness for preservation.

    Greg Morse's new book The Seventies Railway is aviable for purchase now.

  • Working on the Victorian Railway by Anthony Dawson

    A mid-Victorian photograph of an LNWR locomotive crew, giving a good impression of the clothing and working conditions of early loco crews. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Driving and firing, locomotives like Planet or Lion on the Liverpool & Manchester Railway was not too dissimilar from a BR ‘Standard’ or even Flying Scotsman. In fact, ever since Richard Trevithick had invented the first self-propelled steam engine on rails in 1803 the basics haven’t changed.

    Firstly, the fireman is responsible for the safe management of the boiler: he has to make sure there is sufficient water in the boiler, and that there is always enough steam. Early locomotives were remarkable efficient, Planet only requiring 18lbs (about 8kg) of coke per mile; Lion uses about double the amount. Unlike Flying Scotsman which has something called an injector (invented by the Frenchman Henri Giffard in 1851) to put water back in the boiler, Planet and Lion had to rely on pumps which only worked when the engine was moving. This made it particularly important that the boiler was re-filled towards the end of the working day as there was no means of getting water back into the boiler when the engine had stopped working. As an aside, there is absolutely no primary evidence whatsoever that these early engines were run up to a buffer-stop, oil liberally poured over the rails and the engine set running in order to get the pumps to work. Whilst Lion still has two pumps, the 1992-built replica of Planet has both a pump and an injector. In order to ascertain how much water is in the boiler, a thick glass tube called a gauge class is fixed to the back of the firebox, straddling the water line. Valves at the top and bottom control admission of steam (top) and water (bottom) and there is also a drain so that the gauge might be ‘blown through’ to get rid of any blockages which could cause a dangerous false reading.

    Cross-section of a typical 1840s locomotive. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    The boiler had to be kept full in order to keep the top of the firebox covered with water; early fireboxes were usually made from iron but from the mid-1830s onwards they were made from copper. Copper melts at about 1,000ºC, whilst the fire in the firebox can be as much as 1,500! The firebox must be surrounded with water – and free from any scale which acts as a good insulator – in order to stop it from overheating and melting. If it does overheat, the fusible plug (a bronze bush with a lead core screwed into the top of the firebox) melts: the lead running out, jetting hot water and steam into the firebox as an early warning system to tell the crew to put the pumps on (and take the fire out if safe to do so).

    The foorplate and controls of Planet. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    In order to drive Planet, there are a pair of polished steel levers on the left hand side of the footplate. These drive the valves which admit or exhaust steam from the cylinders. Because these handles are directly connected to the valves, it means the engine can be driven ‘on the levers’ with the driver setting the valve timing by hand to get the locomotive moving. But this would be very tiring for a thirty-mile trip to Liverpool. So to get the locomotive to run on its own, the valves are worked via an eccentric on the driving axle. An eccentric works like a crank, turning rotary motion (round and round) into reciprocating motion (backwards and forwards). On Planet, the eccentrics were sandwiched between a pair of collars and are free to move laterally (side to side) between a pair of ‘driving dogs’ clamped to the crank axle. These ‘driving dogs’ are set 90º apart, providing fore- and back-gear. Each dog corresponds with a slot in the collar, into which it engages as appropriate. A pedal on the footplate shifts the eccentrics to the left or right so that the driver can select the direction of travel. Fastened to the eccentrics are ‘eccentric rods’. These pass to the front of the engine and work a rocking shaft. The eccentric rods end in a drop-hook called a ‘gab’ which can be locked or unlocked from the rocking shat. With the hooks unlocked, the valves can be worked by hand; with them locked in place, the valves are worked by the eccentrics. It all sounds very complicated, but it is in fact quite simple – when you know how!

    A id-Victorian photograph of a Furness Railway Bury-type locomotive of the 1840s. (Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    If starting, and getting the engine moving was one problem, then stopping it was quite another. For a start, there were no brakes on the engine, merely a hand-brake on the tender (the parking brake) which could be used in emergencies. Guards, sitting on the roofs of the carriages each controlled a hand brake, and if the driver wanted the train brakes putting on, he blew his whistle three times in quick succession. If he wanted them off, three times in longer beats. In order to slow down and stop the engine, it has to be put into reverse.  This often conjures up images of Casey Jones, throwing his engine into reverse, the wheels spinning round backwards, sparks flying. But nothing could be further from reality – it’s really quite gentle. The driver closes the regulator, shutting off steam to the pistons and the locomotive slows down, still moving forward under its own momentum. At about 5mph he can release his foot pedal, shifting the eccentrics over, putting the engine into reverse. After a revolution of the wheel (so the ‘driving dog’ engages into its slot on the eccentric cheek) reverse is engaged and the regulator slowly opened, putting steam back into the cylinders, but in reverse. So instead of pushing the engine forward, the pressure of the steam in the cylinders – because the engine is still going forward – cushions the piston, acting as a brake, bringing the engine slowly to a halt, and, with practice and skill, can be used to keep the engine stationary. Even though the replica Planet is fitted with a modern air-brake system, many drivers prefer to stop her 1830s style.

    Planet with a mixed train (first- and second-class) standing in front of the 1830 Railway Warehouse at Liverpool Road Station, now part of the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester. (Photo: Matthew Jackson, Working on the Victorian Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Enginemen of the 1830s were a hardy lot: neither Planet nor Lion have cabs, and only an ornamental railing to stop you falling over the side. On a bright summer’s day, chuffing along at about 20mph can be very pleasant indeed, but in the cold, wet, or wind it can be a harrowing experience.  Nor were the crews allowed to sit down to take a breather (at least officially); they were to stand up at all times and keep a sharp look-out. A billy can of hot tea could be kept warm by standing it close to the firebox and food kept in one of the lockers on the tender. Relief of another kind was a different matter entirely: there were no toilets at any of the stations so many enginemen must have, in emergencies relieved themselves onto their coal or over the side – in fact the Leeds & Selby Railway passed an order preventing enginemen ‘making water over the side of their engines’. They couldn’t even sit down and have a sandwich at the station: the Lancashire & Yorkshire prohibited loco crews from using any public bench or seat or refreshment room – presumably because they didn’t want dirty footprints all over.

    Drawing from practical experience of operating the replica Planet locomotive, Working on the Victorian Railway explores how drivers and firemen of the 1830s and 1840s were trained – or not! – their pay, working conditions and responsibilities and shows how there is very little difference between the first mainline express steam locomotive, Planet of 1830 and the most recent, Tornado (2008).

    Anthony Dawson's new book Working on the Victorian Railway is available for purchase now.

  • Scottish Traction by Colin J. Howat

    Class 37403 (ED) “Isle Of Mull” at Oban ready to depart with a service to Glasgow Queen Street. Taken April 1985 (Author's collection)

    Moving on from my earlier books, Ayrshire and Strathclyde Traction, I have now delved deeper and further into my archives. Scottish Traction as the title suggests covers Scotland from Thurso in the far north to Gretna Junction in the south. I have also included a couple of shots of trains just south of Gretna.

    A lot has changed with the Scottish Traction scene since these days. At one time there was an extensive internal sleeper service within Scotland out with the main Anglo-Scottish services. I can remember travelling overnight from Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness and back and also travelling from Ayr to Carlisle. I even remember turning out at Ayr station at 4:30 in the morning to capture the last Stranraer bound sleeper working from London Euston (May 1991). However, disaster struck as my 35MM Chinon camera jammed and I lost the shot – every photographers’ nightmare. I did however, capture the last south bound working. The advent of low cost budget airlines and other developments put an end to these trains and most were withdrawn by the early 1990s.

    47610 (ED) arrives at Edinburgh with a service from Birmingham. Taken May 1982 (Author's collection)

    Scotland has a diverse range of scenery from the rolling flat countryside of the Nith Valley north of Dumfries, through the fantastic West Highlands to the remote fields of the Far North line north of Inverness,  all offering their own unique characteristics. I have included 3 images for this blog that are not included in the book but hopefully will give a taste of the main ingredients contained within it.

    As time has passed, the Traction has also changed. The old class 303 electric units long associated with the Glasgow area are now gone. However their successors, Class 314s, are almost 40 years old and are also expected to be withdrawn by 2019. Class 318 and 320s along with Class 334 and 380 units now cover the electric scene. DMUs are long gone but again their replacements, Class 156 and 158 units are almost 30 years of age as well.

    Class 47 crosses the River Tay just outside Perth station on the single line to Barnhill with a London Euston to Aberdeen service. Taken August 1981 (Author's collection)

    With the impending electrification of the Glasgow Queen Street to Edinburgh via Falkirk High route expected to start at the end of 2017, this will trigger another cascade of traction with more Class 170 DMUs expected to be diagrammed onto the new Border Railway. The new electric Class 385 Hitachi units are expected to dominate the Central area for the next 30 plus years but are still to be tested out. Freight unfortunately has fallen to an all time low. Coal traffic is only a shadow of the past and container traffic looks like the future as in England it is increasing gradually. I would expect further lines around the Central belt to be electrified as the government wishes to cut emissions. As the old saying states “Nothing stays still” and I expect the changing rail scene to continue on.

    Colin J. Howat's new book Scottish Traction is available for purchase now.

  • David Brown Tractors by Jonathan Whitlam

    Arriving in 1945, the VAK1A replaced the original model and featured a modified front axle arrangement as well as quicker engine starting. (David Brown Tractors, Amberley Publishing)

    While writing the book David Brown Tractors it became apparent that 2017 was a good year to produce a book dedicated to the David Brown tractor line. Why was this I hear you ask? Well 2017 marks no less than 70 years since the David Brown Cropmaster tractor was first introduced. A tractor that did nothing less than put the David Brown tractor on the map and was also responsible for several firsts.

    Otherwise known as the VAK1/C, the Cropmaster was the first David Brown machine to feature a model name and this no doubt helped to catch the imagination of the farming public of 1947 when it was launched. David Brown had first brought out a tractor on their own back in 1939, known as the VAK1, followed by the VAK1/A in 1945. The Cropmaster was very much an evolution of that design with an improved engine and a longer build incorporating a hydraulic lift system. The whole engine and gearbox of the Cropmaster was also offset slightly towards the nearside, giving the driver a better forwards view. The company also claimed it improved traction on the nearside rear wheel when ploughing with the other wheel in the furrow bottom as the weight distribution was where it was needed.

    One of the reasons the Cropmaster was so successful was the fact that many items, such as pneumatic tyres, electric starting, lights and hydraulic lift, were included as standard features rather than extras as was the norm with the competition. Although a four speed transmission was standard, a six speed version was also offered as an option, this being the first tractor to offer such a huge range of gears. Another feature was a turnbuckle top link, which was an industry first and used by every tractor manufacture today.

    A David Brown Cropmaster working with a binder at a show in the south of England. (Photo: Kim Parks, David Brown Tractors, Amberley Publishing)

    In 1949 a diesel version of the Cropmaster became available, built by David Brown and making the Cropmaster the first British tractor to feature a direct injection diesel engine. This only further enhanced the popularity of the tractor.

    As time passed the Cropmaster inevitably evolved and in 1950 the more powerful Super Cropmaster appeared, followed by the Prairie Cropmaster in 1951 and a narrow version in 1952 for orchard and vineyard work.

    But all good things must come to an end and so in 1953 Cropmaster production ceased in favour of the new 25, 25D, 30C and 30D models which continued the evolution of the David Brown tractor but saw the end of the familiar Cropmaster name.

    70 years is a long time, and tractors have changed a great deal since then. But the Cropmaster was a landmark model and one that would set the pattern not only for future David Brown tractor features but also tractors industry wide. Not a bad feat for a tractor produced in a small factory at Meltham Mills, near Huddersfield in Yorkshire!

    David Brown Tractors tells the whole overview of tractors produced by the David Brown company from the Ferguson Type A of 1939 through to the very last Case IH 94 Series that left the factory in 1988.

    Jonathan Whitlam's new book David Brown Tractors is available for purchase now.

  • The Merlin EH(AW) 101 by Rich Pittman

    A pre-production EH101 at an early stage of assembly. (Photo: Leonardo Helicopters, The Merlin EH(AW) 101, Amberley Publishing)

    Yeovil’s Helicopter Town - If Westland sneezes, Yeovil catches a cold!

    If you live In Yeovil Today your lifestyle is never very far away from helicopters and aircraft, with Westland now part of the Leonardo Company, being the local largest employer. A close family bond with aviation in the town that now extends over 100 years with aircraft manufacturing starting in 1915.

    Where it all started

    The Westland aircraft works were built during the First World War due to the need for naval aircraft. The first aircraft to be built, a Short 184 seaplane, left in early January 1916 by horse and cart. The fourth production aircraft built at Westland, took part in the Battle of Jutland. It was piloted by Frederick Rutland from Weymouth ‘Rutland of Jutland’ and the aircraft successfully reported by radio the movements of the German Fleet.

    Over 6000 fixed wing aircraft were built at Yeovil between 1915 and 1955. With the end of the 2nd World war, the large aircraft industry would have to adapt to peacetime needs. The board of Westland aircraft decided that the future would be with a totally different form of flying machine, the helicopter.

    A busy flight shed, filled with pre-production and future EH101s for the Royal Navy. (Photo: Leonardo Helicopters, The Merlin EH(AW) 101, Amberley Publishing)

    Several Westland aircraft including the Westland Wapiti in 1927, Westland Dragonfly in 1948, Westland Whirlwind in 1952, Westland Scout in 1960, Westland Sea King in 1969, Westland Lynx in 1971 and the EH (AW) 101 Merlin in 1987 have been built in Yeovil.

    The last few Decades

    During the mid-1980s Westland went through a decline in production. The company needed a partner to help sustain it, until new products could be brought online. At the same time the company was making considerable investment in composite blade technology and design of a replacement for the Sea King.

    Westland entered an agreement with the Italian firm Agusta, collaborating in the design, development and production of a new large helicopter. The two companies amalgamated forming EH Industries, specifically to produce the EH101, a multi-role helicopter designed to meet naval, military utility and civil requirements.

    A view from above. A Merlin HM.2 during an Air2Air photo flight. (Photo: Ian Harding, The Merlin EH(AW) 101, Amberley Publishing)

    In recent years the Yeovil Westland site has expanded its involvement in commercial helicopter programmes, in particular with the AW Family of new generation helicopters, which comprise the AW139, AW169 and AW189. The AW189 is the first civil aircraft to be built in Yeovil since the mid-1980s, whilst rotor blades and transmission systems are also manufactured for all three members of the AW Family of helicopters in Yeovil.

    The EH (AW) 101 Merlin

    The threat of an attack by Soviet missile submarines was judged as a serious threat during the 1970s and 1980s. During 1977, the UK Ministry of Defence issued a requirement for a new type of helicopter to be developed to counter the issue. Initially the Westland WG-34 was proposed to be the replacement for the WS-61 Sea King. It was planned to be a three engine helicopter of similar proportions to the Sea King, but the WG-34 was to feature more space in the cabin and have a greater range than its predecessor.

    At the same time, the Italian Navy was also considering a successor for its fleet of SH-3D Sea Kings, which had been manufactured by the Italian company Agusta. Westland and Agusta entered into talks regarding a joint development of a future helicopter.

    G-17-510, in US101 markings, flies over Yeovil. (Photo: Leonardo Helicopters, The Merlin EH(AW) 101, Amberley Publishing)

    After the companies finalised the agreement to work on the project together, a jointly owned company, EH Industries Limited (EHI), was formed for the development and marketing of a new helicopter to potential customers. The EHI-01 emerged as the collaborated design, but a clerical error in retyping hand written notes during early draft stages, renamed the helicopter by accident to EH-101 and the name stood.

    On the 12th of June 1981, the UK government confirmed its participation in the project and initially allocated £20 million for the development of the program. In 1984 a key agreement followed, which was signed by the British and Italian governments. This secured funding the majority of the EH101's development.

    An international marketing survey highlighted a requirement for a 30 seat helicopter. Following the early concept as a naval replacement anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft, EHI decided to develop the EH-101 into a multirole platform. As a medium-lift helicopter, the aircraft would be able to meet the demands of utility, government and civilian corporations of the 1990's. An initial 9 pre-production (PP) models were produced to demonstrate these potential configurations to the worldwide market.

    Originally part of a larger order for VVIP replacements in Indonesia, it is unclear what internal configuration was fitter to this AW101 at delivery. 17 January 2017. (The Merlin EH(AW) 101, Amberley Publishing)

    The AW101 today combines the most advanced technologies, safety by design, mission systems and leading-edge manufacturing to provide a proven platform for long-range Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in certain countries. With a typical range of 750 nm (over 1,300 km) in standard configuration, the AW101 is the most capable SAR helicopter in the world today. Other roles include transportation for Heads of State and VVIP operators; Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); Maritime Interdiction Operations (MIO); Anti-Surface Warfare (ASuW); Airborne Surveillance and Control (ASaC); Airborne Mine Countermeasures (AMCM); troop transport; utility support, CASEVAC/MEDEVAC; and Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR).

    My Father started working at Westland in 1980. This brought my family to Yeovil and why I have an interest in aviation and particularly the AW101. It has been fascinating to see the Merlin’s progression from pre production testing right through to today's exports to many foreign Nations.

    The Westland facility with all the sub departments along with the nearby RNAS Yeovilton keep the Town and surrounding area thriving.

    The Merlin EH (AW)101  From Design to Front Line book has been written to look back and celebrate some of the Merlin's history over the last 30 Years.

    Rich Pittman's new book The Merlin EH(AW) 101: From Design to Front Line is available for purchase now.

  • Planet Locomotive - A Fireman’s Life for me by Anthony Dawson

    Planet Locomotive 1 The 1992-built replica Planet coupled to the original ‘Manchester & Birmingham’ first-class coach, 5 January 2016. (c. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    The life and day-to-day tasks of a locomotive fireman has not changed since Richard Trevithick invented his self-propelled kettle in 1803. As a Railway Volunteer at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester – on part of the site of the Liverpool Road terminus of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, opened in 1830 –  I have the privilege to work with the replica Planet locomotive. The replica was built by the Friends of the Museum between 1986 and 1992. The original Planet, built by Robert Stephenson & Co. in Newcastle was delivered only thirteen months after Stephenson and Booth’s prize-winning Rainhill Trials entry, Rocket. Planet incorporates all the features of a ‘mature’ steam locomotive, features which would not really change for the next 140 years: a multi-tubular boiler (adopted by Henry Booth from a French design by Marc Séguin) with a smokebox at one end containing the blast pipe (invention of Mr Trevithick) with a separate firebox within the boiler shell at the opposite end. Over forty Planet locomotives – or the 0-4-0 Samson derivatives – were built by Stephenson & Co for use at home and abroad: the first locomotives to run in Germany and Austria were Planets. The titular member of the class was the first locomotive to run between Liverpool and Manchester in an hour and also hauled the first load of American cotton into ‘Cottonopolis.’

    In order to prepare Planet, driver and fireman will probably have been up since 06.00 and get to the Museum in order to sign in at 08.00. They don’t leave until around 17.00. Before the fire is lit, the most important task is to ensure the boiler is full. The gauge glasses are de-isolated by moving the top and bottom levers to a vertical position and the water level should rise in the glass. If it doesn’t there’s a blockage. The drain is briefly opened to wash out any detritus. Satisfied that the boiler is full, with ¾ of a glass showing, any leaks have to be checked. The fireman has to check if wash-out plugs and mud-hole doors are leaking; then inspects the interior of the firebox to make sure that the tubes (which run the length of the boiler and carry the hot gasses) are not leaking, and nor are the stays which support the inner firebox or any of the seams. The firebars should be clean and free from clinker. Satisfied that it is safe to light up, welsh steam coal (the original Planets burned coke in the 1830s) is scattered across the grate. Next broken pieces of dry timber are built up on top of this bed, and finally a bucket of oily rags is doused with diesel; a handful of rags is placed on the shovel and set alight - matches or a cigarette lighter  (or tinder box and flint in the 1830s) are essential tools of the trade for a fireman. Young visitors to the Museum are often confused about coal and also because to them, a fireman is someone who puts a fire out rather than being a travelling pyromaniac with a shovel who starts the fire.

    Planet Locomotive 2 Old meets new: the 1992-built replica of Planet side by side with the sole surviving original Liverpool & Manchester Railway locomotive, Lion of 1838. They are photographed near Water Street Bridge. (Paul Dore, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Planet can now be shunted over the inspection pit, so that the driver (the only person trusted to do so) can inspect the motion underneath and lubricate it. Whilst this is going on, the fireman sporadically checks his fire, and when the wood is starting to burn through, rounds of coal can be put on. Whilst steam is being raised – full pressure usually takes two and a half hours – the engine is cleaned. When sufficient pressure is raised, the fireman can test the injector –a vital piece of equipment, which injects water back into the boiler to replace that which as been boiled into steam. It was invented in 1852 by a Frenchman, Hénri Giffard, for his steam-powered Zeppelin. Before the invention of the injector, water could only be pumped into the boiler when the engine was moving using an axle-driven force pump. Satisfied that everything is OK, one by one the train crew take it in shifts to wash and brush up and put on their ‘whites.’ We are frequently asked by the public ‘Would they have worn white then?’ or ‘I bet that’s hard to keep clean.’ The answer is ‘yes’, the enginemen of the 1830s did wear white, or at least unbleached, un-dyed cloth. Why? Because it was cheap and easily boil-washed.

    Before Planet can pull her first service train, a test run is made to ensure that the locomotive and train are in full working order. Throughout the day the fireman has one essential job: the safe management of the boiler. He has to regularly check that there is sufficient water in the boiler, so that the tubes and the top of the firebox (called the crown) are to kept covered with water. If the crown is uncovered, then the firebox might start to collapse. A special lead plug called a ‘fusible plug’ will melt (lead has a lower melting point than the steel firebox) and this lets steam and water into the firebox, alerting the crew to the dangerously low water level. Putting coal on the fire is done ‘little and often’ to keep the steam pressure just below ‘blowing off point’ so that the safety valves do not lift. ‘Blowing off’ can waste two to three gallons of water a minute, yet back in the 1830s a fireman was thought not to be doing his job properly if the engine wasn’t blowing off all the time! The fireman has to check the colour of the smoke from the chimney to make sure there is enough air for the coal to burn properly. No smoke suggests there is too much air; black not enough; light grey just enough. Planet has no cab or any protection whatsoever from the elements: on a nice summer’s day it can be very pleasant indeed, but when it’s cold, or wet, it can be a truly horrible, miserable experience.

    Planet Locomotive 3 Robert Stephenson’s patent locomotive of 1834; the carrying-wheels behind the firebox made the locomotive more stable at high speed (around 30 mph) than the Planet type. (Author’s Collection, The Liverpool & Manchester Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    At the end of the day, the fire is allowed to gradually burn down, but not too much as there needs to be sufficient boiler pressure to go forward to disposal and to operate the injectors to refill the boiler until the injector knocks off. In the 1830s there had to be enough pressure to shunt the engine up down, working the axle-driven water pump to get water into the boiler. At disposal, the fireman and trainee rake out the fire: one in the cab, using the fire irons to riddle the fire through the firebars into the ash-pan, whilst the other rakes out the ash pan on the ballast. Engines in the 1830 had no ash pan, which was often the cause of line-side fires. A hose pipe is used to dampen down the hot ashes and to reduce the dust. With the fire out and boiler full,  Planet can be shunted back into the shed ready for her next turn of duty. It’s probably around 16.30. Now its time to complete the running log, note any faults, get washed, do any washing up, sign out and head to the pub.


    Anthony Dawson's book The Liverpool & Manchester Railway is available for purchase now.

  • The Woodhead Route by Anthony Dawson

    During a summer’s walk along the idyllic Longdendale today, the loudest noise you will probably hear will be bird song, the barking of a pet dog or happy children. Thirty-six years ago, it would have been very different: the foot path you are walking or cycling along was once part of the first railway line linking Manchester and Sheffield. The famous Woodhead Route. Silent for nearly four decades, the Woodhead Tunnels resounded to the rattle and hum of Class 76 and 77 electric locomotives, speeding passengers and goods on their way between the two cities – and all stops in between.

    The Woodhead Route 1 Woodhead station (built 1861) and the western portals of the Tunnel, c. 1900. (c. The Woodhead Route, Amberley Publishing)

    The Woodhead Route was conceived in 1830 by industrialists in Lancashire and Yorkshire, who engaged the famous George Stephenson to plan the route of their new railway. Despite the failure of the first scheme (1830-1831), a second scheme, with the backing of the influential Lord Wharncliffe and engineered by Stephenson’s rival Charles Blacker Vignoles was ultimately successful. Three miles long, and driven some 600 feet below ground level, the iconic Woodhead Tunnel took eight years to blast through solid millstone grit and shale – not helped by Vignoles being sacked as chief engineer and being replaced by Joseph Locke, a one time pupil of Stephenson. Finally opening in 1845 it was hailed as a wonder of the age. No sooner was the first one finished, when the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway ordered the construction of a second, parallel, bore to ease the bottle-neck caused by the original single-track tunnel. Working conditions for the navvies were deplorable; social reformer Edwin Chadwick estimating more men died or were wounded working on the tunnels than during one of Wellington’s battles in the Peninsular War! To enable electric trains to run through to Sheffield, British Railways blasted a third tunnel through the Pennine ridge. Silent now, the Woodhead Tunnels were once the scene of incredible noise and bustle as steam trains, and later electric locomotives on ‘merry go round’ coal trains slogged their way up Longdendale and through the tunnel.

    The Woodhead Route 2 A double-headed Sheffield-bound express plunges into the darkness of Woodhead 2 as it crosses a Manchester express exiting Woodhead 1. (c. The Woodhead Route, Amberley Publishing)

    It is not just the rugged, dramatic scenery of the Woodhead Route which continues to attract enthusiasts:  it was worked by unique 1.5KV DC electric locomotives, the EM1 and EM2. Designed by no lesser personage than Sir Nigel Gresley of the LNER, the prototype EMI ‘Tommy’ was built in 1941. Loaned to the Dutch Railways 1947-1952, where she gained her name, ‘Tommy’ was followed by a further 57 examples, only one of which made it to preservation as part of the National Collection at York.    To handle express passenger services, seven Co-Co EM2 locomotives were built, each one named after a figure in Greek mythology: Electra, Ariadne, Aurora, Diana, Juno, Minerva, Pandora. Names which will once again adorn the railway network; Direct Rail Services naming their new Class 88 bi-mode electro-diesel locomotives after three of the Woodhead Goddesses, Ariadne, Minerva and Pandora.  Of these three, only EM2 27001 Ariadne was preserved after service in the Netherlands and currently resides at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester. Wouldn’t it be nice for the two Ariadne’s to meet? I wonder what they’d talk about?


    Anthony Dawson's new book The Woodhead Route is available for purchase now.

  • The Sixties Railway by Greg Morse

    For the public at large, ‘the Sixties’ were all about the pill, Profumo, the Beatles, the Summer of Love, student unrest, LSD and Vietnam. Though the railway was an inherent part of that society, its own list would probably include Beeching, line closures, electrification, modernisation, Inter-City and the end of steam.

    The Sixties Railway 1 Delivered to BR in 1959 and put into service on the Western and London Midland Regions over the next two years, the Blue Pullmans - though luxurious and beautiful - were also prone to poor riding at speed. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    These are the markers of history, and The Sixties Railway takes a look at them all. But what was it actually like to be a passenger back then? Maybe you’d be a commuter, squeezed into a fusty carriage, bumping over the points into Liverpool Street. Maybe you’d find yourself travelling from Paddington to Bristol on the beautiful Blue Pullman, enjoying bacon and eggs as Berks became Wilts. Imagine instead catching a train from London to Glasgow. It’s a crisp January morning in 1960 and you step out of a black cab onto the cold surface of Drummond Street. You walk beneath the Doric Arch, so beloved of John Betjeman, cross the courtyard and enter the cathedral-like Great Hall. The place is packed, but once you made your way to the platforms, a smoky gloominess falls like a pall.

    On the platform, young boys note the numbers of the great locomotives – the ‘Coronations’, the ‘Scots’, the ‘Princess Royals’. You board your maroon Mark I, and make your way down the corridor, hoping for an empty compartment. Your luck’s in – at least for now – and you settle yourself, dropping the blind, turning up the heat, opening the toplight a touch. You feel warm and comfortable as you sit back in the soft, inviting upholstery.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The engine breathes low and the climb up Camden Bank begins...

    The Sixties Railway 2 Modernisation could mean destruction. From some, this was typified by the demolition of the Doric Arch at Euston from the end of 1961. (The Sixties Railway, Amberley Publishing)

    Within two years, the Doric Arch had been demolished; within ten steam had gone from Euston – from everywhere – and electrification meant you could travel in smooth, sleek silence from the capital to Manchester and the north-west.

    To some – like John Betjeman – the new Euston that went with the New Railway was a cold place that seemed to ignore passengers. To others – like BR itself – it was the flagship station on a flagship modern main line.

    Pulling up in a cab in 1969, you’d find yourself below ground, seeking the escalators to raise you from the exhaust fumes of the basement to the bright, airy concourse above. Your next stop is the shiny Travel Centre for a ticket, after which you glance up at the huge departures board, before heading for the Sprig Buffet. Sitting at a table, you sip at a coffee, light up another Embassy and meditate on the sculpture of Britannia that used to be in the old Great Hall. Does it make you sad? Or do you think she looks more at home here against the rich green felt?

    On the platform, boys still survey the scene, though the older ones recall the majesty of steam and can’t feel impressed by the rhythmless electrics that now hold court.

    You show your ticket and head down the concrete slope to the platform. Stepping into open-plan comfort, you find a window seat and settle down to your newspaper.

    Departure time comes and you hear the guard’s whistle blow. The locomotive wails into life and the train sails up Camden Bank. It feels like flying...


    Greg Morse's new book The Sixties Railway is available for purchase now.

  • The National Bus Company by Stephen Dowle

    The National Bus Company (14) Eastern National's no. 3019 (SMS 45H), new to Alexander Midland and registered in far-off Stirling, was snapped in Chelmsford on Tuesday 15 March 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern bus industry is, to me, a foreign country where they do things differently. 'What on earth must it be like now?' is a question that occurs to me often as, dodging Big Issue sellers and drifting, inattentive pedestrians absorbed with their mobile phones, I observe the outlandish vehicles of today's bus operators, whose names are mostly unfamiliar to me. The vehicles themselves seem to look and sound all alike and their poor drivers, sitting in high-vis jackets behind vast expanses of windscreen glass, have a hangdog look.  I would guess that there is little of 'job satisfaction' to be had.

    The National Bus Company (133) In standard poppy red, but with mudguards in what appears to be Western Welsh's pre-NBC colour, that company's no. H1563 (904 DBO) waits at its stand in Cardiff bus station on Riday 7 January 1977. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The modern set-up really dates from 1986, when the state-owned part of the bus industry was dismantled, deregulated and sold piecemeal into private ownership. With hindsight one can see that preparations were being made from about 1980 onwards. My knowledge of the industry is out of date but good of its period, and that watershed year of 1980 fell at precisely the mid-way point of my twenty-year stint 'on the buses' – the first six as a conductor and the remainder as a driver. Until that date, although certain innovations – notably one-man operation – had crept in, the industry was still grounded in methods that could be traced back to the very earliest years of the motor-bus. Afterwards everything changed.

    The National Bus Company (170) Standing on the setts on Saturday 14 October 1978 was Devon General's no. 1337 (JFJ 502N), a 1975 Bristol LH with Plaxton 7-foot, 6-inch body, made for sunken lanes and tours of Dartmoor. (c. The National Bus Company, Amberley Publishing)

    The National Bus Company had come into existence on 1st January 1969. It had a complicated gestation, but was essentially a merger of the Tilling and British Electric Traction groups under the Labour government of Harold Wilson and its Minister of Transport, the auburn-haired she-devil Barbara Castle. Early on there was a certain amount of 'rationalisation' and territorial redistribution as some of the lesser companies were merged and anomalous small subsidiaries were absorbed by their larger neighbours. The old company identities had disappeared as a standard livery, in its red or green variants, with a new lettering style and staff uniform had been established in the interest of 'corporate identity'. My book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years looks at the settled period that followed and takes us up to the eve of the great upheavals that followed in the first half of the eighties. These, the mature years of the NBC, afford us a poignant backwards glance at the 'old days' of the industry, or at least the state-owned part of it, when there was still a substantial amount of two-man 'crew' operation and alongside new, standardised, types – notably the Leyland National – older buses of Tilling and BET provenance were still a familiar sight. Viewed from the present day, through the wrong end of a telescope, it seems a golden age of variety and interest.

    The former Tilling fleets were overwhelmingly of Bristol-ECW manufacture; BET, largely the legatee of tram and trolleybus operators in the more urbanised parts of the country, had more varied fleets dominated by Leyland and AEC chassis. There was a score of body builders from which to choose, and operators often felt bound by a duty to patronise the local firm. The innumerable permutations of chassis, body, engine and company spec made the study of buses endlessly fascinating. Almost all these home-grown builders have disappeared in the years since and with them much of the appeal of the subject. I hope the book will provide an enjoyable nostalgia fix to those who remember the period and give younger readers a savour of that most tantalising era, the one that immediately preceded your own.


    Stephen Dowle's new book The National Bus Company: The Middle Years is available for purchase now.

  • SMJ Railway by John Evans

    To call the dear old SMJ railway ‘enigmatic’ would be rather excelling its virtues. It was created in 1908 from a jumble of lines that linked Olney, a small market town in Buckinghamshire, with Stratford-upon-Avon, a total length of just 79 miles. Its full name was the Stratford-upon-Avon and Midland Junction Railway, a word you’ll notice, for every ten miles of its track. To say it ran from nowhere to nowhere might be stretching things a little, but you can get the measure of the operation by knowing that one of the components of this amalgamation in 1908 was called the Northampton and Banbury Junction Railway, whose rails somehow failed to reach either of these towns. Ambitiously, much of the SMJ was engineered for double track, but the huge twin-arched bridges were destined to see just one line, and a rather rusty one at that, pass beneath them.

    Last Rites 1 The huge bridge built to carry the M1 motorway over the SMJ near Roade. It was a waste of money as trains never ran beneath it. 29 April 1966. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Primarily it was built as part of a series of lines to transport high quality iron ore from the East Midlands to South Wales for smelting. But it was only ever a bit player in this business and the line’s historian, J.M. Dunn, once described the SMJ as a ‘poor and struggling railway' with ‘an unprosperous history.’ He added, with a nice turn of phrase, that it was a case of ‘the survival of the unfit.’

    To locals, it was known as the ‘Slow and Muddle Junction’ and regarded with some affection. After it became part of the mighty London Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923, things carried on as normal. One coach trains rumbled through delightful countryside with a handful of passengers. But the line was much more important for freight, some of them using the route to make a rather circuitous journey from Bristol to London. Of course, it couldn’t last. When British Railways was created as a new nationalised industry in 1948, someone clearly found a piece of paper at the bottom of a filing cabinet saying a bizarre little network of lines through Northamptonshire and Warwickshire existed, and decided to take a look.

    Last Rites 2 Blisworth SMJ station on 5 April 1966, with some very nice looking Northamptonshire ironstone from Blisworth quarry awaiting movement. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    No doubt he was impressed by the relaxed way of life on the line (trains sometimes stopped so the engine crew could shoot rabbits to take home for dinner); but the fact that there were hardly any passengers may not have been quite so comforting. In 1951 and 1952 all passenger trains were withdrawn, years before Dr Beeching wielded his axe. This could have been the beginning of the end, but it was then agreed to divert some heavy freight trains along the western section of the route, and the SMJ enjoyed something of an Indian summer. Alas, it was not to last. The freight trains were sent elsewhere, the little ironstone quarries that provided business for the route closed and by the end of the sixties, the SMJ was but a fast-fading memory.

    Today you see its scar across the countryside, but as bridges are removed, farmers get to work ploughing and towns and villages undergo development the trail of the SMJ is looking very thin indeed. Just old goods shed here and there – an odd bridge appearing to stand in a field and some neat little houses in Blisworth labelled ‘SMJ’ (built for local employees) are among the more significant remains.

    Last Rites 3 Kineton Ministry of Defence depot on 23 June 1966, scene of our arrest while walking the SMJ. Who said being a railway enthusiast was boring? A small mishap is being cleared up. (c. Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard, Amberley Publishing)

    Its memory is treasured, however, in lots of ways. For a start there is a society devoted to it. There are also lots of photographs. A friend, Bryan Jeyes, and myself, added to the stock of pictures in the mid-1960s when we walked the whole of the route, taking colour photos. (We also managed to get arrested at Kineton Ministry of Defence camp, which backs on to the railway, a story related in my Amberley book, Last Rites).  But apart from this bit of fun, we can proudly claim to be the last people to travel over the whole of the SMJ, even if it was on foot and not as the line’s founders intended.

    Much more exciting is the news that Towcester Museum, situated in a Northamptonshire town that was a major junction on the route, is to hold an exhibition for six months starting in late August. They have gathered together old signs, artefacts, photos, memorabilia and other reminders of the line, to mark 150 years since the first section, from Blisworth to Towcester, opened. There are many new folk living in the town whom will no doubt discover for the first time that their community once boasted a rather impressive railway station, right where Tesco now have a supermarket.

    To those of us who are old enough to recall the SMJ in action, the most significant – and apposite – survivor is the old station at Stoke Bruerne. True to form, this is nowhere near the village it purported to serve. It was opened in December 1892, one of two massively-built stations on the section from Towcester to Olney. Business wasn’t good, however, and just four months later the passenger service was withdrawn, never to be restored. Some trains had no passengers at all.

    Still, it has made a very fine house for many years and no doubt will continue to do so.

    9781445655024 9781445654980

    John Evans books Workhorses of the Big Four and Last Rites: From the Track to the Scrapyard and available for purchase now.

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