Monthly Archives: February 2017

Maids of all work

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

British Railways D4167, otherwise 08 937, built 1962, in service on the Dartmoor Railway (2016).

The most ubiquitous locomotive still in use on Britain’s railways is a design that dates back to the late 1930s.  It still does its job, moving rolling stock around rail yards and sidings, which is why it remains a favourite with both commercial and heritage railways.

British Railways Class 08 diesel shunters are based on the specification of the great steam-locomotive engineer William A Stanier (1876-1965) and were built for the London Midland & Scottish Railway from 1935 onwards.

They were intended to make use of the advantages of diesel traction – quick starting, cleanliness, flexibility and economy.

They capitalised on the twin technical breakthroughs of newly developed smaller, more powerful diesel engines connected to electric transmission that was more robust than the mechanical clutch-operated gearbox that serves smaller road vehicles.

Yet to deliver adhesion while minimising wear on the track, the engines were mounted on a steam-locomotive frame and drove the wheels through a jackshaft, connecting rods and coupling rods.

In the post-war period, when British Railways owned thousands of steam shunting locomotives, the diesel-electric shunter proved equal to the required physical tasks without the need to keep the boiler fired up in slack periods, and they didn’t send the crew home filthy at the end of a shift.

None of the pre-war English-Electric built LMS shunters survived past the 1960s, but several of the post-war version, built from 1945 onwards, became British Railways Class 11 and are still maintained by heritage railways.   Other versions of this design, developed for the War Department during the Second World War, were exported to the Netherlands, Australia and Liberia.

They were followed by Class 08, of which nearly a thousand were built between 1952 and 1962.

Their reliability and efficiency stood out from the heterogeneous ragbag of inadequate shunters ordered, many of them off-plan, in response to the 1955 British Railways Modernisation Plan.

There were variants – a low-height version (Class 08/9) for the Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway in South Wales, and a faster but less powerful variant with a maximum speed of 27½mph instead of 15mph (Class 09), another batch with different engines (Class 10) and a Southern Railway derivative (Class 12).  A small number were paired as master-and-slave units with one of the cabs removed (Class 13) to work over the humps at Tinsley Marshalling Yard between Sheffield and Rotherham.

All these together amounted to nearly twelve hundred locomotives, and though many were scrapped or cannibalised for spares in the 1970s and 1980s, their adaptability meant that industrial users such as the National Coal Board snapped them up, and heritage lines found them extremely useful as well as historically interesting.

Many main-line freight and passenger operators still run Class 08 locomotives to marshal rolling stock, and over seventy are preserved.

Like the long-lived High Speed Train, the longevity of Class 08 proves that British railways had the expertise to design world-beating locomotives after the age of steam.

Railways round Dartmoor

Okehampton railway station, Devon

Okehampton railway station, Devon

The premier rail route to the South West has always been the Great Western main line, the first to open and the best-known.

It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who visualised his line from London to Bristol should be extended to New York by means of steamships, the first of which was Great Western (1838), followed by the celebrated Great Britain (1845).

Beyond Bristol, a series of railway companies, either sponsored or taken over by the Great Western Railway, extended the line through Devon and Cornwall via Exeter (1844) and Plymouth (1849) to Penzance (1852).

Brunel chose to direct this route across difficult, spectacular country along the south coast:  that was the reason for his failed atmospheric experiment, his magnificent Royal Albert Bridge (1859) and his long-vanished timber viaducts.

The early rail route from London to Southampton grew into the London & South Western Railway, which reached Exeter in 1860 via a southerly route through Andover, Salisbury and Yeovil.

The only way the L&SWR could penetrate into Devon and Cornwall was by taking the opposite route to the GWR, round the northern fringes of Dartmoor via Okehampton and Tavistock, reaching Plymouth in 1876.

This line was severed in 1968, and regular services now run only from Plymouth to Bere Alston (for Gunnislake) and along the so-called Tarka Line from Exeter to Barnstaple.

Track remains along the former L&SWR main line to a quarry three miles beyond Okehampton for quarry traffic, and occasional Sunday services operate between Exeter and Okehampton.

Okehampton Station is maintained by the Dartmoor Railway, a volunteer-led group which runs trains up the line as far as Meldon Viaduct, and sometimes eastwards to Sampford Courtenay.

The track between Okehampton and Coleford Junction, where it joins the Tarka Line, is now operated by British American Railway Services, a subsidiary of the American railroad operator Iowa Pacific Holdings.

There is an as-yet-unfulfilled plan for the Dartmoor Railway services to extend to Yeoford, the station south of Coleford Junction, to provide passenger interchange with Exeter-Barnstable.

Increasing concern about the sustainability of the Great Western main line through Dawlish, particularly after a washout in 2014 which halted services completely for three months, has led to suggestions that the L&SWR line through Okehampton should be reinstated to Plymouth as an alternative route.

The plan to reinstate the line from Bere Alston to a new station at Tavistock West is at least a step in implementing this proposal.

So yet again one of Dr Beeching’s cuts may at great cost be rolled back.

Network Rail’s consideration of the options to safeguard the rail route into Devon and Cornwall can be found at https://www.networkrail.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/West-of-Exeter-Route-Resilience-Study.pdf

Okehampton Station is a destination on the Railways of Devon (June 12th-16th 2017) tour.  For further details, please click here.

Friargate Bridge

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

Friargate Bridge, Derby (1977)

The magnificent cast-iron railway bridge across Friargate, north of Derby city-centre, made a grand statement proclaiming the arrival of the Great Northern Railway in the home town of its rival the Midland Railway in 1878.

The Midland’s monopoly of the East Midlands coal trade had been a grievance of local businesses and the new railway was welcomed, to the detriment of the local environment:  the bridge cuts across Derby’s grandest Georgian street, Friargate, authorised in 1768 as a speculation by the notoriously unscrupulous banker-brothers, John and Christopher Heath.

Many important personalities in late-eighteenth-century Derby had residences on Friargate, including the architect Joseph Pickford (1734-1782), whose house at 40-41 Friargate is now a museum.

Though it’s commonly referred to as Friargate Bridge, there are in fact two bridges side by side accommodating pairs of tracks fanning out to the station platforms immediately beyond. 

To mitigate – or perhaps to pay back – for the intrusion, the GNR engineer, Richard Johnson, provided a particularly dignified design with elaborate decorative spandrels cast by the Derby ironmasters Andrew Handyside & Co, featuring the buck within the palings of a park that appears in the coat of arms of the borough, now the city, of Derby.

The gesture did not go down well with some residents, one of whom described it as “meretricious decoration, which only emphasised the insult”.

Passenger services between Derby and Nottingham closed in 1964 and goods services finally ceased four years later.

Little remains of Friargate Station itself, which stood on a brick viaduct west of the bridge, except for the enormous goods station, now ruinous.

Bud Flanagan told a BBC interviewer that seeing homeless men sleeping under the railway viaduct at Friargate gave him the idea for the 1932 song ‘Underneath the Arches’, which he co-wrote with Reg Connelly) while Bud and Chesney Allen were playing at the nearby Hippodrome Theatre.

It’s ironic that the bridge, like the viaduct at Monsal Dale, has become a conservation issue.  Derby City Council, which bought it from British Railways for £1, has been vexed for years finding a practical solution to safeguard its future.

It was listed Grade II in 1974, oddly suggesting a lesser value than the other surviving structure on the line, Bennerley Viaduct (Grade II*).

At present a species of hairnet protects the cast ironwork from pigeons, and also creates difficulties for photographers.

Beside the line of the former railway viaduct on the north side of Friargate remains one of the oddest survivals of Derby’s transport history, the 4ft-guage rails and setts of the horse-tram depot of the Derby Tramways Co, which were in use from 1890 until the route was electrified in 1907.