Category Archives: Transports of Delight

Buyers’ remorse: British Railways Class 14

PeakRail, Matlock, Derbyshire: British Railways Class 14 locomotive D9539

Apart from the profligate construction of untried and untested designs, the other problem with British Railways’ hastily ordered diesel fleet in the 1950s was the failure to visualise the changes that were about to overtake the transport industry.

When the order went out to replace steam locomotives with diesel, the British Railways Board ordered one-for-one replacements.

There seems to have been little appreciation that the growth of road transport and the government’s huge post-war investment in motorways would inevitably rebalance the opportunities for railways to make money into and beyond the 1960s.

So there was no long-term need to replace hundreds of small steam shunting engines with a diesel equivalent, and many of these new locomotives lay idle in store or were scrapped without being much used, whether or not their designs had proved fit for purpose.

British Railways Class 14, built at the BR works at Swindon (1964-65), was an attempt to construct a light shunter with better visibility than the steam locomotives it was intended to replace.

Twenty-six were ordered initially in 1963, followed by a further thirty before the first actual locomotive was completed.

Like the ubiquitous and highly successful 08 family of shunters, Class 14 had steam-locomotive driving wheels and connecting rods to provide adhesion and stability, but they were underpowered for some of the tasks that were available to them.

They were withdrawn from service from 1970 onwards, not because of design deficiencies but because the work for which they were intended – shunting single-wagon loads, pick-up goods trains and short-distance freight – disappeared in a very short time.

Unlike the lamentable Claytons, the Class 14 found a ready market among industrial users, particularly collieries, where many of them worked for twice or three times the length of time they were in the BR fleet.

Latterly, they have proved popular on heritage railways, where they are adept at hauling light passenger trains at relatively low speeds. Of the 56 locomotives built, nineteen still exist in preservation and another five have been exported.

Buyers’ remorse: British Railways Class 17

Ambergate Station, Derbyshire: British Railways Class 17 Clayton locomotive (1963)

Once when I was a teenager, out for a bike ride with my mates, I stopped to take a picture of the formerly triangular Ambergate Station, where the former Midland Railway main lines from Derby to Manchester and Sheffield bifurcated.

Decades later, I showed this image to an evening-class group in Matlock and, while the nice old ladies listened patiently, the rail enthusiasts in the audience began to make ecstatic noises.

It turned out that the locomotive in the picture was a considerable rarity.

Even I could see it was non-standard, painted in red ochre, with a centre cab and long bonnets concealing the engines.

This was an example of British Railways Class 17, known colloquially as “Claytons” after their manufacturer, one of a number of pilot designs commissioned after the decision was taken to replace steam traction with diesel under the 1955 Modernisation Plan.

The Claytons were a notorious result of indecisive and confused planning, undue haste to deliver untested innovatory designs, and the sheer stupidity of ordering off-plan without waiting for a prototype to be completed.

Built by Clayton Engineering Company and Beyer, Peacock & Company between 1962 and 1965, the design was an attempt to devise a single-cab locomotive with adequate visibility for the driver.  It failed.

Earlier prototypes had followed the pattern of the American “switcher” shunter, with a cab at one end behind a single large power unit.  Like the steam locomotives they replaced, which traditionally placed the cab behind the boiler and firebox, they gave the crew a limited view of the road ahead.

Providing adequate sight-lines from the Claytons’ single central cab necessitated twin power units, low enough for the driver to see past them, and these were inadequate and unreliable.  Indeed, the sightlines were still unsatisfactory because the length of the bonnets masked the track immediately ahead of the front buffers.

Some of the later deliveries of Class 17 were immediately withdrawn from the active list and stored.

After the last of 117 Class 17 locos had been delivered in 1965, the first withdrawals took place in 1968, and by 1971 they were all scrapped except one, D8568, which was sold for industrial use and is now based at the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway, Oxfordshire, where it operates from time to time.

Change at Matlock

Matlock Railway Station, Derbyshire

One of my very first adult-education lecturing jobs was at Tawney House Adult Education Centre, Matlock, in 1972.

At the time I was teaching in a Nottingham grammar school, so my weekly trips after a day in school began with a diesel railcar journey to Matlock station, by then the stub end of a singled branch line that had once been the Midland Railway main line from Derby to Manchester.

A persistent local rumour said that the town wouldn’t have retained this vestigial rail link had not Alderman Charles White secured the former Smedley’s Hydro as a county hall for Derbyshire in 1955.

In the mid-1970s Peak Rail [https://www.peakrail.co.uk] began to implement a scheme to restore the entire missing railway between Matlock and Buxton as a heritage line with scope to carry heavy freight through and out of the Peak District National Park.

In the years since, that scheme has been repeatedly revised.  The current railway runs from Matlock to just south of Rowsley, and its next development phase envisages extending north to Bakewell.

When in 1991 the Peak Rail services reached Matlock, they were obliged to terminate at the boundary with Network Rail, and a temporary station was constructed, a quarter of a mile north of the historic station, and named Matlock Riverside.

Eventually, in 2008, following completion of the Matlock A6 road bypass and the construction of a Sainsbury’s store in the former Cawdor Quarry, Peak Rail negotiated a fifty-year lease into platform 2, the former down platform of Matlock Station, so that it’s now possible to travel by National Rail to Matlock from afar, cross the footbridge and continue with Peak Rail north to Rowsley South.

The route along the wide Derwent valley is attractive, but nowhere near as spectacular as the old main line further north and west which is now the Monsal Trail. Peak Rail specialises in on-train catering [https://www.peakrail.co.uk/fooddrink], and the extensive former marshalling yard at Rowsley contains a number of interesting preservation projects, including the Heritage Shunters Trust – an entertaining memorial to one of the cheerfully loopy episodes in the history of British Railways.

Tinsley Viaduct

M1 Motorway, Tinsley Viaduct, South Yorkshire (1985)

The M1 viaduct at Tinsley was an adventurous solution to a complex engineering problem – a double-deck design, taking the motorway on the top deck and a trunk road beneath across a flat valley-floor site riddled with old mine-workings, circumventing an electricity generating station and a sewage works and crossing two railway-lines and two main roads. 

The M1 deck is 65 feet above the valley-floor;  the A631 trunk road is slung twenty-five feet below it.

Colonel Maynard Lovell, the highways engineer of the West Riding County Council, submitted an original design in concrete, built in sections to counteract subsidence and heat-expansion:  its estimated cost was £6 million. 

This proposal was overruled by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples, in favour of a single-unit steel box-girder design by Freeman Fox & Partners costing £4.6 million.

The viaduct, Junction 34 of the M1, opened to traffic in 1968 – the lower deck, carrying the A631, in March and the upper motorway deck in October. 

Within the following three years three box-girder bridges collapsed, causing fatalities, while still under construction. 

In 1970 the Cleddau Bridge at Milford Haven killed five workers and the West Gate Bridge over the Yarra River in Melbourne, Australia, killed thirty-five.  In 1971 the South Bridge over the River Rhine at Koblenz in West Germany also collapsed, killing thirteen.  

The Cleddau and Yarra bridges were both designed by Freeman Fox & Partners, who in the same decade designed the first Severn Bridge (1966) and the Humber Bridge (1980). 

It may have seemed appropriate to have a steel viaduct bridging the industrial heartland of the city of steel, but the original flexible concrete design would have avoided the disadvantages of the insufficiently tested box-girder construction, and a concrete viaduct doesn’t need painting. 

However a 2004 Highways Agency calculation indicated that replacing as opposed to rebuilding the viaduct would cost £200 million and involve hidden costs for delay and disruption amounting to £1.4 billion.

Initial modifications to Tinsley Viaduct began in February 1976 and continued with few interruptions for years.  The additional cost was given as £3 million at the start of the rebuilding programme. 

The ugly cross-girders and diagonal reinforcements along the lower deck have destroyed what elegance the original structure had, and their installation in a structure carrying an operational trunk motorway was a logistical nightmare.  The original maintenance gantries had to be completely redesigned, and the previously unrecognised need to inspect the inside of the box-girders required the fitting of permanent lighting and safety rails.  Furthermore, the formerly sulphurous atmosphere of the East End steelworks necessitated frequent repainting (£2 million at 1980 prices).

An £81,000,000 scheme to strengthen the structure further in order to meet EU criteria was completed in late 2005:  European legislation had restricted the motorway to four lanes;  intricate internal reinforcement of the box-girders enabled it to carry 40-tonne vehicles over six lanes and permitted a safer configuration of the Junction 34 slip roads.

It’s difficult, because of the effects of inflation, to ascertain whether the patching of the Tinsley Viaduct was in the end cheaper than knocking it down and building a new one.

The most perfect of all station houses 2

Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2021)
Wingfield Station, South Wingfield, Derbyshire (2021)

Almost nine years ago I wrote about Wingfield Station, Derbyshire, prompted by its inclusion in the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings list for 2012.

This elegant ashlar-faced building is the only surviving example of Francis Thompson’s twenty-four stations commissioned by Robert Stephenson for the North Midland Railway.  It opened in 1840 and closed to passengers in 1965.

The historic building list description describes it as “…a subtly proportioned building with a delicacy of detailing that was greatly admired by contemporary commentators who appreciated its refined architectural qualities”.

Its design was good enough to appear, transformed into a suburban villa, in a supplement to John Claudius Loudon’s Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm and Villa Architecture (1842), and the pioneer historian of railway buildings, Christian Barman, in 1950 described it as “the most perfect of all station houses”.

By 2012, all the Victorian Society could do was fulminate about the neglectful owner and the lack of activity by the local council.

However, there was new energy at local level, when the lively South Wingfield Local History Group, founded in 2007, pressed English Heritage to upgrade the station building from Grade II to Grade II*, and their campaign succeeded in April 2015, prompting Amber Valley Borough Council to seek a compulsory purchase order and take the building over, in partnership with the Derbyshire Historic Buildings Trust.

The Trust has a long and honourable history, dating back to 1974, of rescuing Derbyshire buildings in distress and returning them to economic use.  One of the first of its projects was Francis Thompson’s Railway Village in Derby.

On December 11th 2019 Wingfield Station was formally handed over to the Trust, which has secured £137,000 of development funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and a £263,000 grant for urgent repairs from Historic England.

Detailed examination of the building has revealed that it was never modernised, so it is possible to restore it almost exactly to its 1840 appearance, complete with original paint schemes and recovered wallpaper from the ladies’ waiting room.

The intention is to adapt it to office use, with guaranteed occasional public access for its historic interest.

Presumably office workers can live with trains thundering past all day.  Trying to sleep there would be a different matter.

(If you want to sleep in a functioning Derbyshire railway station, go to Cromford. There are no overnight trains on the Matlock line.)

Celebrating steam locomotion

Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

Recently I came across a random copy of the Railway Magazine for November 1975, which featured the Grand Steam Cavalcade that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the first public railway in the world to use steam locomotives.

As we contemplate the bicentenary of the S&DR, due in 2025, it’s worth remembering the context of the 1975 event.  Previous celebrations in 1875 and 1925 were attended with pomp and pride by a railway industry that still dominated British transport.  In the 2020s “heritage” railways are an essential part of the tourist industry.

Yet in 1975 British Rail looked towards an uncertain future, less than a decade after the Beeching cuts and the demise of steam.  Steam traction had been banned on BR lines from 1968 to 1972 except for Flying Scotsman, which had the benefit of a contractual anomaly.

Nevertheless the British Rail Engineering Ltd wagon works at Shildon, located on the original line of the S&DR, put on a magnificent show which featured – in motion and where possible in steam – a chronological procession of railway locomotives led by a modern reproduction of George Stephenson’s Locomotion and ending with the last BR locomotive to be built, 92220 Evening Star, and the power-car of the prototype High Speed Train.

The Railway Magazine editor, J N Slater, wrote up the experience with the acumen of an aficionado.  The enthusiast press-corps, “Your Editor and Assistant Editor (and the Assistant Editor of the Railway Gazette International)”, travelled by rail from King’s Cross on a sleeping-car excursion that included a second-class sleeping berth, full breakfast in the restaurant at Newcastle Central, travel out to Shildon and back and the return journey to King’s Cross for £9.00.  Equivalent walk-on fares for this journey would have amounted to £16.11. 

Between 250,000 and 300,000 spectators are estimated to have witnessed the Cavalcade on Sunday August 31st, and many more had previously visited the Rail 150 exhibition in the wagon works.

Of the thirty-five locomotives in the procession, two had previously appeared in the 1925 event – Great Northern Railway no 1 (hauled by LNER no 4498 Sir Nigel Gresley) and no 990 Henry Oakley – and one, North Eastern Railway no 910 (hauled by LNER no 4472 Flying Scotsman), had appeared in the 1875 and 1925 processions.

Without doubt the 2025 bicentenary will be an exciting show for tourists and enthusiasts alike, but 1975 will be a hard act to follow.

And it will most likely produce some entertaining hissy-fits in the preparation: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/feb/15/rival-railway-museums-in-row-over-steam-train-ownership.

Lighting Locomotion

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1: Grand Steam Cavalcade, August 31st 1975, Shildon Co Durham

The writer L T C Rolt tells a story about the moment when steam traction was first applied to a public railway.

George Stephenson had worked hard to persuade the directors of the Stockton & Darlington Railway to lay out most of their new line to be worked by steam locomotives, and in September 1824 had ordered two engines, No 1 Locomotion (initially named Active) and No 2 Hope, to be ready for the opening.  (Another two, No 3 Black Diamond and No 4 Dilgence followed later.)

Locomotion was delivered necessarily by road, and its arrival is recorded in the memoir of one of the navvies who built the line, Robert Metcalf, written in unpunctuated broad Northumbrian.

Once the engine was set on the track, the workmen needed a light to start the fire that would generate steam and enable it to move.  Candles and lanterns were sent for, but in the meantime Robert Metcalf lit up his pipe, using his pipe glass to focus the sun’s rays on the tobacco.

Contemplating a batch of oakum packing for the locomotive feed-pump, Metcalf realised he could save time by using his pipe glass to start the fire in the firebox:  “it blaze away well the fire going rapidly lantern and candle was to no use so No 1 fire was put to her on line by the pour of the sun”.

Rolt comments, “There is surely some symbolic significance in this little piece of humble and quite spontaneous ritual by which the sun’s heat kindled fire in the belly of the first locomotive in the world to move on a public line of railway.”

No 1 duly hauled the first train of coal and passengers from Shildon to Stockton on September 27th 1825.

In 1828 the boiler exploded, killing the driver, at Aycliffe Lane station, after the fireman had fastened down the safety valve.

Locomotion worked on the railway until 1841, and then, after fifteen years’ use as a stationary engine, it was restored and displayed, usually at Stockton except when it was loaned out to exhibitions elsewhere.

It last steamed in 1881, and from 1892 until 1975 (except in the years of the Second World War) it was displayed with another early S&DR loco, Derwent (1845) at the main-line station at Darlington Bank Top.

For the 150th Anniversary celebrations of the Stockton & Darlington Railway in 1975 a working reproduction was constructed, which has recently been the subject of a “tug of love”: Darlington to have replica Locomotion No 1 on display | The Northern Echo.

Further than Stockton and Darlington

Reproduction ‘Locomotion no 1’ at Locomotion Museum, Shildon Co Durham

The Stockton & Darlington Railway, famous across the world as the first public railway to use steam locomotives, extended beyond Stockton and Darlington, so people who don’t know the area need to look at a map to understand its full significance.

Authorised by an Act of Parliament in 1821 and opened on September 27th 1825, the original line ran from Witton Park Colliery, inland near Bishop Auckland, to the company’s headquarters and works at Shildon, then to Darlington and onwards to a quay on the River Tees at Stockton: [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stockton_and_Darlington_Railway#/media/File:Stockton_&_Darlington_Railway_with_today’s_lines.svg].

The objective was to enable South Durham coal-owners to compete more effectively with their Tyneside rivals’ superior access to the sea.

Its initial construction was a partnership between Durham entrepreneurs, particularly the Quaker Pease family led by Edward Pease (1767-1858), and the practical engineer George Stephenson (1781-1848).

The features that gave the S&DR worldwide significance were not apparent in the 1821 Act. 

When Stephenson took over as surveyor he modified his predecessor’s route, reducing it from twenty-eight to twenty-seven miles and eliminating an expensive tunnel, while ensuring that the entire route east of Shildon was suitable for locomotives.  He advocated the use of malleable as well as cast iron rails.  He designed an iron-truss bridge over the River Gaunless, now on display at the National Railway Museum in York.  He and his partners at Robert Stephenson & Co manufactured four locomotives and two stationary engines to power trains alongside horse traction.

Oddly, the track gauge of the S&DR was originally 4 feet 8 inches, not the later standard gauge of 4ft 8½in.

Shildon was the westernmost limit of locomotive working and so was the obvious location for the company’s works.  The first superintendent, Timothy Hackworth (1786-1850), had gained mechanical experience working with his father John at the Wylam colliery where locomotives were in use from 1812, and the new railway works quickly attracted a population to what became New Shildon.  In later years, locomotive production was transferred to Darlington and Shildon became the largest wagon building and repair works in the world until it closed in 1984.

Beyond Shildon the original S&DR line was operated by horses and stationary steam engines.  Two inclines, Etherley and Brusselton, conveyed wagons over the ridges that separated Witton Park and other collieries from the valley of the Tees.

The two inclines were replaced in 1842 by a diversionary route through Shildon Tunnel, yet their archaeology is still apparent, and this well-produced video explains how they worked:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ht-t-J2qUQ0.

The site of the wagon works is now a splendid modern transport museum, Locomotion [https://www.locomotion.org.uk], which houses exhibits from the National Railway Museum collection and links significant surviving buildings, including Hackworth’s Cottage, the coal drops, the goods shed and the Soho workshop.

It makes a resonant contrast with the Head of Steam museum [https://www.head-of-steam.co.uk], housed in the historic, rail-accessible Darlington North Road railway station.

New use for Catesby Tunnel

Former Great Central Railway: Catesby Tunnel, Northamptonshire (1984)

One summer’s day in 1984 I was driving around Northamptonshire and decided to find out what remained in the area of the former Great Central Railway main line, which had been closed in 1966.

Twenty years later most of the formation remained, though the track and buildings had mostly been dismantled.

I wandered around Woodford Halse, a railway town near Daventry but in fact in the middle of nowhere, where the GCR made an elaborate junction with the earlier East & West Junction Railway that wandered across country between Stratford-on-Avon and Bedford.

Afterwards I found my way to the site of Charwelton Station and walked up the line to the south portal of Catesby Tunnel.

There I stared down the 1¾-mile dead-straight bore and, in the days of 35mm colour-slides – expensive photography – took a single shot at the light at the end of the tunnel that actually came out.

Much more recently I wrote a blog-article about Catesby Tunnel at a time when there was debate about whether the proposed High Speed Two should be routed in places over the old Great Central, which was itself a nineteenth-century attempt at an express route from Manchester to Paris.

There was talk of using the tunnel to carry one HS2 track and dig a parallel bore for the other.  The idea came to nothing.

But now someone has found an ingenious way of making money out of a Victorian tunnel that has been abandoned and unmaintained for over half a century but was so well-built that it has remained in good condition .

Aero Research Partners, a consortium which provides facilities for aerodynamic vehicle testing [https://www.totalsimulation.co.uk/computational-fluid-dynamics/catesby-tunnel], has leased the trackbed from Daventry District Council to build an indoor test track for motor vehicles:  https://www.daventrydc.gov.uk/your-council/news/tunnel-transformation-project-making-good-progress-05-10-20.

Catesby Tunnel is uniquely suited to this purpose.  Apart from being dead straight, it has a constant gradient of 1 in 172 and is bigger than any other British tunnel of its length because it was built to continental loading gauge to accommodate Channel Tunnel trains:  https://www.tunneltalk.com/UK-30Jan2020-progress-challenges-Catesby-Tunnel.php.

The project is expected to cost around £13 million and will command worldwide demand as a unique facility for the motor industry.  Not only will it respect the resident bat population, but at weekends it will welcome members of the public who wish to cycle its length, following in the tyre-tracks of the TV presenter Rob Bell:  https://www.my5.tv/walking-britain-s-lost-railways/season-3/episode-4.

It’s an admirable solution for making use of one of Dr Beeching’s white elephants.  There’s another such project in West Yorkshire that’s still the subject of argument.  It’s to be hoped that Queensbury Tunnel isn’t squandered like the string of tunnels north of central Nottingham that could have saved a great deal of 21st-century traffic congestion.  

There is a well-illustrated account of the Catesby Tunnel in its derelict state at http://www.forgottenrelics.co.uk/tunnels/gallery/catesby.html, and a knowledgeable survey of the conversion at https://www.railengineer.co.uk/video-catesby-tunnel.

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.