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23rd February 2019

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Published by membersonly, 2019-02-20 16:10:00


23rd February 2019

Special Issue No.48
December 2014

The Birth of the Steam Railmotor

During the height of the steam age when the locomotive provided the steam heat for the rake of
coaches behind it, the sight of vapour condensing out from railway carriages was nothing unusual.
This phenomenon continued well into the diesel era and, to cite just one example here, many of us
can remember the Brush/Sulzer Type 4 with their steam heat boilers misting up the platform on a
cold winter's day as the time approached for departure.

However, at the beginning of the 20th century the sight of a single coach ambling along a branch line
emitting clouds of steam would have been a peculiar sight, and to the uninformed observer, could
have assumed the form of a ghostly apparition. Of course, it has to be said here that to the
inebriated sot, staggering along a lane on a moonlit night, it probably wouldn't have made much
difference either way.

While the Great Western Railway was to provide suitable territory for the widespread adoption of
this novel form of transport, steam railmotors pre-dated the GWR, as during the earliest years of the
new century the London and South Western Railway had successfully operated a railmotor on the
Southsea Railway. This consisted of a self-contained passenger vehicle with its own steam power
unit, and the Great Western Railway arranged to borrow one such unit for trials on the Golden
Valley Line, running from Gloucester to Chalford on the line south towards Swindon.

At the time of these developments in 1902, George Jackson Churchward had succeeded William
Dean as Locomotive, Carriage & Wagon Superintendent to the Great Western Railway. Having
supervised these trials in Gloucestershire, he was quick to recognise the advantages offered by this
innovative form of transport. More frequent services could be run at a lower operating cost on rural
routes where a scattered population needed little more than a basic timber-trellis platform replete
with a pagoda style shelter, thus bringing about the development of the classic Great Western 'halte'
as it was originally spelt, although this term was later abbreviated to 'halt'. Some of these were even
simpler affairs consisting of cheap and simple ground-level platforms from where passengers would
climb aboard using power operated steps on the vehicles. Further advantages were that the guard
could issue tickets on the train, avoiding the need for staffing at the halts. The vehicles could also be
driven from either end, so time was not lost in running round at terminals. Even the seat-backs could
be swivelled across so that passengers need never be facing away from the direction of travel.

The steam railmotor was basically a single coach with a boiler installed at one end which fed steam
to a pair of outside cylinders, transmitting power to a bogie by means of outside Walschaerts valve
gear. Churchward had two such units manufactured, and they entered service on the Chalford route
on 12 October 1903. A further 44 were built during 1904 and 1905 and by the time production
finished in 1908 the fleet numbered 99 carriage units. There were 112 power units which could be
changed between carriages to suit maintenance needs.


Steam Railmotor No41 at Winchcombe on 1st February 1905.

By 1905 the Great Western Railway had reached a temporary southern terminus at Winchcombe
during the period of construction of a line of railway from Honeybourne to Cheltenham Spa which
would eventually form part of the Stratford-upon-Avon to Cheltenham line, opened throughout in
1908. At this time the company worked a 'shuttle' service between Honeybourne and Winchcombe
using a pair of railmotors, No40 and No41, the latter of which is seen here at Winchcombe on
1st February 1905. Until the line was completed as far south as Bishops Cleeve in 1906, passengers
from Winchcombe to Cheltenham had to take the bus, also shown here outside Winchcombe
station on the same date. Needless to say, the solid rubber tyres and primitive suspension
guaranteed a sore rump for those who had endured the eight mile journey via Cleeve Hill!


Illustrated below: Steam Railmotor No40 at Toddington circa 1910.

No40 and 41 provided adequate service for the Honeybourne shuttles for the best part of a decade;
however, by the time the line had been completed to Cheltenham Malvern Road station in 1908,
the steam railmotor was proving less than adequate for longer routes where additional vehicles
were required. The solution to this problem arrived in the form of the 'auto-train' which involved a
larger steam locomotive with more than one trailer.

The photograph above, provided by courtesy of Roger S Carpenter, shows an unidentified '517' Class
0-4-2T with a Honeybourne to Cheltenham auto-train passing Didbrook Fields, south of Toddington
in 1930. Two years later, CB Collett was to introduce an improvement on Armstrong's '517' in the
form of his 48xx 0-4-2T (later 14xx) which was also fitted for working auto-trains. The vehicle first
attached to the locomotive here is a former railmotor which had since been converted to a 'push-
pull' auto-trailer.


The Decline of the Steam Railmotor

From a promising start the shortcomings of the steam railmotor were gradually to become apparent.
The relatively limited accommodation led to problems at busy periods, and driving trailers were
constructed with a mechanical facility to control the main unit, so that the train could be driven from
the driving trailer, maintaining the avoidance of running round at terminals. However the available
power in the small steam engine was a limitation, especially on routes with steep gradients when it
was frequently necessary for the railmotor to stop on the incline to raise enough steam to continue.

Furthermore, the 'steam locomotive' component of the vehicle needed frequent servicing, and while
this was being undertaken the coach unit was not available for use. Steam locomotive maintenance
is exceptionally dirty, and keeping the passenger sections in an acceptable state of cleanliness was
an issue.

Most railmotors were eventually converted into driving trailers for push-and-pull trains, also known
as auto-coaches, or auto-trailers, which were fitted with mechanical apparatus to serve a separate
steam locomotive, and so the original locomotive units, together with their power-bogies, were
scrapped. Autotrains offered many of the benefits of railmotors but, because they were operated by
separate locomotives, were much more flexible in operation and easier to maintain. The first of the
original railmotors was withdrawn in 1914 but sixty-five survived until 1922 and the last was
withdrawn in 1935.

Steam Railmotor '93'

Steam Railmotor '93' was allocated to Southall shed when built in March 1908 and stayed there for a
year running on the Brentford branch and other West London lines. After being transferred
elsewhere on the GWR, it never returned to Southall, but worked until 1935 when her boiler and
steam engine were removed. This turned her into a carriage but retained a driving cab at one end
from which the locomotive could be controlled as an auto-trailer. She was withdrawn from
passenger service in 1956 and used as a mobile office until 1970, when the Great Western Society
(GWS) preserved her.

Steam Railmotor '93' during restoration by GWS at Didcot.

The large financial support given by the Heritage Lottery Fund and GWS Society Members allowed
the project to be completed in the shortest possible time, and the dedication of many volunteers,
contractors and restoration teams has ensured that this important aspect of our railway history will
survive in a fully restored working example.


Steam Railmotor '93' on completion of restoration by GWS at Didcot.

For the special trips from Southall to Brentford on Saturday 18th and Sunday 19th October 2014, it
was intended to operate Steam Railmotor 93 in tandem with Trailer No92, however, a decision was
made to run No93 on its own, so as to allow all passengers the unique experience of travelling in the
Steam Railmotor itself. As a result of this decision, the timetable was amended to include an extra

Trailer No92

Trailer No92 was built in 1912 and worked in the West Midlands, being based at Wolverhampton,
Stourbridge, Stratford and Leamington being withdrawn in 1957 and used as a mess room at Cardiff
Docks, until being preserved by the Great Western Society in 1969.

The picture shown above was taken at Llangollen station on 19th April 2013 by GWS Officer, Frank
Dumbleton, and shows Trailer No92 operating with Railmotor No93. When operating together in this
way they now formed the world's only working Steam Multiple Unit!
Both vehicles are now permanently displayed at Didcot Railway Centre and were restored using a
Heritage Lottery Fund grant between 2007 and 2013 at the Llangollen Railway.


A Brief History of the Brentford Branch

Map illustrating the extent of the line from Southall to Brentford in 1940 (Disused Stations).
The branch extended from Southall on the main line to Brentford Docks on the River Thames, a total
distance of some 4 miles. It was built by a nominally independent company, with Brunel as the
engineer and financial backing from the GWR. The latter's main interest in the venture was to access
the river-borne traffic at the waterhead where the Thames and Grand Union Canal met.
Construction of the line and docks began in 1855, initially as doubled broad gauge, with mixed gauge
introduced from 1861. Full conversion to double standard gauge took place in 1876.
From the 1860s until the turn of the century, the branch was serviced by a dozen passenger trains
each way daily. In 1904, these were replaced by a half-hourly railmotor service, taken over by a
railcar in 1920. By 1929, passenger operation had declined to just a workmen's service, lasting until
Goods operation fared rather better, with much traffic moving back and forth between the main line
and the large shipping shed in the docks. This included coal, steel, timber, pulp, flour, feedstuffs,
cork, general merchandise and – in the 1950s – even Morris cars from Oxford!
A number of local lineside industries also generated traffic on the branch, including the Firestone
rubber works, Quaker oats and a biscuit factory. And the Brentford Gas Company conveyed coke in
daily block trains from Southall to the docks. However with the gradual decline in goods traffic
closure came in 1964. Despite this, however, in more recent times the branch has been used for
freight traffic again, as is evident from photographs which were taken on Sunday 19th October 2014
during the journey from Southall. Trumpers Crossing Halt, Brentford Town station and the dock-
side railhead are all just part of history today, as the line extends no further than the industrial
sidings situated one mile northwest of the river.


Views from Trumpers Crossing.

There are very few vantage points for lineside photography on the line between Southall and
Brentford. Three Bridges does offer a view of sorts but the complications of the combined canal and
road bridge make it difficult to get a really decent view. The only location which was freely accessible
was the foot crossing at the end of Trumpers Way, where the railway runs along the boundary of
River Brent Park. In days gone by, this was the site of Trumpers Crossing Halt which was the only
stopping place between Southall and Brentford Town. The picture above shows Steam Railmotor
No93 approaching Trumpers Way Crossing, River Brent Park at 11.50. Below is the 'going-away' shot.
(Both pictures by Bernie Holland) Note the 'Brentford' at one end (above) and 'Southall' (below).


No93 at Southall.

Steam Railmotor No93 arrives at Southall at 12.40 Sunday 19 October 2014.
RCTS Watford Branch Members, Rob Davidson, Geoff Lane and I travelled on the railmotor on Sunday
19th October. We had tickets for the 13.00 departure from Southall. In the picture below, passengers
(including RCTS Watford Branch Member, Geoff Lane) can be seen getting ready to board for this trip.

(Both pictures by Bernie Holland.)

The carriage interiors feature varnished oak, polished brass and original pattern upholstery, offering
a taste of what travel was like during the Edwardian Era. The seat backs were designed to be
reversible so passengers could always be facing the direction of travel. I took the top picture as a
35mm slide – Rob Davidson took the bottom picture direct from his digital camera.


Views taken between Southall and Brentford.

This view was taken by Rob at Southall on the Brentford Branch Platform looking east. About a
quarter of a mile in the distance is the site of Southall Shed. During the days of steam the major
depot was at Old Oak Common which had shed code 81A. Both Slough and Marlow shared 81B and
Southall was 81C. Fortunately, part of the original site has survived although it has been occupied by
a variety of concerns. For a while Southall Shed was home to The Great Western Railway
Preservation Group who were the first heritage organisation to have set out plans to run steam
trains along the Brentford Branch. Despite the valiant efforts of GWRPG, under the leadership of
Bob Gorringe, they were given notice to quit Southall Shed following the take-over of the site by one
Doctor Tony Marchington who had amassed a fortune from his dealings in the 'biotech' industry.

"He who humbleth himself. . . . ."
Having evicted a dedicated group of volunteers who had spent many years developing the only
London-based 'GWR' based preservation group, Doctor Marchington adopted Southall Shed as the
centre of his railway 'business' which was intended to promote an elite railway charter service
centred around the Gresley Class A3 'Pacific' 'Flying Scotsman' which he purchased in 1996 for £1.5
million. The following year he purchased the A4 locomotive 'Bittern'. Further millions were sucked
into the 'black-hole' of restoration, maintenance and the administration of Marchington's grand
business plan to construct a 'Flying Scotsman Village' in Edinburgh, to create revenue from
associated branding. After floating on OFEX as 'Flying Scotsman Plc' in the same year, in 2003
Edinburgh City Council turned down the village plans, and in September 2003 Marchington was
declared bankrupt. Maybe he should have sought the advice of Alan Pegler, before embarking on
such a foolhardy enterprise! Currently the site, now referred to as the Southall Railway Centre, is
used by three independent groups these being: (1) Locomotive Services Ltd, owned by Jeremy
Hosking, which maintains and operates a number of main-line registered steam and diesel
locomotives, (2) West Coast Railway Company, which is the operational base for its 'charter
business' and (3) Great Western Railway Preservation Group who courageously soldier on despite
the odds.


Views from the Brentford Branch.
The following sequence of pictures was taken from Steam Railmotor No93 during this trip. In the
interests of brevity, pictures taken by Rob Davidson with be annotated [RD] where as my pictures
will show [BH] This first shot was taken approaching West Coast Railways Depot as No93 took to
Brentford Branch metals. [RD]

Running parallel on the southern side of the Western Main Line can be seen the gated entrance
through which locomotive and stock movements gain access to the West Coast Railways Depot. [RD]


Pictured below, ex-Virgin Trains Mk 2 coaching stock is seen on one of the sidings for
the West Coast Railway Company. [RD]

Pictured above, as we proceed along the branch, we can see that the WCRC
stock has attracted the attention of the 'spray-can' brigade. [RD]

After having passed over Trumper's Crossing, the railway passes the River Brent Bus Park. To the left
(out of view shown below here) is the Osterley Lock of the Grand Union Canal which, all the way to
Brentford, is never too far from the railway. No93 is shortly to pass under the M4 Motorway, which
begs the question – when is a bridge a tunnel? [BH]

Pictured above – having passed under the M4 we are on the approach to Brentford Sidings and all of
a sudden we find ourselves back on the original double track line alongside which is the neck of the
Brentford Sidings complex. The bowstring girder bridge carries the Piccadilly Line across the branch.
A pair of abandoned tank wagons is in view here. [BH]


Pictured below here – it appears that nothing is immune from attack by graffiti. [RD]

Pictured above – we are nearing our 'destination' however, all passengers were instructed to stay
aboard No93 as there is no longer a station at Brentford. We didn't stop here for more than a minute
or so – just sufficient time for the loco crew to 'change ends'. The red stop marker is just visble.[RD]


The 'out-and-back' trip took no more than half an hour and on arrival back at Southall the next batch
of passengers redeemed their 'boarding cards' as they entered No93 and stepped back into an
Edwardian time warp. Below were both taken by Rob from the road bridge overlooking the station.


However, as a special concession for those who wished to have a grandstand view of No93, Network
Rail allowed the Great Western Society access to the entrance on Merrick Road. Not surprisingly,
there were a fair number of photographers who took advantage of this opportunity. [BH]

Dennis Howells (9466 and all that!) was the project manager for the restoration of No93, one feature
of which was the reinstatement of the vertical boiler and the power-bogie which are seen here
alongside the River Dee at Langollen.


Shown below is a detail, enlarged from one of Rob's 'broadside' views. The vertical boiler can only be
viewed from inside the 'cab', however, the power-bogie, also assembled under the supervision of
Dennis Howells, can be seen to good effect here. The wheels are four foot in diameter and are
turned by a motion based upon the classic outside valve-gear invented by the Belgian engineer,
Egide Walschaerts. No93 warns all and sundry of her approach by means of a shrill, high-pitched
GWR steam whistle!

And so came an end to a unique experience which, thanks to the efforts of the Great Western
Society at Didcot Railway Centre, will be available to future generations who will have the chance to
travel in this wonderful Steam Railmotor and savour the delights of Edwardian travel. Perhaps, when
the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway eventually have services arriving at Honeybourne
Junction, it will be possible to recreate events of 1905 when Railmotors No40 and 41 were to be seen
on the shuttles between Honeybourne and Winchcombe!
I would like to conclude by thanking Rob Davidson on three counts here, firstly for securing the
tickets for this trip which were in limited supply, secondly for providing the greater majority of the
pictures by means of which this article has been illustrated, and last but not least for making sure
that we all get a nice cup of tea each month at our branch meetings at Beechen Grove Baptist
Church, the next of which is on Tuesday 2nd December 2014. [Adapted for BLN by Paul Stewart.]

Bernie Holland – Secretary – RCTS Watford Branch


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