A Personal Experience of the Transition from Steam to Diesel
Between 1962 and 1968 I worked on British Railways in a variety of capacities from steam locomotive fireman, through management trainee to Assistant Station Manager Reading and Area Manager Haverfordwest. It was during this period that steam was eliminated on the Western Region and it might be interesting to view it now from the point of view of the ordinary railwayman.British Railways Illustrated, April 1995.
What did the men think about the transition? Whatever patina of nostalgia dewy eyed reminiscence might now lend to that period, at the time there were few romantic notions about being one of a dying breed, lamenting the end of a way of life that would be lost forever and so on. This may seem heretical, but most were heartily glad to see the back of steam, for it had become unreliable, dirty and unpleasant to work on. I well remember a trip on an up commuter train, the 08.08 from Reading to Paddington on June 10th 1964. The usual Hymek diesel hydraulic had been replaced by a very rough Hall 4-6-0; it didn't steam at all well and the fireman used the firedoors after each shovel full of coal instead of flipping up the shovelling plate. This kept the cold secondary air out but was a good deal more work. The fire irons were left out in the cab so they would be ready for use after every few shovels full and the only place I had to stand was behind the driver on the fall plate between engine and tender. The Hall was very rough riding and very, very, noisy. I had to hold on the entire time to stop being thrown out because Western tender engines didn't have sophisticated items such as cab doors - there was just an open space. The fireman sacrificed water level to keep the steam pressure up but we certainly didn't hang around and made up three minutes of the five minute late departure. The driver achieved this by using diesel driving techniques, approaching each stop signal smartly to halt with a sharp brake application rather than dawdle up to the signal hoping it would change by the time he got to it. I stumbled off thankfully at Paddington, literally stunned and it took half an hour to get my hearing back. Working on steam at this time could be hell and it is not surprising that many were happy to turn their backs on this particular form of 'romance'.
There were drawbacks to the new machines of course - in plenty, as it turned out. The Western Region introduced several different types of diesel and each driver had to pass a course on each one. Footplate staff were expected to handle any of the steam classes but the main line men had to be passed individually to drive Warships (two types), Westerns and Hymek diesel hydraulics as well as the Brush Sulzer type 4 diesel electrics. Couple this with differing route knowledge and the roster clerk's skills grew more and more akin to necromancy.
Reliability suffered as steam spare parts were run down; the maintenance people, not yet properly familiar with the diesels, grappled with the new regime but many fitters never made the transition to diesel. There were so many stories that I am sure some of them must have been true - the Old Oak Common fitter, for instance, who tried to change a set of diesel injectors with a mallet. This lack of reliability, however, proved a surrogate mother to invention and spawned a great deal of ingenuity. A manager had to be flexible and creative in order to survive, he had nonetheless to look after himself first and this developed into a dog-eat-dog sort of culture.
One of my jobs while at Reading shed was to walk around the yard each morning to make a list of the steam locomotives - potentially a confusing assortment because the WR shed stabled SR locomotives after the closure of the Southern shed - 'Reading South'. The shed foreman would then have a long conversation with 'power control'. I noticed that he frequently left out a couple of locomotives while several he claimed as under repair or for wash-out were in fact ready for service and already under light steam. It quickly became apparent that the foreman was keeping a couple of locomotives up his sleeve. The 'phone call would be a fraught one in which the harassed power controller would try to wheedle additional locomotives for traffic while the foreman threatened that he would not be able to cover regular assignments. One day, making a great show of it, he 'reluctantly' found three locomotives - strangely he didn't seem too upset - it turned out afterwards that there were still two that control didn't know about.
The plain fact of the matter was that control did not know what was available and some poor decisions were forced upon them. I sat in on the power conference one day in mid-1964. There were not enough locomotives available and the decision was made to put an ailing Hall on one of the evening commuter trains from Paddington, knowing that, likely as not, it wouldn't make it as far as Reading. I travelled on this train which lost thirty minutes to Reading and a further thirty to Didcot. The driver was not happy at being given the Hall but had been assured that it was all right. The crews did not have very much faith in management. The shed foreman was a really good friend when I became Assistant Station Manager at Reading and I knew he could always find me a locomotive when I needed one - and that was quite frequently. Reading was the first place out of Paddington where a 'fresh' - that is, a different locomotive, could be obtained. A spare pilot, normally a Western Type 4 but sometimes steam, was held at the station to replace failed passenger locomotives but of course, I was reluctant to send away my pilot. I never knew when I would get another one, and developed a subterfuge all my own...
It was most important to observe the locomotives and crews of down trains as they ran into the platform without them catching sight of me - eye contact was inadvisable, for that might give the driver the idea that I might be receptive to a locomotive change. In many cases the driver would signal frantically and run back. I would ask, airily, what might be wrong with the loco - the driver, invariably, wouldn't know but this would give me the psychological advantage for the next ploy, which was passing the problem to somebody else.
"I've got nothing but if you go on to Didcot I'll call control and get them to provide you with a fresh engine there."
The next thing was to suggest that there was only a steam locomotive available. The fireman, not keen on this at all, would urge the driver to soldier on. Sometimes I only had a diesel-electric available and the crew only knew hydraulics, so again they would be forced to continue. It might be that the locomotive was in really bad shape or had already expired and there would be no option but to change it. This was not straightforward because the main line crews only knew the running signals and not the shunting signals. With the newly-installed electric signalling at Reading trains had to go some distance beyond the points to clear track circuits and it was advisable to send a shunter to accompany the crew - or even go myself, otherwise the process could take a long time. This short sojourn in the cab would give the disgruntled crew the opportunity to sound off to a captive audience of one - me!
Having sent the train on its way I would then have to 'phone the shed foreman and confess to sending off his locomotive. On one occasion the locomotives of three successive down trains failed within a thirty minute period - 'my' pilot went on the first and the shed foreman found a spare Brush Sulzer for the second. We put the engine off the first back on the third which only made it as far as Didcot...
The steam locomotive was deeply unpopular when substituted on a full diesel diagram. One rostered working involved a Hymek, light engine from Reading shed to Didcot, working a parcels train back to Reading, light engine back to Didcot and then a passenger from Didcot to Reading. This was easy for a double ended diesel but took for ever when a tender engine was substituted, turning twice on the triangle at Didcot and once on the triangle at Reading. Whenever possible we avoided the turntable on the sheds at both Reading and Didcot, because once a locomotive went on shed you never knew when you would see it again! It was occasionally possible to persuade the steam drivers to run tender first but this couldn't be counted upon, particularly in poor weather, and once again, time keeping suffered.
I had to ensure that if a steam locomotive was provided for the Reading station pilot it was facing in the down direction so that the delay could be minimised in the event of an engine change. Most engine changes occurred to down trains - if an up train had made it as far as Reading there was a good chance it would make it all the way into London. Unless it ran out of fuel! One early morning up Plymouth express stopped on the up through line and the driver said he needed another locomotive as he had run out of fuel at Cholsey and had drifted in. (The reader will appreciate that this information was imparted, and received, a good deal more animatedly than these simple sentences can convey...) I had another diesel available and, because the train locomotive could not move itself, decided to minimise the delay to the morning commuter schedule by attaching my pilot to the train complete with dead locomotive, to haul everything up to London. Thoroughly pleased with myself, I watched the train go off, happy at a job well done, difficulty overcome and anticipating the praise of my grateful superiors. Unfortunately Paddington didn't realise there was an extra long train that morning and in it went, to the usual platform - which was only long enough for the regular train. Result: pandemonium. The rear of the train fouled the throat and caused havoc to following trains...
As time passed the steam locomotive became less and less visible until one day an operating bulletin came out banning it on the main line. To 'enforce' this, the water facilities at Reading station were taken out of service. My troubles were over, or so I thought. In the run up to Christmas, BR ran a large number of additional parcels post and mail trains. Many of these were inter-Regional, with London Midland power running through to the Southern. The Midland determined upon putting steam locomotives on these trains, believing there was enough water capacity to take them from Oxford to Redhill.
Of course, the first one was badly delayed and the driver insisted on taking water or he would have to drop his fire. I was forced to use the station fire hydrant and it took 45 minutes to put an additional nine inches of water in the tender with a garden hose. I was certainly glad to see the back of that train, but it did give cause for concern over our fire fighting capacity.
As a railwayman, I have to confess, I was frankly glad to see the end of steam locomotives because it was just one less headache. The last I remember at Reading came as a complete surprise. The Southern operating notice showed an additional weedkilling special train and I went down to the single electric bay platform (4A) mid-morning to see it come in. Imagine my surprise to see a 76XXX standard 2-6-0 running in. My surprise turned to consternation as I wondered how to get it out. The platform was relatively short and the next electric train in would foul the points to the down line.
"How did you get in here?"
"I just followed the signals and here I am."
"What do you intend to do now?"
"I'm going to turn the engine, run round, and go back along the up line."
"Er, its been a while since you were in Reading hasn't it?"
"Yes, yes, many years - and I certainly like your new platform."
"There's nowhere for you to turn around and if you don't get out of here in five minutes you'll be blocked in by the next electric and everything will be shut* up."
At that moment the points changed and the signal cleared. As if to emphasise the urgency I blew my whistle and watched, thankfully, as the steam hauled train cleared, for the last time.
Some steam men transferred from shed to shed to stay with steam but the diesel always caught up with them. And we should not forget an insidious effect of the diesel - the army of men who were made redundant by the things. They had worked hard, often in appalling conditions, only to be told they weren't needed. Fire droppers, coalmen, fitters, boilersmiths. Old main line drivers who had been invalided off the footplate to while away the years until retirement drying sand in the sand house, trimming wicks and filling oil lamps, or merely clearing up the shed yard. Even my friend the shed foreman. They all quietly disappeared. These were not renowned or celebrated, the men who achieved a sparkling on-time performance by getting the last ounce of power out of a glamorous locomotive. But they had made it all possible.
It was a difficult period but I am glad I was able to participate. I also decided to leave but not because of the demise of steam. It was pure coincidence but while the fifteen guinea specials were being run I packed up my things and emigrated to Canada....
*Probably not the actual verb employed at the time.