How did locomotive crews cope in the Severn Tunnel?

Driver's side view of the west portal of the Severn Tunnel.  Taken by Brian Ward on  2-6-2T 5171 on  15 May 1964.

As part of my training on British Railways I spent a short period at Severn Tunnel Junction during which time I managed a trip through the tunnel on a banking engine.  This is what I wrote at the time, Thursday March 25 1964.

"I went from Severn Tunnel Junction right through to Filton on the footplate of 2-6-2 tank No. 4121. We were coupled to the front of a Warship Class diesel on a Manchester-Plymouth express (via Pontypool Road) on which one engine had failed. The fireman was very young, only about 16, and had no experience with Welsh coal so we had a black fire and only managed 120lb at one point.

"The driver quietly went back to the diesel crew and arranged for them to maintain the train brakes by keeping the vacuum exhauster working thus helping to save steam. There is a gradient of l-in-90 down and l-in-100 out of the tunnel and it was necessary to charge downhill in order to gain enough momentum to stagger out the other end.

"We must have been doing 70mph. by the time we reached the bottom of the tunnel and then the regulator was opened more and the lever dropped a bit in order to get up the other side.

"One dim oil light signified that we had reached the level part at the bottom and two lights, one above the other, that we were on the climb out. The lever was dropped even further the other side of the tunnel and she was chattering quite a bit as we made our way through the second tunnel between Pilning and Patchway and the sparks were showering thick and fast on the cab roof.

"The sensation in the tunnel is almost indescribable. There is the rattling and general banging and churning of the engine, but this is made worse by the fact that one is travelling through pitch darkness. It is rather unnerving clattering along in the dark without bring able to see the rails ahead. Looking back, it seemed strangely out of place to see the calm faces of the Warship crew with their feet up and the cab lights on.

"In fact, the trip through Patchway Tunnel was more terrifying than the Severn Tunnel because the latter is double track whereas the former is a narrow single bore. We were low in steam by the time we came out of the Severn Tunnel and speed was down to a walking pace by the time we emerged from the single bore. I asked the driver: "What happens if we stall?" to which he replied "Let's hope we don't."

"At Filton we came off the train as it was all downhill to Bristol. We had barely enough steam to move ourselves and made our way gently back to Pilning to join the bankers ready to work back to Severn Tunnel Junction. I decided to go back on 2-6-2 tank No. 5191 which was in even worse condition than No. 4121. Several of the controls were so stiff that the driver needed help manipulating them. Mercifully we were sent back light to Severn Tunnel Junction. My immediate impression was "Never again."

How did crews cope with such hellish conditions? Many took it as part of the job but I can assure readers that it was no fun in steam days.

Steam World - September 2007.

Home   Articles