A brief flirtation with Oil - Firing

Short-lived programmes for oil-fired steam locomotives stopped by costs. . . . . .


28XX class 2-8-0 number 2854, renumbered as oil-burning locomotive 4801, being refuelled around 1947.

📸 Great Western Trust


In Britain it was the Great Eastern Railway that pioneered oil-fired locomotives from 1893. Locomotive Superintendent James Holden had been inspired by an engineer named Urquhart who ten years earlier had invented an oil-burning system for Russian railways. Holden first designed a flexible, easily installed and removable burner system for nine locomotives that used a coal fire supplemented by oil which was surplus from the company’s oil-gas plant at Stratford, east London. Another 50 or so of the company’s locomotives were fitted with the system before the costs of additional oil bought on the markets made it uneconomic. Later, the effects of strikes, shortages and coal prices brought about similar experimentation by some of Britain’s railway companies. For example, in 1912, Nigel Gresley fitted oil-burning equipment to Great Northern Railway (GNR) 4-4-2 (Atlantic) number 259, and in 1921 fitted “Scarab” fuel oil equipment to nine GNR locomotives during the coal strike that year. The LMS fitted 19 former Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Hughes 4-6-0 locomotives with oil burners during the prolonged 1926 miners’ lock-out and strike.


A Great Northern Railway H3 class 2-6-0 (later LNER class K2) locomotive built in 1918 equipped for oil burning by Nigel Gresley in 1921



In 1947, the nation’s coal shortage was severe and prices were high at a time when over two million tons of the right sort of coal a year were needed to fuel the Great Western Railway (GWR) locomotive fleet. Between the start of World War Two and late 1944, coal prices had increased by 267%. The GWR embarked on a government-prompted programme of converting several of its passenger and freight locomotive classes to oil firing. October 1945 saw the first of the twenty GWR 28XX class 2-8-0 freight locomotives to be so converted. This was 1918-built number 2872 which carried the equipment for almost three years. Ironically, this class was heavily involved in both world wars hauling heavy coal trains out of South Wales. However, post-war volatile world markets and significant price variations brought a premature end to the programme. By 1946, the LMS was already finding that oil was costing 110% more than coal, or 1/6d (7½p) more per engine mile.



In all, twenty GWR 28XX class locomotives were converted to burn oil despite only three being planned at first. On the passenger locomotive side, only five of the “Castle” class were converted despite 25 being planned at first. On 18th October 1946, “Castle” class number 5091 “Cleeve Abbey” left Swindon Works having been the first passenger locomotive to be fitted with oil-burning equipment and the tender oil tank. It was immediately put to work on passenger trains between Paddington and Bristol. 5039 “Rhuddlan Castle” and 5083 “Bath Abbey” were converted in December 1946, and 5079 “Lysander” and “100 A1 Lloyds” followed in January 1947. 5039 was reported to be working Paddington to Worcester return trips, and that the oil burners were not extinguished during the five hours turn-round time despite there being no refuelling facilities at Worcester. These five oil-burning “Castle” class locomotives were all converted back to coal between September and November 1948.


In June 1946 “Hall” class number 5955 “Garth Hall” became the first of the “Hall” class passenger locomotives to be fitted. This locomotive was renumbered to 3950 and worked out of Bristol (Bath Road) depot. Fuel was carried in a tank holding around 1,700 gallons which was fitted in the coal space of the 3,500 gallon tender. Ten other members of the “Hall” class converted to burn oil had the fuel tank fitted in their 4,000 gallon tenders. In this class the original plan had been to convert 85 locomotives. “Garth Hall” remained an oil-burner until October 1948 when the equipment was removed and the loco reverted to burning coal. Just one mixed traffic 2-6-0 class 6320 was converted in March 1947 and reverted to coal burning in August 1949.


Refuelling of one of the five converted “Castle” class passenger locomotives taking place at Swindon.

📸 Great Western Trust

The oil-burners carried the fuel supplied by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1,700 or 1,900 gallon capacity tender tanks which had a four-inch diameter filler pipe. Steam heating coils in the oil tanks were used to warm the thick “Bunker C” heavy grade fuel oil so that it could be fed first through an “Auto-Klean” strainer and then through a regulating cock into the firebox burners. When stored at the depots, the oil had to be kept at 70° Fahrenheit to keep it flowing. The 16 motive power depot sites chosen and completed for refuelling were Old Oak Common, Cardiff Canton, Bristol (Bath Road and St Philip’s Marsh), Plymouth Laira, Severn Tunnel Junction, Reading, Gloucester, Newport Ebbw Junction, Westbury, Didcot, Newton Abbot, Llanelly and Swindon. Installations at Banbury and Swansea Landore were only partly completed before the project was scrapped. The locomotive grates were replaced by steel plates lined with firebricks. The usual firebox brick arches were kept. The colour of the smoke emitted helped the crew to get the correct balance between air and oil - somewhere between clear exhaust and faint smoke was ideal, dark smoke was not! A converted “Hall” class locomotive was expected to run for 250 miles before refuelling.


Government had allocated funds to British railway companies to allow 1,217 locomotives to be converted to save 20,000 tons of steam coal a week. The original plan had been to convert a total of 184 GWR locos. In the event, only 37 of the company’s locomotives were converted, along with 56 locomotives from other “Big Four” companies. By April 1950 the GWR locos had all been converted back to coal firing. From October 1945 to 31st July 1948 the GWR and British Railways (Western Region) consumed a total of 8,263,313 gallons with 80,000 gallons a week being used on occasions in 1947. While the oil-burning experiment was considered successful in the short term with government being impressed early on by the results being achieved, the price of the imported fuel oil rose considerably and sheer economics dictated the end of the programme.

With gas turbine, diesel and electric traction already in existence, there was one brief return to oil-firing for a steam locomotive. On 2nd May 1958, work to convert GWR 0-6-0 pannier tank number 3711 built in 1936 to oil-burning was completed at the Forth Banks Works of Robert Stephenson & Hawthorn in Newcastle. This was part of a “one-off” experiment for this class commissioned by British Railways at Swindon Works. The oil was carried in a prominent tank in the bunker almost up to cab roof level. The locomotive worked at Old Oak Common, London and Swindon before withdrawal, still as an oil-burner in May 1963.


Mike Peart


Mike Peart is a former railwayman on British Railways (Western Region). He is co-author of Volumes 3 (Freight Marshalling Yards), 4 (Level Crossings) and 5 (Train Detection and Control) of the “History & Development of Railway Signalling in the British Isles” series, and Trains of Hope”, all published by The Friends of the National Railway Museum. He’s been an active Friend of the NRM since 1994 and was one of the four “schoolboy” founder members of the Great Western Society (Didcot Railway Centre) in 1961 and its Honorary Secretary for several years.


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