Poor loco maintenance and the consequences. . . . . .
We were inside the loco shed, under the looming presence of a steam engine, and inspecting Alan’s bare forearm. It was covered in bruises and he explained, chewing another paracetamol, that a part of the running gear had slipped while four of them were manhandling it.
‘Could have broken your arm,’ I suggested, helpfully.
‘All part of working on steam engines,’ came the gruff reply.
The thought took me back to some of those interviews with footplate men during the last days of the Great Central route through the East Midlands. The sheds en route were considered suitable recipients for locomotives near the end of their working lives so the obvious question was ‘how safe was it?’ Answers varied from a shrug of the shoulders to hair raising stories, depending on the interviewee’s feelings about the end of the line. ‘Safe – but not the best,’ thought Brian. ‘I remember Jubilee 45730 ‘Comet’, one of the rebuilt ones. It wasn’t going well so they sent a trouble shooter from Crewe. We left Leicester but he stopped us at Lutterworth and told us we weren’t going any further. Later we heard it went for scrap.’
John recounted the story of Royal Scot 46112 ‘Sherwood Forester’. ‘He was coming down the bank at Loughborough on the ‘Rabbits Train’, got a green (light) and opened up. All of a sudden there was a massive explosion and fire and steam came back through the fire hole. The driver got out on the running plate and managed to stop it. His fireman jumped and broke his arm.’ Next day they went to have a look at the unfortunate engine, parked in the sidings. ‘All the cab floor boards had burnt through, the engine looked like it had been steam cleaned. The main steam pipe had fractured in the smoke box. Well, next day they tested the rest of the Annesley ‘Scots’ and the fitter’s hammer went through two more steam pipes. They were like paper. We never saw the locos again.’
Warming to his theme, John remembered Britannia Class 70047 which was reported for ‘excessive banging between tender and loco.’ ‘They found the draw bar had failed so the engine was pulling its load using only the safety chains. Then there was ‘Black Five’ 44936. ‘It sounded funny when we started off but decided to keep going in case we couldn’t start it again. At Nottingham Victoria they found a seized lubricator and a bent connecting road. That went for scrap too.’
Interrupting yet more frightening stories, I asked him if he thought it was safe. The answer was yes but only some basic checks were carried out sometimes. ‘Down to maintenance, then?’ ‘I suppose so….’
Back to Brian who, as a fireman, was delighted when his driver let him move a Stanier 8F onto the turntable in Leicester Midland shed. It went perfectly until he put on the small injector. ‘There was a whistle and a bang, and then the cab was full of steam. Turned out the fitter had repacked the gland of the injector and not tightened all the nuts. One came loose and shot across the cab. I would have been shot if I’d stood in the wrong position.’ There was a pause. ‘But then they always checked the boilers were OK,’ he added as an after thought.
It’s difficult, this steam engine safety thing, and that’s before we discuss safety on the railways generally. Steam locomotives are dangerous things and, without the highest standards of maintenance, it could be risky. I thought most of the stories came down to poor maintenance with some hints that railway management were at fault. But, then, nobody would knowingly send out a crew on a dangerous locomotive. It was just that older engines and poorer maintenance standards increased the risks.
I asked Alan about his fore arm again. It looked like it had seen action with metal a few times. ‘It’s part of the job,’ he added. ‘I was watching ‘British India Line on an excursion recently and all the footplate crew were in orange hi-viz. I thought about how standards have changed and sometimes I don’t think we ever really realised how dangerous the job could be.’
It’s a difficult topic, like so many when you collect oral histories. Opinion and embellished stories trip over interviewers very easily. In the end the stories here are a reminder of how dangerous footplate work could be – but not just the footplate crew. Their lives were often in the hands of others – including the shed fitters.
And, by the way, the ‘Rabbits" train ran from Banbury to York at 06.50 and was made up of vans from all over the Western Region.
For more on the Royal Scot class, including ‘Sherwood Forester, see here
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