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Bits and Bobs – and where to put them.

Locomotive design featuring Chinese locomotives at Datong and German locos at Nordlingen museum. . . . . . .

A previous post commented on the approach to restoration of museum objects at the Berlin Technical Museum (‘Polishing the Past’, 26th January 2021). But readers might be interested in another excursion I made while working through a summer in Munich some years ago.

I told the city information desk in Munich I was interested in trains. ‘Oh, you must go to Nördlingen’, the man said. This took me to a small Bavarian town with a long history and some old engine sheds, rather like what I think of as Carnforth in the UK. Inside was a treasure trove of old locomotives. Ekkart, the town’s pharmacist and volunteer guide for the day, showed me around. He explained they were getting about 15,000 visitors a year (pre-pandemic). With many locomotives to see, it wasn’t hard to work out why. Everything from Deutsche Bundesbahn’s last survivors to ‘Krieglok’, black and red monsters from World War II. ‘They built 5000 of these between 1942 and 1945,’ explained Ekkart. He pointed to the ‘Krieglok’. ‘This one is from Romania’.

Picture: NRM

We both stared at it. It was festooned with various bits and pieces, important to the design. There were sand boxes on the top of the boiler, various clack valves and connecting pipes, knobs and levers everywhere. He pointed out an express locomotive that looked a lot smoother. ‘This is my favourite,’ he said, and I agreed. All the various encrustations were well hidden. ‘It looks smoother, better. I think British locomotives look better,’ he added. That surprised me and we talked through the pros and cons of hiding or exposing the various bits and bobs in the interests of aesthetics over practical maintenance. If you go into the NRM you can get the general idea by comparing the Chinese Government KF class 4-8-4 or Bulleid’s Q1 with not only the ‘streamliners’, but the more conventionally designed ‘Lode Star’, for example.

But, then, it depends where the locomotive was to work. Eastern Europe, Russia, in winter, was no easy proposition for locomotive and crew. It’s not surprising there were fully enclosed cabs, water heaters and sand boxes on the tops of boilers for example, the better to keep out intense cold. There was a practicality about it and, some years earlier in China, I had much the same thought when I realised the harsh conditions, heat and cold, wet and desert dust, that locomotives there had to endure. I was lucky enough to ride on the footplate of one of the last steam locomotives ever built in the world, at Datong in China in 1988. It was a memorable experience. We took it for a ‘test’ down the works yard and back. Anyone who has held the regulator of a steam locomotive will know what it feels like when the engine moves but this was something else. The locomotive was enormous but the various additions to the outside of it made it look like a mobile workshop. It would work (for just a few years) the big coal trains in the north, where temperatures were usually at least 10C below on most winter days.

Contrast this with the smooth and satisfying lines of many British locomotives. But as we do we have to forget the under current of complaints from footplate crews and fitters who had to work with them. In an interview for an oral history series a fitter at Nine Elms shed discussed the finer points of grazed knuckles and bruises, acquired crawling around Bulleid’s Pacifics, streamlined or not. He was particularly graphic in describing the effect on the boiler suits the fitters wore – ‘3 suits and never one dry from washing. They lasted a day before they were really oily, filthy. My wife couldn’t cope.’ He then rolled up his sleeves to reveal forearms bearing the marks of a lifetime in contact with railway metal, some of it hot.

Ekkart’s comment has stuck with me over time. I prefer the smooth, ‘British look’ but I didn’t have to work on the locomotives concerned, nor did I have to drive them through blizzards and heat waves. ‘Horses for courses’ I suppose but I have this sneaking suspicion that national pride was at stake. You know, the ‘British way’ or the “German way’, the ‘flashy’ or the ‘utilitarian’. Or perhaps we might think of it in another way – the locomotive as an attractive marketing tool, or as a strictly practical workhorse…….


John Swanwick

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