“Motoring” in 1903

Driving a “car” on rails under steam power. . . . . . . .

GWR “steam motor car” or “railmotor” number 1 in 1903. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

1903 was an important year for rail motoring! In April, Sir Joseph Wilkinson, Great Western Railway (GWR) General Manager, appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee. He had to answer questions about the proposed Chalford and Stonehouse motor-car service in Gloucestershire. Objections had been received from the proprietors of the proposed Chalford Tramway, supported by the Midland Railway. He said that the GWR had spent large sums improving the stations in the district. Electric traction was being investigated and an officer had been appointed to consider how, in certain rural districts, electric or other “motor-cars” could be run on the railway. An experiment had started with a locomotive intended to work by steam fuelled by burning petrol, but they had been compelled to put it on one side as it could not achieve the speed wanted. They had determined to go back to coal-fired steam power with a service of self-contained steam motor cars interpolated between the ordinary traffic.

The GWR Traffic Committee met in April to talk about running an economical service with “motor cars” in the Stroud Valley, known to some as the “Golden Valley”. There was already considerable traffic between Chalford and Stonehouse, much of which was on omnibuses and other road vehicles. At the time there was also a local plan for a tramway. It was felt that the railway could compete effectively. Two “motor cars” would cost about £5,000, a 75 x 15-feet shed at Chalford would cost about £1,000, and another £1,000 would be needed for siding connections and signalling. The proposals were agreed and were recommended to the GWR Board for adoption.

Terminology for this new form of traction varied. In May, GWR Chief Mechanical Engineer G J Churchward with other railway officials as passengers observed the trials of the London & South Western Railway’s “railmotor” designed by Dougal Drummond. It ran between Stonehouse, Stroud and Chalford. Churchward had borrowed the vehicle, but found it lacked power for the gradients as it was built for the more level Fratton to Southsea branch, near Portsmouth. The L&SWR version started with a vertical boiler, but after the experience on the GWR and a failure to provide enough steam, the boiler was replaced with a highly-set horizontally-mounted boiler over the front bogie for maximum adhesion.

The day after the trial the GWR Board approved the building of two “steam motor cars” at the estimated cost of £5,000. Meanwhile, Stroud Rural District Council had heard about the plans and had objected strongly. They wrote to the Board of Trade pointing out that there were twelve railway level crossings between Stonehouse and Chalford, and that these “motor cars” would stop at some of them to pick up and set down passengers. The council felt that the crossing points should either have a bridge over the line or a crossing keeper to open and close gates. Further, there should be protection for the public from other passing trains while they were waiting for the “motor cars”.

By July, the GWR had written to the Board of Trade saying that they proposed to run their service of “steam motor cars” between Chalford and Stonehouse. They would be intermingled between other services on the Swindon to Gloucester line. The service would run hourly from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. The vehicle would be open from end to end, and would have 52 side seats. Side steps up to and down to platform or rail level would be fitted. The boiler compartment carried 10 cwt of coal and 450 gallons of water.

In October, “The Times” reported that the Board of Trade had approved the new service from Chalford to Stonehouse and the stopping points were listed. The Board of Trade Chief Inspector, Lt-Col Arthur Yorke (formerly of the Royal Engineers) had conducted his formal inspection. He reported that it was essential for the “person in charge of the motive machinery” to be stationed at the leading end of the car. He noted that the GWR had already realised that the provision of some form of platform at stopping points speeded up the picking up and discharge of passengers. The service so far had been highly successful and he regarded the “experiment” with appreciation. Yorke believed that every attempt should be encouraged to get “the greatest possible use out of a railway”.

A side view of GWR steam railmotor number 1. Photo: National Railway Museum.

The same month there was a press trip in a new steam motor car which was completely successful. Among the passengers were Charles Aldington (later to be Superintendent of the Line and General Manager), G J Churchward and Frank Marillier who was in charge of the Swindon Carriage & Wagon Works. The public service started the following day using railmotors numbers 1 and 2. It set off from Stonehouse and ran to Chalford with six intermediate stopping places. The fare from Stonehouse to Chalford was 7d (3p). The railmotors always worked with the locomotive end towards Chalford. The smaller stopping places became known as “Haltes”, the term being copied from European tramway practice. However, they were later renamed as “Halts”. In the first week, nearly 12,000 passengers were carried due to the novelty effect. The press noted at the time that both steam railway motor cars were “giving great satisfaction”. The structural frames of the new vehicles were built of Baltic and Canadian oak, with the upper part of the outside panelled with mahogany from Honduras. For the lower part of the outside, tongue and groove match-boarding was used. Polished oak wood was used on the inside. The ceiling was painted white with blue lining, and six gas lamps of 14 candle-power each provided the lighting.

The all-important “works” of a steam railmotor, shown without the chimney at the top. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

There had been a steam rail motor as far back as 1848. Four were made by a London company and one known as the “Fairfield” ran briefly on the Bristol & Exeter Railway between Tiverton and Tiverton Junction. But the concept died off and it was half a century before the idea was picked up again. From its start in 1903, over the next five years the GWR’s fleet has risen to 99 railmotors of various designs. In 1912, number 100 appeared. This was an experimental petrol-electric version with an engine driving a dynamo. But steam prevailed and the traditional fleet worked until the mid-1930s. After withdrawal, many were converted as coaches for the “push-pull” auto trains for branch lines. One such, number 93 was converted in 1934 and worked until 1956. It was then used as a static office until it was bought by the Great Western Society for conversion and refurbishment in 1970. A lottery grant enabled the building of a new power bogie unit and the new railmotor 93 took to the rails in 2011, working for ten years until the expiry of its boiler certificate. It is now a static exhibit at Didcot Railway Centre awaiting repairs.

Re-creating a scene from 106 years before. The rebuilt GWR railmotor number 93 working a Southall to Brentford shuttle service in 2014. The original number 93 had first worked that branch line in 1908! The middle door has the steps and handrails for passengers boarding and alighting at rail