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Testing, Testing

Recollections of the BR locomotive testing station at Rugby. . . . . . .

I don’t know about your trainspotting years, if you had them, but some of mine were spent at Rugby. There, you could stand on the south end of the Midland station platform and watch the traffic on the Euston lines, direct and via Northampton. Sometimes, you might be on a grassy bank to the west and south of the station, giving you a closer view of what was passing over the bridge on the old Great Central route. It was a busy scene. There were engine sheds and sidings and a curious concrete building set apart from the sheds and sandwiched between the old GC route and the Euston lines. This was Rugby Testing Station.

Artist impression of Rugby Station 1850 Courtesy

Most of us wondered what they tested there since, by the 1960’s, there didn’t seem to be anything going on. The cognoscenti, however, explained that it was where they tested locomotives. Pictures were produced showing locomotives going full tilt on rollers inside the mysterious building. There were jokes, of course. What would happen if the rollers suddenly jammed? Good job the offices were high above and behind the front of the loco. Ha-ha! Then it got serious. They were testing ‘tractive effort’, ‘drawbar power’, coal consumption. It all started to get overwhelming. When I went to Rugby again in later years as a commuter, the strange building had disappeared into a pile of shattered concrete and chippings with a few wagons nearby.

Rugby Testing Station was started as an initiative by Sir Nigel Gresley. The GWR had its own testing facilities at Swindon and the Southern had no real need, being focussed instead on third rail electrification. But the LNER and the LMSR could do better, thought Sir Nigel, and the two companies agreed on a site near the old GCR route (LNER) and today’s WCML (LMS) at Rugby. Work started in 1937 but World War II intervened and the facility was only finished under BR ownership in 1948. It was a short life. 26 different locomotives used it until the final test in 1965. It was closed in 1970 and demolished in 1984.

Those boyhood photos show locomotives on the ‘table’, with rollers beneath the driving wheels, the whole locomotive festooned with cables and instruments, measuring just about anything that could be measured. I imagined one under the driver’s seat in the cab, to check stability! There was 60007 ‘Sir Nigel Gresley’ on film (but not test) and Franco Crosti boilered BR 9F 92023 (see the post on this site from 26th April 2021). The latter’s side chimney must have proved a challenge but the facility had rollers that could be adjusted to fit locomotive wheel bases and a smoke vent that could be adjusted to cope with even the Crosti. There was also the testing of GT3, a gas turbine prototype that looked a little like a toaster on wheels.

Railway historians have long debated whether the testing station was really necessary. Maybe in 1937 but not by 1948? Too late – it was built, so use it. I recall looking at pictures of locomotives with ‘indicating shelters’ on the front. These were wooden boxes built over the front buffer beam and covering the main exhaust steam pipes and top half of the cylinders as well as the lower part of the smoke box. The give away was the two ‘portholes’ at the front. I’d assumed the box contained instruments of one sort or another until I discovered that two men were inside taking measurements as the locomotive ploughed on through all weathers. They were alternately frozen in the draughts and scorched by the smokebox door. I would have liked to have recorded someone talking about their experiences of doing this but I have not yet found a survivor (if that’s the right word). Faced with this, I suppose having a stationary testing plant was a distinct improvement.

Why test? These are matters for historians, I think, and serious students of locomotive design. Back in the 60’s the strange concrete building set apart from everything else on the Rugby site seemed quite sinister. This was an age of the Cold War, of espionage thrillers, and it wasn’t hard to stimulate schoolboy imaginations. Was it, somehow, a nuclear facility? I bumped into one or two who remembered the plant, both railwaymen and ‘spotters’. Most had never been inside the building, adding to the secrecy that seemed to surround it.

Mick had been inside officially when they were testing in 1960: ‘It was deafening. Imagine a Black 5 going full tilt in a confined space like that. Most of the smoke got out through the roof vents but there was steam everywhere, especially if it lifted the safety valves. They used to shovel coal from tubs with a measured amount of coal in but you could tell the lads doing it weren’t impressed. Didn’t seem right, stoking like that. Might as well have been stoking heating boilers.’

‘Did you think it was dangerous?’

‘Not really, I just couldn’t really see the point of it. But I was never an accountant type.’ He shrugged.

Looking across to the site today from a Euston to Manchester train, I can see a small industrial estate. There’s a building there advertising MOT’s for cars. Testing, then, testing again.


John Swanwick

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For a definitive account of the Rugby Testing Station see here

In the next few weeks look out for Mike Peart writing companion pieces about testing at Swindon.

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