One train that was always guaranteed to rattle the windows of my booking office and leave a vortex was “The Bristolian” Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads service. My office was over the down main line at Southall, nine miles from Paddington. Even if I was busy booking tickets you could feel and hear “The Bristolian” passing underneath. If the window was open, the notes and warrants in the cash tray moved. This train had its origins in a non-stop Paddington to Bristol service introduced in 1935 to mark the centenary of the Great Western Railway. For the down journey via Bath it was allowed 105 minutes for the 118.3 miles. The up journey was 117.6 miles via Wootton Bassett with more gradients to cope with. World War Two put a stop to this prestige service until well into the mid to late 1950s when attempts were made to recapture the glory days.
In my time on the railway, “The Bristolian” was in its last days as a steam-hauled non-stop service. The service was worked by “Castle” and “King” class locomotives from the sheds at Old Oak Common, London, and Bath Road, Bristol. The locomotives known to be “the good ‘uns” were kept for the service to be driven and fired by top link men. I knew three firemen who had worked “The Bristolian” in their time. It was a thrilling job for them but also hard work on the shovel to maintain the timings. In 1957, the schedule was 100 minutes for the non-stop journey with seven or eight coaches making up to 300 tons of train. There was pride in the job – and an unofficial league chart – as to which crew could achieve the quickest runs. Quite often, Bristol was reached in between 96 and 98 minutes on the down run. In 1958 with “Castle” class locomotive 7018 “Drysllwyn Castle”, a time of 93 minutes and 50 seconds with an eight-coach train was achieved on the up journey with Driver Russe of Bristol. 7018 had been fitted with a double chimney, four-row superheater and an improved mechanical lubricator, all of which made possible a top speed of 100 mph, or just over on the “racing ground” stretches. The record with the heavier “King” class locomotives was about 96 minutes. We have, of course, “Castle” class 4073 “Caerphilly Castle” and “King” class 6000 “King George V” in the National Collection.
My London firemen friends spoke of the careful preparation of the locomotive that went into running “The Bristolian”. At the shed, driver and fireman checked and oiled round, got a good fire with ideal boiler pressure and water level before filling the tender with water and moving to the shed signal. The locomotive then followed the empty coaching stock from the carriage sidings into Paddington, the fireman coupled up and looked out for the “right away” at 8.45 a.m. Once the green flag was waved, the locomotive was worked hard to gain speed out of the station into the suburbs. Southall would be passed at around 75 mph and speed might be up to 90 mph at Slough 18 miles out. 31 minutes was allowed to pass Reading which was 36 miles from London. Drivers tried to get through in 29 minutes to have time in hand although this was rarely needed as the train was signalled two sections clear ahead and was very rarely cautioned or brought to a stand. There would be a “Please explain” if it was! The expectation on the footplate was that the trip would be accompanied by the ringing of the Automatic Train Control bell, not the warning horn. The train ran through the Platform 4 line at Reading General station and was limited to 80 mph there. Anyone on the platform stood well back. There was a standing joke with Old Oak Common men that the Wyman’s bookstall on Platform 4 would put down its shutters when “The Bristolian” was due through as they didn’t want their newspapers caught in the train’s vortex! Such was the noise on the footplate that sign language and shouting was the only way for the crew to communicate. There was a lot of pointwork with the locomotive and tender rolling at Reading, and the fireman was advised to sit briefly to avoid getting black and blue from being thrown around. But once through the station and over the points it was back on the shovel and watching the pressure and water gauges until Keynsham, five miles from Bristol. Very wisely, the Working Timetable noted that “four-wheeled vehicles must NOT be conveyed on this train”.
In the early 1960s, “The Bristolian” had ceased to be a non-stop service when a stop was put in at Bath Spa. By this time, the train was starting to be diesel-hauled with BR Western Region’s new diesel-hydraulic fleet. By this time, the schedule had been increased from 105 minutes non-stop to 118 and 119 minutes. The new diesel locomotives at the time were limited to 80 mph maximum speed, so the prospect of doing “the ton” at Dauntsey and Somerford was a thing of the past until the IC125 High Speed Trains came along.
Mike Peart is the 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 a founder member of the Great Western Society in 1961.
The King class was also the most powerful ever British 4-6-0 design; it had the highest permissible axle load of 22½ tons, and the largest fire grate of 34.3 square feet of any British narrow firebox locomotive design.
King George V was withdrawn from service in 1962. It was subsequently preserved at Swindon and then at Bulmer’s Railway Centre in Hereford. In 1971 the locomotive broke a three year ban on steam locomotives on the mainline which came into effect in 1969, thus consolidating its place in preservation history.
It was claimed for the National Collection in 1975 and is on display now at the National Railway Museum in York.
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