For the first feature of 2018, we will again step outside the regular scope of New Build Steam. Normally we cover new build standard gauge steam locomotives, and while an equivalent focus on narrow gauge isn’t really feasible (manufacture of narrow gauge engines was scaled down over time but never really stopped, meaning there isn’t a distinct ‘new build’ generation of projects), distinct new build broad gauge locomotives do exist.
These are in turn somewhat different from the locomotives showcased in the museum replicas feature, being larger and faster locomotives than those very early examples – albeit they don’t have any track on which to show the speed of which they should in theory be capable.
However, as the total fleet of extant broad gauge locomotives, new or old, numbers only half a dozen, this piece will start at the beginning and look at broad gauge more fully before getting to the new builds.
Broad gauge background and history
Brunel introduced his broad gauge when designing the Great Western Railway in the 1830s, initially intending the gauge to be exactly seven feet. An extra quarter of an inch was added in response to problems encountered in early testing, and the gauge then remained in use as part of the rail network until 1892, with some other companies also building to it in order to connect to the GWR. This animated map by the Broad Gauge Society shows the extent of the broad gauge network peaking in around 1865, although even by this point many lines were built to mixed gauge (broad and standard, as we now know it – confusingly, the GWR’s was convention was to refer to standard gauge as ‘narrow gauge’, a tradition that the Broad Gauge Society maintains).
Brunel initially commissioned an assortment of locomotives from different manufacturers, although the result was a motley variety of engines, variously applying the technologies of the day in the period before approaches to locomotive design converged on the lines we would recognise today. Broad gauge locomotive design began to prosper more fully under Daniel Gooch, whom Brunel appointed as the railway’s locomotive superintendent. As well as developing the locomotive classes we will come to, Gooch began the GWR’s tradition of placing a heavy emphasis on interchangeable components. This continued into the era of building ‘convertible’ locomotives for eventual use on standard gauge, commenced by Gooch in 1876 and continued by his successor William Dean from the following year.
Only one truly original broad gauge locomotive exists in the UK, and even this is an unusual example: an 0-4-0 vertical boiler locomotive, ‘Tiny’ was built for the South Devon Railway in 1868, by Sara and Co of Penryn, Cornwall, and used for shunting wagons. It survived as part of the hydrostatic test stand at Newton Abbot sheds until the centenary of the Rainhill Trials prompted a wave of interest in early locomotives, and Tiny was refurbished and placed on display in Newton Abbot station. It remained there until the 1980s and can now be seen at the preserved South Devon Railway.
There should have been other survivors, however: from the Star or Priam class of 2-2-2s designed in 1837 by Robert Stephenson, North Star was set aside for preservation after its withdrawal in 1871; and of the 1847 Iron Duke or Alma class, Lord of the Isles – exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 – had been similarly retained. However, with both taking up space at Swindwon works, and in the absence of any obvious museum to house them, they were scrapped in 1906. Conflicting reports continue to circulate about the roles of GJ Churchward and William Stanier, the latter working under the former at the time, in the decision.
However, things did not end there: in 1925, Swindon reconstructed a replica of North Star in the class’s original 2-2-2 configuration (the design being developed into a 4-2-2 in its early days), using some original components retained by staff who had been unhappy about the decision to dispose of the original. While it is not capable of steaming, it is nonetheless an original product of the GWR, and can be seen today in Steam, Swindon.
While those may be the only original broad gauge locomotives still in the UK, they are not the sole survivors. As well as on the GWR network and connected lines, broad gauge was employed on railways built for the construction of several breakwaters, at Holyhead, Portland and Alderney. The engineers involved in these projects also went on to work on harbour construction schemes at Plymouth, East London, Erin on the Isle of Man, and even Cape Town – most or possibly all of these also utilising broad gauge lines. Also in this engineering lineage was the harbour at Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel, in the Azores.
This railway survived and was used periodically for engineering work on the harbour, as recently as 1973. Although they haven’t been steamed since then, two 0-4-0 broad gauge tank engines remain in the railway’s workshop, awaiting (one hopes) restoration: one built by Black, Hawthorn & Co in 1883, the other by Falcon in 1888. A third, build by Neilson in the 1860s, apparently survived to the 1960s before being scrapped.
So much, then, for original broad gauge locomotives – although a handful exist, none has steamed in the UK in living memory, and it’s far from clear that any will be restored to running order even in the medium term. But a prerequisite for building any new examples would have to be some broad gauge track to run them on.
The National Railway Museum had a stretch of broad gauge track in place in the 1980s, and the Great Western Society have since provided a more permanent solution by recreating a short stretch of line, mostly in mixed gauge form. This also incorporates Didcot’s 1850s transfer shed, originally built to move goods between trains of different gauges. Two new builds have been created that could, in principle make use of it.
The Iron Duke class, designed in 1847, were in their day the fastest steam locomotives in the world, being capable of running routinely at 50-60mph, with peak speeds well above that, and were used for hauling the flagship Flying Dutchman services.
For the Great Western 150 celebrations, a replica was built by RESCO Railways, using some modern engineering techniques and incorporating parts from two ‘donor’ Austerity tank engines. Nonetheless it is a close reproduction of the locomotives as designed in 1847, complete with wooden boiler cladding that was about to be superseded by painted iron sheeting even at the time of its introduction.
The replica is part of the National Collection, and operated at York after it was completed; it visited Didcot in 1986/7, and moved there on a long term basis in 2013, its boiler ticket by now long expired. Didcot announced in 2014 that it would be cosmetically restored, but that there were no immediate plans to return it to steam. It shouldn’t be overlooked that at the time this was technically the first main line steam locomotive to have been built in the UK since Evening Star more than 20 years earlier (discounting considerably less powerful replicas such as Rocket), and more than 20 years before Tornado’s completion – although the absence of a suitable main line for it to work on somewhat disguised its significance.
Replica third and second class broad gauge coaches were also commissioned by the NRM for the Great Western 150 celebrations, which have more recently been put to use behind the second broad gauge new build.
Fire Fly is a recreation of Gooch’s 2-2-2 class of 1840, one of which was the first class of locomotive ever to haul a train carrying a British monarch (Queen Victoria’s famous journey from Slough to Paddington, with Gooch driving and Brunel on the footplate for good measure). Its construction by the Firefly (sic) Trust took 20 years to come to fruition, work having commenced in Bristol in 1985, and it first ran under its own power in 2005 following completion at Didcot. Ownership of the locomotive was transferred to the Great Western Preservations Ltd, the holding company for the locomotive collection at Didcot, in 2013, with a handover ceremony taking place on Daniel Gooch’s birthday, August 24th. At the time the engine had been out of action for over a year while awaiting replacement parts; however, the repairs were completed and allowed it to see out its boiler certificate in 2014. At the time, the Great Western Society described the locomotive as being withdrawn for overhaul, so hopefully it will be back in operation before long.
The video above shows it in operation just prior to withdrawal – don’t be put off if there is no preview image; it should still work if you click on it.