by Phil Marsh

The hunt for Red Prairie is on!

Published: 14th August 2013

Never mind Red October, this is the summer of the red Prairie!

GWR Small ‘Prairie’ No. 5521, owned by Bill and Richard Parker and based at The Flour Mill workshops in the Dean Forest, is in demand on Britain’s heritage railways this summer – but not in its Great Western green form. The much travelled loco (a few years back it undertook a European tour encompassing running on main lines in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia) was repainted in London Transport red to appear as No. L150 during the late May ‘Steam Back on the Met’ trains.

Its next appearance was at the Epping Ongar Railway’s June 21-24 and June 28-July 1 ‘Tube150’ event.

Met No. 1 and ‘Red Prairie’ run at EOR ‘Tube 150’ gala

The Epping Ongar Railway, which burst back onto the scene as a steam heritage line on the fringe of London last year, held its first steam gala in late June/early July.

As a railway which once formed part of the London Transport network with tube trains running through to its Ongar terminus, selection of a ‘Tube150’ theme was obvious and appropriate as LT celebrates the 150th anniversary of opening the first section (Paddington to Farringdon Street) of what was to become London’s underground railway system.

The event featured The Buckinghamshire Railway Centre’s Metropolitan Railway 0-4-4T E class No. 1, back in action after a hot axlebox requiring repairs to the white metal curtailed its ‘Steam Back On The Met’ appearances.

The Gresley Society’s GNR N2 No. 1744, the EOR’s own GWR Large Prairie No. 4141 and Small Prairie No. 5521 in its red No. L150 form. The visit of the ‘Red Prairie’ was a very late arrangement, the loco taking a slot provisionally expected to be filled by the East Anglian Railway Museum’s GER N7 0-6-2T No. 69621, which is currently on hire at the Churnet Valley Railway where it remained instead of heading south to Essex.

Epping Ongar’s resident GWR ‘Hall’ No. 4953 Pitchford Hall, due to be withdrawn for 10-year overhaul in September, was in light steam at North Weald as ‘spare’ loco if required.

The event also featured visiting ‘Tube150’ theme rolling stock comprising London Transport Museum’s MR ‘Jubilee’ carriage No. 353, two Metropolitan ‘Dreadnought’ coaches (first No. 509 and brake No. 427) owned by the Vintage Carriages Trust and a 1950s BR suburban coach from the North Norfolk Railway. This enabled operation of heritage and ‘modern’ carriage sets with motive power rotations. Most trains ran between Ongar and North Weald, with a limited number of top-and-tailed trains through to Coopersale.

‘LT’ Prairie boosts Bluebell summer steam

The next stop for the ‘Red Prairie’ was the Bluebell Railway. No. 5521/L150 arrived on July 11 to boost Bluebell summer steam following the failure of LBSCR E4 0-6-2T No. B473 (nee Birch Grove) at the beginning of June with firebox problems, followed by the Maunsell Society’s U class No. 1638 also being stopped with a firebox issue.

Hire of the Prairie will continue to the beginning of September when it is committed to participation in further LT events, but it is likely to return later that month for a further period.

The unexpected removal from traffic of the E4 and U Class left the Bluebell very tight for motive power with a weekend when just 9F No. 92212 and Class 33 No. 33103 Swordfish were available to work trains.

Further loco issues came to a head on the morning of July 10 when the 9F broke a spring (it was working again the following weekend) and the Class 33 failed (also soon back on spoil train duties) leaving diesel Class 09 108 working a reduced length passenger train to East Grinstead! LBSCR ‘Terrier’ No. 55 Stepney and SECR P class No. 323 Bluebell also found themselves working a dining service top-and-tail on July 14.

In addition to the timely arrival of the Prairie (although even this loco encountered problems on July 21!) help is on its way.

Reassembly of SECR C class 0-6-0 No. 592 was complete in early July with trial running and a return to service expected imminently. The Maunsell Society’s SR S15 2-6-0 No. 847 should also return to traffic in a couple of months.

Although availability of steam is proving somewhat taxing in early summer, Bluebell Railway income for the first four months of 2013 is significantly ahead of budget with visitor numbers up 23% on the same period in 2012. The excellent traffic figures, with consequent boosts to shop and buffet trading, are doubtless boosted by the March 23 opening of the northern extension from Kingscote to East Grinstead.

Two things you may not know as LT celebrates its 150th anniversary

London Transport Museum’s MR ‘Jubilee’ carriage No. 353 was ‘marked’ in accordance with a centuries-old City of London tradition of ‘cart marking’ on July 17 at Mansion House Station. Traditionally road vehicles were marked with a branding iron on the Guildhall forecourt but in this instance a branded plaque was taken to the carriage at the Underground station.

A batch of replica Metropolitan Railway locomotive lamps were specially produced for the late May Tube 150 ‘Steam back on the Met’ operations. Specialist supplier, John Beesley, was asked to manufacture sufficient lamps for the three participating steam locomotives and believes they must be the first of the type to be made for over 60 years, albeit they were fitted with modern railway group standard electric illumination. “Getting all the parts, including a heavy battery, into the confined space was a challenge,” observed John.

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