Published: 2nd May 2014
Dennis Howells is one of the more well-known steam locomotive preservationists and has a CV to which most can only aspire to. His 40 years and more volunteering have seen him restore various Great Western steam locomotives ranging in size from ‘King’ No. 6023 King Edward 11 to his GWR design 0-6-0PT No. 9466 plus the engine and boiler of the GWR Railmotor.
While doing all this, he managed over a half century as a professional railwayman starting in 1955 for which he was awarded an MBE for his signalling services to the railway industry.
Mr Howells also fulfilled the roles of Locomotive Manager and Footplate Inspector at the Great Western Society in Didcot and remains the Inspector at Quainton where he is overhauling his Pannier Tank. Dennis was also a GWS Council Member for many years.
Why the past tense? Because after meeting the GWS Chairman Richard Croucher in April, Mr Howells has announced his retirement from duties at the GWS Didcot. This follows around a quarter of a century of work there successfully concluding the restoration to full working order of GWR 4-6-0 ‘King’ No. 6023 King Edward 11 and the GWR Steam Railmotor. His responsibilities will now be carried out by the locomotive maintenance department at Didcot.
So what will the maintenance team have to do? They will now be responsible for and to oversee the transition from No. 6023 pulling trains at 25 mph on preserved railways to speeds of 75mph on the national network. As well as seeing No. 6023 return to the main line, they will also be in charge of any further main line excursions for the Railmotor.
Mr Howells said he is now looking forward to riding on the main line behind 6023 King Edward 11 hopefully later in 2014 once the GWS maintenance team has gained main line certification.
He added that he and GWS Chairman Richard Croucher, formed a formidable team with Mr Croucher leading the fundraising effort with Mr Howells acting as project Engineer. He would like to publicly thank the team saying that he would miss them after his retirement. Finally, he said that he would like to thank Richard Croucher for the opportunity to work on the second ‘Barry King’
Given that Mr Howells’ team completed the mechanical and boiler work to main line specifications, the new responsible team now need to arrange the fitting of the mandatory electronic safety systems such as Automatic Warning and Train protection and Warning systems plus the on-train monitoring recorder and finally, the GSMR radio equipment. When this has been done then the engine will be weighed and a test run carried out.
Mr Howells, 75 this year, headed up the 23 year restoration of 6023 at Didcot following the locomotive being moved from the Bristol Temple Meads Fish Dock where Harveys had brought the engine to after rescuing it from Barry scrap yard.
The overhaul was widely regarded as impossible because the two rear driving wheels had been cut in half after a shunting accident derailment at the scrapyard. Mr Howells’ instructions from the GWS was to restore the engine to a single chimney design but not to use their existing volunteers. He had to create a new team from scratch and many of them remain at Didcot.
This meant he had to provide a revised blast pipe arrangement as the engine had a double chimney and he also provided two cabs of different heights, a lower chimney safety valve bonnet to give greater route availability on the national network.
It is thought that Mr Howells could well have been the first person in the steam preservation movement to procure the new driving-wheelset used on 6023 which was the first major hurdle in the restoration. This success accomplished to mainline standards proved the restoration team could deliver which boosted subsequent fundraising.
This combined with the unique BR ‘Standard’ Class 8 No. 71000 Duke of Gloucester’s successful refitting of a new Caprotti cylinder block which had been removed for display at the York railway museum, showed that what was thought to be impossible was in fact, possible!
Mr Howells was simultaneously restoring the GWR Railmotor at Didcot which existed as a carriage without the boiler and power bogie. Dennis had to find someone to build a replica 1908 boiler and power bogie but had no plans to guide him.
After much work, a stroke of luck came their way when a former lecturer from Southampton University got in touch saying he had a similar vintage boiler plus the associated drawings. From these, Dennis’ team manage to get Israel Newton to construct the required boiler and to 21st century standards.
Mr Howells has directed the procurement of over 10 main line approved wheelsets for the GWS including Didcot’s ‘Saint’, ‘County’ and the Railmotors.
So far as the ‘King’ was concerned, official drawings were scarce and Mr Howells estimated that around 700 drawings were required for manufacturers and these were generated by a team of draughtsman led by Mike Rudge
Before a steam locomotive is allowed to operate on the national network, it has to undergo an examination, usually the day prior to the train operation. Mr Howells has been carrying these out for many years on engines such as Didcot’s GWR ‘Castle’ No. 5051 Earl Bathurst. He also did the checks on visiting locomotives to Didcot as they have to be moved by rail into the railway centre. He has also carried out these inspections for the Steam on the Underground events and will again be doing so in August.
Mr Howells also worked on the other preserved ‘King’, No. 6024 King Edward 1 as his initial venture in preservation. and was working party leader until 1977 when he bought his own engine, Pannier Tank No. 9466. This was in unrestored ex-Barry scrapyard condition and returning this to service occupied him until 1985. The engine has starred in every ‘Steam on The Met/Underground’ event and had a few excursions onto the national network working between Cornwall, Wolverhampton and Sheringham.
The engine is notionally based at Quainton but is a regular at the Mid Norfolk Railway where Dennis hopes to promote more steam operations. It is likely to return there in May 2015 after overhaul ideally placing it for more East Anglian branchline mainline work. It also returned to its former operating area in the late 1980s when it ran from Radyr Yard to Cathays depot and also operated on the Vale of Glamorgan Railway at Barry.
9466 has one original cabside number plate and Dennis would like to know where the other one might be. He also would like a copy of a drawing for a Swindon No. 10 non-superheated boiler to assist with his overhaul. If anyone knows, please contact rail.co.uk.
By the end of April, 9466 had had all its 276 tubes, the pannier tanks and chimney removed and the cab was about to be lifted off. Adjacent to 9466 is Mr Howells’ other project, the restoration of his Hawksworth 3rd class brake carriage No. 2242. This is being carried out to appropriate main line standards and may well accompany 9466 onto the main line next year marking the diamond anniversary of Mr Howells joining the railways.