Published: 15th June 2014
The last twenty years has seen main line steam operations widen dramatically and after every greater achievement, the preservation movement wonders; What next? It was a triple headed main line steam train operated between Carnforth in Lancashire and Dereham on Norfolk on May 29 returning on June 2.
It was the first time a triple headed steam hauled full length train had operated on the main line since the end of steam in 1968 and probably well before then. One triple headed steam train ran with two support coaches to the Mid Hants Railway gala a few years ago and to the Railway Magazine backed Eastleigh 100 event in 2009 but then the train was diesel hauled.
So, why and how did it happen? The operation’s origins went back to the start of the year when George Saville, Operations Manager at the Mid Norfolk Railway (MNR), contacted West Coast Railways (WCR) with a proposal for three of their main line steam fleet to stage a unique gala on the MNR.
This call led to an agreement between WCR and the MNR that three engines and eight carriages would be used on the preserved line for a three day period. The next decision was to select a weekend when the three locomotives were not required on the main line which is why the event took place at the end of May.
The extra carriages were needed to provide an extra train to be operated during the gala and two support coaches were stabled at Dereham for the WCR crews who manned the locomotives to stay in. The MNR provided pilotmen for the WCR crews as they did not sign the preserved railway’s metals.
The operation began with a three-way shunt from Carnforth depot to the national network onto the station avoiding line behind the station platforms. Three shunts were needed because the headshunt by the depot reception line can only accommodate six carriages and a locomotive. The carriages were shunted out by a Class 47, in groups of five and three and then joined together.
The locomotives followed with two support coaches and they set back from the headshunt onto the eight carriages.
After a brake continuity test, the whole ensemble set back into the up and down goods loop to the south of Carnforth station. The train was headed by LMS 8F No. 48151 followed by LMS ‘Jubilee’ No. 5699 Galatea and coupled to the carriages was LMS ‘Royal Scot’ No. 46115 Scots Guardsman. Departure was on time at 1147hrs and the train was colourful with black, red, green liveried engines pulling a maroon carriage set.
The service then proceeded through Carnforth onto the ‘Little North Western’ route to Hellifield and the WCR watering facility there. While the three locomotives were watered, the crews also refuelled with bacon rolls ready for the long run to the next water stop at Retford.
So how is a triple-header operated on today’s main line? All three drivers were in constant radio communication with each other and the guard. Each engine’s fireman also (as normal) looked out for signals. The maximum 50mph speed was dictated by the 8F and the ‘Scot’ and ‘Jubilee’ took a notional 50psi from the steam chest in essence, providing power but not powering the train - which was the lead engine’s responsibility. This allowed the longer than usual distance between water stops to be planned into the operation.
Water was taken from tankers and fittings that meant two engines could be watered simultaneously and it was only at Ely, the second water the plan had to be slightly altered. Some new palisade fencing had been erected where the watering normally takes place there so the three engines were uncoupled from the train and run into a tamper siding next to the tanker.
The 8F was detached from the other locomotives and put on the front of the train while the ‘Jubilee’ and ‘Scot’ were coupled up to what was now the rear of the train. This was needed because at Wymondham, the train would have to reverse direction to access the MNR. Between Ely and Wymondham, all three engines were running tender first.
Wymondham was reached about an hour behind schedule at 2330hrs and the train was met by George Saville and Dennis Howells, the MNR Locomotive Inspector. The ‘Jubilee’ led the train to Dereham just after midnight.
There was a surprising amount of traffic on the level crossings along the MNR given it was after midnight, but it turned out that MNR members were watching the historic trains’ progress creating the night traffic!
On arrival at Dereham, the MNR operations team did the shunting and assisted the WCR crews in locomotive disposal duties. The crews then worked the trains for the next three days including taking the 8F to Hoe on a special charter.
The two WCR support coaches contain full facilities for crews with compartments fitted out to ensure good accommodation and are fitted out with electrical shore supply facilities for stops such as used at Dereham. The MNR also supplied temporary messing facilities for the WCR crews adjacent to their support coaches.
The train returned to Carnforth on June 2 in the same order but the water stop was made at Grantham rather than Ely. The train was routed through Leeds station at 4pm much to the amazement of passengers!
But by the return trip commenced, word had got out and there were literally hundreds of photographers lining the route. The weather held for them apart from some heavy rain showers between Leeds, Keighley and Skipton.
Hellifield was reached and the sun came out for that water stop with even the local police arriving to photograph the train! The 30mph hour run via Clapham to Carnforth took place in stunning evening sunlight.
The 8F was first on shed and after the shunting operation, the three LMS engines stood outside the running shed draincocks open making a fabulously evocative sight and sound.
Some of the crews stayed the night on the support coaches still behind No. 46115 and slept to the sound of engines cooling down. What was the worst part of the trip? The insect that bit the back of my hand, and made wearing gloves on the footplate a torture with the itching!
So was the event a success? The MNR carpark at Dereham was full each day by 0930hrs which means that yes, it was a huge success. Will there ever be a repeat event? Can there ever be another event as unique as this on a preserved line? Watch this space but did I imagine a conversation about another very special weekend in 2016….?
The preservation and main line ‘movement’ joined together to make all this happen. James Steward of the MNR and Dennis Howells know WCR because of their respective main line duties which makes these events easier to organise.
This was the MNR’s most successful event so far and Dennis Howells told Rail.co.uk “that he was delighted at the way his and the West Coast Railway crews and their West Coast locomotives performed while on the MNR. This was his first major gala since relinquishing duties at Didcot, the GWR Society base and he is planning more.