By Phil Marsh

Geoff Bird – the railwayman whose career spanned wartime, nationalisation, dieselisation and electrification

Published: 27th February 2016

In conversation with a LNER Premium Apprentice

Geoff Bird has recently died aged 88 and he had a glittering railway carer which started in World War Two and ended 40 years later as 125mph services were commonplace on the railway he ran.

He was born in Essex but on the outbreak of war, his family moved to Harrogate and he attended Ripon Grammar school until July 1944 when he started his railway job search, preferably in a Locomotive Works. It took until April the following year before he was offered a position by the London North Eastern Railway (LNER) at Darlington Works. In the intermediate time, he was a metal flame-cutter and welder constructing Bailey Bridges for the war effort.

His first job was as an LNER Premium Apprentice starting on 24th April 1945 and was one of the last pre-nationalisation railway managers who could talk about witnessing and implementing the 1948 Nationalisation, the 1955 modernisation plan and its revisions a few years later plus the well-known 1963 Beeching Report.

Premium Apprentices’ duties

The Premium Apprentice Scheme was designed to give the person a wide and deep understanding of what went on in a railway Works. The student was placed in every Works’ department so they could learn about what every section did and its place in the production line.

Geoff started in the fitting and cylinder sections starting his mechanical engineering training to find out about supplying locomotive parts for engines being repaired. He learnt about valve and pistons settings and when in the Brake Shop, about vacuum and air braking systems.

20 fags!

He quickly became a ‘hands on’ Apprentice grinding valve faces and rods by hand, a critical task he said because each brake port had to be 100% airtight. He also even made his own scraper out of old files and kept them sharp but these could also be purchased for 20 fags from Works’ staff he said!

When in the Brass Shop, he repaired, refitted and tested safety valves and the various locomotive gauges as well as calibrating them. Geoff also attended Darlington Technical College gaining National and Higher National certificates in mechanical engineering. He carried on using these skills into the 21st century making model locomotives.

Drawing experience

Geoff was being trained in the Darlington Stooperdale Drawing Office in 1948 learning how to interpret drawings when railway nationalisation took place. This would help him in his later career when he had to assess design proposals. He did not see any difference in the newly nationalised railways at this time.

At Stooperdale, he saw the first drawings for a new class of steam locomotive, the ‘A1’ designed by the CME, Peppercorn. The designs were used to build the engines at Darlington Works and were the first Darlington ‘Pacifics’ to be constructed there for 25 years. Mr Birds only regret at leaving that job was that he did not get to go on the engine’s test run and this regret lasted 65 years!

He moved to a job at Northallerton and amongst other things, designed an electrically powered hoist for the coaling stages at Northallerton, Kirkby Stephen and West Auckland team sheds. He also went to railway suppliers on Teeside carrying out quality inspections on the output from iron foundries and steel rolling mills.

Married and out of a job!

Mr Bird got married aged 22 and was promptly made redundant but at his redundancy interview expressed a wish to work in a locomotive running department. A few days after this, he was told to report to Darlington steam shed as a Mechanical Foreman, his first management post. He stayed there for two years and also worked at affiliated sheds at Saltburn, Stockton and Kirkby Stephen. It was at the latter he started driving and firing on the hilly Stainmore line and also became involved in investigating accidents and locomotive failures.

He was also responsible for signing new engines and ones after being repaired or overhauled as fit to run acting as the Darlington Trials Inspector. Next job was the Darlington District Technical Inspector and then taking up the role of temporary Mechanical Foreman. And he assumed control of the depot at Botanic Gardens Hull on 21st April 1956 as shedmaster.

Lucky break

He made a name for himself there when former LNER director Geoffrey H. Kitson visited with a high powered delegation as part of a British Productivity Board initiative. By chance, Class ‘B1’ steam locomotive No. 61237 named Geoffrey H. Kitson was on the shed turntable and he told the visitors that it had been specially arranged!

The following week Mr Bird headed off to Paddington as the Junior Assistant to the Running Maintenance Engineer. While with the Great Western Region’s General Manager, K. Grand on his Paddington balcony, he told Geoff that he did not consider the 94XX series of Panniers as proper GW locos so instructed Swindon to build some that were, the 15XX engines.

He returned to Darlington within a year but had time to travel at over 100 mph on a steam engine pulling ‘The Bristolian’ and said that the ‘Castle’ class steam engines were the finest engines to be produced”. He also rode at 100mph on Class ‘A1’ No. 60145 St. Mungo just before withdrawal while at York.

As Darlington shedmaster in 1960, he was in charge of over 500 men and 65 locomotives plus the new diesel depot. In 1962 he returned to Hull as Assistant District Locomotive Superintendent.

The big job

Mr Bird was appointed to the post of York shedmaster in 1965 and was now in charge of 1000 men and 40 steam locomotives and in 1970 also ran Harrogate and Scarborough depots. It was while at York, he oversaw the end of steam being replaced by diesels but in 1975 he become depressed at the way the railways were heading and it was only driving a Deltic non-stop from Kings Cross to York that prevented him from leaving the railways and joining the York National Railway Museum (NRM).

While at York, he rostered Edinburgh based ‘A4’ No. 60019 Bittern on a Healey Mills Freight when he was told to get the engine back on shed, to throw out the fire and store it. It had just been privately purchased and remained at York for a few years along York’s ‘shed pilot’, the now also preserved Class ‘J27’ No. 65894.

When steam was ending, Geoff borrowed the inside connecting rod from a Class ‘V2’ and used it as a footrest under his desk at home. And in September 2006 when preserved NRM owned ‘V2’ Green Arrow failed Geoff brought the part to the NRM where it was fitted to the engine and it carried on working.

Geoff Bird finished his railway career at Doncaster in 1985 when the southern part of the line was electrified. He had been in charge of drivers for 33 years and would not have done anything differently. He also volunteered at the NRM providing them with a wealth of knowledge and experience for decades and will be missed -in in every aspect.

This has been written compiled from several interviews with Geoff Bird in 2006.

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