This evening we welcomed Mr Peter Jennings, a member of the Great Western Society, who gave us a most interesting and informative talk on the GWR Steam Railmotor No. 93, which has been restored to working order. He began by illustrating one of the first attempts at creating a self-propelled railway passenger vehicle; this was of local interest, being the ‘Fairfield’, built by the Bristol & Exeter Railway in 1848. It was not, however, until the very end of the Victorian era that interest in providing a unit which would be much more economical to operate over lightly-used branch lines and which could compete with the new electric trams, really developed.
The GWR was not amongst the first companies to pioneer railcars – the Taff Vale Railway for instance experimented not only with steam but also battery-electric and petrol-driven vehicles. Following the loan of a steam railcar from the London & South Western Railway, a Great Western design appeared and, between 1903 and 1908, no fewer than 99 steam railmotors were built – making the GWR the greatest user of such vehicles in Britain. The Great Western ones took the form of an open saloon carriage with a nominally independent small steam locomotive incorporated at one end. A linkage system enable the railmotor (as they were known on the GWR) to be driven from either end. The engine unit had a vertical boiler with no fewer than 419 fire tubes, a water tank holding 450 gallons and drove a 4-wheeled bogie, using unusually for the GWR, outside Walschaerts valve gear. Each railmotor weighed 42 tons in working order.
The railmotors proved highly successful and popular and worked in all parts of the GWR system with many new halts being built on lightly-used branch lines. In fact, there were often too successful – the service in the Stroud Valley for example seeing a staggering 700% increase in passenger numbers in the first year. This led to the introduction of trailer cars but these naturally inhibited the railmotor’s performance. The GWR was to return to the use of normal locomotives, developing its push-pull system, whereby up to four trailers could be used. Nevertheless steam railmotors operated for many years with the final services not being withdrawn until 1935.
No.93 was one of the final batch built in 1908 and its restoration by the Great Western Society commenced in 1997, the work being undertaken at the workshops of the Llangollen Railway with the boiler work being entrusted to the well-known company of Israel Newton & Sons Ltd of Cromford, Derbyshire. The work was completed in 2012 and No.93 moved to its new permanent home at the GWS Didcot Centre, where it has been joined by a restored trailer car.
No. 93 has proved extremely popular and has visited several heritage lines, as well as spending an extremely successful weekend visit to the Liskeard to Looe branch line, still thankfully part of the National Rail network. For this No.93 made its first outings onto the main line, being hauled in steam by a diesel locomotive between the Bodmin & Wadebridge Railway and Liskeard. We also saw photos of No.93 at the famous ‘Three Bridges’ location on the Southall – Brentford branch line where the railway, Grand Union Canal and a road all meet at the same point – a real challenge for a photographer.
Peter ended his presentation with a real treat for us – a video taken in the cab at the ‘business end’ of No.93 on the climb up from Coombe Junction to Liskeard on the Looe branch. Not only were we able to enjoy the activity in the cab – Peter stated that experience had soon revealed that it was not possible to fire the railmotor effectively whilst it was in motion – but also the wonderful sounds made by the little engine.
Peter was accompanied on his visit to the Fraternity by the No.93 Project Team Leader, Graham Drew, and, after our question had been dealt with, an appreciative vote of thanks was given by Derek Lampard.