At our meeting on the 14th January, held as usual at Wells Town Hall, two of our members entertained us with short illustrated talks. Roy Kethro, who had served as an engineer with British Railways (and latterly First Great Western) for 42 years, told us about his involvement following the serious derailment of a sleeping car train entering Paddington Station in the early and foggy morning of 23rd November 1983. Being on duty at the station that night, Roy was the first engineer on the site after the accident in which the locomotive and twelve coaches left the track and ended up on their sides. Fortunately there were no serious injuries to passengers or train crew but the recovery of the rolling stock seriously affected operation of the station for some time. Roy then told us about the subsequent internal and public inquiries at which he was required to give evidence. The driver alleged that his brakes had failed but the Investigating officer concluded that the driver had lost concentration and entered a crossover from one track to another at an excessive speed. Various recommendations were made and implemented, including the fitting of a form of Black Box recorder in all locomotives. Roy concluded his talk by telling us some anecdotes about one of his colleagues whom he had got to know at the time of the derailment. Many years later, in 2007 the two of them had taken part in the Three Peaks Challenge, an annual event involving travel by a special train with the participants climbing the highest mountains in England, Wales and Scotland – Scafell Pike, Snowdon and Ben Nevis – in the shortest time possible. Each year this event raises substantial sums through sponsorship for the Railway Children Charity, providing support for children living rough on many of the major railway stations throughout the world. This charity is also supported by the Fraternity and we have been able to make significant donations over the last dozen years or so.
For the second half of the evening, we unusually had a non-railway subject when Jim Hay talked about his involvement as a director of a trust responsible for the preservation and restoration of ‘Vic 32’, a Clyde ‘Puffer’. These small steam-powered craft were once a familiar sight along the West Coast of Scotland, serving the many Western Isles. The design, incorporating a vertical steam boiler, originated in the late 1850s and, to many of us, was immortalised in the TV adventures of Para Handy and his Puffer, the ‘Vital Spark’. Surprisingly, in 1943, the Admiralty ordered 102 of these Victualling Inshore Craft, as they were officially known, virtually to the original design, and many of these wartime craft, which were able to carry a cargo of 100 – 120 tons, found their way all over the world. Today, twelve Puffers survive in preservation and Jim told us how, in 1975, an Uxbridge businessman, Nick Walker, had bought ‘Vic 32’ and started its restoration before eventually donating it to the Trust. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, some £140,000 had so far been spent on restoration and the vessel and its crew now offered a novel opportunity for a small number of paying passengers to cruise along the Scottish coast.
A vote of thanks to Roy and Jim for two very different presentations was given by the Chairman, Colin Price.