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Thursday, 15 September 2011

What is important in Train Renewals? A Historical Consideration.

I was recently involved with a discussion online regarding the current average ages of trains on Britain’s railways. One individual’s argument was that it was a bad thing that on average British trains are older than they were in yesteryear. Indeed, his main complaint was levelled at South West Trains, whose class 455s on the inner suburban routes (Hampton Court, Kingston Loop, Hounslow Loop) are nearly thirty years old. While they are actually between twenty-six and twenty-nine years old, I pointed out that historically electric multiple units frequently have operational lives of between thirty and forty-five years. But further to this, currently, the ages of British passenger rolling stock is at its lowest for some time.
However, I believe that age should not be the primary issue when policy makers consider renewing rolling stock. The main factors should be how much work trains are undertaking each year, their ability to be upgraded when the business and trading environments change, and their capacities. Indeed, while the 455s are getting on now, unlike their compartmented predecessors the ‘open’ seating arrangement they were originally built with makes them far more suitable for upgrading. Furthermore, there seems to be no reason to dispose of them when they are mechanically sound, especially given that last November SWT won the ‘Golden Spanner’ award for their reliability.[1]

Naturally, the link between rolling stock ages and renewals is one that has been approached by railway managers since the industry’s beginnings. As an illustration of this I will look at William George Beattie’s tenure as the London and South Western Railway’s (L&SWR) Locomotive Superintendent between 1871 and 1877. Beattie was employed by the company in 1862 as a draughtsman and was later placed in charge of the company’s hydraulic equipment.[2] Therefore, it seems unusual that a man with no locomotive design experience should be placed in charge of the company’s locomotive department. However, there was one factor in his favour. His father, Joseph, was the L&SWR’s locomotive superintendent between 1850 and 1871. He had great talent and I presume the directors felt that his son would have inherited some of his skill.

The directors were mistaken. Poor William should never have been appointed and was the most inept locomotive superintendent the company ever had. While he ran the company’s locomotive department shambolically, the most serious problem was that he was not attuned to the company’s locomotive traction needs in a time when passenger numbers were increasing massively.[3] Indeed, between 1871 and 1877 the number of passengers the L&SWR conveyed rose by 68.3% from 14,347,577 to 24,142,851.[4]

It could be said that part of Beattie’s failing was that the rate of locomotive renewals slowed. The number of locomotives the company had in its possession only increased between 1871 and 1877 from 272 to 377 (38.6%). Furthermore, the average age of locomotives went from 8.54 to 9.90 years over the same period. Lastly, when Beattie was superintendent only 1.09 locomotives were renewed per year. Yet, between 1878 and 1882 under his successor, Adams, the rate was 1.76. Nevertheless, despite these facts, the slowing of the renewal rate wasn’t actually a serious problem for the company, as on average the number of train miles each locomotive ran per year dropped between 1871 and 1877 from 24,154 to 22,834 miles.[5]

The real problem was the quality and suitability of the new locomotives Beattie introduced. He perpetuated his father’s antiquated and small locomotive designs, which, while suitable in the 1860s, became unsuitable in the 1870s with the increased traffic numbers. Thus, trains were slower as the number of carriages in each increased.[6] The noted railway commentator, William Acworth, commented that ‘engines which had been in the van of progress were mere pigmies by the side of the giants of the present time.’[7]

But his failings didn’t stop there. When in 1876 he could no longer rely on his father’s designs, and because the company needed heavier models, he was forced to design a heavier new locomotive type. However, ordered twenty locomotives without a prototype and these were subsequently recognised as monumental failures suffering problems in both design and construction. Indeed, Bradley argued that Beattie had inadequate knowledge of locomotive design to meet the L&SWR’s needs.[8]

Therefore, this historical case reinforces the fact that when considering issues surrounding locomotive renewals, the age of rolling stock should not be the primary concern. Rather, rolling stock’s suitability for the trading environment and whether they meet the needs of the operators is far more important.


[2] The National Archives [TNA], RAIL 411/492, Clerical staff character book No. 2, 1838-1919, p.62
[3] Bradley, D.L., L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines 1838-53 and Beattie Classes, (Didcot, 1989), p.5-6
[4] Board of Trade Returns, 1871 and 1877
[5] TNA, RAIL 411/470, Locomotives, boilers, rolling stock, etc: correspondence, 1882-1884, Statement of Engine Stock, renewals of same and train Mileage during the past 14 years., Undated, p.59
[6] Bradley, L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines, p.5-6
[7] Acworth, William, ‘The South-Western Railway,’ Murray's Magazine, Vol.3 No.18 (1888, June) p.802
[8] Bradley, L&SWR Locomotives: The Early Engines, p.5-6

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