Originally posted 9 June 2023
Over 250 years ago, hauling coal in northeast England was the raison d’être of the first railways, and Britain’s railways have made a decent living from it for most of their existence ever since. The steam engine became practical 200 years ago, and evolved over time, of course, with power (if not speed) steadily increasing. But the basic technical principles didn’t change, so when the last British mainline steam locomotive was completed in 1960, it marked a watershed. And, suitably enough, it was one designed to haul coal: the № 92220 Evening Star.
The very first railway in the modern sense was the Stockton and Darlington of 1825, linking coal pits to the River Tees in County Durham, and initially offering scheduled passenger services only as a sideline, but for the first time all trains were hauled by steam. The S&D was engineered by George Stephenson, a colliery engineer who became the foremost railway engineer of 19th-century Britain, and his № 1 Locomotion is recognised as the first truly successful steam locomotive, and perhaps one of the most significant machines in history. The Locomotion survives as part of the National Collection, and is seen here with a replica of Stephenson’s next stroke of genius, the Rocket, built in 1829 for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. That was the engine which proved steam-powered passenger travel was the way forward.
Over the next century, British goods engines—as we still sometimes say here, and certainly did then (versus ‘freight’ -ed.)s evolved slowly. The Locomotion has just four coupled wheels, so that’s a 0-4-0 configuration. In 1925, six-coupled (0-6-0) was the norm, exemplified by the Midland 4F type above. Hardly adventurous, even for Britain, but the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), which claimed to be the largest company in the world, built over 500 of these in the 1920s. Every railway used simple, rugged engines like this for goods trains of all types, in their thousands.
There were some with eight wheels, of course. The North Eastern Railway, which grew rich hauling coal from pit to port in County Durham and Northumberland; and the London and North Western, serving the Lancashire coalfields, both had 0-8-0 classes early in the twentieth century—this is the NER Q6 of 1913—while the Great Western had a small class of 2-8-0s used for express freight between London and South Wales, and the Great Central’s 8K class 2-8-0 was the government’s choice for a standard engine for the armed forces in World War One. But for the great majority of goods traffic, the simple and slow 0-6-0 was enough.
The 1930s brought change. We have already read of the transformation of the LMS’s express power under the leadership of William Stanier, but his new 8F 2-8-0 of 1935 was perhaps more important. Here, for the first time, was a powerful freight engine that could reliably handle anything Britain’s railways could demand, with state-of-the-art engineering—taper boiler; high superheat, simple layout—and soon it was across the LMS and then, under government wartime control, the national network. By nationalisation in 1948, there were over 600 of these superb engines at work in Britain, and another 250 across Europe and the Middle East. They were built by the LMS themselves, and also by North British Locomotives in Glasgow for the War Department and, at government instruction, by the London and North Eastern and Southern Railways, in preference to those railways’ own designs. Significant withdrawals of the class did not commence until 1964, just four years before the end of steam.
After the second world war, and nationalisation, the new British Railways was outwardly slow to develop new power. With a plentiful supply of simple but rugged freight engines freed up from war work, the early priority for new designs was express and mixed-traffic power, in a range of sizes. First to appear, in 1951, was the new Britannia Class of express locomotives. These marked a real step change in British steam design and thinking, and were soon followed by another ten classes of smaller and lighter standard power—all sharing the same principles of modern, simple engineering and a common modern look, and supplementing legacy power across the network.
Not until January 1954 did the first of the final class of BR’s Standards come: the big and dramatic 9F 2-10-0. By British standards, this was a huge, brutal giant of functionality—the first and only class of ten-coupled locomotives in Britain. Over 90 tons of engine and another 50 tons of tender, all resting on driving wheels just 5 feet in diameter, and painted plain, unlined black. Styled to fit with the BR Standards’ family look, with the distinctive high running plate, its size made it unmistakable. And the side view was dramatic too, with a clear view through between the wheels and boiler.
The 9F is 66 feet long, with two cylinders of 20 by 28 inches and a taper boiler capable of producing huge volumes of steam to generate an impressive power output. On Britain’s cramped railways with their tight curves, the length and long fixed wheelbase were potential problems addressed by having flangeless driving wheels on the central axle, while those on the second and fourth axles allowed for greater movement than normal. By British standards, the power; size, and functional look of the 9Fs made them verge on the extraordinary.
Within 6 years, BR had built 251 9Fs, 198 at the old LMS Crewe works (founded 1840) and 53 at the Great Western’s Swindon works (almost as old, 1841). Glossy and shiny when new, the black soon became caked in smoke and dirt, as the 9Fs earned their keep on heavy coal trains and the faster long distance freights. The target had been to design an engine that could haul 900 tons at 35mph, and the design team led by R A Riddles succeeded. George Stephenson would have recognised and understood it instantly. And they can still do it today; here’s 92203 being put through paces on the preserved East Somerset Railway.
But one 9F was extraordinary. In March 1960, № 92220—the last of the 251 and the last of the 999 BR Standards—was the last steam engine to be built by British Railways; the only locomotive identified for preservation before it was built, and the end of almost 150 years of engineering endeavour. Well, until the Tornado, perhaps.
Of course, 92220 didn’t leave Swindon without a fuss being made. It wasn’t painted black, but given BR’s express passenger lined Brunswick green livery (based on the Great Western’s old livery), and that traditional GWR decoration, a copper-capped chimney, and brightly burnished copper pipework—definitely not just another black freight hauler!
92220 was also the only 9F named by BR, with the brilliant choice Evening Star, and a traditional Great Western style nameplate, not the simpler BR one used on the Britannias. Brilliant because it fitted the occasion, and because it referenced one of the Great Western’s superb Star Class 4-6-0s of half a century earlier. Britain’s railways have a strong sense of history and have always loved a good tradition, and they got it right here. The name came from a staff competition—not open to all BR staff, obviously, as nationalisation had been only 12 years before, and Swindon still believed it was the Great Western and therefore only Western Region staff were asked for ideas; they weren’t going to share this moment with other works!
Alongside the nameplate, high on the smoke deflectors, was this rather formal plaque, which managed to mention Swindon twice, just in case.
In his speech, British Transport Commissioner Keith Grand said, ‘No other machine, in its day, has been a more faithful friend to mankind and has contributed more to the cause of industrial prosperity in this, the land of its birth, and throughout the world’. Sounds about right to me.
Most of the 9Fs lived up to this billing, as hard-worked and hard-working heavy freight engines hauling coal; minerals, and fast freight across the country. Perhaps none worked harder than the ten based at Tyne Dock near Gateshead to work iron ore trains from Tyne Dock (on the south bank of the Tyne and built by the North Eastern Railway a hundred years earlier, to handle coal exports and imported iron ore) to Consett Iron Works, 25 miles away and 900 feet up in the Pennines.
Investment in the early 1950s by BR; the iron works, and the Port of Tyne resulted in a new dock capable of taking 20,000-ton ships, with electric cranes unloading 300 tons of ore per hour through a system of hoppers, into purpose-built 56-ton wagons (the English term for what Americans call ‘cars’). Daily, 9Fs would haul up to 14 trains of 450 tons of ore from Tyne Dock, past Washington (ancestral home of George) to South Pelaw, where a second 9F would be attached to shove on the rear for the eight miles of steady two-per-cent gradient, with a brief stretch close to three per cent, to Annfield Plain, five miles from Consett. At Consett, the trains could discharge their loads directly into the iron works’ ore hoppers, through the first automated bottom doors on a BR wagon. These were powered by Westinghouse air pumps fitted only to these selected 9Fs.
This show lasted until 1966, when diesels supplanted the 9Fs, and carried on the workings until the iron works closed in 1980.
But the Evening Star did not have a life of hauling coal or iron ore up three-per-cent grades. This was a pampered favourite child, destined for the National Railway Museum directly from Swindon. Most of its working life, all five years of it, was spent on the minor line between Bath and Bournemouth—the Somerset and Dorset, hauling what little freight was left on the route as well as the Pines Express, the one long distance train that covered the line on its trip from Manchester to Bournemouth. This kept 92220 near Swindon for convenient regular maintenance and sprucing up for celebrity appearances.
For a couple of months in summer 1960, the Evening Star moved to Cardiff in south Wales and, for some reason, was used on the flagship Red Dragon express to and from London for a week—reputedly outperforming the Britannia normally allocated to the train (more power compensating for the smaller driving wheels). But the escapade was quickly stopped out of fear of damage to the engine or, worse, from running 5-foot wheels at 90 mph. But not before the local steward of the enginemen’s union arranged to have his turn!
There are other reports of 9Fs deputising for Pacifics on express service performing similarly; Riddles had produced a free steaming and running engine, as well as a powerful one. Fittingly, the last design was a thoroughly good one.
In 1955, ten 9Fs were experimentally equipped with Franco-Crosti boilers. This Belgian innovation uses the heat from the exhaust to pre-heat water before it is injected into the boiler, the theory being that this would improve thermal efficiency. Trials were inconclusive, however, as the savings in coal consumption was at the cost of complexity, and anyway the time and money for innovation in steam design were both gone.
You have to ask why BR built 251 heavy freight steam engines from 1950 to 1960, and scrapped them all by 1968, after not even half their design life. Doesn’t this prove dieselisation was a rushed and flawed process? There are many aspects to this, of course.
Modernisation was decided on in 1955, with publication of the famous BR Modernisation Plan which projected replacement of steam by diesel and electric power. So, yes, many steam engines were scrapped before their time, but they were needed when new as pre-war equipment reached its end and the new diesels struggled. Britain insisted on developing its own diesels, and not adapting, for example, well-proven American designs. There was little British experience or expertise in diesel locomotives, so the switch began slowly and many early British diesel designs were unreliable and underpowered. Significant numbers of capable diesel locomotives did not begin to operate until around 1960. It is hard and expensive to operate steam and diesel together, for the maintenance, crewing and scheduling requirement are very different, meaning that the transition worked best when a route or service could be converted en masse, rather than have diesels filtered into the steam fleet.
On average, one diesel replaced two or even three steam engines, and with lower maintenance and staffing costs, the economics of making a big investment could be made to stack up, even against a relatively new steam alternative. The process gathered pace through the early 1960s, helped by a simultaneous trimming of the network; around a third of the network’s route mileage was closed in BR’s first twenty years.
The Evening Star was retired in 1965, and is now one of the highlights of the National Collection—seen here with the Britannia. She can be seen at the NRM’s York base or on loan to various of the persevered railways across the country, and has worked railtours on the mainline. Eight other 9Fs survive, on heritage lines across the country.
But surely the Evening Star should be at the NRM’s second site, called (of course) Locomotion, at Shildon, County Durham, on the route of the Stockton and Darlington, where it all began all those years ago, to close the circle in style? Steam’s zenith at the home of the pioneer, perhaps?