Reviews Of Recent Meetings

23 August

South Africa with Norman Hogg

Society member Norman gave us a striking video presentation this evening of three tours of which he had been a part starting with The Golden Thread in August 1997 from Cape Town to Oudtshoorn and back, The Cape Namibian in 2004, and finally, starting just two weeks after the first tour, The Zambezi from Cape Town to Victoria Falls.

Although just 20 years ago, the two 1997 tours, and for that matter the 2004 trip, illustrated just how different things were then although footage of steam locomotives looking the worse for wear dumped in yards and at sheds was indicative of the direction in which things were going. That said, there was still heavyweight steam in operation sharing freight and passenger work with diesel traction. There  were too many different classes of each for me to keep up with but there was plenty of impressive footage of powerful Garretts shunting in yards as locals wandered across the tracks or double heading with other locos and creating explosive scenes.  Run pasts were part of all of the tours and many impressive locations featured allowing loco crews to put on a good show. The curvature of the 3' 6'' track added to the impact as the long trains and a telephoto lens emphasised the visual effect.

Each of the three tours had a different attraction but comfort and good food seemed to be pre-eminent. The Golden Thread, headed by North British built 4-8-4 Class xx no. 3417, set off for an area well known for its grapes and wine. The Zambezi's objective, again starting with 3417 in charge, was a stop on the famous bridge over the Victoria Falls, footage of which Norman had enjoyed from the air during what he described as a precarious helicopter trip. During this tour, Kimberley and Mafikeng were names to conjure with from a historic perspective as the special ventured into Botswana whilst Bulawayo teemed with steam and railway activity.

Our appreciation of the third tour, The Namibian in 2004, was aided by Norman's brief history lesson explaining how, over the last 150 years or so, the country had gone from being part of the German empire before falling under British control and finally gaining its independence in 1990. The railway had developed over  this period with different gauges before setting on the South African norm of 3'6''. En route across the desert we stopped at De Aar which Norman described as the Namibian equivalent of Crewe. The capital, Windhoek, housed the national railway museum and was also a very busy railway centre.

For those who love their steam locomotion this evening was a treat and there were plenty of diesels operating too for those with a more modern bent but there was also plenty of social, economic and cultural interest. 

For Norman it must have brought back some wonderful memories whilst for the  audience I suspect there were some who said to themselves that they would have loved to have been there savouring the sounds and smell of steam (tinged with oil vapour at times). 

David Brace


9th August 2017

An (incomplete) A-Z of Pre-Grouping Railway Picture Postcards with John Hollands

This evening John presented an amazing selection of railway picture postcards from the  pre-grouping era. He reminded us that, in its day, the picture postcard was used like present day text messages and emails. In the early days, the address of the receiver was put on one side and the message and sender on the other leaving only a small space for a picture. Senders got around this by putting the message on the same side as the address and soon Royal Mail specified splitting one side in two so that the address and message were on one side and a full picture could be put on the other. The golden era of postcards was between 1902 and 1914. The pictures also improved when the UK adopted the Continental size of 5½ by 3½ in. Not many people owned cameras so postcards were a good alternative.

Main publishers numbered only a handful and some railway companies also published details of their trains and the areas they served. The most prolific publisher was the Locomotive Publishing Company, set up by two former employees of the GER. In order to supply colour postcards, they used a technique of black and white photographs overpainted in oils. Of the railway companies, the most prolific producer of postcards was the London & North Western who sold at least 10 million cards.

John worked his way through the alphabet, each letter being illustrated with cards covering subjects such as locomotives from companies or locations. The Great Central included Woodhead. The Great Eastern had the Decapod, the Great Northern an 0-8-2T and the Great Western the Great Bear. The LNWR selection was fairly extensive and included Bushey Troughs, Shap, flooding at Walsall and the accident at Shrewsbury in 1907. Q was neatly dealt with – the worst railway accident in the UK – Quintishill in 1915 – for which a number of postcards were produced showing different scenes from the multiple crash. 

We also had examples  of overseas railways such as Austria, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, France and Germany. The Canadian cards were of particular interest being part of a set of 8 showing the spiral tunnels on the Canadian Pacific route through the tunnels at a time when expensive works were carried out to ease the gradients. A French locomotive from the PLM company was also interesting – a Windcutter – streamlined to cope with the Mistral wind in southern France. Russia, South Africa, Switzerland, Turkey and the USA all provided examples.

More eccentric or unusual  postcards included Invicta in a museum in Whitstable, flooding at Lewes and the Volks electric railway in Brighton and, towards the end, John showed us postcards connected with WW1 which included enlisting posters and the LBSCR 4-6-4T Remembrance.

This was a very entertaining evening made possible by John’s extensive postcard collection and his equally extensive knowledge of the subject

David Brace


26th July 2017

Headlamps and Headboards with Peter Simmonds

At the outset Peter outlined the nature of this evening's presentation. It was to be an informal exploration of the variety of ways in which railway companies used headcodes, headlamps and headboards to convey information at the head of a train to staff and passengers. Whilst scanning black and white images he had come to the conclusion that this was an area worthy of further investigation and consideration and something which groups with an interest in railways, such as the Society, might enjoy and be able to contribute towards. As his talk progressed it became apparent that there were plenty of situations that he had uncovered where he had yet to find an answer. As a result, therefore, I felt that this was more a work in progress but, equally, in terms of engagement, Peter gave the membership plenty of opportunities to chip in 

His methodology was thorough, taking us through all the various standard headcodes and headlamp positions and illustrating them with black and white images of trains carrying them. He drew attention to exceptions operated by the Midland Railway and the Somerset and Dorset and he explained the Southern's own arrangements. Headcodes by way of train numbering had, over the years, also operated different arrangements using one, two, three and four digit systems, early diesel locomotives having headcode boxes built-in. Again their use was demonstrated by showing examples of each. Peter spent little time on the use of headboards, however, and showed just five from across the regions. Unfortunately he had found very few examples in his collection of photographs. On that basis I felt that perhaps  he might have been better off concentrating on headlamps and headcodes where there seemed to be plenty of scope for further investigation and analysis. 

This was not a lively meeting and, for me had a 'monochrome' feel about it but it was one of interest just the same and many engaged in dialogue with Peter in 'question and answer' mode at the end. Am I alone in thinking that a little colour would have given it a bit of a lift?

David Hinxman


12th July 2017

Gripping Yarns: Life as a TTI on the Severn Valley Railway (SVR) with Jim Seaton

Jim began his presentation by explaining that the title of his programme had little to do with the antics of a particular media celebrity. For the past 10 years he has worked on the SVR as a Travelling Ticket Inspector, (TTI), during which time he reckons to have travelled some 96,000 miles. He is now the railway’s Department Training Officer. A Middlesex man, he explained that prior to his SVR service he had worked on both the Keighley & Worth Valley and Isle of Wight Steam Railways.

A typical day’s work for Jim begins with watering the coaching set he will be working on, (ie. loos), and generally ensuring it to be fit for use.  Labelling preparation for Groups must be done, as together with school and other parties, this is an essential source of revenue. Organising group seating to be in the right place on longer trains, for entrance/exit at shorter platformed stations, is essential. As a Heritage Railway, liaising visits with other local tourist attractions is also important. Special Weekends, such as Armed Forces Day, ‘Allo ‘Allo Days, etc., involve a great deal of work and additional staff. Most memorable recently was the visit of Flying Scotsman and the extra  policing required at the lineside. At the end of the day his group is again tasked with clearing and tidying everything on the set ready for the following day and, before they depart, making sure no members of the public get locked into the train. Jim explained that there are 1,500 volunteers on the Railway’s books, plus a small number of paid staff, involving all the trades necessary to keep the railway running.

As a TTI Jim explained that most tickets were sold at stations, but that he had the provision to sell tickets for cash on board for casual visitors. He also dealt with all Standard to First upgrades on board. Jim handed round his 8 page rules and regulations guide with its vast array of SVR ticketing possibilities. He brought some amusement with his tales of compartment coaches, or Harry Potter stock as they are called on the SVR. Most incidents related to compartments with all the blinds pulled down and we were left in no doubt as to what sort of things a hesitant entry might reveal! As Jim pointed out, a good sense of humour is a prerequisite in a job like this. 

Jim reminded us that it was just 10 years since catastrophic flooding occurred on the railway, at 40 separate sites, causing around £4m of damage. The railway recovered only to be hit again recently with a serious slippage at the County boundary. This is currently slowing all trains down to walking pace at this point. A new ‘Oil Burner’ Loco Depot at Kidderminster opened recently, which has the ability to lift out engines. The boiler shop at Bridgnorth is now currently handling 3rd party work for the Isle of Man Railways. Having suffered loco shortages in the past, a new managed restoration queue now operates to ensure there are always sufficient locos available to run timetabled services. Jim then outlined the current loco stock in some detail, together with news that the Belmond British Pullman coaching set is now based in the carriage sidings at Kidderminster, where it has a direct link to the main line network.

Future plans for the railway include, for the first time, an all night service at the upcoming Autumn Gala. The SVR have a large stock of freight vehicles and it hopes to include the regular running of a freight set within the next new timetable. A £2.5m share issue is currently underway to provide for significant enhancements and extensions to Bridgnorth station. It is hoped this will also include a turntable, a viewing gallery within the MPD and significantly improved staff accommodation. 

Peter Tran


21st June 2017

Further Ramblings of Railwaymen with Geoff Burch

Geoff returned to give us further anecdotes and pictures from the last days of steam on the      Southern. His first visit, back in 2013, covered the publication of his first book, featuring his own experiences as a Cleaner, Fireman, Driver and finally Instructor at Waterloo. This evening’s talk  covered his second book about the steam days’ reminiscences of 11 of his closer colleagues, mainly at Guildford. 

‘Acting the Goat’, and not getting caught out by the boss, was a major theme of Geoff’s talk about the years in the run up to the end of steam. A good sense of humour prevailed at ‘working’ levels and with some of the stories you wonder just how they managed to get away with it. A good example of this involved loco cleaning, whereby a mixture of steam and caustic soda was used. This was frequently sprayed around at anybody and everybody not quick enough to get out of the way. The steam spray, without caustic soda of course, was also a vital feature of footplate fry-ups. Geoff gave us a gourmet’s guide to success here. Most importantly, the loco must be stationary and then the shovel must be thoroughly cleaned with the steam spray. The fire must not be too hot either. With the bacon, etc. on the shovel, it is carefully balanced on the edge of the firebox. The trick is - the egg goes last. Delicious!! Geoff went on to relate how potentially difficult situations, having to subsequently be explained to management, could sometimes have an unpredictable outcome. Guildford driver Brian Davey relates the time he was working a freight train and had to stop for a brew-up on a steep gradient just short of a crossing. Brian and his fireman noticed the local hunt gathering at the crossing and gave them a wave to cross the line. Next day they had been called into the manager’s office and expected to be disciplined for having stopped for the brew-up. To their great surprise the smiling manager flourished a pound note and told them that this was a reward from the Master of the Hunt for  stopping to allow the Hunt to cross the line safely!!  

Geoff has managed to acquire a great number of photographs of the steam era from colleagues, some of whom have now sadly passed on. Many of those shown to us covered the Southern region, but there were also some others of interest, including period Kings Cross and modern day A4’s at York Museum. Several featured lines no longer operational, including those on Hayling Island and the Isle of Wight. A comment was made regarding the apparent age of many of the loco crews  pictured. Geoff pointed out that working conditions had improved vastly since steam days, health practices were better and people now lived considerably longer. In steam days many staff only survived for a relatively short period beyond retirement age. 

As an Epilogue to the programme, Geoff told us of his efforts to produce an illustrated information plaque to commemorate 50 years since the end of steam at Guildford Shed. He showed an image of the finished plaque and said it would be mounted as close to the site of the old shed as possible in the near future. 

This was a very enjoyable programme and we hope it will not be too long before Geoff returns again.

Peter Tran


7th June 2017

Chasing China Steam with Andy Fewster

Tonight’s presentation by Andy of Chinese standard and narrow gauge industrial workings was an area I suspect to be little known by most of those at the meeting. Most sites shown are now closed and spread right across China, involving 7 separate visits between 2004 and 2014. Visits were all made during the winter months, mostly in temperatures around -10° to -20C., and the result was a constant stream of superb high quality steam effect pictures set in stark and forbidding winter landscapes. Andy began with a map overview of China outlining the sites visited. As each location began a sketch map of the railways was shown to provide narrative for the pictures.

First viewed was the Dahuichang Limestone Railway, situated just 25 km. south west of Beijing city centre. The 1.5 km. 762mm route brought limestone from the quarry to the crusher. Pollution levels here were high with thick layers of dust everywhere, mostly the buildings close to the processing plant.  A C2 0-8-0 tender loco from this now closed line presently awaits restoration in the UK at the Ffestiniog Railway. Standard gauge SY 2-8-2 steam locos were used to carry the finished crushed limestone away from the area on a branch line until replaced by road transport. 

The Baiyin Non-Ferrous Metals standard gauge railway is just part of a much larger China-wide operation. Lead and zinc ores were mined here and smelted locally before being transported by SY 2-8-2 steam locos to the China Rail mainline. The passenger trains used to move workers were very Spartan and steam heating was not an option. Such stock would no doubt make SWT commuters cringe. Photography without permits was impossible and these could be changed or withdrawn without notice. This depended on the security regime in place. The copper mining areas were out of bounds, (safety reasons), so permits were not available.

Baotou Steel Works are based in Inner Mongolia and the largest in this region of China. Permit entry to the works had been given and Andy’s pictures gave a wonderful perspective of the iron and steel making process. You could almost feel the heat in some of his pictures. Shots of the molten slag dumping down the side of a huge embankment were spectacular. Health and safety, both at the plant and with the dumping operations however, seemed to be non-existent. 

In far western China the vast Sandaoling open cast coal mine system opened in 1958, but recently operations have been much reduced as resources become worked out. The valley created is over 200 ft. deep and many JS steam locos were seen. Huge volumes of coal were produced with pictures of the coal face excavators loading trains of coal and overburden. Long trains of empties, top and tailed by JS locos, worked between the loading point at Nanzhan and China Rail exchange at Liushuguan. Track maintenance gangs were at work slewing track, checking gauge and recovering old track panels. Dramatic pictures of huge blowlamps defrosting loco motions and braking systems showed the rugged nature of the steam engine. The inside of the loco maintenance shops pictured were very untidy compared to those in the UK. 

The Shibanxi Narrow Gauge railway in the SW province of Sichuan, near Leshan, is gauged at 762mm and was built to serve several small coal mines and isolated communities in a pretty river valley. Timber, in the form of pit props for use in deep mining operations, is moved away from here, and also coal from the local pits. This is a fertile area with rice paddies and vegetable stalls at the stations. It is much less polluted here with an obviously far better quality of life for the local residents. Coaching stock here is very basic with little difference between ‘soft’ and standing only ‘hard’ class. The line has heritage status, attracting a growing tourist operation.

The Fuxin Coal Mining railway in Manchurian NE China was some 30 km in length, serving several deep mines and some open cast ones too. The latter were electrified at 1500V DC in the early 1950’s and operated by East German built locos, but this system no longer operates. A steam  passenger service is in operation to move workers around the system. A fleet of SY locos was shown at morning shift changes and we followed them to the high tips above Wulong mine, providing us with vistas of Fuxin city and the worked out Haizhou open cast pit.

Still in NE China we visited the now closed Jalainur Open Cast Mine, close to the Russian border. An SY operation, we followed coal and spoil trains all the way from the working faces to the washery and loading points. Coal seams were prominent; with the cold weather freezing the warmer underground water as it surfaced, creating massive frozen ‘waterfalls’ down the hillside. We saw the miners’ trains, top and tailed by SY locos, as they climbed out of the pit and a flock of sheep crossing the line in front of an oncoming train.  

As time ran out, we visited the now closed Huanan narrow gauge railway, also in NE China. Once part of a huge 368km logging system it latterly served several small coal mines. This was a C2 0-8-0 operation, with the occasional diesel railcar. We followed both laden and unladen trains down from the very cold snowy summit. Frequent stops were made to check on the motion  as the  engines rattled along.  

All the industrial sites visited featured some form of centralised control, with colour light signals and cab radios. These allowed an intensive service, often on temporary track, especially in the open cast mines. Elsewhere, permanent infrastructure was to a very high standard and well maintained. 

Health and safety regulations at all sites visited were of a very low order, relying on training and common sense to keep accident rates down. Footwear often comprised trainers, plus any old clothing to keep the intense cold out, and little in the way of protective headgear. Much in evidence were the large billboards exhorting workers to greater efforts for the common good and many were adorned with smartly dressed male and female members of the worker elite. 

Areas of total dereliction dominate the locations visited, together with the constant haze of pollution. The landscapes appear as virtual deserts, with no plant life or trees visible other than at Shibanxi and Huanan. Massive heaps of discarded top soil, rock, old machinery as well as rows of rusting  locos, all seemed to be dumped indiscriminately. On the positive side, the many workers Andy encountered were very friendly and more than willing to have their pictures taken.

Unfortunately time ran out this evening and so we hope to see the rest of Andy’s China presentation at a later date.   

Peter Tran


24th May 2017

Railways and Art with Professor Mark Casson

Anyone coming to this meeting expecting an evening of in-depth, critical analysis  of the many different styles of railway art may have left disappointed. Those anticipating an evening's entertainment looking at and commenting upon different  aspects of paintings and drawings set against a general theme of railways will have come away with a feeling as warm as a locomotive's fire lighting up the night sky of Turner's early abstract of rain, steam and speed on the GWR or maybe their pulse racing as quickly as the classic by Philip Hawkins of BB 34051 Winston Churchill speeding through Basingstoke.

Professor Casson's talk was very well received, presented with a light but well informed touch not only as regards the content of the picture but also the different impacts of the use of colour, perspective, light and shade, different angles, artistic licence and the wide-ranging styles  adopted by the numerous artists whose work  we saw. For a number of us, it was a surprise to see paintings of trains, smoke and steam, railway stations and viaducts and railways in the countryside by impressionists, post-impressionists and surrealists such as Turner, Cezanne, Manet, Pisarro, Magritte and Van Gogh as well as more traditional three quarter front end views of the kind associated with Ian Allan publications in the 1950s and 1960s, including works by well known railway author C. Hamilton-Ellis. Artists famed for their railway paintings were also in evidence with examples by David Shepherd using an easel at Nine Elms for a low viewpoint in the last days of steam and Terence Cuneo's more loose approach on the Royal Albert Bridge or old-timer Pen-y-Darren which still presented a powerful and striking image. We also saw paintings just right for jigsaw puzzles and examples from the National Railway Museum's collection at York ranging from more formal portraits to a clear but slightly spooky  naive overview of Kentish Town with not a train or person in sight.

Given the era of many of the artists, we saw few examples of trains or railways in more modern times. A green Southern emu was particularly interesting in this context as it aroused different views from the floor. Some thought the emu was the modern message or maybe the art-deco signal box. Others believed that it was the colour lights but, then against all of this, if it was depicting a modern scene then why were three steam locomotives also in the picture. So was it just an example showing the modernisation of the railways?

That is the point isn't it? As with so much art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You may love it. I may loathe it and vice versa. Tonight, for me, was more than looking at railway and train pictures. Sub-consciously each of us was drawn into the images and, like it or not, you knew in each case whether or not you would like it on your living room wall. A thought-provoking, light-hearted and wholly consuming session with a difference.

David Hinxman


10th May 2017

10 May: Crossrail - Moving London Forward with Patrick Griffin

With ten years' experience of Crossrail and its development behind him, Patrick was well placed to bring us the Crossrail story this evening. An eloquent, informative and amusing speaker, Patrick kept us well entertained for the entire evening and, after a well-earned and appreciative vote of thanks, he expressed his pleasure in talking to such a responsive and interested gathering. 

Starting with a picture of brand new emu 345 002 at Liverpool Street's buffer stops in February 2017, here was a most positive sign of what travellers to and through London can expect. The new trains are scheduled to start running from Shenfield to Liverpool Street on the introduction of May's new timetable with sections of Crossrail opening in stages over the next two years culminating in full operation from Reading in December 2019 with 24 trains in each direction every hour. Some of the statistics which Patrick mentioned were hard to imagine: 14,000 people currently working on the project; an anticipated 200,000,000 journeys a year! A key feature is that, from May 2018 Crossrail will take over services from Heathrow Connect  and will link Heathrow Airport with Canary Wharf, a significant business opportunity. The new Canary Wharf Station is already open with several floors of shopping and a roof garden funded by the Canary Wharf Group.  In general, Crossrail's funding is coming from businesses along the route, the Government, local authorities, developers, Transport for London and Network Rail so there are plenty of challenges by way of coordination and project management to be overcome. Not only that, I found the scale of the project such that it was hard to reconcile how all the different elements were now clearly beginning to come together: the tunnelling, the lining of the tunnels, the building of the new stations, platform extensions, the tracklaying, the signalling, the complex electronics, the testing, the new trains, system control and so on. Patrick  interestingly described the project as not an underground railway but a railway underground. I think we all understood the nuanced difference. 

This will not be an extension of The Tube. It will be a brand new railway and I for one cannot wait to have a ride along it. The new line, to be known as The Elizabeth Line after our Queen, will be served by a new depot at Old Oak Common with 33 sidings and a 7-9 road shed on a 14 hectare site. Stations will have step-free access and access to the trains will be controlled underground in similar fashion to that on the Jubilee Line making for a much safer environment. This will be so much different from earlier attempts to cross London ranging from the Metropolitan railway in 1863 to the London Underground in 1908, and the promise of the post-war Abercrombie Report's Greater London Plan stymied by the ongoing lack of money. The 1974 London Rail Study is where Crossrail, at least as we know it today, was  arguably born but it was not until the Government commissioned and published the Central London Rail Study in 1989 that Crossrail took off. In October 1990 the Government finally gave the go-ahead to British Rail and London Transport to develop the east-west Crossrail scheme.  In November 1991, a private bill was submitted to Parliament and the rest, as they say, is history.

When fully operational we will have a cross-capital railway to compete with so many other major cities around the world and, as a result of Patrick's excellent presentation tonight, many of us will feel that we now understand its raison d'etre more fully. I must say that I have nothing but admiration for those who have brought this major enterprise together . The scale of the task was breathtaking.

David Hinxman


26th April 2017

Glasgow, West and Central Scotland and Beyond from 1980-1999 with Robin Ralston

Glaswegian Robin Ralston was our guest speaker this evening, for twenty years a driver with Virgin Trains working out of Polmadie and now retired. Retirement had presented him with the opportunity to come down to us from |north of the Border to present an impressive selection of his transparencies covering primarily the Glasgow area and Central and South West Scotland between 1980 and 1999.

We made our way chronologically through the two decades beginning at Glasgow with visits to both Central and Queen Street Stations and a quick stop down the Subway in local parlance - not the Tube or Underground. During the evening we saw more locomotive classes and types of diesel or electric units than I could count on two pairs of hands as we ventured through the outskirts of Glasgow to Paisley, Motherwell and  Balloch Pier among others and beyond to Ayr, the West Highland line and eastwards towards Stirling and Falkirk. Every type of freight train was in evidence too: tanks, merry-go-rounds, speedlink, freightliners, vans, empty stock movements, pipes, pet food and passenger trains to mention a few. 

There were also plenty of liveries so that, in many ways, tonight was an evening of nostalgia particularly for those who fondly recall rail blue, large logo blue, rail freight grey, parcels red, two tone grey and sectorisation, Loadhaul, Transrail, Mainline Freight and EWS in its early days. Robin showed examples of them all and more. As he pointed out more than once, in the intervening years since his photographs were taken much had changed. Lines, stations and depots had closed and a number of his photographs could not be taken now as locations had become overgrown. On the other hand, the closure of significant industrial sites had resulted in the opening of new stations and double tracking of single lines to manage increased demand as a result of new development and regeneration so creating new photographic opportunities of which he had taken advantage.

Punctuated with amusing anecdotes from his time on the railway, Robin's show was a feast of colour and interest with the added benefit of some impressive night time images as well as the opportunities offered by snow capped mountain tops and longer sunny evenings. Steam traction  also featured, Robin including a couple of A4s on the main line and a visit to the Bo'ness and Kinniel preserved line. If Robin could be persuaded to come south again some time I got the feeling from his very warm reception at the end of the evening that he would be more than welcome.

David Hinxman