by Stuart Whitter – Chairman, Northern Steam Engineering Limited
I am very pleased to welcome as guest blogger Stuart Whitter who I first met in the very early 1980’s when we were involved in the restoration of Class 9F 92212 at the Great Central Railway, Loughborough. During our time in the railway industry we have had similar roles albeit in different parts of the country and have remained in contact. Stuart is now Chairman of Northern Steam Engineering Ltd.
I asked him how he became interested in railways………so over to Stuart
I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to experience an age when all trains were steam hauled. As a small child I would be wakened from my slumbers in the early hours of the morning. The total silence of a 1950s town would be broken by the sound of steam hauled heavy freight trains running Southbound down the gradient into Wigan on the West Coast Main Line. First the loud ring of the big end of the locomotive “dink donk dink donk” then the sound of countless wheels on the many, short wheelbase wagons, rattling over the rail joints “da da da da da”. Finally, the clang, clang, clang, of buffers closing up as the locomotive brake was applied to steady the headlong progress before the Wigan curve.
Of course there was no way that I could understand what was creating these fascinating sounds which were so characteristic of the steam era. However, they have stayed with me and were maybe a prompt for me to find out in later years.
In my early school days, my grandfather – a wonderful character – would sometimes meet me from school. He would take me on the back of his old motorbike to a railway footpath crossing near Ryland’s Sidings signal box, a mile or so up the gradient from Wigan North Western Station. Here we would while away hours together watching the local colliery shunting engines bringing loads down to the main line where an unkempt “Jubilee” might be waiting to take them forward.
The regular procession of Anglo Scottish trains, as well as local workings were the province of Scots, “Lizzies” and Duchesses. My favourites were undoubtedly the elegant Princess Royals. In my memory they were kept in good condition for the prestige trains and some were painted in LMS maroon. They were tremendously impressive as they rolled smoothly by at over a mile-a-minute with hardly a sound.
I could never quite get my head around train spotting and number collecting though I did follow the pack on that for a short while. What I wanted to know was; how does this all work? How does it all go together? And so a lifetime of discovery was prompted, which is still in progress.
This was my first encounter with an AC electric but this was after we had been hauled to Crewe by a Duchess – the only time I ever rode behind one, but I have fired one on the main line since.
On joining BR as an engineering graduate in 1976, I was allocated for the first year to Doncaster Works. I spent the next ten years on the Eastern Region in various posts. The first of these was at York HQ where I was the “Deltic” technical rider. These locomotives were very high maintenance compared with today’s fleets and in-traffic interventions were a daily occurrence. I would receive a call from Control regarding a reported problem, agree where I should join the loco, grab my bag and head for the station. Sometimes a fault could be found and cured; sometimes “booked” for work to be done on arrival at depot or, quite frequently, advise Control to put the loco into Doncaster Works for an engine change. Control used to book my reports on the log as coming from “Whitter the Fitter” – which stayed with me for quite a few years. I very rapidly learned the entire Deltic electrical schematic, which was something of a surprise and, no, I can’t remember anything of it now!
Is there a better job than being a technical engineer riding main line locomotives in the cab of a Deltic?
Having settled into this role there followed a situation that may have ended my railway career.
After spending years in education and two years with British Rail learning to do something useful for a living – which I found very satisfying at last – I was told by senior management that I was to be transferred to the Southern to work on EMUs. High dudgeon ensued and, after some intense pressure to do as I was told, I was summoned to Derby to be given a dressing down and a final offer to “take it or leave it”. My decision to leave filtered rapidly through the system at York and fortuitously I was promptly transferred to Finsbury Park Depot in North London, where I could put my new found knowledge to use.
At “the Park” I was working mainly on our “Racehorse” Deltics and Class 47s. Great fun, but with the writing on the wall writ large by the arrival of the first Eastern Region HST sets running past the Park into Kings Cross on trial trips. The inevitability of the end of Deltic operation would also mean the demise of the Park as it was not designed to maintain rakes of HSTs. So the management decided on a motivational exercise to keep pride in the depot’s fleet at a high level reliability until the end.
I was despatched to try and find the outline of the old grey painted window surround which the Deltics had carried in earlier years. If discovered, I was to overlay them with a white coat to suit the modern BR corporate blue livery.
We had very little paint on the depot, and no white gloss, but a stroll up the road to Woolworths revealed a new-fangled paint called polyurethane. From its publicity, we believed it would be tough enough to cope with the pheasant catching propensity of a Deltic in full flight. So almost overnight the famous white cabs which epitomised the last years of the Deltics, appeared.
About this time on BR there were many closures and “last of” events. I produced several headboards and, although it was was some time after I’d left the Park, my final product to mark the closure of Finsbury Park is pictured above. The headboard had been carried on the front of a white-cab Deltic from Kings Cross to Doncaster, .
My strangest experience on a Deltic was when, after a night of violent winds, we encountered a complete garden shed sat squarely on the track near Newark. We were bearing down far too rapidly to do anything about it. The Driver saw it and turned to me: “What do you reckon”? – “Just hope there isn’t a bloody great mower in there” was my reply. There wasn’t and no shed shortly afterwards either! Quite a bang. Now what about checking any damage to that newly applied white paint to the cab?
I was to encounter the Deltics again when, in early 1980 I was promoted from Whitemoor to Gateshead Depot where the last of them would occasionally turn up. Funnily enough, the Finsbury Park Class 47s had also been transferred to Gateshead whilst my back was turned so I had them back as well.
As many will know the only named Class 46 Peak was 46026 and while allocated to Gateshead she was treated as a bit of a ‘pet’. Well it was Tyneside after all, Pet! The nameplates from 46026 were being held for safe keeping in my office whilst the loco was being re-painted. The steam age flare lamp on the bookcase top is a bit of a give-away to my real passion!
Gateshead was a busy place, with coal and aluminium traffic as well as cross-country and east coast services to support. We also had the task of keeping the Class 46 fleet going for as long as we could. Our people were a mixture of lifelong BR staff with a sprinkling of good keen men who had joined us from the shipyards. Following closure, like most of the places I have worked on the railway, blocks of flats have taken over now.
We kept 46026 in traffic for hauling specials despite some major technical issues and York control asking some awkward questions about how we were managing to keep it going. An over-the-weekend-and-tell-nobody bogie swap was one solution to a troublesome traction motor. It was challenges like this which helped keep up morale, when it was obvious that our role was declining with the eventual closure of the depot .
A typical duty for number 26, the last passenger train to Consett, March 1984. The number plate is in recognition of the BR Standard Class 9F steam locomotives that worked the iron ore trains until the mid 1960’s.
My chosen industry was getting a bit repetitive, though the challenges of managing and leading the workforce at this time were character building to say the least!
This is 47452 after it overturned on Morpeth curves with the Aberdeen – Kings Cross sleeper in June 1984. Note the AWS indicator hanging from the cab window at the right hand end of the yellow panel. When we put the battery isolator in, it all worked. It was dispatched to Crewe Works for repairs.
Over the next few years I was Project Manager for the Class 319 and 321 EMU fleet build and service introductions, managed the entire “Regional Railways” fleet. I also set up the Eurostar Fleet operation and introduction to service.
In my role as Project Manager I was present at the formal handover of the first Class 321 unit to Network Southeast for use on Liverpool Street to Cambridge services took place at BREL York Works. The 319 and 321 builds were my first introduction to major projects and I have never been far from these types of job since. Every day was different, challenging and rewarding.
Even greater challenges were attracting me though. I was determined to be involved with the “Eurostar” project. I considered it to be the most significant rail development which was going to happen in my lifetime. It also had the benefit of being a completely new project so I knew that every single day would be different. It was a fabulous job and I enjoyed it immensely.
One of rewards due to my involvement was to be on board the train which opened the Channel Tunnel on the 6th May 1994, along with the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. Another significant highlight of my time with Eurostar was when I traveled in the cab of our Set UK1 on the 2nd June when it made the journey from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord. It was the first ever train to make that journey without getting its wheels wet! It was a test train of course and, from memory, there were only 13 people on board but we were all deeply moved by what we had just done.
A real added bonus was that, some time later through my valued colleagues in SNCF, I was able to take the footplate of a steam loco hauling a passenger train on the inner rail circle around Paris, the “petite ceinture”. Needless to say, it was not long before I was on the shovel and, a short while later, a nod from the Inspector travelling with us indicated that it was my turn to drive. Driving a steam locomotive with the Eiffel Tower appearing through the cab window is not something to be forgotten!
On Christmas day 1994 with the fleet brand new and looking wonderful, we decided to take the opportunity of a day with no passenger service. We re-created the famous photograph of Gresley Pacific A4’s standing at Kings Cross Top Shed in formation.
Modern day depots can present challenges though. With a fully track circuited and signalled depot, there was a lot of head scratching as to how to get all of the de-railers down at the same time. This was extremely difficult, as their sole purpose was to stop us doing what we wanted to do. However; set an intelligent group of engineers the task of creating a bit of mischief, and lo – it will happen.
During my time with Eurostar, the railways were privatised though we were so busy that we didn’t even notice. In the early days of privatisation it seemed that you either had to be an accountant or to have run a bus depot to be considered worthy but definitely not a railwayman. So, with the service up and running and the Night Service, which was now the focus of my work, obviously not going to happen despite the political promises, I decided it was time to look for new adventures.
Looking for more challenges and more money, I spent several happy and successful years in the electricity supply industry. I worked on business transformation, culture change and smart asset management – but fortunately not falling into the trap of trying to emulate “Enron”. A company which having claimed to be world leaders at all of this, collapsed spectacularly.
However, despite having worked with great people and gaining very valuable experience, I suppose that it was inevitable that, eventually, grey boxes going “HUM” could not keep me from the far more interesting technologies of the rail industry.
My return to rail was as Chief Engineer of a new railway being built across the North of the City of Manila, Philippines. This was the gateway to a completely different career in rail, as a consultant, where one can get involved, make a big difference, and then move on – whilst avoiding the daily grind of people management – luxury!
Since then I have worked all over the world, which has been a largely humbling experience, when one begins to understand the disparity of impact on the planet between our material and power intensive lifestyles compared to the third world.
Despite leaving the big railway in the mid-1990’s I continued to keep my hand in as a volunteer at the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
So I have had a parallel career as a steam and diesel locomotive driver, owned Class 9F 92214, bought and sold property, as well as an on-going 30 year project to build a 5” gauge LMS Class 5, No. 45449 – which was a Wigan Springs Branch engine for almost all of its life. (You can see the theme here can’t you?!)
The granting of a Train Operating Company licence to the North York Moors railway in 2007 allowed us to operate over Network Rail from Grosmont to Whitby and Westwards towards Middlesbrough. As one of the more senior volunteer drivers, I was part of the first group to operate “on the branch”.
On Tuesday the 3rd April 2007, I had the honour of taking the first scheduled NYMR TOC working onto Network Rail tracks. This was light engine 75029 to Whitby in readiness for working the inaugural special return working to Pickering. Since then, I have worked very nearly 1,000 trains to Whitby at the time of writing, as well as a good few towards Middlesbrough – sometimes with an old friend!
In May 2016 55022 Royal Scots Grey was put in the guise of long scrapped former Finsbury Park allocated Deltic 55007 Pinza complete with white cab surround. The photograph above was taken after having brought ‘Pinza’ through onto the Moors from Whitby.
This NYMR TOC work has also lead to me being heavily involved with the North Norfolk Railway services operating on their local branch line to Cromer under the NYMR licence and management. This has provided yet another opportunity to work happily with others in the industry.
As well as rail and business consulting, I also now have a more fixed role as Chairman of the recently formed Northern Steam Engineering Limited. We operate with a very dedicated and skilled team from our workshop in Stockton. The Company specialises in heavy boiler repairs for rail and road locomotives as well as new fabrications such as tender tanks and chassis. A rapidly developing business for us is in brand new static and locomotive boilers which we design and build in-house. Challenging but greatly enjoyable!
So I’m still enjoyably busy with rail all thanks to Grandad and those beautiful Princess Royals. But as an engineman – as well as pound for pound value for money – I think you absolutely cannot beat a Black Five.
If you’ve enjoyed reading how Stuart became interested in railways then you might also like my post on how other people became interested in railways. How did YOU become interested in railways??
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