Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The little loco that didn’t set the world on fire

For industrial sites where steam was in constant supply to power machinery, it made economic sense to use it to its full potential.

At Carr’s Biscuit Works excess steam was used to heat baths for the workers and at Slater’s Mill on James Street exhaust steam from the factory was used to heat the Public Swimming Baths.

Another use steam was put to was for ‘fireless locomotives,’ where large works had their own internal railway system and needed some form of motive power.

Conventional railway engines had many drawbacks, producing smoke and sparks which were not welcome in some industries and positively dangerous in others.

For the food industry, smoke and coal dust could contaminate production.

In the paper, timber, oil and explosive industries sparks could prove an unacceptable fire risk.

A fireless loco looks like any other conventional steam engine but with one crucial difference.

With no fire, and hence the name ‘fireless,’ there were no exhaust fumes to go up a chimney.

Writing about these engines in 1983, Trevor Page explained in Steam World other differences: “Basically a fireless engine consists of a cylindrical reservoir (similar to a boiler on other engines) mounted on a conventional locomotive frame which has been turned back to front, with the cylinders under the cab.”

With a non-return valve to allow filling up, stated Mr Page, “the reservoir is charged with steam and hot water (under pressure) from an external source, usually a factory boiler, and how long the charge lasts depends on the severity of the locomotive’s task.”

Although introduced to Germany in the 1880s, fireless locos were not common in this country until World War One, when huge munitions works like that at Gretna, with miles of connecting railway tracks, demanded them for obvious reasons.

You could not have naked flames near high explosives.

Contractors used conventional locomotives in constructing Gretna Munitions Factory, but once operational in 1916, the Ministry of Munitions ordered a fleet of 17 standard-gauge fireless locos from Andrew Barclay and Sons at Kilmarnock.

This type of engine proved so important at the works that when the King and Queen visited in 1917 the Royal Train was, according to Derek Stoyel who wrote about the factory and its railway system, “hauled within the factory area by one of the fireless locomotives”.

Once these locos had played their part in the war effort they were made redundant in 1919 and were up for disposal when a final decision was made to dismantle the Gretna site in 1923.

Most of the plant at Gretna was offered for sale in 1924 and at that time Carlisle City Council were building new Electricity Works at Willow Holme which would be served by extensive railway lines for coal delivery.

With plenty of steam on site it was realised that economies could be made by using fireless locos.

In the council minutes in August 1924 “the Engineer intimated that a number of fireless locos at Gretna were for sale and reported upon the question of utilising one of them in connection with the Electricity Undertaking.”

It was agreed at the meeting of the Electric Committee “that Councillor Potts, with the engineer, be authorised to view, with power if necessary to purchase one, out of the loan already sanctioned in connection with the new works.”

At a further meeting of the committee in October it was reported that they “had purchased a fireless loco at a cost of £875”, a fraction of what it would cost to buy one new.

This had been No 8 in the Gretna fleet, delivered from the works in November 1916.

When the electricity works were again extended in World War Two it was necessary to order another two fireless locos in 1942 and 1944, but this time they were brand new.

One fireless loco which was ordered for Gretna, but instead went to the Queensferry Factory in Flintshire, was also offered for sale after the war.

This was bought for use at Carr’s in 1924, and as it was to replace a conventional steam loco called ‘Despatch,’ the name was transferred to the fireless one.

When a photograph of the new Despatch, in Carr’s yard, appeared in the Carlisle Journal in March 1925, the article stated: “It is charged up with steam from the main boilers three or four times a day.”

Carr’s used a livery of dark green with gold lining for their delivery fleet, but for some reason Despatch was later given the colour of ‘Caledonian blue’.

The Carlisle company were not unique in the biscuit industry in the use of a fireless loco, because Huntley and Palmer had one at Reading.

While all the fireless locos used in Carlisle were scrapped in the late 1960s and 1970s, a Gretna example – No 7 in the fleet and built by Barclays in 1916 – has survived to be preserved.

This was acquired by Laporte Chemicals Ltd in 1936 and, after its working life at Luton, was presented by that company to the Quainton Railway Society, at their site near Aylesbury, in July 1971.

Rather than restore the earlier model, it was a fireless loco ordered new by Laporte in 1948 which was brought back to life at Quainton in 1982.

If the Gretna one was ever made operational at Quainton it would be good to see it back on home ground in original livery.

Cumbria can also claim the last commercially-operated fireless loco in the UK at Glaxo, Ulverston, but some are still at work in Germany.


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