Steam Railway feature sample

Here’s a sample of one of the many fantastic features you can read in this month’s Steam Railway magazine.

The big switch

1969: HOWARD JOHNSTON recalls how steam was kept alive when all seemed lost.

A colourful scene on the Longmoor Military Railway on the date of its last public open day (three months before closure) on July 5 1969 as 2-10-0 No. 600  Gordon  eases away from Liss Forest. LES NIXON

A colourful scene on the Longmoor Military Railway on the date of its last public open day (three months before closure) on July 5 1969 as 2-10-0 No. 600 Gordon eases away from Liss Forest. LES NIXON

Keen followers of British steam faced the starkest of choices in the spring of 1969, six months after BR brought down the curtain in the North West.

They could go into mourning and walk away from the hobby completely, or embrace a movement that was growing at an explosive rate – preservation.

Unless they hung up their cameras or travelled overseas, there was nowhere else to go unless they switched to chasing diesels (which few initially did). 

It made for painful reading that most of the locomotives that had made such spirited runs in the weeks leading up to August 4 1968 had already been towed to breakers’ yards and cut up. Suddenly, there were no more farewell railtours, no anniversaries to celebrate, and no more being chased out of steam sheds.

BR’s ruthless drive to rid itself of its old image meant that in 1969 there was now only Alan Pegler’s ‘A3’ No. 4472 Flying Scotsman filling the main line steam chasm, and it would play a low-key role because it would be off to America anyway in September.

Even if BR had been more sympathetic to main line running, there were only six serviceable ‘Pacifics’ in the frame. Two of them were Gresley ‘A4s’ (Nos. 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley and 60019 Bittern) Peppercorn ‘A2’ No. 60532 Blue Peter, a solitary LMS engine, Stanier No. 46201 Princess Elizabeth, and a pair of Bulleids, Nos. 34023 Blackmore Vale and 35028 Clan Line. Representing Great Western express power were 4-6-0s Nos. 4079 Pendennis Castle and 7029 Clun Castle.

The other engines we now recognise as strong main line performers were either landlocked (such as No. 60009 Union of South Africa and ‘Brit’ No. 70013 Oliver Cromwell), or stuffed and mounted at remote Butlin’s seaside holiday camps. 


So, 1969 was the year that preservation really took off, with projects springing up all over the country. Some of them have become our greatest steam centres of excellence, while several others have sunk without trace.

The opening of the Dart Valley Railway was a real breath of fresh air – the first revival of a true Great Western branch in a superb Devon location. The now-established Bluebell, Worth Valley and Welsh narrow gauge lines, such as the Ffestiniog and Talyllyn, were doing good business. Newcomers such as the Severn Valley, North Yorkshire Moors and North Norfolk railways were working hard to establish themselves, but it would still be some time before they made a breakthrough.

Who can remember the excitement elicited by Dinting Railway Centre, the Longmoor Military Railway, and ambitious but ill-conceived reopening schemes such as those between Sudbury and Haverhill on the Suffolk-Essex border, from Cowes to Smallbrook Junction on the Isle of Wight, and Ramsbottom to Haslingden in Lancashire?

And there were much bigger projects than that. The Borders Railway Company led us to believe that Blue Peter would be a regular performer on the reopened 100‑mile Edinburgh-Carlisle Waverley Route, but it didn’t have the money.

A less ambitious announcement – and one which enjoyed the support of influential local landowners – was the proposed reopening of a section of the old Great Central Main Line from Leicester to Nottingham.

The pivot of conversation was Barry scrapyard, and while there were over 200 locomotives parked up in 1969, there was no guarantee at this time that the amenable but shrewd owner Dai Woodham would not decide just to cut them all up. The big question was how many groups could cobble together the money in time to save the best ones.

knockdown industrials 

There were always diesels to follow, of course, and British Rail, now making a modest profit, was applying its corporate blue livery with abandon (including the Vale of Rheidol 2-6-2Ts!). There was a small wave of enthusiasm for early Modernisation Plan prototype diesels already at the end of their lives, such as Western Region hydraulics and the lower powered BTH Class 15, Clayton Class 17 and English Electric Class 23 ‘Baby Deltics’.

The freefall in local wagonload freight, with hundreds of small yards abandoned, provided an unexpected windfall for steam preservation. A large surplus of small BR diesel shunters, many of them less than ten years old, were sold into industry, and this displaced a large number of steam engines onto the market at knockdown prices. An 0‑6‑0ST was discovered to be quite capable of hauling a rake of five coaches, and was cheap to run.

Read more on pages 82-90 of Steam Railway SR492 – on sale now!