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Jim Lester - 1948 Exchange Trials

On behalf of all the old colleagues and friends of the late Bert Hooker of Nine Elms I want to pay tribute to the magnificent individual performances of all the Southern Enginemen involved in the '1948 Exchange Trials' that were held sixty years ago. Such a time in railway history must not pass by without the mention of the iconic Enginemen's names from the past that made such a significant impression during those trials. The superlatives often used by railway writers when describing locomotive performance sadly forget that it is the Enginemen that are the very heart and soul of a locomotive's response to their crafted performance on the footplate. Like many other likeminded Enginemen will tell you there was a special bond to be had with a steam locomotive that is difficult to describe, working together, Driver, Fireman and locomotive, a team effort. Today, sixty years later, it's soullessly known a MMI. (Man, Machine Interface) not quite what I had in mind thinking back to those times. Nationalisation all those years ago in 1948 heralded yet another change in the fortunes of the railway industry and the new powers sought to make their mark with a more modern approach. Thus the Exchange Trials were for some as much a public relations exercise as they were an attempt to rationalise the design of locomotives for post war Britain.

As such six of the finest Nine Elms' Enginemen were selected to represent the former Southern Railway during the Exchange Trials at this pivotal moment in history. Namely they were Jack Swain and George James, who would perform driving duties on the other railways, whilst Jack Gilmore would be the designate 'conductor' driver for the ex-LMS and ex-LNER crews when working their respective locomotives out of Waterloo. George Robjant would be the substitute Driver in the event of any incapacity of those men. Two Firemen were also required and that formidable task was allotted to Bert Hooker and George Reynolds. The accounts of their combined epic performances can read in a number of publications, indeed I highly recommend Bert Hooker's book 'Nine Elms Engineman'. The Southern crewing arrangements of the 'Trial' trains were then revealed to the band of selected Enginemen. It had been decided that George James and George Reynolds would take responsibility for the Paddington to Plymouth, Kings Cross to Leeds and finally the St Pancras to Manchester routes, in addition they would also cover the 'home' event between Waterloo and Exeter, quite a formidable task ahead for these fine men. The team of Jack Swain and Bert Hooker were charged with an equally daunting task that being Euston to Carlisle, Marylebone to Manchester over the old Great Central line and lastly between Perth and Inverness over the Highland. The 'Merchant Navy' locomotives were to be 'trialled' on the former GWR, LMS and LNER main lines, whilst the 'West Country' locomotives would perform over the old Midland Railway route that had been absorbed into the LMS from St Pancras to Manchester, the Marylebone to Manchester and the formidable Highland line. The locomotives would return to Nine Elms to receive required maintenance throughout the trial period. Naturally with the miles that were to be covered the crews had to lodge the night before normally working back the next day.

Since the concept of the 'Big Four' in 1923, the incumbent companies had, more or less, continued locomotive development in a manner dictated by the resident Chief Mechanical Engineer with certain constraints and demands placed upon him by other senior company engineers. However times had changed forever and three years after the war and with a political change of direction the newly elected Labour Government's Ministry of Transport introduced the British Transport Commission, amongst other things its remit was to oversee the modernisation of 'British Railways' as it became known. This then is the background to the rationale that led to what basically became a series of comparison tests over various selected routes using a number of existing locomotive class designs of the 'Big Four' in order to determine a new 'Standard' design.

The Southern Railway's CME, O. V. S. Bulleid's radical ideas on the future direction of steam locomotive traction were not always well received by his contemporaries or railway authorities of that time. Indeed the 'Leader' was perhaps too radical in its concept for the great majority, however it was his 'Merchant Navy' Pacifics and 'West Country' and 'Battle of Britain' class 'light' Pacifics that were to become the focal point of the Southern's contestants in the impending trials.

It was decided that the Southern's selection of locomotives were required to have run 20,000 to 30,000 miles since their last general overhaul, primarily to ensure that they were well run in and less prone to failure whilst away from their home ground! As such two 8P 'Merchant Navies', No's. 21C19 (35019) 'French Line CGT' and 35017 'Belgian Marine' were chosen, the latter had by then received its new British Railways number. Both were married up to LMS 4000 gallon tenders that would enable water to picked up en route. They were painted black and carried the new British Railways legend in white lettering, looking quite at odds with the Southern liveried locomotives.

Seen here at Wareham station some ten years later in 1958 Nine Elms allocated 'WC', No. 34006 'Bude' still possesses the extra length smoke deflectors that each of the 'Exchange Trial' light Pacifics were fitted with in those days. (Photo J. C. Lester)

The mismatch of the Bulleid's cabs and the LMS tenders would later prove to be somewhat problematical on the footplate inasmuch there was gaping hole below the opening doors that allowed access to the coal area beyond, this would permit coal to continually fall through onto the footplate unrestricted until the fully laden coal capacity was reduced, similarly the same problem was to be found on the Standard Class '5's when arriving new from Derby in 1955. Equally the shovelling plate was lower and the previously fully enclosed Bulleid cab and tender roof was now open to the elements due the missing intermediate flexible roof sheet. This then led to smoke and fumes to enter the cab footplate area subjecting the crews to a rather dirty but not totally unacceptable working environment. The 7P 'light' pacific 'West Country' class locomotives were equally selected on the same basis as the 'Merchant Navies', namely No's. 34004 'Yeovil', 34005 'Barnstaple' and 34006 'Bude'. Similar LMS tenders were attached before they in their turn would show how well they could perform when away from the metals of the 'Sunny South'!

What actually occurred during these trials is now confined to railway history and is a credit to the aforementioned men of the smallest of the previous 'Big Four' railways. Without doubt both ex-Southern Railway Nine Elms Enginemen and their locomotives performed with distinction as the records testify.

Fellow Enginemen on this 60th anniversary we salute your memory.

Copyright 2008 © Jim Lester - Nine Elms - Southern Engineman

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