3 link Nine Elms

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3 link Nine Elms

Post by 35013 Blue Funnel on Fri Aug 15, 2014 7:36 pm

Here's a piece I wrote, some time ago now about my time in 3 link at Nine Elms.

Three Link - Nine Elms

Paul Cooper’s recent mini-series on the finale of Southern steam captured the ‘observer’s view’ of the death throes of the steam operated mainline railway. In this article I hope to give the reader an insight into what it all meant to the footplate crews whose daily work was the subject of magazine articles, photographs, timing logs, and lamentations for the end of an era which had its roots in the very foundations of the industrial revolution.

Three link at Nine Elms was a twelve week roster which could be roughly divided in two - part one as cover crews for links One and Two (frequently referred to as the Bournemouth and Salisbury links respectively) with the remaining weeks being made up of regular workings including turns such as the 08.35 ex-Waterloo - Weymouth, the 17.30 ex-Waterloo - Weymouth and the 04.40 ex-Waterloo - Exeter, aka ‘ the Salisbury papers’. The 17.30 departure, a heavily laden commuter service usually comprising of 11 or 12 bogies, ran first stop Basingstoke - three link crews worked this train as far as Southampton and it was this service, perhaps, more than any other at the time which became the focus of what some footplatemen called ‘the stop watch brigade’ - the recorders whose work is immortalised in the long running magazine feature Locomotive Practice & Performance.

The locomen’s mess room at Nine Elms was a bustling sort of a place, full of banter and ribald good humour. Paul Cooper’s article mentions fireman Dedman - commonly known as ‘Rocker’ Dedman to his peers in the drivers’ lobby - most of whom enjoyed similar nicknames - my own was ‘Dropgrate’ - it’s a long story. Paul also mentions footplate legends Bert Hooker and Inspector Arthur Jupp - names from my own past with very different connections. My first meeting with Bert was in the less than auspicious surroundings of Clapham carriage sidings. This meeting featured, so Bert told me, in his role as ‘after dinner speaker’. I was with a driver whose name, at that time, I did not know when Bert approached our engine enquiring after the driver. Having ascertained that the driver was not on the footplate Bert asked who he was, I replied that; ‘I did not know his name but that he wore a flat hat and had a very big nose’ - Jack Aplin was his name - my description, delivered in my native Yorkshire, was unflattering but accurate.

My acquaintance with Arthur Jupp however, was an altogether more auspicious affair. Early in 1965 I bribed a One link fireman to swop turns with me - the working was an enthusiast excursion to Exeter and back, the major feature of which was to be non-stop running between Waterloo and Yeovil - practically unheard of in 1965. The driver was ‘Spot’ King - the ‘spot’ was from his habit of saying to the fireman, ‘spot that distant for me’. Arthur was present on the footplate for two reasons, first there was some concern about the engine’s ability to run to Yeovil without stopping at Salisbury for water and there was to be a visitor on the footplate during the return leg of the journey. It was on the return leg that one of my more memorable footplate incidents took place.

After leaving Salisbury the long climb up through Porton and past Idmiston Halt to Grateley begins to bite, however, after no more than a few rounds of coal had been added to the firebox a huge boulder of ‘best Welsh’ lodged in the opening to the shovelling plate - so big was the lump that it would not pass through opening - thus preventing firing taking place. Under strict instruction from Arthur to, ‘keep my head down’, the only course of action was to open the tender door climb into the coal space and attempt to get the boulder away from the shovelling plate and up and through the tender door onto the footplate. Heaving, sweating and cursing Arthur and I, between us, somehow managed to first dislodge and then manhandle the lump into the footplate - without Arthur’s presence it would have meant stopping the train.

The round trip on this Tour was something of a record for a Southern fireman - counting taking the engine up to Waterloo at the start of the tour and going to and from the shed in Exeter was the equivalent of firing from London to Glasgow. The engine used was No.35023 Holland Afrika Line one of the Merchant Navy’s there at the end which did not make it into preservation. ( If any readers have photographs of No.35023 and myself and driver King on that run I would happily pay the costs for a copy. I believe the tour was organised by RCTS and was run, if memory serves, as ‘The East Devon Railtour’ - the date would be early 1965.)

I digress. Beyond the nicknames, card schools, banter, cans of tea and cheese and pickle sandwiches the mess-room at Nine Elms also bred a rivalry in the running of trains. It was this jocular but ambitious rivalry which was largely responsible for the very fine enginemanship in those last two years of mainline steam hauled services. Gordon Hooper, Gordon Porter and Eric Saunders were all Three link drivers in 1965 - and it is their names which crop up over and over, (between them more than thirty appearances in the performance tables covering the South Western section), in D.W.Winkworth’s book Bulleid’s Pacifics. It is no coincidence that a link of just twelve crew should provide such a high percentage of the most memorable performances.

In late Spring of 1965 the beginning of the end of ‘Southern Steam’ begins with a run from Waterloo to Basingstoke. On May 15th 1965 I was rostered to work the 21-20 ex-Waterloo, the driver was not my regular mate Eric ‘sooty’ Saunders, but another of three link’s drivers Gordon ‘madman’ Hooper. Driver Hooper had earned his sobriquet not for any reasons of insanity but for his fast and fearless running and I was about to discover just how ‘fast and fearless’ that was. This was the run which, both in Winkworth’s book and in Don Benn’s 1987 Railway World article ‘threw down the gauntlet’ (Benn, D. Bournemouth Line Steam - 20 years On, Railway World, July 1987, p408) for the final fling. Revised schedules were being introduced from mid-June 1965 with the commencement of the Bournemouth line ‘electrification’ - the crews at Nine Elms knew that once that juice rail started it was all up for the steam hauled mainline express.

Our engine that night was one of preservation’s finest - MN class No.35005 Canadian Pacific, the load behind the tender was ten coaches and the evening was fine and dry. Being only the fireboy I, of course, had no idea of what was about to happen and driver Hooper gave no direct indication that record setting was on the agenda. The 360 ton load was light for a ‘Packet’ and No.35005 was in fine fettle.

The route from Waterloo to Basingstoke has no major banks but, it is mostly rising gradients throughout its length. A brief summation of the route would be that a little under four miles out of Waterloo comes Clapham Junction and a permanent speed restriction followed by a short climb up to Wimbledon from there the running is fairly level to Byfleet Junction from where the line climbs to milepost 31 before a short dip down towards Farnborough were the line again takes on a slightly rising gradient almost to the outskirts of Basingstoke.

On the night No.35005 ran from Waterloo to Basingstoke in 43 minutes 48 seconds, 41 minutes net, that’s 47.8 miles, start to stop, mostly against the grade and with the permanent speed restriction through Clapham Junction - not bad going, but, more was to come. After leaving Basingstoke driver Hooper continued in the same cavalier style and No.35005 reached 105mph on the descent to Winchester - not the highest speed attained by a Merchant Navy but well in the top ten. Benn’s 1987 article puts it thus, ‘…the ease with which No.35005 reached 105mph below Wallers Ash Tunnel with a 360-ton train one May night in 1965.’ (Benn, 1987, p412) However, it was not the 105mph which was to become the yardstick but the 41 minute net time for the start to stop journey between Waterloo and Basingstoke.

The 21.20 ex-Waterloo was not a regular Three link turn, but the 17.30 departure was and like the 21.20 it was also first stop Basingstoke. The impending slowing of the timings and the inevitability of engineering works and their attendant speed restrictions once the ‘electrification’ began meant that any attempt to meet ‘Madman’ Hooper’s challenge ‘get to Basin’ in 40 minutes’ was going to have to happen ASAP. For driver Eric ‘sooty’ Saunders (driver Saunders had a part-time chimney-sweeping round - hence the ‘sooty’) the chance to have a crack at taking the laurels came in early June just a week before the new timings were to commence.

Driver Saunders and I had been rostered together in three link for best part of a year when this all started and as I had been firing for driver Hooper on the night of May 15th there was nothing so certain as that ‘Sooty’ and I would have a go at snatching the record. Having engine No.35005 on that June evening was itself more than a little fortunate, in fact, when we ‘booked on’ No.35005 was not even rostered for the turn. The running shed foreman that evening was Len Trigg, affectionately known as ‘Pierpoint’ - after the public hangman, and driver Saunders persuaded him to swop our booked engine for No.35005 - if memory serves it might have involved a ‘clean chimney’ at the ‘Pierpoint’ residence.

Arriving at Waterloo we backed down onto twelve bogies equal to 435 tons. Behind the tender the first coach was crammed with ‘recorders’ - stop watches at the ready. On the footplate everything was ‘ship shape and Bristol fashion’, carefully built up fire, ¾ of a glass of water and 240lbs boiler pressure. The crew on the engine which worked the stock in had been briefed to give us an extra push out and the minute the guard whistled up for the right-away I gave ‘Sooty’ the tip. The great start and hard work was paying dividends as we sped through Hampton Court Junction at with speed well into the eighties. However, all good things come to an end and the distant for Hersham was ‘on’ bringing us to a dead stand. No sooner had we stopped than the board came off - by Woking speed was back in the upper 70s.

Milepost 31 was passed at 75mph and, according to Benn’s calculations, had we not been brought to a stand at Hersham a sub 41 minute time to Basingstoke would have been achieved. ‘…I believe that without the signal stop at Hersham the impetus of such a fast start would have taken us past Woking in a shade over 23 min and Basingstoke could have been reached in under 41 min.’ (Benn, 1987, p408)

It all sounds so cool when you write it down, but on the day it wasn’t like that. The distant for Hersham is one which the fireman could see first - travelling at over 80mph with an all up weight of more than 500 tons and vacuum brakes meant that every inch of stopping distance was needed. When I shouted across the cab ‘it’s on’ driver Saunders made an immediate full brake application - we only just stopped, a few yards more and it would have been a ‘spad’ incident.

When the ‘peg’ came off again it was me who urged ‘Sooty’ to continue to go for it - commenting, ‘we can try not to lose any speed on the climb to milepost 31’, an achievement in itself. The success of this can be judge by the fact that between Byfleet Junction and Brookwood speed increased. On the record setting run of May 15th with only ten coaches and 360 tons of train speed actually fell over this same section, which gives some measure of the effort being put in to overcome the signal check. According to some of the wags present on the day the noise from No.35005 was, ‘enough to wake the dead in Brookwood Necropolis’. Some of the rockets are still in orbit.

When we came to a stand in Basingstoke, over ten minutes early, I took the opportunity to pull some coal down - we’d burned the odd hundred weight or ten in getting there. Standing in the coal space, coal pick in hand, I was hailed by a chap in a very smart uniform all gold braid and shiny buttons - who, despite his obvious importance, was clambering up to join me in the tender. Despite my grimey and sweating countenance he insisted on shaking hands - informing me that he was, ‘district Station Master’, and that ‘this was the finest run he’d had over this route’ - a compliment indeed, fireboy’s were not usually given so much as the time of day - we didn’t even get a mention in the logs!

Two days later, this time with engine No.35017 Belgian Marine, another attempt was made. On this occasion the distant for Hersham was ‘clear’ but a series of checks occurred between Brookwood and Farnborough which did not bring us to a stand but did reduce our speed considerably. Remarkably, despite the checks, the start to stop time for the journey was 44 minutes and 21 seconds, just 33 seconds slower than the actual time set by driver Hooper and myself on the 15th of May and the load was one coach heavier. These three runs, May 15th , June 7th and 9th 1965 represent, to the best of my knowledge, the three fastest timings over this section of the former LSWR mainline with these size of load.

Bulleid pacifics are very much a ‘like ‘em or loathe ‘em kind of engine - as someone who fired, and on occasions drove (unofficially) them, over much of the former LSWR I am definitely one of the former persuasion. Despite the abuse and neglect these engines were subjected to as steam came to and end on Southern metals the performances speak volumes for their power and durability - performances in preservation have served only to confirm this reputation.

Shortly after these runs took place I moved out of link Three and was rostered as regular fireman to driver Frank Morris of Two link - a disaster. Two link had most of the Salisbury turns and these turns were being handed over to the Warship class diesel hydraulics, so eagerly being discarded by the Western Region. I quit Nine Elms and went back to Yorkshire signing on as a cleaner at Holbeck before eventually moving to (Belle View) Wakefield. No Bulleid pacifics here but at least I did carry on working with steam until August 1968 - when I was paid off surplus to requirements.
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35013 Blue Funnel
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