Those nominally operational are eleven pre-grouping vehicles (including the GNR Saloon, two LBSCR Firsts, four Mets, LCDR 4-wheeler, the LNWR semi-royal saloon and LNWR Observation coach), three Maunsells, four Bulleids and nine BR Mk 1s, plus three Pullmans in the Golden Arrow train.
Two decades ago only a little over half of the operational fleet was considered to be in good condition, and six were in a very bad way. Now, we have improved somewhat, and only 3 or 4 coaches are in a poor state, with the remainder of the fleet of somewhat higher quality. Of course, of those in apparently good condition, several will require intermediate repair within the next ten years.
The next five years?
So, when those in poor condition are taken out of service, what have we in the restoration pipeline to replace them?
Firstly there is the problem of maintaining catering vehicles for the catering train. Car 64 (Christine) having had a complete overhaul, it is now the condition of Car 76 (Lilian) which causes concern. Storage under cover may prolong its life, but to an extent Car 64 must be considered its replacement in the train. The LNWR Semi-Royal Saloon 806 was purchased privately, and refurbished internally and externally to take the place of Bertha. However, such a timber-panelled vehicle does not take kindly to open storage at Sheffield Park between service use, so again overhead cover will be a boon. The possibility of overhauling newly arrived "Doris" would enable "Fingall" to receive a much needed intermediate overhaul, and release the BGZ for restoration as a full brake. However the overhaul of "Doris" will be an expensive and time-consuming exercise.
Having withdrawn the worst Mk I (4941), this may be overhauled, and converted to a wheelchair accessible carriage. Bulleid Brake 2515, with structural and underframe problems at its brake end, carries manfully on, and will be replaced by 2526, but only once 4279 has received an intermediate overhaul in a year or so. SECR 971 has been withdrawn, in need of heavy maintenance. Bulleid 1481 and Maunsell Brake 6575 were also both withdrawn in recent years, and are now stored under tarpaulins pending major attention. Their replacements will be more vintage vehicles; more non-corridor coaches already in the restoration pipeline, and two more Maunsells. So we are in fact continuing to strengthen the fleet in numerical terms, with a continuation of the last decade's shift in emphasis from Mk.I to pre-grouping and Southern Railway.
In the short term we have for the last few years had the problem of providing sufficient first-class accommmodation for the corridor trains. None of the suitable coaches already on the Bluebell (Mk.I, Maunsell and Bulleid CKs, and a Maunsell Non-descript brake) are likely to be restored within five years. This leads to the conclusion that, since the main requirement is for Santa Special trains, where it can earn a lot of extra revenue - a temporary solution of yet another Mk.I FO, and the aquisition of an SO (to bolster the corridor fleet) has been shown as the way forward. Their ideal long term replacement for such use are the Maunsell BCK 6575, Bulleid CK 5768, and the Maunsell kitchen restaurant car, but a Mk.I FO and an SO will probably continue to earn their keep even after these long-term hopes come to fruition.
The good news: a more vintage future
This is not to say that there is no future for more modern vehicles. Within a decade the operational carriage fleet could be made up, in rough terms, of two sets of Mk.I and Bulleid vehicles, one set of Maunsells, and two pre-grouping non-corridor sets as well as the Pullmans, together with a growing train of Victorian 4-wheelers. Allowance must be made for one set's-worth of coaches being subject to maintenance at any time, but the peak requirement, for three corridor sets for the Santa trains, and four sets (including non-corridor vehicles) for some of the bigger special events, is now one which we regularly meet.
This development over the last decade has brought its opportunities. That there was a marketing opportunity with older coaches was demonstrated plainly by the K&ESR Victorian Train, and the entire Isle of Wight operation. The supposition that non-corridor coaches are of no commercial use was also dispelled by considering the Bluebell of the sixties, seventies and early eighties, when many of our trains were non-corridor. Hence the now successful takeover of nearly half the timetable by non-corridor "Vintage Branch Line Trains" (until the recent set-back of the withdrawal of 971 and wheel problems on 7598), which have been very popular with the public and enthusiast alike, and which run (without fare supplement) as part of an enhanced public offering.
In the longer term we can also use the pre-grouping coaches (particularly the hundred seaters) as the Southern did, as a sprinkling on the end of corridor trains to boost capacity when crowds were expected. So, from my point of view, here is the good news: the future is an increasingly vintage one. This has come about partly due to the structural durability of these older vehicles, but mainly because it is the nature of volunteers to work on projects which interest them! Fortunately, as more of these vintage coaches enter service, the operating department are also enthusiastic in making use of them, realising that these coaches are incredibly popular with the public. From a practical point of view, they also enable a smaller, more economic engine to be used, due to their higher seating capacity and lighter weight.
Under present circumstances, the outlook is unlikely to change radically in ten or even fifteen years. We will still be fighting hard, as we always have, to tread water. To build up a sustainable traffic fleet to the size required for peak days on a fully signalled, full length extension, with a branch-line operation to Ardingly as well, even if that were not required until twenty years' time, could be asking for the impossible. This is largely due to the ongoing and inevitable deterioration of the stock we have in service.
Another problem of continued deterioration is that of the stock in the back sidings waiting its turn for overhaul, with that overhaul in some cases receding over the horizon. Whilst we may have plenty more pre-grouping coaches, with the Stroudley and LCDR coaches, the birdcage set and LSWR corridor third high on many people's lists, many more Maunsells, which I see as our most important vehicles (the oldest of our vehicles which provide modern passenger amenities), and enough Bulleids to keep people busy, these coaches are becoming increasingly dilapidated due to continued storage in damp conditions.
There are other challenges. We ultimately need to provide a coach in each regular traffic set capable of carrying passengers in wheel-chairs in decent accommodation. Mk.I TSO 5034, a former travelling college dormitory, now fulfils the role, but much more is needed. The smartening up of the existing brake van areas, which will undoubtedly continue to be used, will also help. Following the success of 5034, there is pressure to provide at least one more special vehicle fairly rapidly. Unfortunately the long-term nature of carriage restoration means that we are realistically looking at ten-years time before a third suitable corridor coach (a Maunsell Nondescript brake or conversion from the 4-compartment brake third) might enter service, and similarly there are two candidates from amongst the salvaged pre-grouping carriage bodies, LSWR saloon 25 (which could be used without any structural alterations) and the LCDR brake No.51.
But what of those I described as having no viable future as traffic vehicles? The LCDR six wheeler No 48 came to the railway because it was old, and worthy of preservation. Tony Usher (letter, Bluebell News, Winter 1994) is certainly right in that its state was then depressing. Like the LSWR luggage van and SECR passenger brake van, it is currently 'preserved' but had not been conserved for the future. The "Alf Brown Gang" have taken this vehicle under their wings and deterioration of the underframe has been reversed, but have many other calls on their time. How many more of our pre-grouping, Maunsell and Bulleid coaches will be in this condition by the time we come to contemplate (or maybe, decide we cannot contemplate) their restoration? Already the bodies of several of these coaches have well-developed rot in them. Another coach I might have put in this category was the old Fire-Train Brake, LSWR No.1520, although this was "rescued" by an individual taking an interest in its future, and gathering an enthusiastic team to undertake both fund raising and physical restoration work, which after over a decade of dedication is in the final stages of restoration.
Maunsell Brake No.4444 was purchased to fulfil a specific non-preservation requirement; it is now planned to provide an underframe and other components for the restoration of the identical No.4441. In a cascade of parts, No.4441's twisted underframe will then yield the headstock needed for No.5644. Much altered many times, on arrival No.4444 was given a complete new roof, and pressed into service as a static buffet, from which it was relieved over 20 years ago, and its body has now deteriorating further due to dry and wet rot, but 4441 is now hardly in better condition.
It is also difficult at present to see much future for the Southern Travelling Post Office.
Of the Ex-BR Mk.Is, there is no intention to restore the travelling college coach now used as the Horsted Keynes Carriage Shop for traffic purposes. At some stage in the future some of the other Mk.Is currently in traffic may be added to this list. When the BSK falls due for further major work, it could be difficult to justify any expenditure of time or money on a major overhaul for such a relatively low-capacity vehicle, when we have four Bulleid brakes. There are just too many more deserving projects demanding attention, or cheaper ways to replace them. One could arguably add the Maunsell long-brake No.3724 (unless converted to carry wheelchair-bound passengers), Birdcage Brake No.1170, and Restriction 1 third No.2356 to the list of coaches with little likelihood of being restored within my lifetime.
Although nothing is ever beyond a costly reconstruction as a replica, unless action is taken to preserve the bodies from the effects of wind and rain, there may be little left for use except as a pattern when the time comes.
The only solution: a challenge to us all
I have long believed that the only way forward is to provide overhead accommodation for all the stock which we decide we wish to retain for the long term.
Consider those currently waiting for overhaul. The reason we were able to restore the Metropolitan set and LCDR Brake Third No 114 is that they were conserved for a quarter of a century in the old carriage shed. They were the fortunate ones. The only coaches now stored under cover are the GNR Directors' Saloon and some (not all!) of the other timber-panelled pre-grouping carriages which have been restored to traffic and which deteriorate rapidly if stored in the open. If we are ever going to restore more than a fraction of what is in the back sidings, such cover is essential.
First, though, let's consider the future of those vehicles which have a preservation value, but which have little chance of an overhaul to operating condition within the next decade or two. The solution can be found when one visits such places as Didcot, the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway (both at Oxenhope, and the Vintage Carriages Trust at Ingrow), or the Midland Railway Centre, where exhibition sheds display to advantage the most interesting coaches of their fleets. The Scottish Railway Preservation Society's museum at Bo'ness, with its award-winning display of freight wagons is also an inspiration. Not only do they provide a home and a purpose for the preservation of a historic vehicle, and shelter from the elements, but such an exhibition also serves both as an attraction in its own right and as an educational resource.
The LSWR Ventilated Luggage Van should ideally be under cover in a museum building.
I consider that the establishment of a rolling stock museum complex should be one of our Preservation Society's highest priorities. It need not even be rail connected. If it could house a few engines (out of traffic awaiting ten-year overhauls), some of the 14 pre-grouping coaches which currently have no prospect of immediate restoration, say one Maunsell, one Bulleid and maybe a Pullman, the TPO, the LBSCR 1858 full brake van, the SECR six-wheeled birdcage van, the LSWR ventilated luggage van, and some of the older items of goods stock, then we could truly call ourselves a "preservation" society!
I am very pleased that my plea that we should provide a running shed for the most vulnerable operational carriages has struck a chord with so many people. This was clear by the fantastically generous response to our "Operation Undercover" appeal, to which £400,000 was donated, enabling us to purchase a portion of the Woodpax site at Sheffield Park. On the land will be built, with HLF assistance, just such a building as I outlined, serving as a Carriage Running Shed, with the added benefit of an enhaced museum facility.
But what about the remaining three-quarters of our carriage fleet? If overhead cover could be provided for the remaining service stock, this would greatly slow the rate of deterioration. I believe this is the only way in which we can maintain and increase the pool of serviceable vehicles to the number which will eventually be required. Whilst a water-tight Mk.I will resist the elements well, this is not so true of the older stock. The pre-grouping stock is particularly vulnerable, but the Maunsell and Bulleid stock, as well as even the Mk.Is, would all last much longer given such cover.
The new shed at Sheffield Park is essential if the Pullman fleet is to have any chance of long-term survival, and would also allow the service set kept at the Park, unused for five days out of seven in the winter months, shelter from much of the worst weather. We urgently need a 24 vehicle shed at Horsted. This would accommodate not only many of those currently serviceable but also those of our coaches awaiting overhaul but not accommodated in a museum. Without such accommodation, coaches such as the Observation coach, the Maunsells, Brighton bogie first and the Bulleids, all given complete rebuilds in the past, will require such attention again in the not too distant future, and any prospect of holding the (already expanded) status quo for the long term begins to look bleak in the extreme. The sooner we get such accommodation the better (and only twenty years too late). The financial capital required must, to a certain degree, be considered an integral part of the expansion of the railway caused by the extension, and must be budgeted as such. Indeed, as part of he HLF bid, I made a financial case for such expenditure, in terms of reduced maintenance costs. An alternative to comprehensive cover might be to budget for an additional £100,000 a year for the contract overhaul of coaches.
The advantages of such covered accommodation are to be seen on, for example, the Talyllyn. There every single coach is under cover each evening, and every coach on the railway is serviceable in the summer, with a set spare for maintenance except for peak days where a 100% turnout is often achieved.
These are not new proposals. Such pleas have been made many times before in Bluebell News. One such plea, in 1969, resulted in the original carriage shed, capable of storing virtually our entire fleet at that time, and which has returned enormous dividends since. The railway has grown many times over in the last third of a century, but in that time, apart from tying tarpaulins over coaches (better than nothing but no real solution), the railway is guilty of having neglected the conservation of many of its historic relics. Ten years' time will be too late; with my engineer's hat on I can only be honest and say that it is already too late for some of our vehicles. We must not ignore our responsibility for the conservation of the coaches we have preserved, or the challenge which that presents.
To the original text of this article, from 1995.
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