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Carriage Fleet Review - 8

Carriage Fleet Overview (1995 version)

This is the original article, as it appeared in the Winter 1995 edition of Bluebell News. An updated version is also available.
The present situation
Having, over the last two years, reviewed the state of the Bluebell's carriage fleet, where does that leave us now? Let's first consider some figures. Neglecting those coaches used as sleeping accommodation, one travelling college coach which is to be scrapped for spares and one coach which is hopefully to be sold, we have 57 passenger carrying carriages. Of these, 23 are operational, 8 are under active restoration or overhaul, another 21 wait for restoration (five of these have their restoration planned, with fund-raising under way), and five (probably) sit in our sidings with little hope of ever carrying passengers again.

Those nominally operational are four pre-grouping non-corridor vehicles (including the GNR Saloon and LNWR Observation coach), one Maunsell (plus No 6575 which is receiving a light repair), five Bulleids (one of which will be withdrawn for a major overhaul when No 6575 is returned to traffic) and nine BR Mk 1s, plus three Pullmans, one Mk 1 and the LMS full brake in the catering train. Only half of these might be considered to be in reasonable condition, and eight have only very limited service left in them (they will not all fail tomorrow, but they may well not see the century out; of these four are Mk 1s). Of those in apparently good condition, many will require intermediate repair within the next ten years.

The next five years?
So, when those eight are taken out of service, what have we in the restoration pipeline to replace them?

Firstly there is the problem of a replacement for Pullman Car 64. It was hoped that funds to pay for the contract overhaul of either Car 64 or Car 54 would be set aside from Pullman traffic receipts, but the railway has been unable to prioritise this expenditure.

The other losses from the current fleet will be a good few of the Mk 1s, bought to "get us through the next few years", which will have succumbed to door-pillar corrosion, and probably three more of the Bulleids. Their replacements will be more vintage vehicles; maybe five more non-corridor coaches, one or two more Maunsells, a Bulleid or two which may have been re-sheeted, and one or two of the failed Mk 1s which might have received the necessary door-pillar surgery to see them through another decade of service. So we may, with luck, hold the status quo in numerical terms, but with a marked change from Mk 1 to pre-grouping in emphasis.

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 is likely to be made up, in rough terms, of two sets of Mk 1 and Bulleid vehicles, one set of Maunsells, and two short non-corridor sets well as the Pullmans. Allowance must be made for one set's-worth of coaches being subject to maintenance at any time.

This will bring its challenges and its opportunities. That there is a marketing opportunity with older coaches is 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 can also be dispelled by considering the Bluebell of the sixties, seventies and early eighties, when many of our trains were non-corridor. In any case, it is actually too late, since, without an enormous injection of funds for the contract overhaul of more corridor vehicles, there will be less in service in the future than there are now. The purchase of yet more clapped-out ex-BR vehicles ceases to be an option since, with limited life and high maintenance overheads, they cost money in the short term, give no gain in the medium or longer term, and in the meantime only carry passengers who could have been accommodated in 'quality' vintage coaches. Remember also that it can cost more to transport a coach to the railway and repaint it than to buy it.

One simple solution will be to show a vintage train explicitly in the timetable, and we can also use the pre-grouping coaches 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 a more 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!

The problems
Under present circumstances, this outlook is unlikely to change radically in ten or even fifteen years. We will 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, even if that were not required until fifteen 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.

There are other challenges. We undoubtedly need at least two coaches capable of carrying passengers in wheel-chairs in decent accommodation. This would ensure that at least some trains can be flagged in the time-table as providing such accommodation. Even so, it would be unlikely that a party as large as seven could be accommodated without prior warning, on a single train, in just the same way as we would find it hard to accommodate a party of 200 turning up unexpectedly. Plans are being made to provide such accommodation, but it will take time (and money). The plan to convert the Metropolitan brake to include a small saloon has unfortunately had to be abandoned because it was considered that the extra windows would significantly weaken the structure of the coach.

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 birdcage set and LSWR corridor third high on many people's lists, many more Maunsells, which I see as our most important vehicles (sufficiently vintage, yet providing useful passenger amenities), and enough Bulleids to keep people busy, these coaches are becoming increasingly dilapidated due to continued storage in damp conditions.

But what of those I described as having no viable future as traffic vehicles? The LCDR six wheeler 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 is depressing. Like the three pre-grouping passenger vans, it is currently 'preserved' but has not been conserved for the future. How many more of our pre-grouping, Maunsell and Bulleid coaches will be in this condition by the time we come to contemplate (or rather, 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 has now been "rescued" by an individual taking an interest in its future.

Maunsell Brake No 4444 was purchased to fulfil a specific requirement; 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 a decade ago, and its body has now deteriorating further due to dry and wet rot.

Of the Ex-BR Mk 1s, the RU(B) was purchased to be broken up as a source of spares, a fate to be shared by one of the travelling college student dormitories. There is also no intention to restore the travelling college coach now used as the Horsted Keynes Carriage Shop for traffic purposes, and it seems unlikely that the ex-TSO fitted out as a student dormitory will ever return to traffic use, although it is being retained with this in mind. At some stage in the future some of the other Mk 1s currently in traffic may be added to this list. When vehicles such as the Open First and the BSK fail due to structural corrosion, it will be difficult to justify any expenditure of time or money on a major overhaul. There are just too many more deserving projects demanding attention. One could arguably add the Maunsell long-brake No 3724 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 believe 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 are now able to restore the Metropolitan set is that they have been conserved for the last quarter-century in the carriage shed. They were the fortunate ones. The only other coaches now conserved in this way are the two Directors' Saloons and the LCDR four-wheeler body. 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. 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.

LSWR Ventilated Luggage Van 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), the majority of the eight pre-grouping coaches which currently have no prospect of immediate restoration, say one Maunsell, one Bulleid and maybe a Pullman, the TPO, the LBSCR milk 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!

What about the remaining three-quarters of our carriage fleet? If overhead cover could be provided for the 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 1 will resist the elements well, as Roger Williams points out, 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 the non-overhauled Mk 1s, would all last much longer given such cover.

We urgently need a 24 to 30 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. Either a shed at Sheffield Park or increased empty stock movements are 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. Without such accommodation, coaches such as the Observation coach, Maunsell No 6575 and Bulleid No 4279, 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 ten 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 I am sure a commercial case for such expenditure could be made in terms of reduced maintenance costs. An alternative 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 where 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 this magazine. One such plea resulted in the present 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 quarter 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.

There is also now a revised and updated version of this article.

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