Ravenglass steam renaissance
An engine that last steamed over 80 years ago is about to make its long-awaited return on the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. From the workshops of Germany and an exposition in Spain, Whillan Beck is helping revive the ‘Ratty’s’ fortunes, as THOMAS BRIGHT discovers.
In the shadow of Scafell Pike, a Caledonian blue ‘Pacific’ is stretching its wheels for the first time in eight decades. The location is the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. The locomotive is Whillan Beck – the ‘Ratty’s’ first ‘new’ steam locomotive in over forty years, and its first resident ‘Pacific’ in a century. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Whillan Beck. The day it officially joins the RER fleet, on May 5, will be one of the most significant milestones in ‘La’al Ratty’s’ history, yet by the time it is earning its keep on a regular basis, another of this 15in gauge line’s stalwart steam locomotives will be on the brink of returning to steam for the first time in nearly a decade, while a small but important piece of the RER’s history has finally been restored to working order. In a year full of celebrations and commemorations in the world of standard gauge steam, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway is marking its most momentous season in years.
THE TRAIN FROM SPAIN
Whillan Beck – previously known as ‘The Train from Spain’ – is the RER’s newest addition to its fleet. The story of this German-built 4-6-2, designed to run in Spain, but which only lasted three years in service, then spent 80 years in store before returning to life on the Cumbrian coast, is fascinating. It is no secret that the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway has been in the throes of a locomotive crisis. Since 2006, the RER has had to make do with just four operational steam locomotives – River Irt, River Esk, River Mite and Northern Rock – some feat for one of the busiest lines in Britain. However, a combination of necessary but lengthy overhauls, and the devastating workshop fire a few years ago has meant that, in recent years, the RER has relied on engines hired in from other railways to supplement its own fleet during the peak summer season. The problem of locomotive availability is compounded by the fact that, although there are many 15in gauge lines around the country, only the locomotives from the Bure Valley and Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch railways can tackle the fierce gradients and twisting nature of the ‘Ratty’. In 2013, the Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway Preservation Society, buoyed by generous support and donations from its members, decided to address the railway’s motive power problems. Acquiring a suitable locomotive would be difficult, so plans were drawn up in 2014 for a new 2-6-2, designed along similar lines to Northern Rock, which itself was built new for the railway in 1976. However, the railway didn’t need to build a new steam locomotive – it subsequently found one. Not only was this engine suitable for the line, but it was also as good as new (despite being nearly 90 years old). This engine wasn’t to be found either in Norfolk or on the Kent coast, but in Barcelona. In its search for suitable motive power, the RERPS became aware of the existence of a number of Krauss-built ‘Pacifics’ residing in Spain which were apparently in excellent condition, despite their age. If the reports were true, one would be perfect. A member of the largest class of 15in gauge locomotives, Whillan Beck (Works No. 8457) was one of 12 ‘Pacifics’ designed by Roland Martens – a contemporary of Bassett-Lowke, RER and RHDR locomotive engineer Henry Greenly – and built by Krauss of Munich in 1925-29. A trio of engines of a similar design were built by Krupp of Essen in 1937 – all three of which are now based in Britain (see panel) – whilst three more were built to a modified design by Krauss-Maffei in 1950. No. 8457 was outshopped in 1929, and was one of four ordered by King Alfonso for the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville that year, along with Works Nos. 8455, 8456 and 8473. The quartet, which were named Santa María, Niña, Pinta and Sevilla respectively, were put to work on the exposition’s circuit railway which ran around the expansive site, but after only 14 months in
everyday service, the locomotives saw only occasional use until 1932, when they were withdrawn and put into store. The locomotives slumbered for the next three decades until 1966 when Nos. 8455 Santa María, 8457 Pinta and 8573 Sevilla were sold to the Parque de Atracciones near Madrid; No. 8456 Niña remained in Seville until 1963 when it was displayed in a children’s playground. Only Santa María actually steamed in Madrid and in 2001, the locomotives and park’s coaches were sold to a group based in Barcelona planning to build a 15in gauge railway on the seafront in Mataró. RERPS ‘Train from Spain Appeal’ Press Officer Keith Herbert picks up the story: “Our contact in Germany made us aware that these Spanish engines existed. The guy who owned them couldn’t build his railway and wanted to sell the locomotives, the rolling stock; the lot. “We didn’t want everything but when he sold one of the engines [No. 8455 Santa María] to the Killesberg Railway in Stuttgart in 2014, we realised we could just buy the engine we wanted, so we sought to buy No. 8457.” The railway could hardly believe its luck. Here was an engine that was effectively brandnew, that was also being restored and that, with minimal modifications and further restoration, could be operational on ‘La’al Ratty’ within a matter of months. It was perfect in every way. Crucially, the Krauss 4-6-2 was powerful enough to haul the RER’s trains. The railway already had experience of operating such an engine, 1937-built Black Prince – one of the Krupp-built Martens ‘Pacifics’ – from the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway. On its several visits to the line over the years, it had proved popular with RER crews and, with its relatively small driving wheels (particularly compared to the Greenly-designed RHDR 4-6-2s) was quite adept at hill-climbing. No. 8457 was therefore the ideal engine to remedy the RER’s motive power crisis. A group of RER volunteers and engineers went over to Spain in October 2015 to inspect the engine and, deeming it to be in good mechanical (and largely original) condition, decided to purchase the 4-6-2. Keith says: “The decision to acquire the engine was backed by a vote by RERPS members at an EGM in December 2015, with 99% voting in favour.” After a 1,000-mile journey by road from Barcelona, the
fresh from the box. Whillan Beck pauses at miteside halt during one of its running-in turns on february 27.
Despite its distinctive electric headlight – a replica of the one fitted during its time in seville – the front end of No. 8457 looks ‘Duchess’-esque with its smoke deflectors and oval buffers.
Northern Rock, the ‘Ratty’s’ last steam locomotive addition in 1976, crosses Barrow Marsh on the approach to Ravenglass with a ‘Santa Special’ on November 26 2016.
Whillan Beck already looks part of the fleet as it rests on shed alongside 2-6-2 Northern Rock after a day of running-in on February 27. The pair had doubleheaded, to make sure the Krauss ‘Pacific’ was compatible with the RER locomotives.