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Minor railways and monsters

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Hic sunt dracones translates from the Latin as ‘here be dragons’. Many believe that it appeared on ancient maps to show the limits of cartographers’ understanding at the time, emphasising the threats from venturing over borders into the unknown. Surprisingly, the words appear on maybe just the one globe of around 1507, but that doesn’t stop them from being a neat way of saying, “Proceed at your peril. You really don’t know what you’re getting into!”

This notion of monsters and many-headed hydrae (or maybe its hydras) lurking to devour the unwary would have influenced the way that the navigators of old ventured beyond their comfort zone.

Of course, in fact, monsters there were few. Hydrae were mono-capitated if they existed at all. Life was not as complicated or terrifying as first thought.

Over the boundary

These days, some of our minor railway colleagues, particularly on the signalling and operating side, gaze at working drawings that cover not only their territory but also that of the main line railways. They look over their boundaries using maps which, whilst having a deal of technical detail, also have the implied ‘hic sunt dracones’.

Some have ventured into the unknown and all report that there really are dragons, monsters and many-headed hydrae too. It’s all true!

But the monsters and hydrae are benign, a complete change from ancient days (that’s about 20 years ago). It doesn’t mean that you don’t have to be very careful. They can be upset and can prevent any incursions onto their territory.

The Minor Railway Section of the IRSE held its bi-annual technical workshop in a room above the museum of the Severn Valley Railway at Kidderminster recently. Ably choreographed by Major Ian Hughes of Green Dragon Rail, no relation to those mentioned above, the event was sponsored by Signal Aspects Ltd. (the company set up by our very own writer Stuart Marsh). Several of the papers presented dealt with the tricky issue of running trains from Minor Railways onto the mainline network. These movements are no longer just the occasional locomotive and stock movement, they are full blown, regular timetabled moves. Minor railway trains have, in several locations, been integrated into the mainline timetable.

Onto the mainline network

Take, for example, the Swanage branch. This was shut in 1972, the metals removed and the rail link from Wareham to Swanage effectively destroyed. Stirling efforts by volunteers with political support brought a restored railway closer and closer to the main line with the obvious ambition to reinstate services to the coast. Michael Walshaw described the negotiations and the resultant signalling arrangements that closed the gap.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway harboured (!) an ambition to run all the way from Pickering to Whitby, joining the national network at Grosmont. It was challenging and Charles Weightman gave an account of the various complex stages of the scheme to expand the facilities at Whitby station and Grosmont East to allow the NYMR to run five trains a day to the coastal resort.

There was an interesting twist to the tale with a paper presented by Ronald Bresser of Movares who outlined almost parallel issues in the big container depots in the Netherlands. These are private railways that have multiple movements to and from the main line railways. But these are not just the odd few coaches; they are long, very long freight trains. Dwell too long sorting out acceptance on either side of the border and valuable minutes tick by.

The Ffestiniog Railway and the Welsh Highland Railway had an operating issue at Porthmadog  station which they both share. The notions of borders and dragons is far less pronounced here, but there was still the problem of a train from one railway stitching up moves for the other operator. Tim Prent gave an account of the thought processes that went into an ambitious project to widen their infrastructure to give everyone elbow room to run their services. It was a ‘chunky’ scheme which didn’t hit the headlines at the time which is why we’ve given it a bit of exposure here.

Heroic restorations

The minor railway guys are amazing when it comes to rescuing bits of kit. Dominic Beglin of Peak Rail showed a pallet load of what appeared, to the uninitiated, to be ‘parts destined for the furnace’. The result of a clear out by the National Railway Museum, these turned out to be priceless (maybe an exaggeration) components for a wire operated turnover lever frame. There was a tale of missing parts, sketchy records, trips to Vietnam and just sheer determination to make something work, which it did.

Similar treatment was given to a monster signal gantry that had had a chequered career. It was moved from Scarborough to its new location at Grosmont having been shorted, repaired and fitted with carefully refurbished timberwork described by Craig Donald.


In the closing stages of the workshop, the cacophony of kids of all ages knocking seven bells out of the exhibits in the museum below had begun to subside. The sun had come out after a morning of dire weather that had driven everyone indoors from the platforms. This relative calm allowed Mike Tyrell to deliver his citation for the MRS volunteer of the year. The deserving recipient, Geoff Harris of the Bluebell Railway, benefited from a range of goodies and a wildly unstable and heavy trophy in the form of a token staff from the Bluebell Railway.

The success of this workshop, and indeed the whole Minor Railway Section of the IRSE, comes down to the fact that those who have the custody of the UK’s minor railways are regarded as being just as professionally competent as their counterparts on the national network. In some cases, of course, the hydrae wear one head (or more) for their day job and another (or more) for their volunteer passion. It’s easier to talk that way.

Grahame Taylor
Grahame Taylorhttp://therailengineer.com

Structures, railway systems, railway construction, digital data

Grahame Taylor started his railway career as a sandwich course student with British Railways in October 1965, during which he had very wide experience of all aspects of railway civil engineering.

By privatisation, he was in charge of all structural and track maintenance for the Regional Railways’ business in the North West of England.

In 1996, he became an independent consultant, setting up his own company that specialised in the capturing of railway permanent way engineering knowledge using the then-new digital media. As a skilled computer programmer he has developed railway control systems and continues to exploit his detailed knowledge of all railway engineering and operations.

He started to write for Rail Engineer in 2006, and became editor two years later. During this time, he has written over 250 wide-ranging articles and editorials, all the while encouraging the magazine’s more readable style of engineering reporting.


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