The Post Office Tube Railway

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Another English Electric FIRST……

The world’s first fully automatic electric railway was opened in 1924, beneath the streets of London. The civil engineering work for the Post Office tube, including the running tunnels and tracks, were laid down before the 1914-18 war, although it was not until 1924 that electrification work was begun, following the acceptance of the English Electric Co.’s proposals. English Electric’s contract with the Post Office included the provision of rolling stock, substation equipment, automatic control systems, signalling and cabling.

The route covered in the project was 6 ½ miles long, with tracks laid to 2ft 0ins gauge, and power supplied at 440V d.c., and fed to the conductor rails from three substations. The original plan was to carry the mails between main line termini in London to the Post Office’s major sorting offices at the Western and Eastern ends of the city, to avoid the intense congestion in London’s streets.

London_Post_Office_Railway_Map

From Paddington to Liverpool Street, the deep level tube was constructed to link the principal GPO sorting offices. This included the Paddington District Post Office and the Eastern District Post Office in Whitechapel Road with the most important station at Mount Pleasant, about half way along the line, which also provided the maintenance and repair shops. A pair of running tracks was laid in 9ft diameter tunnels, which reduced to 7ft at station approaches. At each station, an island type platform arrangement was adopted, with passing loops for non-stop trains, and the railway operated 22 hours a day for most of its life.

Post Office Tube Railway 1924_2
Original Stock list

Actual vehicle speeds were set at 32 mph in the tunnels, slowing to 8 mph at the station platform roads. The rolling stock order consisted originally of 90 two axle trucks, though these were replaced in the 1930s by 50 wagons on “maximum traction trucks”. These were fitted with a pair of 22hp d.c. traction motors, reverser, and electrically operated brake gear.

Driver's cab

This photo shows the driver’s controller, with the words ‘English Electric’ at the top (obscured by driver’s handle), and stating ‘Dick Kerr System’ nearest the camera. Preston heritage.                    Photo: Matt Brown, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

New Stock & Early Upgrades

The 1924 stock was put to work when the system opened in 1927, but it was quickly discovered that they were not sufficiently reliable, and were prone to derailment. In addition, the increase in mail traffic growth demonstrated that the railway required new vehicles with greater capacity to cope with the traffic growth.

So, in 1930 50 new vehicles were ordered from English Electric, and used in articulated train formations, but within a few years, as traffic continued to grow another 10 units were ordered and delivered in 1936.

However, the newer vehicles re-used some of the equipment from the early stock, and the new stock proved much reliable and lasted into the 1980s, supplemented by a new design developed again from an English Electric prototype.

One loco – No. 809 – from the 1930 vehicles has been preserved and is stored at the National Railway Museum.

Post Office Tube Railway 1925

English Electric were justifiably proud of this narrow gauge railway, and in a review of progress published by the company in 1951, considered it to be unique in the whole railway world. The Post Office Tube did have some human intervention, at a distance, as the operation of a switch was necessary to start a train on its way, and control of the points on the track was exercised remotely, guiding the vehicles on their way.

Points

On the tracks at Mount Pleasant station.                                                                                                       Photo: Matt Brown, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Later Changes

The railway was still carrying considerable traffic in the 1960s, and in 1962, The Post Office ordered a pair of prototype units, which were intended to provide the base of a new design, some features of which were included the 1980 stock. Whilst English Electric built the prototypes, Hunslet built the new rolling stock, although they too were not the first choice, and the order was passed from Greenbat, who had gone bust. The vehicles were completed by 1982, and remained in operation until the system was closed in 2003.

1962 - 1980 Stock list

Some of the earlier stock was retained, and renumbered after 1984, from the 1930 and 1936 batches, although none of the original 1924 order was around, the electrical equipment did continue in use in the 1930s stock.

Retained stock list

Of the two English Electric prototypes from 1962, No.1 was withdrawn and scrapped in 1967, whilst No.2 remained in service until 1980, and was repaired using parts from No.1, and renumbered 66, lasting until the railway’s closure in 2003.

Although Greenbat managed to build three of the new 1980 sets, developed from the English Electric prototypes, before going into administration, the remainder were built at neighbouring Hunslet, who supplied sets 504 to 534. The intention was to replace the almost 50 yerars old English Electric stock from the 1930s, but as noted in the table, 17 of the units built in 1930 and 1936 were kept going.

In 1984, all of the stock was renumbered, with the most recent Hunslet units carrying numbers 1 to 34, and the retained 1930s stock renumbered from 35 to 51. They did manage to survive another 19 years until the system was finally closed in 2003.

Closure, Preservation & Re-opening

The English Electric innovation may not have been the first such plan to support the Post Office, but was certainly a pioneer in the field of automation on a railway. From the first order in 1924, the system and stock lasted some 76 years, and has now been given a new lease of life as a tourist attraction.

When the railway closed in 2003 it remained out of use. However thanks to years of fundraising it was up and running again in September 2017 – at least a short section – for tourists to travel on, using new rolling stock supplied by Severn Lamb of Stratford-upon-Avon. As part of the New Postal Museum, this is likely to be a star attraction, and has already received royal patronage, with a visit from HRH Princess Anne.Severn Lamb Post Office & Princess Anne

A number of the tractor units and trailers have been rescued, including No. 809 at the NRM – however, on their page Post Office Railway, underground train, No. 809 it shows incorrect information. But the Post Office Museum has a great deal of additional information about the railway and its operations: Mail Rail Exhibition

Others were rescued and can be found at:

A fascinating piece of railway and engineering history, with its success assured as much by the innovative ideas from English Electric in Preston, as the foresight of the General Post Office. Today, mails are carried almost exclusively by road – both in and across London, and around the rest of the UK.

EE Post Office Tube Railway - book extract

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BR’s 25 Year Locomotive Renewal Plan

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Who would have thought that 33 years ago, the national rail network was planning to provide strategic and phased withdrawal of older motive power, and replacing it with newer, more efficient (operationally and economically) over a 25-year strategy.

The plan was to cover the needs from 1985 to 2009 – what happened?

Potential annual build ratesOne factor may be that 6 years into the plan, the fragmentation and disintegration of rail services began to take place – “privatisation” – which contributed to the continued existence of poor quality passenger and freight services we have today.  Who would have believed that those rail/bus combinations – the “Pacers” – would still be running.

That said, there were successes – on both the passenger and freight motive power fronts, but with a 10-year gap between the last genuine BR type – the 100 Class 60 locomotives, and the imported General Motors Class 66.  These latter were built between 1998 and 2003, and developed from the privately run Foster-Yeoman owned Class 59 diesels, introduced the year that the BR strategy was published.

Of the diesels built since the publication of the programme, only 100 were built in the UK, and the remainder, some 547 locomotives, were supplied from the USA.

By 1991, the East Coast Main Line was completed, with the latest IC225 motive power (Class 91) operating on a fully electrified main line, the Channel Tunnel was being built and BR’s Crewe Works had built the only other electrics to appear – Class 90.

This is what BR said about the new locomotives:

“Over the next 25 years, about 1500 locomotives will have to be built to meet the increasing shortfall between the total demand for locomotives and the residue of the existing fleet

On the basis of currently approved electrification schemes this total includes:

  • About 250 electrics 

  • About 400 passenger diesels 

  • About 850 freight diesels. 


Further main-line electrification after completion of the East Coast route could increase the number of electrics by about 150, with a corresponding reduction in the 
total number of diesels.

”

So, it may be clear from what happened in the late 1980s, and on into the 1990s, there was little or no expansion in locomotive power for main line services. The fixed formation high-speed train sets brought in with the HST/IC125s expanded after the turn of the century, with the all new tilting trains – the “Pendolino”. So the likelihood of high-speed passenger diesels or electrics was a non-starter, and the lack of a co-ordinated strategy nationally during the 1990s, left the private train operators with options to buy/build on a more or less ad-hoc basis.

Passenger locos
Under the wires, only 127 new electric locomotives were built during the years covered by the plan, compared with the 250 possible, although perhaps the “Pendolino” power cars should be included for comparison. These are all still in service today:

BR Electrics

For freight service, equally, little or no long term planning was the likely outcome of a post privatisation service, and the ‘off the shelf’, or at most the modifications of the private builders’ designs was inevitable. As can be seen from the little table showing the current position of freight diesels, nothing was built in the UK, and almost all were North American in origin.   A curious choice perhaps?

Freight dieselsOf the proposed 1,250 or so new diesels, again less than ½ were built, with 647 in service today, despite increases – planned and unplanned – increased demand for freight on rail. These are the current stock:

Current BR Diesels

What would the railway’s motive power have looked like if at least some of BR’s 1985 programme had been implemented?   Would more knowledge and expertise have been retained in the UK rail industry, would they have been more or less successful, in performance, in efficiency and reliability?

Who knows, but perhaps the most obvious missing element of the jigsaw is the lack of strategic planning in the 21st Century, with no planned withdrawals and replacements, just tactical remedies as the creaking infrastructure is upgraded in a piecemeal manner. Yes, passenger growth has been considerable, and perhaps that in itself should have led to the development of a longer term strategy.

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Electrification 1970s v 21st Century

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Back in 1974, British Rail completed a major electrification between Crewe and Glasgow, and introduced a new timetable on 6th May that year.  This project was planned back in the mid 1950s, with the modernisation plan, which also included both the West and  East Coast routes.  Until 1966, when the London Euston to Manchester and Liverpool was completed, cash strapped BR was forced to delay the East Coast route, but in only 8 years the remaining length of the West Coast was completed.

BR Elec News 1974Today – or rather back in 2013 – work began on electrifying the railway between London Paddington and Cardiff, and planned for completion by 2018, a distance of just 145 miles, and now it has been put back to 2024.  The decision to electrify the line was taken in 2009 by the Dept for Transport, but it was beset with management/organisational problems almost from the word go, and the National Audit Office made some critical observations. Some of these were directed at Network Rail, but equally at the DfT, inckuding this little observation in its 2016 reportModernising the Great Western Railway“:

“The Department did not produce a business case bringing together all the elements of what became the Great Western Route Modernisation industry programme until March 2015. This was more than two years after ordering the trains and over a year after Network Rail began work to electrify the route.”

Comparing what was achieved in 1974, with the electrification work of major trunk routes like Glasgow to Preston and Crewe, to connect with the existing WCML wires, the time to complete this quite short route seems excessive.   The cost so far is over £5 billion, and whilst some of that is infrastructure, some includes of course the new ‘bi-mode’ trains.

Headspan Catenary Crewe to Carlisle 1973British Rail electrified 200 miles from Weaver Junction to Gretna, and Glasgow Central in just 8 years.  But it wasn’t just electrification back then, since there was considerable rebuilding and remodelling of trackwork, raising or replacing bridges, and resignalling throughout from London to Glasgow.  The overall cost was £74 million in 1970s prices, or approximately £1 billion today.

Another publication from BR at the time was “Electric All The Way”, which included these interesting comments relating to service improvements to and from Preston:

“The new pattern of services between London and Glasgow introduced on May 6 1974, provides passengers travelling to and from stations between Carlisle and Warrington on the newly electrified portion of the Anglo-Scottish route with more high-speed trains. Preston-Glasgow services have more than doubled, from seven to 15 daily, with an average reduction in journey time of almost one hour.  Preston-London trains have been increasedfrom 12 to 19.”

“Faster journey times and improved connections at Oxenholme for Windermere make the Lake District more easily accessible from all centres on the electrified route.”

So how many high-speed trains from Preston to Glasgow today, and how many southbound?

The introduction of the “Electric Scots” also saw the arrival of Britain’s most powerful AC electric locomotives – the Class 87.  Built by BREL workshops, and powered by GEC Traction equipment.

Class 87 at Preston copy

Class 87 at Preston in original 1970s livery

RPBRLY-8 copy

Out of use at Crewe, Class 87 in final BR livery

10 years later work began on electrifying the East Coast Main Line from Kings Cross to Edinburgh, which was completed in 1992, also completed in 8 years – clearly building on the experience and skills gained on the West Coast.  Some sections of the East Coast route were actually completed 12 months earlier than planned – London Kings Cross to Leeds for example.

Here again, the ECML saw the introduction of a nother new form of high-speed motive power, this time from the GEC Traction stable, and codenamed “Electra”, the Class 91 marked perhaps the zenith of British electric traction design.

gec076 copyWhy can’t we organise this as effectively today as happened in the 1970s and 1980s?  

Interesting Reads:

 

 

 

Towards Nationalisation

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The ‘Big Four’ railway companies had all been under state control during the Second World War, and largely expected to return to private ownership and pre-war operation and management from 1945. However, the political landscape changed radically with a Labour Government in office, and the cultural and social impact of the war had dramatically affected the mood of everyone.

Although it had been something of a struggle, from Herbert Morrison’s early speeches in late 1945 to Parliament to outline how the process would bring all inland transport within public ownership.

An interesting comment made by him in November 1945 is worth recalling:

“It is the intention of the Government to introduce, during the life of the present Parliament, Measures designed to bring transport services, essential to the economic well-being of the nation, under public ownership and control.”

Unsurprisingly, the Government’s official opposition were obviously against the idea, and supported the ‘Big Four’ railway companies campaign against nationalisation. In parliament they were accused of obstructing and delaying tactics to try and prevent its passage. One commentator suggesting that if the Government did not use parliamentary procedures to limit the time for debate, it would be years and not months before any progress could be made.

Given the economic state of Britain in the late 1940s, this would be very damaging to post-war recovery.

The LMS and the other companies were actively campaigning against nationalisation, and in March 1946, amongst many other questions in Parliament, there were questions about how the then subsidies paid to the LMS would be prevented from campaigning against state ownership.

HC Deb 12 March 1946 vol 420 c202W

H. Hynd asked the Minister of War Transport whether he is taking steps to ensure that the L.M.S. Railway Company’s campaign against the Government’s nationalisation policy will not be financed from profits that would otherwise accrue to the State under the Railway Control Agreement.

Barnes Expenditure incurred by the railway companies for the purpose in question would be charged to their own funds and would not fall upon the Control Account.

The companies had all contributed to a document – which might be called both a publicity booklet – and, the start of that campaign. This is what it said in its introduction:

In their conclusion at the end of the booklet describing how well they’ve achieved efficiencies and continued to operate services during wartime they stated:

Conclusion

Clearly, the ‘Big Four’ believed they would be best placed to take the business forward, despite the massively damaged economy, ongoing rationing, general economic stagnation, and shortage of all kinds of materials, products and most importantly, shortage of people.

In December 1946, as the Transport Bill was being given its second reading, the government position was exemplified in an interesting comment made by Mr Strauss the Transport Minister’s right hand man:

“…. suggest that we are, in this Measure, adopting the only solution that is capable of resolving the deep economic conflict within this industry.”

The Transport Act 1947 received the “Royal Assent” on 6th August 1947, and on 30th December 1947, the Manchester Guardian’s carried this interesting reflection from its “Special Correspondent”:  State Ownership of Railways

The aim was clearly for an integrated transport system, a view reinforced by a prominent “railway MP” and former railwayman – Walter Monslow – the MP for Barrow-in-Furness. Writing in the ASLE&F magazine “Locomotive Journal” in February 1947 he quoted the English philosopher John Stuart Mill:

“Countries which, at a given moment are not masters of their own transport, will be condemned to ruin in the economic struggles of the future.”

Loco Journal Cover - Feb 1947

Walter Monslow Article - Feb 1947 ASLE&F

Since 1948, the development of Britain’s rail network has undergone many changes, many technological, and quite a few operational and economic, but the goal of an integrated system has never been achieved. If anything since 1991, the country has seen ‘disintegration’ of transport, and with a private operator having to balance its public service, with responsibilities to shareholders, had the ‘Big Four’ taken over again in 1948, it is doubtful if progress would have been made easily.

Now that we have seen the impact of a return to private operations, and the lack of integration across transport, both within and beyond rail operations, I wonder what John Stuart Mill – once described as “the most influential English-speaking philosopher of the 19th century” would have to say about that in the 21st Century.

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Compound Steam on The Pampas

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In 1948 the railways of Britain were nationalised – and so were the railways in Argentina.  Ours under Clement Atlee, theirs under Juan Peron, but the similarity and connections don’t end there, because many of Argentina’s railways were constructed, operated and owned by British businessmen.  The early railway engineers included men like Robert Stephenson, whilst Argentina was also home to numerous civil engineers, and 78% of the country’s rail network was effectively British owned by 1900.

According to a publication by the Institute of Civil Engineers:

“Large scale railway development in Argentina was marked by the commencement of the construction of the Central Argentine Railway initially from Rosario to Cordova.”

“While the American Wheelwright was the key to the negotiations it was the experience and capital of the contractors, Thomas Brassey, Alexander Ogilvie and George Wythes that gave the project credibility.”

Of course, Britain’s steam loco builders were always going to provide the lion’s share of motive power, and other equipment, with such extensive business investment in Latin America.

North British Order L182

North British Loco Co. built 12 of these 2-cylinder compound 4-6-0s, designated “Class 12A”, they were built at the company’s Atlas Works in Glasgow. They were built to order L182 in 1906, and carried works numbers 17436-47.    Photo Courtesy: ©CSG CIC Glasgow Museums and Libraries Collection: The Mitchell Library, Special Collections

There were in fact a total of eight British owned railways that became vested in the Argentine State Railways by 1948. Four of these were broad, 5ft 6ins gauge, two standard gauge, and two metre gauge.  The largest of the former British owned railways was the Buenos Aires Great Southern, and most of its locomotives were supplied by Beyer Peacock, Vulcan Foundry, North British, Robert Stephenson & Co., Nasmyth Wilson, Hawthorrn Leslie, and Kitson. There was some ‘foreign’ success too in winning order from the BAGS, including, J. A. Maffei, and even Baldwin.

BAGS Class 12 4-6-0 copy2

Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway – BAGS Class 12 4-6-0 2-cylinder compound locomotive, built by Beyer Peacock in Manchester Gorton, the type was used extensively on passenger and mixed traffic duties.     Photo Courtesy: Historical Railway Images

However, it was Beyer Peacock, Vulcan Foundry, and North British Loco Co that supplied the many hundreds of steam types for Argentina, and these covered each of the different gauges, from the 5ft 6ins, broad gauge, to 4ft 8 1/2ins standard gauge, metre and even narrow gauge types.  They included both simple and compiund expansion types, rigid frame and articulated designs.

The compound locomotive was extensively employed on these railways, and the ‘fashion’ for lasted longer in the southern hemisphere than the north, with many variations in design and operation.

The offering below covers this period, with a focus on the broad gauge Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway lines, where both two and four cylinder compounds were put to work.  Some details too of other railways, and the considerable numbers of locomotives supplied by the North British Co. from its works in Glasgow is outlined.

Compound Steam

Useful Links:

VF Logo

Historical Rly Images logo

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Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway  Class 12k 4-6-2 steam locomotive Nr. 3941 – taken at Vulcan Foundry in 1926    Photo Courtesy: Graeme Pilkington

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British Railways: Interchange Trials 1948

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Whilst it is the anniversary this year of the end of steam on BR, in 1968, just 20 years earlier, a series of comparative trials took place across the country, to analyses what was then the best in steam traction design, construction and operation.  Not surprisingly, these trials – which took place between April and August 1948, were latched on to by enthusiasts – as a form of competition to see which railway had the best steam types.

City of Glasgow on 1st Caledonian 17th June 1957

A classic shot of a classic pacific – although 46236 “City of Bradford” was used in the 1948 trials. Seen here is sister loco 46242 “City of Glasgow” on the inaugural run of The Caledonian in June 1957.                                                                                                                                                                    Photo: RPB Collection

RPB 220_Lens of Sutton

‘A4’ Class No. 60004 “William Whitelaw” at York on an enthusiasts’ special in the 1960s. As an express passenger type, it was natural to choose one of Gresley’s A4s, but 60022 “Mallard” did not acquit herself well, and was substituted by 60033/34 for the Interchanges.                                      Photo Courtesy: Lens of Sutton

70 years ago, a series of trials took place on the newly nationalised British railway network, to contrast and compare the best elements of the locomotive engineering design, and practice used by railways across Britain. Well, at least that was the plan.

The trials led, eventually to the new BR Standard steam locomotives, and covered espress passenger, mixed traffic and freight types, including a selection of some of the latest designs, WD ‘Austerity’ types, and some traditional designs.  The process was not particularly controversial, but new steam locomotives in the 1950s – especially as diesel and electric traction had already been established, and was developing rapidly.

Stanier 8F nearing Dalton in 2008

The LMS built this 2-8-0 in huge numbers – with over 600 in service by 1948. Many having been built by the other main line railway companies, Beyer Peacock and North British Loco. for war service at home and overseas. A natural choice perhaps for the 1948 trials.                                    Photo: RPB Collection

It may be that one of the main drivers was the ease of availability of coal as a fuel,where oil had to be imported, and the cost of electric traction’s infrastructure was expensive in the post-war economy of the UK.

Further reading

Clicking on the image below will take you to a more detailed discussion of the trials:

Interchange Trials - cover

Useful Links:

National Archive – Report of the Locomotive Testing Committee

RM Web – The 1948 Locomotive Exchange Trials – Discussions

1948 Locomotive Exchange Trials

BR’s First Year (The Spectator)

Loco Interchange Trials 1948 (Rly Mag)

A Postscript To Piggyback Freight

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The Piggyback Consortium proposal was tied to the ‘modernisation’ of the West Coast Main Line, and detailed in Railtrack’s proposal “A Railway for the Twenty First Century”, published in March 1995.

WCML Modernisation - cover

At the same time, the Government was busy preparing Railtrack for privatisation, and the Thrall Car Company were established in the old BR works at York – this is what they said in their brochure at the time:

Sadly, the BR works at York closed in 1996, but was re-opened in 1997, with Thrall Car Manufacturing Co.  The company had received an order from EWS for around £200 million to build 2,500 wagons, including steel coil carriers, coal hoppers, box and container flat wagons. Sadly, this was the only major order received at York, and Thrall’s successor – Trinity Industries – closed the plant in 2002, with the loss of 260 jobs.

Europspine 1?

In original guise, Thrall’s spine wagons were publicised like this.

Thrall and Babcock Rail’s lack of success with the spine wagon idea, was largely as a result of the lack of take up commercially of the piggyback innovation, for domestic and international services, along with unresolved national problems around transport policy, never fully resolved.

Babcock Rail Wagons

Built by Babcock Rail Rosyth, this image shows a standard road tanker mounted on one of the Babcock piggyback wagons. The lack of a national strategy for bulk transport of liquids, including foodstuffs dealt a mortal blow to this type of piggyback operation.

There was potential for this and other proposals, such as the pocket wagons, with successful trials run between Penrith and Cricklewood using the road tanker on a piggy back trailer, but the customer demand needed buy-in from more than one or two national organisations, and some “public monopolies” such as “Milk Marque” were fragmented, taking away those potentials.  Later still, other commercial interests died away, and despite the success of these ideas, from an engineering and operational trial perspective, it has simply melted away.

By 2017, a lot of changes had taken place, although investment in the routes has occurred in some places, it is by no means as comprehensive – or indeed integrated – as it was almost 20 years ago.   Network Rail published a “Freight Network Study”, in April 2017, though in short, for rail freight, we appear to be little further forward:

Freight Network Study Cover

The Thrall / Babcock Eurospine wagons were simply mothballed after 2002, and stored out of use at Carlisle, near the old Upperby Maintenance Depot, which itself was pulled down only a few years ago.

Eurospine - Phil Taylor Facebook Carlisle

The last days of Carlisle Upperby TMD shows the Eurospine wagons still hanging around – still a potential if only a commercial use could be found.                        Photo ©: Phil Taylor

 

 

Thrall Piggyback Wagon

Weeds growing over the bogie of a Thrall Eurospine wagon at what remained of Carlisle Upperby TMD back in 2012. Photo ©: Gordon Edgar

 

A Postscript to Piggyback_cover

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