With its world famous collection, York’s National Railway Museum (NRM) is truly a Mecca for railways enthusiasts. Impressive though its locomotives are, the museum’s small exhibits can be equally worthy of the visitor’s interest. This is certainly true of the eight cases forming the NRM’s “Talking about Trains” exhibition celebrating the birth of the Institution of Locomotive Engineers (ILocoE) in 1911. In 1969, it amalgamated with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) to become the IMechE’s Railway Division.

The exhibition was opened on 17 January by Steve Davies, Director of the NRM, and Bill Reeve, Chairman of the IMechE’s Railway Division. Bill was glad to see today’s Railway Division continuing the traditions which were started a hundred years ago; to promote railway engineering excellence and give today’s engineers the opportunity to develop their skills. Although technology changes, the basic engineering challenges remain and he was confident that today’s railway engineers could match the achievements of their predecessors.

In his address, Steve acknowledged the engineers contribution, with Mallard’s 126 mph steam speed record in 1938 being a good example. The NRM is to celebrate next year’s 75th anniversary when two preserved A4 locomotives are to be shipped from North America to join the UK’s four preserved A4s and the NRM’s Mallard. These celebrations, together with NRM’s Railfest in June will be a treat for anyone interested in steam locomotive traction. He encouraged those wanting further information to consult the museum’s website www.nrm.org.uk.

Eight months in the planning, the exhibition is open until 15th April and includes exhibits from the Museum’s collection and the IMechE’s Library. These provide a wealth of information about the history of the Institution, its Engineers, the railway industry and today’s Railway Division.

The Institution of Locomotive Engineers

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was little information available to help those who wanted to know more about railway rolling stock, so self improvement groups were started at major railway centres. In 1909, the Stephenson Locomotive Society was formed to cater for both enthusiasts and professionals. Feeling that this did not adequately address technical issues, George Frank Burtt of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway led a breakaway group of London-based railway companies to form a new society, the Junior Institution of Locomotive Engineers, which first met on 4 February 1911. With senior engineers joining, the prefix Junior was dropped. By 1911, the ILocoE had a membership of 52.

At first costs were minimal with meetings held in company offices, but with increasing activity a Finance Committee was set up. In 1915 the Institution had 178 members and was incorporated as an Association Not for Profit with the principle objective being “The advancement of the science and practice of Locomotive Engineering by enquiry, experiment or other means; the diffusion of knowledge regarding Locomotive Engineering by means of lectures, publications, exchange of information and otherwise; the improvement of the status of the Locomotive Engineer”.

Membership and activities rapidly expanded with the first regional centres being established in Leeds (1918), Manchester (1919) and Glasgow (1920). By 1921, membership was 1120 and a Library was founded. Presentation and discussion of papers at each of these centres was an important activity. From 1915 these were published in the ILocoE’s journal which reported the discussions verbatim. Together with a full programme of UK and overseas visits and social events such as the annual luncheon, the Institution was clearly meeting its objective.

Six of the Institution’s Presidents (Henry Fowler, Edwin Kitson Clark, Nigel Gresley, William Stanier, Oliver Bulleid and Roland Bond) also served as IMechE Presidents, a reflection of the close links between the two Institutions. It was first suggested that the two Institutions should merge in the 1920s but agreement could not be reached on a number of issues. By the 1960s it was becoming clear that the ILocoE could not continue as an independent body and so, in 1969, the two Institutions amalgamated with the ILocoE becoming the IMechE’s Railway Division.

International Affairs

From the start the ILocoE had an interest in overseas practice and developed international connections. The first paper presented to the Institution on 27 May 1911 was “French Locomotive Practice”, and later that year there were visits to Belgium, Austria and Germany. In 1920, the first overseas centre was established in Buenos Aires. Around this time ILocoE representatives were appointed in India, Nigeria, South Africa and China. Further overseas Centres were established in Calcutta (1930) and Western Australia (1932).

A visit to Germany in 1936 took place three weeks after the Reichsbahn’s 4-6-4 steam locomotive 05.002 had achieved a 124.5 mph speed record. This visit included a trip hauled by this locomotive at up to 118 mph. Steve Davies considers that this visit arguably led to Mallard’s 126mph record two years later beating its German rival by 1.5 mph, truly a close run thing! To modern eyes the swastikas in exhibits from this visit appear sinister. However, despite the growing divide between Britain and Germany, the engineers had a close relationship. One exhibit is the paper presented to the Institution in 1935 “High Speed and the Steam Locomotive” by Richard Wagner, the Reichsbahn’s Chief Mechanical Engineer. German engineers also joined the ILocoE’s 1938 summer meeting in Scotland.

The IMechE Railway Division has continued the tradition of overseas visits. With the globalisation of the rail industry in more recent times, it has arranged visits well beyond Europe to Singapore, Malaysia, USA, Japan and China.

All Sides of Industry

The Institution provided an important forum between Britain’s manufacturing industry and engineers running Britain’s railways. Presidential addresses showing the value of this forum include those by Richard Maunsell (1916) and William Stanier (1938) who both highlighted maintenance problems from poor design. Maunsell’s strong views are reflected in his paper’s conclusion “the engineer instinctively looks for the prominence of details which he knows should be accessible and he rightly regards as a monstrosity a machine which is lacking in this respect”.

In 1921 the Institution elected its first President from the locomotive manufacturing industry, Lt-Col Kitson Clark of Kitson and Co. Presidents followed from Vulcan Foundry, Beyer Peacock, Hunslet, English Electric and the North British Locomotive Company. This once strong industry provided the Institution with a great deal of support. Unfortunately, its decline resulted in a significant loss of advertising in the Journal, one of the reasons why the ILocoE was unable to exist as an independent Institution.

A long tradition of meetings with railway infrastructure engineers dates back to the first joint meeting held with the Permanent Way Institution in 1928, when Harold Holcroft presented his paper “Some points of common interest in Rolling Stock & Permanent Way”. In 1949 the first meeting with the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers was held when famous author Oswald S Nock, a member of both Institutions, presented his paper “The relationship between Signalling and Brake Power in the Handling of Modern Traffic”.

Testing Testing

With the development of the modern steam locomotive, testing became increasingly important to perfect designs. Although France, Germany and America had static locomotive testing plants in the 1930s there were none in the UK. Hence testing required special test trains with dynamometer cars, sometimes with test staff accommodated in wooden testing stations on a locomotive’s front buffer beam. Gresley devoted his 1928 Presidential address to a plea for a static locomotive plant to be part of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory, which then had expensive facilities for perfecting designs of ships and aeroplanes. Such was Gresley’s belief in static testing facilities that, in 1934, he arranged for his prototype P2 2-8-2 locomotive to be tested at the French test plant in Vitry-sur-Seine near Paris.

Construction of a testing plant at Rugby started in the late 30s. One exhibit is a progress report showing construction to be well advanced by July 1939. Unfortunately, the war delayed completion until 1948, 12 years before production of the UK’s last steam locomotive. Although this limited the plant’s contribution to UK steam locomotive design, it was a useful facility as demonstrated by one exhibit, a 1953 test report on the efficiency of an exhaust steam injector with two types of coal. As this test required 9120 miles of static running it may not have been possible without this static plant.

Changing Times

The ILocoE, and subsequently the Railway Division, have had to respond to the many organisational, industrial and technical changes faced by Britain’s railways. In 1948, nationalisation brought about a common locomotive maintenance practice throughout British Railways. President Lt-Col Harold Rudgard’s address “Organising & Carrying Out of Examinations at Running Sheds in Relationship to Locomotive Performance and Availability” outlined LMS practice which was soon adopted throughout British Railways of which an exhibit of an X Exam card provides an example.

The 1950s onwards were a challenging time with diesel and electric motive power replacing steam, the introduction of specialised rolling stock and the manufacturing industry’s decline. One exhibit is the programme for the Institution’s visit to Brush at Loughborough in 1965 showing class 47 locomotive construction. The ILocoE provided support as engineers adapted to these changes and, in 1957, widened its scope to include carriage and wagon engineering. With the new motorway network, railway engineers had to combat increased competition from the car. Various exhibits illustrate how the development of the High Speed Train met this challenge. The spirit of this time is exemplified by another exhibit, Bruce Sephton’s 1986 Chairman’s address to the IMechE Railway Division entitled “Railways Do or Die?”.

Today’s Railway Division

Today the Railway Division has a membership of 4,226 and runs an extensive programme, including UK and overseas visits with lectures and seminars at HQ and its six Regional Centres (Midlands, South East, South West, North West, Scottish and North East). It also has a thriving young members section with a prize awarded for the best paper. The Division’s Journal of Rail and Rapid Transit attracts research papers from around the world although it contains little that is presented at Railway Division meetings. Instead webcasts of key presentations are available from the “Playitback” page on the IMechE website. This, no doubt, is a reflection of the internet age and perhaps is the only significant departure from ILocoE traditions.

In this way, the Division continues to act as a learned society promoting best practice in railway engineering, including new rolling stock, international standards and research and development. Its programme encourages the development of today’s engineers, as do its training workshops and prizes awarded for papers and innovations. The Division’s popularity is such that its Annual Luncheon is held in London’s only hotel that can provide over a 1000 lunches. Bill Reeve’s confidence in the Railway Division’s success is therefore well justified. The “Talking About Trains” exhibition contains much to explain this success and is a must for anyone with an interest in railway engineering.

Much of this article was based on a booklet “One Hundred Years of Locomotive and Rolling Stock Engineering” compiled by past Chairman Allan Baker, copies of which are available from the IMechE. Further information is available from the Railway Devision’s website.