Ones and noughts are now omnipresent, forming a thick digital cloud in the ether. Binary streams surge down optical fibres, pouring into data mines where prospectors pan for gold. Intelligence gathering brings rich pickings, 24/7.

On-board your Pendolino, components submit to black-box interrogation: probing, collating, reporting. Tolerances measured, exceedances flagged. Analysts ‘predict to prevent’ in real time.

Total logistics mobilise the night shift. Depots await their wanderers’ return with tooled-up technicians. Start again tomorrow, factory reset; a clinical, seamless merry-go-round.

Meanwhile, in a cramped shed near Keighley…

The public has largely fallen out of love with the railway, seduced by a loathing press which feasts on failures like hyenas around a carcass. But it hasn’t always been that way. Speak to folk of a certain age and they’ll recall with warm affection the role formerly played by the railway in communities across the land, bringing prosperity, employment and new horizons. It was often their beating heart.

The world is very different in 2013. Today’s railway is tighter, sharper, cleaner, faster; more scrutiny drives more efficiency. And yet an apparent anachronism survives alongside it, evoking memories of that distant age when kids waved at passing trains rather than bearing their backsides at them. The heritage movement provides a portal through which we can time-travel back to the Fifties to enjoy – or should that be endure – jointed track and steamy windows again. Mmmm. But be honest, who can resist the evocative glory of a living locomotive? Its formula is so elemental: water + fire = power.

OK, enough of the laboured nostalgia.

Every penny counts

Bahamas(2A)(FourByThree) [online]

Photo: Four by Three.

That cramped shed is at Ingrow, alongside West Yorkshire’s Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, one of the preservation trail-blazers back in the late Sixties. Occupying one end of it is a museum telling the story of steam and the people whose lives it touched; the other hosts Jubilee class locomotive 45596 Bahamas – an imposing 135-ton hulk of machinery, though rather lifeless at the present time.Contrasting outposts such as this with the cavernous spaces where fleets are now maintained is futile, except of course they share a common goal: delivering safe, reliable traction onto their respective networks.A couple of dozen regular volunteers – members of the 350-strong Bahamas Locomotive Society – focus attention on 45596 and three other engines, freely and with a smile. It’s something of a holiday from their day jobs as doctors, dentists and vision supervisors. Don’t ask. But there is a structure and discipline to it, recognising the duty of care that comes with hauling members of the public around the countryside.And they spend the public’s cash too. Having raised over £200k itself, the Society recently had bestowed upon it a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant of £775,800 which will fund Bahamas’ restoration back to running order, together with work on an Educational Resource Centre. No-one is under any illusions about the obligations that come with the money. Delivering value for it is imperative – a commitment engrained in the culture here. Some corners of the industry would do well to take note.

Trials and tribulations

The Jubilee class 6P 4-6-0 was a product of the London Midland & Scottish Railway, designed by William Stanier who joined the company as its Chief Mechanical Engineer in 1932, having been poached from the Great Western. These industrious engines did not attain the same profile as his Black 5 or 8F, but 191 of them worked express services across the LMS’s patch following their introduction in the mid-Thirties. No. 5596 rolled out of the North British Locomotive Company’s Queen’s Park works in Glasgow towards the end of 1934, acquiring its Bahamas title during a first service at Crewe in June ’36. It clocked up more than 1.4 million miles in its 32-year main line career, 72,000 of them in 1939 alone.

Through 1956-57, a series of trials were performed at the Rugby Locomotive Testing Station on another Jubilee, No. 45722 Defence, the ultimate objective being to extend steam’s life and performance – fuelled by poorer quality coal – until new forms of traction could be developed. The approach, which involved fitting a double blastpipe and exhaust system, brought a 30% increase in the boiler’s steaming capacity. To gauge its day-to-day impact, Bahamas underwent modification during an overhaul in May 1961. But circumstances changed and the experiments were brought to a close a year later. 45596 had been the last to benefit.

Stockport’s Edgeley Motive Power Depot offered Bahamas a final home before withdrawal from service in July 1966. After languishing on the scrap line for a while, a society was formed with a view to buying the engine and operating it on excursions. BR proved unwilling to allow this and a shortage of funds pushed the venture to the brink of collapse, only for a local businessman to step in with the offer of a £3,000 loan. In the spring of 1967, agreement was reached to sell Bahamas to a scrap merchant in Hull, but high-level intervention saved it. Secured by the Society, the engine was despatched to Leeds locomotives which would haul embryonic enthusiasts’ specials over parts of the national network; its first such run was in October 1972. These popular early forays paved the way for the excursion traffic we see today. However the following year, expiry of its boiler certificate saw Bahamas taken out of service. Only in 1988, on completion of a seven-year overhaul by the Society’s members, did it make a for refurbishment at the Hunslet Engine Company, emerging from its workshop in March 1968.

Photo: Peter Fitton.

Photo: Peter Fitton.

A former Great Central steam shed in the shadow of Dinting Viaduct became the engine’s operational base. British Rail eventually relented on its steam ban, selecting Bahamas to form part of an initial collection of locomotives which would haul embryonic enthusiasts’ specials over parts of the national network; its first such run was in October 1972. These popular early forays paved the way for the excursion traffic we see today. However the following year, expiry of its boiler certificate saw Bahamas taken out of service. Only in 1988, on completion of a seven-year overhaul by the Society’s members, did it make a return. For the past 16 years the engine has been off-line again, mostly in storage but latterly available for public inspection at Ingrow and York’s National Railway Museum. Not for too much longer though.

Back in January 2011, an appeal was launched under the banner of Steam’s Last Blast to raise the funds needed for Bahamas’ next overhaul. Backing for the Society’s work is considerable, with a number of subscribers making regular and often substantial donations, boosting the income from membership fees, shop sales and talks which help to keep the shed’s lights on. Hiring out the other engines generates additional revenue. In support of the HLF bid, key partnerships have been developed with the adjacent Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, along with bodies such as Welcome to Yorkshire and the Great Yorkshire Brewery; even the Bahamas Tourist Office! All this effort has been crucial in securing the grant and therefore the viability of the project.

Precision logistics

For any steam locomotive, the milestones come every ten years with a full examination of the boiler, inside and out. As parts of it are usually hidden behind the frames, the only way to do that is by removing and dismantling it. This allows a visual assessment of what needs to be done, possibly accompanied by ultrasonic tests. The height of the bar is set by the insurance companies; by necessity with a pressure vessel, their standards are stringent and compliance with them has to be demonstrated through inspection, testing and documentation. When completion of the work is close, the boiler must pass a hydraulic test before it’s allowed to be steamed. Clearing those hurdles will bring the award of a boiler certificate, causing another ten- year clock to start ticking.

Back in LMS days, a Jubilee’s “general repair” could be turned around in 12 days, of which five were spent just sitting in the paint shop. The timetable was meticulous, involving a belt system with six stages of 10 hours 44 minutes each: the first entailed stripping the engine, the others reassembling it. Across the Crewe works, 6,000 men in 19 shops were driven in perfect synchronisation, ensuring each component would arrive at its specified place on the belt at the time it was needed. Relative to zero hour when the engine entered the shop, pistons were due at 28 hours 45 minutes, piston rings at 26 hours 45 minutes, reversing rods at 37 hours 15 minutes, piston valves at 39 hours 30 minutes…

Overhauls today demand more compromise, offsetting time against capital and manpower constraints. Without the HLF grant, the Society would have looked at a ten-year timescale for Bahamas, but with upwards of £500k now available for the work, that’s been cut to four. The boiler repairs have been put out to tender, with four specialists asked to quote. Although Society members will still be getting their hands dirty, much of the remainder will also be outsourced.

Programming is no less critical than it was in LMS days. To maximise the revenue-earning potential of the new ten-year certification window, the rest of the engine must be ready to accept the boiler as soon as the steam test is done. That means careful coordination of the various concurrent activities so that everything comes together at the same time.

It’s worth making the point that the Bahamas standing at Ingrow today is not the one that came out of Queen’s Park works in 1934. Whilst many of its basics – wheels, frames, motion, pipework – are original, boilers would have been on and off as a function of the maintenance cycle. Additions have been made, such as AWS and the double blastpipe. The aim is to preserve that evolution, not reverse it: Bahamas will be restored as a BR engine, rather than an LMS one.

Young blood injection

An emerging challenge for the preservation movement is passing down the accrued knowledge and skills that are fundamental to the care of steam locomotives. Everyone acknowledges that the volunteer community’s age profile is…let’s say maturing…so the long-term sustainability of the sector – which is often crucial to local economies – relies on connecting with a new generation of people, filling the void at the bottom. Given the prevailing social culture and wealth of other attractions, nobody is under any illusions as to just how steep a hill there is to climb.

“You’ve got to make it enjoyable for them so they want to get involved”, asserts George Bowler, one of the Society’s directors. “If they come along, usually they’ll try to figure out how it works. And once that seed is planted, they’ll talk to people about it and it rolls on from there, hopefully fuelling their desire for knowledge. Then they become addicted!”

Bahamas(1)(FourByThree) [online]

Photo: Four by Three.

One positive step taken with the Bahamas project is to build-in the provision of employment, training and skills development opportunities. All being well, that

“The skills will be dying out if we’re not careful”, says George. “Steam locomotive boilers are different; maintaining them involves a particular skill and understanding. And that’s what we need to develop.”

Daunting task

Anticipation mixes with a hint of trepidation at Ingrow. Surprises inevitably lurk in Bahamas’ darker corners. But the key to success with a venture like this is breaking it down to individual component level, quantifying the needs of each one and then matching them to the capabilities of the workforce. A lump of brass with a pin through it can be sorted by a volunteer – move forwards and upwards from there. Just as you’d expect, there’s quiet confidence.

The bits and pieces that currently make up Bahamas should be fettled, rejuvenated and put back together again sometime in 2017. Who knows, when the locomotive returns for its first celebratory run, perhaps a few hardened detractors will be charmed to fall back in love with the railway again.