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THORNCOMBE: Speaker returns to rail club for talk on ‘Tracks of Brunel’

Thursday, 12 June 2014

THORNCOMBE Rail Activities Club was pleased to welcome back a previous speaker, Mike Beale, who this time took members on a journey “On the Tracks of Brunel”. Brunel’s abilities first came to the fore in 1827 when he was appointed Resident Engineer on the Thames Tunnel at the age of 21, although he was lucky to survive a near-fatal accident when part of the roof collapsed and flooded the workings. It was while recuperating near Bristol that he entered, and won, a competition to design a bridge across the Avon Gorge – the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This project ran out of money and the part-built bridge was abandoned, not being completed until five years after his death, funded by the Institute of Civil Engineers as a tribute to Brunel’s engineering achievements. Brunel is probably best known as chief engineer of the Great Western Railway and Mike’s talk took members along the line from Paddington to Temple Meads, highlighting significant features on the way such as the elegant Maidenhead Bridge, Box Tunnel and the Swindon Locomotive Works and Railway Village. His other work was not forgotten and Mike gave the group an insight into the failed atmospheric propulsion system on the South Devon Railway, the Royal Albert Bridge across the Tamar at Saltash and the SS Great Britain, now back in Bristol and a far cry from the rotting hulk abandoned in the Falkland Islands. The club later welcomed Richard Morant to speak about his life as a signaller with British Railways. He worked in the south London Area and became Senior Shift Manager at the later larger power box that controlled much of that area’s lines. Richard described visits by royalty and politicians, and dealing with the surprises that everyday operations brought up. In particular, he talked about a royal train that arrived unannounced headed for Windsor, that had to be held at the box since the line to Windsor was blocked by repairs. The distinguished passenger had to be transferred to a taxi with a driver who didn’t speak English and who tried to take his passenger to Heathrow, rather than the castle. He described the complexity of the system and the increases in traffic over the years to the present day where the track is utilised to full capacity. Of particular interest was the disastrous change from British Rail to Railtrack and the Train Operating Companies in 1994. The common sense that had prevailed in the handling of operations was replaced by nonsensical rules, such as requiring a failed locomotive in London to be rescued not by one from a local depot, but one from Crewe. Following the Hatfield disaster, it became apparent that Railtrack had lost control of track maintenance and they were replaced in turn by Network Rail. Looking to the future, Richard described the further consolidation of control into Regional Operating Centres, that manage vast areas of lines. There will be just three that cover the Southern Region. Track selection and train control will become automatic and regulated by computers and satellite communications. Signallers will no longer be needed, and perhaps, one day, drivers. Richard had many slides of his places of work and there were some archive photos of locomotives in locations that had not been pinned down. A good number of these were identified by the members, for which he was very grateful. The next meeting is on Wednesday, June 18th when Peter Lugg will give a talk entitled “My Life with Railways”. Peter was a Permanent Way specialist at Paddington and a materials expert: he was involved with the selection of track for the Channel Tunnel. The meeting is in Thorncombe Village Hall (TA20 4NE) and starts at 7.30 pm. Non-members are welcome - there are refreshments and parking is free.

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