About the Author
Honorary Secretary of the Preservation Society
From Magazine 210, September 2013
On 28th March 2013, a fire ripped through the engineering workshop in Ravenglass, destroying the building. Tools and locomotive parts were in the building at the time and this article explains the difficulties faced by the engineering department and the condition of the locomotives following the fire.
A fire is devastating for a building, because it’s made from combustible materials like wood. Steam locomotives might seem less susceptible because they are metal, which doesn’t easily burn, but there are other effects that damage them. The most apparent damage to the components is corrosion, not helped in this instance by the fact that it was sea water used to put out the fire, and salt accelerates corrosion. Not only do many components look like they’ve been at the bottom of the sea for several years, but closely toleranced joints will not work if the dimensions are changed by corrosion.
When metal gets hot, its strength reduces. This can be seen by the way the steel joists in the workshop have twisted in the fire (R&ER Magazine Number 209, page 21). Some loco components have also suffered damage in this way because of the heat. In some cases the heat was so intense that much that it melted some components completely and boiler fittings have lost any non-metallic components, such as seals. Some components were damaged due to the roof collapsing onto them.
Many bearings are made from leaded phosphor bronze, a copper-based material with some lead content to reduce friction. Overheating causes the lead to melt out and so bearings have to be checked and replaced. In the case of steam locomotives this means making them from scratch, as you can’t pop down to Halfords to get a new one! Another issue for steel parts is the state of heat treatment done when manufactured to make their bearing surfaces hard and wear-resistant. Heating these components can make them lose their hardness such that they may wear out rapidly in service. Also, if a hot component is quenched by firewater it may become too brittle, possibly cracking in the fire environment due to uneven contraction, in a similar way that a hot dish or glass can crack if run under a cold tap.
It was possible to recover the majority of the loco components from the burnt down building. They are nearly all corroded, some are not the same shape as before and some may have lost their required material properties. Assessing the suitability of components for re-use has taken up some time as well as the manufacture of new parts. It’s disheartening to free up a seized component, remove the corrosion and straighten bent bits, only to find that it is cracked and has to be thrown away and a new one made.
The engineering tools used to repair the locomotives were damaged too. The lathes, milling machines and drills were in the hottest part of the fire and are beyond economic repair. Combined with no building to work in, the only solution was to take the work off site, and this is where the renting of space and machines at Numech Engineering in Workington has paid off. R&ER staff and suitably qualified volunteers have been working on River Mite and River Irt at this facility to return them to service as soon as possible.
Locomotive status (July 2013):
Northern Rock – in service. Northern Rock was in service on the day of the fire and so did not suffer any damage. However, it has subsequently had to run the service trains without a rest and so is accumulating mileage very quickly. Issues such as brake component faults and a loose cylinder liner have had to be fixed quickly so the loco could remain in traffic.
River Mite – in service. River Mite was in the workshop at the time of the fire. Its newly re-tubed boiler had just been fitted to the frames, with a new smokebox, and, the motion had been removed for minor repairs. When the fire broke out River Mite was pushed out of the building, so the majority of it was completely undamaged. The parts remaining in the workshop were the coupling rods, connecting rods, eccentric rods with return cranks and the combination levers, along with the reverser reach rod. These mainly suffered corrosion damage and although the rust has been removed, the once smooth and shiny steel is now slightly dull and pitted.
Mite was taken to Numech for the work to be done. Some valvegear parts that were bent by falling debris had to be straightened out and new pins made. It was a great relief when they all went back on and the wheels went round! Smokebox fittings such as the chimney, door, snifting valve and main steam pipes needed shot-blasting and fettling before refitting, with quite a few smaller parts needing to be made from new. River Mite had her steam test on 3rd July and returned to Ravenglass on 8th July. Following test runs, a few leaking joints were cured and other adjustments made. After a quick repaint, Mite entered service, sadly only briefly, on 30th July, returning fully on 10th August.
River Irt – under repair. In January, the boiler was sent away for a re-tube and rivet/stay repairs, returning to Ravenglass on 5th July. The chassis, not requiring any attention, was stored in the engine shed, meaning the chassis, boiler and tender were not involved in the fire. However, the boiler fittings were stored in the workshop meaning the boiler cladding, dome cover, safety valves, smokebox door and chimney, along with the smaller fittings and pipework, were all very badly damaged. The cab, being downstairs and near the door, has survived with only paintwork damage. At Numech, new cladding is being made and work has started on the re-plumbing of the boiler fittings. Where possible the old boiler fittings will be re-used once repaired, but inevitably some new components will be required. Destroyed components are no older than 1970s vintage. At the time of writing, River Irt is expected back in service in the autumn.
River Esk – stored, unserviceable. River Esk was in the middle of a major overhaul at the time of the fire. The chassis had been completely stripped so that all work required on the frames could be completed. This work, which included new axles, axleboxes, tyres and crank pins, had been recently completed, along with the refitting of the wheelsets to the frames. These parts are safe as the flat wagon they were sitting on was pushed out of the workshop when the fire started. The boiler was off site, the tender stored in the carriage shed and Esk’s boiler cladding was in the engine shed, and so they survive intact too.
The valve-gear had been refurbished, with new valve bobbins and spindles, and the cylinders had been removed from the frames for attention. These, along with most other fittings and superstructure, were stored in the engineering workshop, some upstairs near the hottest part of the fire. These have been damaged or destroyed by the fire and the repair or remanufacture of these parts has to start again. This work will not start until after the Irt and Mite are back in service. The boiler is still away, and it is intended to ensure that the chassis rebuild is either well on the way, or complete, before instructing Newton’s with regard to work on a re-tube and new firebox stays. It is likely to be more than a year before Esk runs again.
Bonnie Dundee – stored, unserviceable. Not involved in the fire, but previous issues with the boiler stopped it being used due to water level concerns, among other problems. It could also do with new valvegear to improve its reliability. Despite Ian Page’s assessing it for repair, no decision has been made on when to do this work.
Synolda – stored, serviceable. Following her busy centenary year, Synolda has returned to the museum, where she was undamaged by the fire and is still available for use when required.
Perkins – in service. Perkins was the only passenger diesel available for much of the month of May and has been vital in keeping the line running. Any minor problems have been attended to rapidly to keep it in service. A real stalwart!
Shelagh of Eskdale – stored, unserviceable. Needs a new engine and gearbox. This will be a longer-term project.
Lady Wakefield – under repair. At TMA Engineering receiving a new Perkins engine and other modifications, including wheel reprofiling and bogie repairs. The larger engine size will necessitate changes to the bonnet so the locomotive may look different when it returns. Return expected during August.
Douglas Ferreira – in service. With only Northern Rock, Wroxham Broad, Perkins and Douglas in service during April, it was highly disruptive when Douglas’ engine was damaged due to running with no oil on the 26th April! A power unit swap was quickly accomplished at TMA in Birmingham and Douglas returned to Ravenglass on 24th May.
Cyril – in service. Available for shunting, but has also seen use up the line on weedkilling and wood collection trains.
Les – in service. Available for shunting