Great Northern Steam Foster Wellington Engine Taken on Road Test

First new traction engine of the 21st century goes for a test drive

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The steam engine – based on the Foster Wellington steam engine that first appeared in 1904 – is all ready to start, with the trade plate license no. 946 UB clearly visible.

Steam Traction Staff

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It’s been 70 years since anyone built a new traction engine, but in England, Great Northern Steam has completed the first of a batch of brand new steam engines. Mike Dyson, a well-known English traction engine driver, tries his hand with this little beauty which is based on a 1904 design.

The town of Darlington in the northeast part of England has a long history of engine building dating back to one of the earliest railroads: The Stockton & Darlington Railway built by George Stephenson and completed in 1825. Darlington Locomotive Works closed its doors more than 50 years ago, and then along came preservation. Preserved railroads had managed to save nearly all types of locomotives with the exception of the Peppercorn Class A1 Pacific. In the 1990s a multimillion-dollar project was launched to build a brand new Pacific and this is now nearing completion. In addition, the small company of Great Northern Steam, under the leadership of Keith Ashton, is based in the town.

The company started building model railway locomotives with up to 7-1/4-inch gauge and added model traction engines. Currently, it offers 6-inch McLaren road locomotives either as straight hauling engines or fitted as fairground engines with a dynamo for generating. Now its latest line is a full-size engine based on the Foster Wellington steam engine which first appeared in 1904. The first, a single-cylinder machine, has been completed. Two others are under construction, both compounds, with others to follow.

Small Traction Engines

First, there needs to be a little explanation as to why such small engines were built. A small traction engine is usually of 20-25 HP. In the 19th century many laws were passed to stop the new mechanical vehicles from using the roads because they caused damage. In England, an 1896 law removed many of the restrictions on the use of traction engines and automobiles. The act allowed for the use of light traction engines that could be operated by one man, weighing less than 3 tons, which could haul one trailer weighing up to 4 tons. This did not allow a really practical steam engine to be built.

In 1904 the weight limit was raised to a maximum of 5 tons and the trailer weight was increased to 6-1/2 tons. The increase in weight meant that a steam engine was now a more practical proposition. William Foster & Co. Ltd., who was later to gain fame during the 1914-1918 War as the builders of the first tanks, quickly responded to the change in the law with a small single-cylinder engine.

Engines, although smaller than road locomotives, are similar as they are designed for continuous roadwork and were popular with market gardeners who wanted to get their produce to the cities. The use of engines was not confined to road hauling. Some were used on farms to drive the smaller-size threshing machines. They usually have compound engines, are fitted with belly tanks to carry additional water to increase time between stops, and have solid flywheels and motion covers – so the movement wouldn’t frighten the horses!

In the mid-1970s there were a number of Savage steam engines built to original designs, including two traction engines. There are now a number of traction engines built from a minimal number of original parts and are superb examples of restoration, but most of the parts used in their rebuilding are new. With the ever increasing demand for engines there has to be a solution to the shortage. Prices in the UK are such that traction engines now sell for around $200,000, with steam tractors costing a little more, road locomotives over $500,000 and a good fairground engine well over $1 million. It is not surprising people spend years restoring a derelict engine that has been re-imported. However, there is now another option – a totally new engine at an affordable price!

Full-Size Engines

When Great Northern Steam decided to build full-size engines the choice of design was influenced by the availability of patterns. When David Ragsdale, owner of Foster Wellington single-cylinder engine, no. 2948, completed a lengthy restoration, many patterns became available. David’s tractor was built in 1904 and worked up to 1930 when it was cast aside. Over the years many parts were robbed, and by the time David purchased it in 1986 there was little of the original left. Over time he built a new boiler and made all the missing parts from scratch. Fortunately, David is an expert pattern maker so he was able to make the patterns, which he later had cast and was able to machine himself. Great Northern Steam has been able to make use of these patterns in the construction of their engines, but of course have carried out all the machining and fitting themselves.

The first new engine to be built in Britain for many years is about to be handed over to its new owner David Wood. To describe the engine is not easy as it is not an exact copy of no. 2948. The Great Northern Steam engine is a further development of its 6-inch miniatures. It has been manufactured to comply with all UK and European rules and regulations including those that apply to pressure vessels. All the parts, as well as the boiler, have been passed for European conformity. As the engine has all the necessary paperwork, it can be used in any country in the world without any problems. As added bonus, the engine comes with a guarantee!

In the next few years we are going to see an increasing number of new-build engines. Steam engines, because of their small size, will dominate the market, but there are plans to build road locomotives and possibly some of the most interesting engines that did not survive for preservation. This engine has all the main design features of the original Foster, with the boiler having a working pressure of 150 psi and a cylinder with a diameter of 6 inches and a 9-inch stroke. However, there are some important differences as would be expected with something that complies with current rules and regulations.

Traditionally, all English boilers were flanged and riveted with screwed stays, but this engine is an all-welded boiler with welded stays. The hornplates (the upward extensions of the firebox, which support the crankshaft bearings) are not part of the boiler, but are attached to the sides of the boiler in the same way they are on miniature engines.

The wheel spokes are not cast in the hubs, as was the practice in the past. The hub is split into sections so slots can be milled to receive the spokes. These are attached by cap-head screws to the hubs. When all the parts are finally attached, the hub holds all the spokes firmly together in the same way as if they had been cast. This is a technique widely used on miniatures and in the restoration of a number of full-size engines.

Other parts, such as the tender, are fabricated rather than the traditional riveting. This is done to keep costs down, but the customer can choose to have the parts made in a conventional way at an additional cost. It is interesting to note, the customer for the next engine is having a compound engine built with an oil-fired boiler operating at 200 psi. It is being built as a 3-speed fairground engine with larger wheels and all the shiny brass bits including a 240-volt dynamo! (In the past, 110-volt dynamos were used.)

On the day prior to the test I visited Great Northern Steam to see the engine being prepared for the next day’s road run, and as the engine has yet to be allocated a license number, arrangements had been made to fit trade plates (these are special numbers normally allocated to automobile dealers so they can use new, unlicensed vehicles on the road). While at Great Northern Steam I was able to look at the other engines currently under construction. There were several railway engines in various gauges, a 6-inch McLaren road locomotive in the final stages of construction and a fairground version fitted with a rear-mounted crane.

The second Wellington engine is now on its wheels and has many parts including the canopy. As soon as the castings for the compound cylinders arrive this can be machined and the motion fitted. Later, a lorry arrived to take the test engine to a farm near Melsonby, a quiet village to the west of Darlington, for the following day’s road test.

The Test

Upon arrival the next morning I was able to meet David. He has been a steam enthusiast for many years and his interests include 16-millimeter gauge railroads using both spirit- and coal-fired engines, although over a period of time the size of the locomotives has grown to 7-1/4-inch gauge. Some of his earlier models had been built by Great Northern Steam, and when he became aware of their plans to build full-size Foster Wellington engines, he decided to make the change to road steam. To fund this new project he had to sell some of his railway models, but he has now discovered the pleasures of this type of steam!

The weather was less than ideal for a road test, with light rain falling when we lit the fire. More wood and coal were added, but when someone suggested we retire to the house for coffee there was little hanging around. The early shower developed into heavy rain and the thought of driving the engine under such conditions dampened my enthusiasm. The rain eventually eased and the sky brightened. David and I decided we would carry on in spite of the wet conditions. An engine without a canopy has much to commend it, particularly when you can hear the sound of the exhaust. On the other hand, a canopy does give some protection from the weather!

By now there was plenty of steam – it was an hour since the fire had been lit. The blower was used to brighten the fire as we were using Polish steam coal, which needs a good draft to get it burning well. In England we currently have problems obtaining good steam coal and the best available comes from Poland. The next task was an oiling round. Everything is new so many of the bearings are tight, and at the moment oil is allowed to flow through the bearing quite readily. Once the bearings have started to bed, it will be time to insert a wick and reduce the flow of oil. Several times on the road we stopped to fill the oilers, which were using large quantities.

The pressure was now getting close to the point where the safety valve would lift. The blower was turned off and the engine was run out of gear with the drain cocks open. Very little condensate was noticed coming out of the drain cocks. I was operating the engine with David steering. I engaged low gear and opened the regulator to move forward, but unfortunately the crank was in a top-dead-center position and nothing happened. The easy solution would have been to pull the reversing lever back and then immediately forward. I’m not in favor of this maneuver as it does put a lot of strain on the crankshaft with the flywheel going one way and then being quickly reversed to go in the opposite direction. Even more important, the engine had been parked close to a wall and any movement backwards would have spoiled the paintwork. Patience was finally rewarded although starting was less than smooth (driving a compound is so much easier).

We crossed the yard and slowed down before we were able to pull onto the main road. The road went up a hill and ‘round a bend so I decided to continue in low gear. The engine was running very nicely with about 120 psi on the pressure gauge, but I felt sure the engine would have managed the hill in high gear. However, it seemed sensible to get to know the engine a little better before testing it to its limits.

Once at the top of the hill we pulled to the side of the road and I wound on the brake so I could change gear. This time we set off smoothly and continued down the road before taking a right-hand turn for the village. Every time the regulator was opened the engine responded immediately with a surge of power.

The injector had been used before we set off but now I tried to use it while on the move. I opened the water cock and turned on the steam, but it didn’t pick up immediately – as soon as the flow of water was reduced it worked perfectly. Throughout the road test there were few occasions when I didn’t have to adjust the water flow to get the injector to work. In fairness, once the flow of water had been reduced the injector picked up and operated without any further adjustment.

One slightly disturbing point about the injector is that when it is being used the gauge glass shows the boiler as being full. This is because like some other engines, such as Wallis & Steevens, the steam for the injector is taken off the same pipe that is the steam connection for the water gauge. Once the steam is turned off a true reading of the boiler level can be obtained. At the moment there is only the injector for adding water to the boiler. There are plans to add a water pump and water lifter as soon as the castings arrive and can be machined. I think I might have caused a few problems as I suggested the fitting of a second injector might be a better alternative!

The road was much quieter with only the occasional automobile overtaking us. I don’t know if there are plans to fit a seat to the engine, but David was seated on the edge of the coal bunker – a most uncomfortable position and I was glad to be doing the operating.

The route for the road test was a good one, as no sooner had we come to the top of a hill we were down the next one. I tried going up hills slowly and fast, and regardless of speed the engine coped well. I was a little disappointed that there was no noticeable improvement when the reversing lever was moved from the third notch to the first when going uphill. With the reversing lever fully forward there is a longer period for steam admission, which usually results in a noticeable improvement in pulling power. However, the engine is still under test and being run so a few adjustments to the valve timing might improve this.

Some operators like to rely solely on the reversing lever when going downhill, but I like to use the brake as well. Going downhill had me closing the regulator, winding on the brake and, when necessary, pulling the reversing lever back to the mid-gear position. The engine held back well with the reversing lever in the mid-gear position and the brake wound on lightly. On steeper hills it was necessary to pull the reversing lever momentarily back beyond the mid-gear position to slow the engine down. I’m probably over cautious when descending hills – I like to arrive at the bottom at the same speed that I started at the top.

Firing on the move is not easy on a cramped footplate. As yet, a plate has not been fitted to cover the gap from the footplate to the boiler, so any coal that doesn’t go through the firebox door can fall onto the road. Provision has been made to fit a chain to the firebox door, but again this has not been fitted. I did manage to fire on the move, but I found it difficult, probably because the coal bunker had been filled with coats and other paraphernalia. Getting coal out of the slot at the bottom of the tender was very difficult and I resorted to my usual, well-tried method of firing by hand.

I’d been warned the boiler was a good steamer and required only a light fire. I took this a little too literally as I kept pressure at around 120 psi most of the time and would have liked it closer to the full working pressure of 150 psi. Toward the end of the test I had a much deeper fire, which had the safety valves lifting from time to time. The damper works very well and when steam pressure dropped, it soon picked up when the damper was opened. The damper control is only temporary and has to be locked open with a screw; an orthodox damper with slots for the various positions will be fitted shortly.

By the time we stopped for lunch the weather had greatly improved. I started to get a feel for the engine and we made progress, especially over the last two or three miles. Coming up some of the hills with the safety valve starting to lift, the sound of the exhaust was fantastic. Once back at the farm, I engaged low gear and drove around single-handedly.

Feel for the Engine

What did I think of operating the Foster Wellington engine? Well, it’s certainly a lovely, fun little machine and will give David years of enjoyment. The boiler performs superbly giving plenty of steam even with a thin fire. All the controls are easy to handle although the regulator is stiff, but that is a common fault on many engines. It runs smoothly and gives a comfortable ride. As expected, the gears are very quiet. Consumption of coal and water seem low, but to gain a more accurate impression it would have to be judged on a longer trip – at least 30 miles.

Operating the Foster Wellington is similar to driving a large miniature as everything works so well and precisely – but it is a full-size engine! The engine’s small size makes it very easy to manage, and once the smokestack is removed it could be stored inside a domestic garage.

It would be interesting to see the results of an indicator test and compare them with those obtained by engine manufacturers. This would show the pressure of steam inside the cylinder – rather like a doctor using a stethoscope to find what’s happening inside the patient’s body. I’m sure the results would compare favorably.

The water gauge is the water-tube type and not a Klinger, which is so much safer. The position of the gauge makes it difficult to see without bending down. The engine is still undergoing trials and it is inevitable that some adjustments will have to be made. Several people have talked about building new engines and Great Northern Steam has now done it.

I’d like to thank David for putting his trust in me and allowing a complete stranger to operate his engine. In addition, my thanks to Keith Ashton and all his staff at Great Northern Steam – they should be proud of their achievements and I look forward to seeing the compound version of the Foster Wellington engine when completed.

For more information on this new traction engine, contact Great Northern Steam, (011) 44-325-464616. Contact steam enthusiast Mike Dyson at The Haven, Nelson’s Lane, Haddenham, Ely, Cambs, United Kingdom; (011) 01-353-740470; e-mail: mike@mandmdyson.wanadoo.co.uk