Road Test

The First New Traction Engine of the 21st Century

| June 2007

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.


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!