Road Test

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The new-build engine at the Village of Aldbrough, United Kingdom.
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Top: The left-hand lever is shown with low-speed engaged. The safety valve is a modern design; originally Fosters fitted Ramsbottom safety valves.
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Notice how the hornplate is not part of the boiler. The welded stay-heads and the screwed plugs are for washing out the boiler instead of the usual hand hole doors.
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All ready to start with the trade plate license no. 946 UB clearly visible.
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Center: All the controls are placed close together.
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Left: It is possible for the driver to oil all parts of the engine from the footplate with the exception of filling the cylinder lubricator. Although not rated, the engine is of approximately 20 HP.
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The paintwork (mostly powder coated to resist chipping) has been carried out to a very high standard.
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Underneath the steam chest is the valve for the blower. The Manzel cylinder lubricator can be seen above and to the right.

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

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!


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

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.


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

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

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

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.


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

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) 01-353740470; e-mail:

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