Whilst the Nene Valley Railway is probably best known for its collection of locomotives and rolling stock from continental Europe, the NVR is also fortunate to be a home base for over 70 ex-BR wagons, mostly of 1950s/early 1960s vintage, but also including a small number built by the pre-Nationalisation (pre-1948) and pre-Grouping (pre-1923) railway companies.
This large collection has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse, as for a number of years, the very limited manpower that was available to look after the combined passenger and wagon fleet was somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer number of vehicles. Maintaining the passenger-carrying carriages understandably came first on the list of priorities, and it was not really possible to do much more than the ‘bare minimum’ required to keep a small selection of wagons running safely. Spurred on by the steadily deteriorating condition of much of the wagon fleet, in late 2011 a small number of NVR working members got together to resurrect the volunteer-based NVR Wagon Group, which had lain dormant for some time. This has had the benefit of allowing the paid staff within the Carriage and Wagon department to concentrate on maintaining and restoring the NVR passenger-carrying stock, whilst the volunteer Wagon Group manage, fundraise and undertake the works on the goods wagons.
Arguably the collective centrepiece of the NVR wagon fleet is the sheer number of ordinary four-wheeled goods vans on the railway, which were once a common sight in goods trains on Britain’s railway network. With over 20 suitable vans resident on the railway, the NVR has a unique opportunity to recreate an authentic block van train typical of the 1950s/60s period…
Introducing our project – “Express Freight”:
Express ‘fitted’ (vacuum-braked) van trains were a frequent sight on all regions of British Railways during the steam and early diesel-era. Like passenger stock, rakes of ‘fitted’ wagons had a continuous train brake. This allowed much more control of the train, and therefore a substantially higher speed limit than that permitted for ‘unfitted’ goods trains – which relied on the brakes on the engine and brake van, not to mention the skill of the footplate crew and guard, to control the train. Higher permitted speeds meant that as well as being hauled by freight and mixed-traffic locomotives, express van trains were also handled by glamorous passenger engines such as Gresley and Stanier ‘Pacifics’, the ‘Castle’ 4-6-0s of the Western Region, and Oliver Bulleid’s versatile ‘Merchant Navy’ and ‘West Country’/Battle of Britain’ classes.
Most of the Nene Valley Railway’s extensive collection of BR goods vans came to the railway from the British Sugar factory at Spalding, Lincolnshire. They had been purchased directly from British Rail, to be converted into internal-user vehicles around the factory complex. It must be assumed that the prototype conversion was deemed unsuccessful, as instead they remained intact and were used as stores vehicles around the site, until the Nene Valley Railway acquired them in 1992 – a filming contract seeing them moved en masse to the railway that summer. They were immediately pressed into service as the railway’s demonstration goods train, featuring in a number of photographic charters during the 1990s with resident and visiting locomotives. Inevitably the years of service with BR, British Sugar, and NVR took their toll on the timber bodywork in particular, and one by one, the vans gradually dropped out of use, to the point where none remained in traffic.
For several years the vans have been scattered around the railway, quietly mouldering away, neglected and apparently unloved. Saddened by this state of affairs, and inspired by 1990s photographs of the NVR van train in action, as well as historic photos of British Railway’s steam-era goods trains, the newly-reformed Wagon Group have always recognised that the collective BR van train is the key component of the NVR wagon collection. Once restored, we anticipate that the rake will create keen interest amongst the ‘railway enthusiast’ fraternity, and that as a unique and historically authentic asset, will be capable of earning the NVR and Wagon Group a commercial income via photo charters.
In 2012, the first van was outshopped from the works into traffic – 1952-built B759852. A few other jobs have had to be completed on other wagon projects in the meantime – see our gallery – but we are now at a point where we can focus almost exclusively on vans, with the end goal of having enough vans in traffic to form the bulk of a train that ‘looks right’ behind even the largest locomotives. Few locomotives in preservation will look out of place at the head of the van train. Even the NVR’s ‘mascot’, 0-6-0T Hudswell-Clarke locomotive No.1800, (better known to all as No.1 “Thomas”), earned a living shunting long strings of ‘fitted’ BR vans around the British Sugar plant at Peterborough whilst in industrial service!
How you can help:
Restoration work can only continue for as long as we are able to fund it. However, the works are relatively inexpensive, especially in railway-preservation terms, so even a little goes a long way. Please consider making a donation towards our cause – every little helps. Thank you.
We are also a happy, but relatively small band of volunteers. If you are interested in physically helping out with wagon restoration work, where you can make a big visual difference in a relatively short space of time, please get in touch. You will be in danger of having a hobby for life – we hope to hear from you!