Dual fuel steam loco – with a bang

We try to blog about fairly typical cases found in our project database – like our post two weeks’ ago, on a 1922 shunting accident and first aid. However, some of the cases found in the database are surprising and far from usual – and it’s hard not to focus on them. This week is one such case.

On 1 January 1909 – barely into the new year – Great Eastern Railway (GER) fireman AF Godfrey and driver Frederick Hubbard were injured at Ely. They were in charge of an oddity – a product to the GER’s attempt to economise in the 19th century: a locomotive converted to run on liquid fuel. It was this liquid fuel which proved problematic.

It was a surprise to see this in the database. Conversion of engines to run on oil around the time of the Second World War is relatively well-known. That it had a much longer history isn’t. The GER began experimenting with liquid fuel in the early 1880s, as a means of using the by-products of producing gas for lighting its carriages (more on this here, courtesy of the  Institution of Civil Engineers). However, it wasn’t able to convert engines until c.1886.

Liquid fuel was carried in the tender, and pumped through pipes into the firebox, where it was sprayed and ignited, in order to help the coal (which was still used) heat the water in the boiler to make steam and power the engine.

In this case the problem arose because there was no easy way for the footplate crew to tell how much fuel they had in the tank in the tender. Instead, someone had to insert a dipping rod and then take it to the footplate, some 7 feet away, to examine it ‘in comparative safety’. Tellingly, Inspector John Main noted that ‘there are, however, no instructions to this effect.’

On the day in question, when the train arrived at Ely at 7pm, the crew started to ‘turn her around’ to get the engine ready for the next service. This meant the loco was detached from any other stock, and had moved some distance away. Godfrey went on to the tank to check the liquid fuel level. He used a lighted torch to inspect the dipstick as it was dark at this time of year. Hubbard ‘saw a flash run along the rod and the tank exploded.’ Godfrey was hurled on top of a nearby coal shed, ‘and fell from there on to a wagon, sustaining serious injuries, while Hubbard was thrown from the footplate.’

That both men survived is surprising, given the force of the explosion. The top of the tank – which Godfrey had been standing on – was carried away completely and deposited beside the driving wheels of the engine.’ Hubbard sustained minor injuries; Godfrey was more seriously hurt, suffering burns and other injuries.

The full accident report from Inspector Main goes into some technical detail about the use of liquid fuel. He also noted that it didn’t appear practicable to find an alternative to using the dipping stick, but did provide a number of recommendations for the Company to consider. This included promoting safe practices which would prevent ‘carelessness in taking a naked light to gauge the fuel’ (1909 Quarter 1, Appendix B) – though it’s hard to see this as carelessness at night if no other source of light was available. At the time this case occurred, it was the only accident involving oil-burning engines.

The Cambridge Independent Press report noted ‘the noise of the explosion was deafening, and this, with the tremendous glare accompanying it, for the moment, held spell-bound and terrified everyone who were in the vicinity of the occurrence.’ As well as revealing the fate of the men, it noted that the tender remained on fire ‘and for some time the heat was so great that trains could not pass’ (8 January 1909).

The Saffron Walden Weekly News was rather more florid. Noting the concerns for Hubbard and Godfrey, ‘in many of the workers’ hearts was the fear that the fireman, or all that was left of him, lay in the midst of the seething flames, and the news of his discovery, bleeding and injured as he was, came as a great relief to all’ (8 January 1909).

Hubbard at least appears to have continued on the Great Eastern Railway, appearing on the 1911 census as a stoker; Godfrey has proven difficult to trace.

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