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The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA




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28 April 2012
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The Waterman Railway Heritage Trust 

Pete Waterman

12 March 2012

We were honoured to welcome Pete Waterman to the Group's meeting. Pete did not use any visual aids but kept the packed audience enthralled as he spoke for some 80 minutes and then answered questions.

Pete was born in 1947 during the deepest snowfalls in history – he was sure there was a Super-D passing in the background. He came from a working class background and had started in the railways, where he had leant that good practice is all about teamwork. Although, as the chairman had noted in his introduction, he had been a member of Coventry Cathedral choir, the new Cathedral hadn't been built at the time! While everyone at school was swatting, he was spotting numbers. But he didn't worry as the school needed him for the choir. He was determined to join the railways after school, but he got there by a strange route - he was hauled before the beak for dealing in stolen goods. To be specific they were railway shed and loco plates, which he didn't know were stolen. He was sent, by way of reparation under probation, to Wolverhampton shed to make the tea for the lads. He learnt to be part of the team and it must have been good tea because they offered him a job at the end. Soon after his music career took off. What little time he had available he spent in making 7mm locomotives. However, one day he had a bit of spare time during a stop-over at Bristol, so he went to Minehead, a location he knew well from his boyhood holidays, and came across the West Somerset Railway running steam engines. He thought he ought to have one to add to his collection of diesel and electrics. At the time BR regularly used to approach him to ask if he wanted to buy a redundant engine which they would overhaul and send wherever he wanted. That's how he came by his collection of electric locos. Initially he approached the NRM to see if they were interested in obtaining one of each of the first five electrics, classes 81-85. They were ground-breaking in UK terms, but crude by modern standards. The NRM were not interested, so he bought them for storage at Crewe.

One day, someone from the Orient Express approached him to see if they could buy one of his Class 55s. He agreed, on condition they bought him a steam engine in return. The result was that he became the owner of GWR No 5224. By then he had his railway maintenance company, which could handle all the moving parts; but the problem was the boiler. Boiler skills were in short supply, and getting scarcer by the year. He realised that the solution was to start an apprenticeship, so he advertised for men over 55 who had worked on steam engine building and repair. He got 10 applicants and matched these with 10 young apprentices. Together they took the engine apart and immediately saw the corrosion in the boiler. His senior boilermaker initially said they would patch it up, as BR used to do in its make-do-and-mend way. However, Pete asked what the GWR would have done had they come across such an engine in 1939. The answer was that they would have supplied a new replacement. To an accountant this was just overkill, but it was obvious to Pete, as the “responsible person” in charge of the business, that this was the proper way to ensure that the engine would be safe. His view is that locomotive repair must be considered as a sustainable business, not as a hobby. At the time, in the mid 1990s, the thought was that there will always be people around who are able to do locomotive repair work. Now however, those people are in short supply and, at the same time, tests and regulations are becoming much stricter.

Now he has over 30 apprentices on his books. All are taking NVQs as part of their training. There is a steady flow of work through the workshops, so much so, that they don't have enough apprentices. He is keen to point out that his apprenticeships are real ones, not the 6-week work experience “apprentices” which the government was pushing at one time. The government has now swung to the opposite extreme and insisted that no-one can get on their apprenticeship programmes without GCSEs. Pete believes that good quality apprenticeships should be open to anyone who is serious about learning and can stick the course. He was challenged, about 3 years ago, to start a scheme for the long-term unemployed under 25s, which he did. As part of this, he was asked if he would take a young woman who was about to go to prison unless she found herself a placement. She said she was interested in becoming an engineer and he got her to promise that she would stick with the apprenticeship, not miss any more than two consecutive days at college. She has turned out to be his best pupil and is now in her third year. She has problems at college, where people still remember her earlier years as a trouble-maker, but Pete is proud of her. She is passionate about engineering and, although she is normally taciturn, she opened up and wouldn't stop speaking during a recent visit by Prince Charles. The same enthusiasm goes all his people. During a recent cold-snap, they lost only a few minutes lost time, even though they are working in the open or unheated premises.

The last 3 years has also just about seen the end of active participation by ex-BR steam-skilled men. The costs of running a steam locomotive and repairing them are astronomical and even the wealthiest individual will find it impossible to run as a hobby. As an example, he pointed to the BR Standards. Britannia required a new upper firebox. The problem is that the arsenitic copper is only available from Taiwan and only one mill in Europe can roll the supplied ingots. Those ingots alone cost £200k. The rest of the boiler is made up of patches on patches and also needed replacing. He pointed out that most of the BR Standards which come through his works are in the same state. This is because BR made them for an anticipated lifetime of about 20 years, and here we are some 60 years later still trying to run them.

In the works at present are four BR Standards all having brand new boilers fitted. Making a taper-boiler is not easy, especially as these days the specialist presses are not available, and much has to be made by hand using hammers and blow-torches. To make a back-plate will cost about £18k to £20k and to restore the complete engine somewhere between £750k and £1.5M. It is not surprising, at these amounts, that there is an ever increasing line of engines awaiting heavy repairs at the preserved lines.

Building new locomotives is not necessarily the answer. Tornado, for example, cost £4M; money which reduces the amount available for restoration of other engines. In addition the new boiler in Tornado has had its problems, so the question of better boiler sources still remains.

In questions, Pete covered the access of steam locomotives to the National Railway Network, which he believes will gradually concentrate on a few secondary lines due to the capacity constraints on the main lines. There were still questions about locomotive repair, Pete pointing to the difficulties of sourcing forgings in the UK, and of the question of whether to replace original, as so potentially historic, components – the answer being if it is to run it must be safe, so replacement is usually the better option. His main theme though, remained that locomotive repair must be run as a sustainable business. He finished on the essential component, people, and paid tribute to the people who knew about, and ran BR in the steam days, such as the 80 year old fireman who visited the Flying Scotsman footplate, and the last Crew Premium Apprentice who sadly died at the very moment the regulator was re-opened for the first time on the restored Super-D.