The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

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

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

3 January 2006

Return to Index

Diary of Events

Press Cuttings
Visit Reports
Lecture Reports
Product News


Leighton Buzzard Light Railway and the restoration of the Protected Simplex locomotive
by Tony Tomkins & Chris Grimes, Leighton Buzzard Railway
11 September 2000

Tony Tomkins opened the talk with something of the history of the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway. Sand has been extracted from the quarries around Leighton Buzzard since the early 19th century. Its purity was renowned, to the extent that it had been exported to Egypt - to act as a standard against which the local sand could be assessed. Among the early customers attracted by the purity was a glassworks in Smethwick. However, most of the needs in London for sand were met by Belgian sand which came as ballast in returning ships employed in the export of British goods. In the early days the extraction of Leighton Buzzard sand was entirely by hand and it was transported by horse and cart through the town to the LNWR station. This situation continued right up to the end of the First World War. By this time, the vast increase in demand for sand in London was resulting in damage to the roads of Leighton Buzzard which required repairs amounting to £1,000 per month. During the war, the Government had been prepared to pay this, but with the peace in 1918 the payment stopped and something had to be done.

There had been previous proposals for railway connections to the quarries, but these had failed. The need for urgent action was the spur for the opening of the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway on 21 November 1919. Ignoring the conventional approach through the Board of Trade, the owners contacted the County Council for permission to cross the 13 roads between the quarries and the exchange sidings. As a consequence, operations were (and still are, in many cases) not controlled by an Act of Parliament, but merely by some not very onerous regulations framed by the council. During the war there had been significant development of the 2ft gauge military supply railways, based on the French "Decauville" principles and it was decided to use the same gauge for the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway.

The first motive power had been 2 Hudswell-Clark steam locomotives based upon contemporary military practice. These were used during construction, but by the time the line opened, the railway had purchased war surplus Simplex petrol locomotives. Within 2 years the steam locomotives had been sold and the railway become one of the first railways to use exclusively internal combustion power. The demise of steam had been caused by the lack of water along the route and problems with sand getting into the motion, but the economics favoured petrol by a factor of 4. The use of internal combustion continued until the line closed for commercial operation in 1982. The last locomotive purchase was in 1955, also a Simplex, but like all purchases since the 1930's, powered by a diesel engine.

After being shown some pictures of railway operation, Chris Grimes took up the story with some of the history behind the Protected Simplex and the restoration of the NRM's example. The original "Motor Rail & Tramcar Ltd" had been set up in Lewes in 1911 to produce internal combustion engined trams. The company had moved to Bedford on the outbreak of war in 1914 and the proprietor had tried to interest the Army in the use of the petrol engined locomotive for moving supplies. However, the Army considered the motor lorry to be more flexible, but unfortunately it proved unsuccessful, becoming bogged down as the roads broke under the traffic. Under the influence of Eric Geddes of the NER the Army set up a 2ft gauge system to supply the trenches of northern France. In the rear areas steam locomotives were used to move supplies by night, but the glare from the fireboxes was too great for them to be used close to the front. For this final section (about 3 miles) petrol locomotives were used. Over 1,000 Simplex locomotives were produced, many of which were lost in the movements of the front.

The last production examples did not go over to France, but were sold to various industrial concerns. Works number 1383 was one of the first bought by the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway. It remained with the railway until 1959 when all the petrol engined locomotives were scrapped. Works number 1377 was sold to the Nostrop sewage works in Nottingham. This was eventually withdrawn in 1980, but unfortunately, the engine was not drained and by the time the locomotive came into the National Collection the engine had been seriously damaged by frost.

By the time the locomotive arrived at Leighton Buzzard in 1991 a previous attempt at restoration had failed. Whilst the exterior paintwork was good, the engine internals were in a large crate. These had first been thought to be spares - until the access covers on the engine were taken off to reveal an empty engine and serious damage to the cylinder bores. The damage was cured by the replacement of the cylinder liners, but at this point priorities changed and the locomotive was set aside from 1995 to 1999.

With the 80th anniversary of the opening of th railway approaching, and the close similarity between the NRM locomotive and the Simplex locomotive used at the opening, the restoration was restarted. The first problem was to free the seized engine. This was eventually cured by towing the locomotive backwards and forwards until the engine would turn over. However, the engine still would not produce more than a few coughs. The magneto was capable of proving plenty of sparks, as one unfortunate volunteer found out when the magneto was turned over whilst he was holding it. However, it was not of the original type. Efforts at starting the engine had been based upon the direction of motion shown on the magneto, but the engine was turning the wrong way, hence the coughs as it tried to run backwards. This was corrected and eventually the locomotive was running.

Work continues. The fuel consumption is horrific and efforts will be found to reduce the fuel consumption at idling (which is not much different from full throttle). The exhaust system is to be improved as well.

Tony Tomkins wound up the evening by pointing out that industrial railways, especially narrow gauge, are poorly represented within the National Collection. He suggested that those concerned with the NRM should look to improve this situation. The outstation at Shildon had set a precedence which could be copied by setting up a centre devoted to the narrow gauge industrial railways which had played such a major role during the Victorian era, but which are now largely overlooked. The idea was that the public could see these work-horses operating in a representative situation, moving large quantity of minerals in an efficient manner.

See also visit report to the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway.