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Book Reviews

William Scott: ‘Locomotives Of the NCC LMS and Its Predecessors’
192 pages, 272 photographs, colour cover, 47 line drawings, maps, tables, etc.
ISBN 978-1-904242-84-0
£25.00.  Published by Colourpoint Books, Jubilee Business Park, 21 Jubilee Road, Newtownards, Co Down, BT23 4YH, Northern Ireland.

The locomotive history of the “Northern Counties” spans over twelve decades, from the opening of the first portion of the Belfast & Ballymena company, down to the end of revenue earning steam in Ireland.  That story encompasses some 187 engines, including a foray into the narrow gauge.  In that period, technology evolved from the little Sharp singles, weighing in at about 21½ tons, to the almighty Jeeps, which, if not quite the last steam engine delivered to Ireland, represent the zenith of locomotive design on 5′ 3″ gauge.

This book is the result of over 2o years of research.  Naturally it will stand as companion to Norman Johnston’s history of the GNR(I) locomotive fleet, but in comparing the two volumes, you end like Balaam’s ass, gazing from one to the other, and deciding that they are both very good!  They do however take a different perspective.  Norman’s book was a real mechanical archaeology, digging up the sort of details of primeaval engines I never expected to see in print.  Bill, I suspect, does not have this option, since many of the NCC archives were destroyed in the Blitz.  He does however provide a comprehensive record of the “mechanical dark ages” based on what has survived and some detective work by RN Clements.  However, he draws heavily on his friendships with the men who built, maintained, drove and fired these machines, now sadly a dwindling band.  In this respect, his book will never be bettered, and the extra space allows him to provide more operational details for the later period: details of the running and composition of specific services; loco allocation and performance; logs of runs; and some highly amusing anecdotes, gleaned from his time spent in the company of footplate staff.  Moreover, as the author has built several miniature NCC engines himself, I feel his book will have the edge for modellers: it contains scale drawings.  At the end, there are reproductions of 35 NCC weight diagrams for engines and railcars, and the NCC had weight diagrams of the better sort, pretty much scale elevations.  Whilst not quite covering every class, there should be enough material here to keep a workbench busy for a few decades!  Earlier in the book are good reproductions of some of John Houston’s scale drawings, going right back to the Bury and Sharp engines of 1847!  For anyone contemplating building a Worsley Mogul kit, there is a whole chapter of inspiration, a cover picture of 94 in crimson glory, and an unusual and useful photograph of the backhead detail.  Further appendices provide useful details for modellers on livery and lamp codes.

There is also fascinating detail of some innovations which have not previously been published such as early turf-burning experiments and the NCC’s own ATC systems.  There is some humour too: a vignette of Bowman Malcolm, who stamped his mark on Northern Counties design over nearly half a century, and some gentle disparaging of the less competent locomotive policy of a smaller line across Belfast Lough!  For anyone without an engineering degree there are clear explanations about the rationale for superheating and the economic arguments about compounding.  Another useful feature is a periodic standing back from the detail of individual engines, to give a brief summary of the loco fleet at key dates, and compare policy with other Irish railways’ practice.

There are also some interesting notes on the genisis of the Moguls and Jeeps, and, something that is getting rare, some brand new information from the steam age, including details of how the NCC operated a “slip” on the narrow gauge (albeit for an NPC vehicle); various locomotive exchanges with the GNR; and the fact that one of the little DNGR tanks borrowed for shunting in the Second World War got to work a few passenger turns around Coleraine.  Although the book concentrates on the steam locos owned by the “Northern Counties,” for completeness, there are chapters on diesel shunters and railcars and locomotives drafted in from other sections in UTA days.

Some of the early locomotives, despite short lives, moved around a lot, and had complex life stories, but by the 1850s, engineers could produce sturdy machines, with economic lives of upwards of 60 years.  However, most of these engines underwent at least one major rebuild or renewal, and on the NCC it was often hard to tell where an old engine ended and a new one began!  In fact, the NCC was particularly bad among Irish railways for metamorphoses, as 2-4-0s became 4-4-0s, compounds turned into simples, and an engine might have several class designations in its career.  Bill explains all this well: there is particularly good use of detailed tables to show the life history of individual engines, and at last I think I understand the complex history of the A, B, C and D classes, and how a few made the final evolutionary step into the U group!  The photographs include real gems, and reproduction is generally good, allowing for the age of some of the originals.  Many would clearly benefit from larger reproduction to show up small details, but when we are back to the old argument of cost: would you like a few large pictures, or more smaller ones?  Once again, I think Colourpoint have got the balance right here.  Overall this is a wonderful book, and we are very lucky that Bill has put so much effort into pulling all this material together. [A O’R]

 

Tom Ferris: ‘Irish Railways: A New History’
222 pages, map and 78 plates.
ISBN 978-0-7171-4291-0
€24.99/£19.99.  Published by Gill & McMillan, Hume Avenue, Park West, Dublin 12.

Reading this new volume, I reflect that Irish railway books come in three main types: there are photographic albums; there are detailed technical books or individual company histories (for what Tom calls the “true believers”); and there are books appealing to a wider audience.  A variety of these have appeared since Conroy’s 1928 epistle, a little flurry at the time of the Dublin & Kingstown 150 celebrations, some well written and some not so well crafted.  But it is a while since we have had a generic history of Ireland’s rail network, and Tom is quite explicit that his work is aimed at the general reader, and assumes no knowledge of railway history or operation.  It does however display extensive reading and an encyclopaedic knowledge on Tom’s part.  Anyone already familiar with Irish railways will not, to be honest, learn much fresh.  However, there are some new bits of information: I did not know before that the legislation for the establishment of the joint GNR Board in 1953 empowered the Dublin government to save much of the Irish North-Western in 1957, and if it had, a Dundalk-Clones-Enniskillen line might even today break up that huge railway desert between Sligo and Derry.

Tom divides his topic into five periods.  The first three chapters cover the primeaval era, down to 1850, but going back before the DKR to the 18th century mineral tramways.  This section makes good use of the 1838 report on railways in Ireland, covers he Irish railway mania and even puts the origin of “five foot three” in a new context as the beginning of parliamentary regulation.  In the second period, covering the next 30 years, Tom covers a lot of ground, concisely and accurately, to show how the vast majority of the commercially viable network was built.  We then step aside for an account of the narrow gauge lines, which, unsurprisingly, does get rather generous cover.  Tom’s third period is the golden age, from 1880 to the outbreak of the First World War, although even in this period the economic performance of Irish railways ranged from moderate prosperity to near bankruptcy.  Most new lines built in that period depended on various fairy godmothers such as the Tramways Acts, direct grants and baronial guarantees, and were often constructed for social rather than commercial reasons, or to pacify Irish politics.  Although he does mention it very briefly later on, I think there is one thing Tom misses here.  From the late 19th century, there was strong agitiation, especially from Nationalist politicians, for some form of state control of the Irish railway network.  the main rationale here was that compared to English lines, Irish ones had little mineral traffic and rather top-heavy management and administrative costs, which brought much higher charges.  Central control was mooted as offering greater efficiency and thus lower freight costs to Irish businesses.  The next period (1914-50) is rather ambivalent: on the one hand the railways, despite two periods of wholesale suspension of services, remained a key part of the national economy, comprehensive both in geographical coverage and the traffic they handled.  On the other hand, their economic performance declined even more, and despite a few local experiments with diesel traction and modern signalling, they sank into technological obsolescence.  By the middle of the 20th century, something clearly had to be done, but the last 50 years the “solution” has bounced between closure, rationalisation, reorganisation and at last proper investment, but delivering an odd paradox.  Irihs railways spent much of their history trying to extract a living wage from a rural economy, carrying just about anything that needed to go from A to B: the last mixed train ran as recently as 1975.  Yet today the system depends on railcars, passengers and a growing commuter traffic.

There is a good selection of illustrations, showing the range of Irish railway activity over some 170 years, including some old favourites in colour for the very first time,but in my copy a few plates are spoiled by poor reproduction.  The other main defect is the lack of a bibliography.  Given that the intended audience may not be familiar with Irish railway literature, a book list (at least of recent company histories) would be very useful for anyone whose appetite is whetted by Tom’s broad overview.

In summary, this book aims to give the general reader an introduction to Irish railways, or to place them in context for the student of economics or history, and it does this very well.  As for the “true believers,” most of us will I think still enjoy Tom’s arguments, even if we don’t quite agree with all his interpretations.  One final but important point, especially for any budding authors: Tom has written in a clear and elegant style, which is very refreshing after much of the unintelligible jargon you get today and shows that you can write competent railway history, which is also good prose. [A O’R]

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