From Rotherwood* to Rotterdam – Woodhead Electrics in the Netherlands

*Or nearest offer!

Although many of us travel to the Continent to broaden our railway horizons, it is understandable that some of the most popular overseas locos amongst British enthusiasts are those which previously plied their trade on these shores.  Probably the best-known of these are the Dutch electric locomotives once employed on the much-missed “Woodhead” route between Manchester and Sheffield.

This is a story that goes back quite some way – in fact, September 2017 saw the 70th anniversary of the arrival in the Netherlands of LNER 1,500 V d.c. electric loco no.6000.

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1505 (ex-BR E27001 “Ariadne”) at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, 05/09/17 (JW)

This story effectively begins in the early years of the last century, when the Great Central Railway looked to electrify its route over the Pennines between Manchester and Sheffield, through the Woodhead Tunnels.  This did not proceed, for economic reasons as well as the onset of war, but was revisited after the Grouping by the nascent London & North Eastern Railway (LNER).  After a false start or two, the Woodhead electrification plans really got going after the Depression (and based on a the findings of a report by the Railway Electrification Committee led by Sir John Pringle in 1927, a voltage of 1,500 V d.c. was decided upon for main line routes) and some of the infrastructure was constructed, but again the onset of war led to the project being placed on ice.  However, work did not stop completely during the years of conflict, and one of the new electric locomotives was manufactured.

One of the last locos to be overseen by Sir Nigel Gresley prior to his death from a heart attack aged 64 in April of that year, locomotive no.6701 was built at the LNER’s Doncaster Works in 1941, but without the electrification of Woodhead, was effectively a locomotive without a railway.  It was able to be tested on the LMS (former MSJ&AR) suburban route from Manchester to Altrincham (now part of the Manchester Metrolink) which, again in line with Pringle’s report, had been electrified at 1,500 V d.c. in 1931.  However, the character of this 8-mile line did not allow the loco to really show what it was capable of.

The end of the war brought about a set of circumstances that were to prove mutually beneficial.  The LNER wanted to put its loco – renumbered to no.6000 in June 1946 – through its paces, but had no appropriate route electrified at 1,500 V d.c. on which to run it.  The Netherlands had suffered large-scale destruction during the Second World War – the strategically-located port city of Rotterdam, for example, suffered heavy aerial bombardment both at the hands of the Luftwaffe (prior to German occupation in May 1940) and the RAF (afterwards) that left it in ruins.  Its state railway – the Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) – had in the 1930s electrified a number of its main line routes (mainly in the south and west of the country) at 1,500 V d.c., but had a chronic post-war traction shortage.

Tommy

As a result, on a lend-lease principle that benefited both parties, no.6000 was dispatched to the Netherlands.  Sailing on board the LNER’s train ferry TSS Essex Ferry, it left British soil at Harwich on 3rd September 1947, docking at Hoek van Holland the next day.  It entered service on the 15th of that month.

No.6000 saw a number of modifications for use in the Netherlands, but as it was only a temporary visitor, these were not major.  Given the fact that it was an anachronistic system even then, its vacuum braking equipment was isolated (but not removed).  It gained air brakes, a train heating boiler and was apparently also adapted for push-pull working.

The loco served initially between Utrecht and Eindhoven on both passenger and freight trains.  From the end of 1948 it was used on express passenger duties between Amsterdam and Eindhoven, from mid-1949 running through to Maastricht.  For the last couple of years of its life in the Netherlands it was mainly used on freight trains, and was regularly seen between Amsterdam and Amersfoort, Amsterdam and Arnhem and on coal trains from the Limburg coalfield.

No.6000 was closely scrutinised in the Netherlands by British engineers, experience with it fed back into the design of the production fleet of EM1s, and 26001 rolled off the production line at Gorton Works in July 1950.

After over four years’ service in the Netherlands, and after having worked over 500,000 km, no.6000 returned home on 23rd March 1952.  The NS had by now procured its first fleet of electric locos (the Swiss-derived class 1000), had trialled SNCF class BB300 electrics, which eventually led to the order of class 1100 locos, and the first Baldwin-designed class 1200 electrics had emerged from the Werkspoor factory in Utrecht.  Importantly, February 1952 had also seen the first electric trains on the Woodhead route (specifically, between Wath and Penistone) and therefore the machine would no longer be homeless in the UK.

By now, the LNER had ceased to exist with nationalisation, and no.6000 became British Railways no.26000.  In a ceremony at London Liverpool Street station (also electrified at 1,500 V d.c., but later re-electrified to 6.25 kV a.c. in 1960 and then again to 25 kV a.c. in the late 1970s), the nickname that it had been given by the Dutch railwaymen who worked it on it – “Tommy”, after the generic name for British soldiers – was officially bestowed upon it, along with an additional plate explaining “So named by drivers of the Netherlands State Railway to whom this locomotive was loaned 1947-1952“.

“Tommy” next went to Gorton Works – which was engaged in the construction of the production EM1s at the time – where he lost his air brakes but retained his steam heating capability, and thence worked over Woodhead for almost two decades, as part of the boilered EM1 fleet that handled much of the passenger traffic.  “Tommy” was out of service by 2nd March 1968 and briefly stored at Bury.  However, he returned to service over Woodhead for a final six-month hurrah at the end of 1969, whilst the route saw a temporary increase in passenger traffic as a consequence of major work on Totley Tunnel on the Hope Valley route – ironically given what was on the horizon.

Under controversial circumstances, the railway over Woodhead lost its passenger service on 5th January 1970 and, with it, went the need for boilered EM1s.  “Tommy” returned to storage at Bury six days later and, tragically given his significance both to the UK and the Netherlands, was scrapped at Crewe in early November 1972.  Both his nameplates survive – one in private ownership, and one returned to the Netherlands, presented to the Dutch national railway museum in Utrecht.

This, however, was not the end of Woodhead’s association with the Nederlandse Spoorwegen.  In fact, at the time of “Tommy’s” withdrawal, a new chapter was only just beginning.

The EM2s

The “Manchester-Sheffield-Wath” electrification project – including the opening of a new Woodhead Tunnel – had progressed through the early 1950s, and September 1954 saw the completion of electrification throughout from Manchester London Road (now Piccadilly) to Sheffield Victoria.  Express passenger trains between the two cities now had a journey time of 56 minutes, which is not appreciably slower than you can travel between the two cities now, over 60 years later.

The post-war expectation had been for electrification not just of Woodhead but of other (ex-)LNER main lines, including up the Great Central main line through Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby to London Marylebone.  As a result, 1948 saw the ordering of 27 more powerful, six-axle electric locos of class EM2.  However, a wind change in policy (to standardise instead on 25 kV a.c. electrification) saw the order curtailed to just 7 machines.

The first, no.27000, emerged from Gorton Works in December 1953, with the other six (27001-006) following.  The decision not to pursue further electrification left the EM2s “landlocked” between Manchester and Sheffield, on one route on which they were never really able to show their true abilities (although railway folklore says that three-figure speeds were reached on occasion); it must be wondered whether the locos would ever have made it off the drawing board if it had been known that they would have such a restricted sphere of operation.  The locos received names (six in 1959, and the seventh, 27003 not until 1961) on the theme of ancient goddesses – three Greek and four Roman.

The above is a link to a fascinating 8-minute-long video of a footplate ride over Woodhead in 1965 in the cab of E27004 “Juno” (later NS 1503), uploaded by user Alan Snowdon.

The wind-down of Woodhead passenger services in the mid-to-late 1960s saw the EM2s sidelined by 2nd March 1968.  Initially, they were earmarked for movement to the redundant steam shed at Stafford, but their movement from Reddish in April 1968 for storage was actually north to Bury steam shed, along with “Tommy” (and a.c. electrics of TOPS classes 83 and 84), having barely broken a sweat during a criminally short life over Woodhead.

However, the very fact that none of them had reached a million miles meant that they were not by any stretch life-expired.  For an operator with 1,500 V d.c. electrification and a need for traction, they would have been an ideal solution…

…re-enter Nederlandse Spoorwegen!  In common with many railways in Western Europe in the 1960s (see also the Deutsche Bundesbahn), NS was losing the competition with the private car, and set about exploring drastic measures to attract passengers back to the iron road.  Initially, NS looked at procuring a small new class of high-speed electric loco, but it could not afford to pursue this project.  Under the banner of “Spoorslag 70”, it looked to implement a high-frequency timetable in the spring of 1970, and still needed more electric passenger locos to deliver this.

The memory of “Tommy” was still well alive on the other side of the North Sea.  NS approached BR, and their representatives inspected the EM2s at Bury.  On 20th August 1969, a reactivated E27002 “Aurora” was provided for a special train across Woodhead for NS dignitaries and engineers, and the machine put in a storming run, satisfying the Dutchmen who saw the EM2s as the ideal solution to its traction shortfall.  Consequently, NS purchased all seven – six for use, and the seventh as a source of spares.  It is thought that they were offered fellow Bury resident “Tommy” too, but they saw no use for an eighth machine, certainly not a non-standard one.  It’s unfortunate to the 2017 observer that seemingly nobody at the time recognised its significance enough to preserve it, the enthusiasts of the time doubtless preoccupied with the end of BR steam.

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The nameplate of E27004 “Juno” (NS 1503), as well as of BR diesels D870, 55020 and others is on display in the Kidderminster Railway Museum.  08/10/11.  (JW)

NS 1500s

The EM2s were taken across to the Netherlands the very next month, and fully refurbished at Tilburg works.  Unlike with “Tommy”, heavy work was carried out, and the locos gained air brakes, driving positions on the right-hand side of the cabs, new pantographs, along with the requisite Dutch safety systems – plus, of course, the NS yellow and grey livery and new numbers.

The six locos earmarked for use became class 1500 and were numbered 1501-1506 in the order that they left Tilburg between May 1970 and June 1971 (which did not correspond to their BR numbers), with E27005 “Minerva” being the unlucky machine that was cannibalised and then scrapped in November 1969.  The machines mainly operated on the axis between Den Haag and Venlo and Maastricht, as well as to Roosendaal.

Masters of their own downfall in some ways, “Spoorslag 70” had been such a success that 1978 saw an order for the 58 modern electric locos from Alsthom (class 1600).  This theoretically allowed NS to pursue standardisation further, and withdraw class 1000 and 1500 completely.  However, an upturn in traffic delayed the withdrawal of the 1500s until 1986.

As an aside, there are suggestions that NS considered purchasing a fleet of EM1s (by now BR class 76) to work heavy freights out of Europoort in pairs after BR had closed Woodhead in July 1981, but that BR did not want to risk discrediting its claim that they were life-expired by selling them for further use.  It has also been said that BR’s decision not to sell them meant that NS was unable to deliver on its intention to electrify the “Havenspoorlijn Rotterdam”; that objective was not achieved until the 21st century.

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The NS logo and nameplate (regained at the twilight of its Dutch career) on 1505 – ex-E27001 “Ariadne”.  05/09/17 (JW)

Survivors

Three of the six 1500s survive – 1501 (ex-E27003) remaining in the Netherlands, with 1502 (ex-E27000) and 1505 (ex-E27001) returning “home” to the UK.

1501 is preserved by Werkgroep Loc 1501/Stichting Klassieke Locomotieven and has worked extensively on the Dutch main line under their ownership.  It last ran on 23rd November 2007 (picture link here) – just shy of a decade ago, at the time of writing – and is now stored in their facility at Blerick, near Venlo awaiting restoration.  This work has been hampered and delayed by issues with asbestos in the building in which it is housed, but fortunately as of October 2017 this has just been resolved and restorative work can now commence.

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Two photos of 1501 at Blerick taken in early 2017, courtesy of Michiel de Wijs of Werkgroep 1501.  The “new” (47-year-old!) right-sided driving position can clearly be seen.

The desire to return 1501 to the main line is certainly there, but there are a number of issues currently precluding this, which will be familiar to any British preservation group attempting the same.  The biggest is that there seems to be a far greater paperwork barrier to preserved mainline running than existed when 1501 previously ran over NS metals.  Problems that require overcoming are a lack of maintenance papers and maintenance history of the locomotive to satisfy the “powers that be”.  There is also the perennial problem of a lack of sufficient suitable volunteers for the extensive and serious technical work that must be carried out.

*If you have experience of working on the EM2s in their BR days, or have contact with anyone who does, the group will certainly be keen to hear from you – please contact me and I will put you in touch.  Additionally, if you have access to any technical maintenance documentation regarding the EM2s, particularly (but not limited to) their bogies, this may be crucial to helping return 1501 to the main line, and your help would be very much appreciated!*

Of course, limited financial resources form their own barrier, for example to outsource various essential tasks.  If you would like to make a donation to the group to help them in their important work, I would invite you to take a look at this link on their website which gives you details of how to make such a bank transfer to them.  It is in Dutch, but can be easily translated online (e.g. by copying and pasting the text into Google Translate).

The above is a link to a video on YouTube by Vinkendrecht showing 1501 departing Dordrecht on 24th September 1993.

From the first example to work in the Netherlands to the first to work in England – 1502.  The purchase of the former E27000 “Electra” from NS by the EM2 Locomotive Society was negotiated in 1984 and finalised after the loco’s withdrawal in 1986.

In a lovely poetic turn, the transfer of 1502 (and 1505, bound for Manchester – see below) away from Tilburg on the first leg of their journey “home” on 10th July 1986 was done by none other than 1503 (ex-E27004 “Juno”), reactivated from the scrap line especially for this task.  This was not the only display of the massive Dutch respect for these machines, for anecdotally hundreds of NS staff who had worked with them over the previous 16 years turned out to wave them off.  While 1502 and 1505 moved on to a third life, destiny was not so kind to 1503, which did not evade the cutter’s torch.

For 1502, however, the next chapter of the story was already laid out.  She had been invited back to the Netherlands for the 150th anniversary celebrations in 1989, and therefore although repainted into BR green, was not drastically modified, retaining the various accoutrements required for operation on NS metals.

“Electra” was in the Netherlands between May and September 1989, during which she covered more than 3,000 miles on a programme of special operations.  However, she has not hauled a train since she returned to the UK, 28 years ago last month – although she theoretically remains operational, and as the EM2LS website states – “a further return to Holland only needs the invitation”!

27000 “Electra” (NS 1502) at the National Railway Museum, York on 05/06/04 (JW)

The locomotive has been returned to BR black livery, as delivered, and is on display at the Midland Railway Butterley.

Membership of the EM2 Locomotive Society is available via this link.  The Society are currently engaged in fundraising to restore their Drewry-built overhead line inspection vehicle (OLIVe!) DB998901, which was mindlessly damaged by arsonists in February 2016.

The final survivor is 1505.  This machine was donated by NS to the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry, on the express condition that it remained in Dutch livery and condition.  It is on display as such in their Power Hall.  Initially, NS had earmarked 1506 (ex-E27002 “Aurora”) for this role – however, sadly, that machine suffered fire damage in August 1984 and was later scrapped.  1505 (ex-E27001 “Ariadne”) stepped in.

As mentioned above, it left the Netherlands in the company of 1502, having been taken away from its home of Tilburg by its sister, 1503.  It parted company with “Electra” for the final time at Harwich (photo here) and was dragged first to Willesden, then to Warrington Arpley (behind 85015 in the consist of 6X86, a Speedlink service), and finally directly into the museum (by a BR blue class 31).  There it remains.

The future

We are lucky to still have half of the 1500s in existence, even if one of them (at least) is unlikely to draw power ever again.  It seems hopeful that we will see 1501 hauling trains on the Dutch main line in the future, if they can overcome the current obstacles – and, who knows, perhaps even 1502 one day as well.

There are currently no plans for any event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the introduction to traffic of the first 1500 (1501 itself) in the Netherlands, which will be on 5th May 2020, but this is clearly a space to be watched.

What does seem very much the case is that even though these locos were built for England, it is the Dutch chapter of their history in which they showed their true capabilities and ensured their place in European traction lore.

 

Many thanks to Michiel de Wijs and Ian Dobson for their help in the preparation of this article.

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