K&ESR Pickering steam railcar

In 1905 the railway technical press was filled with the latest development in economical transport - the steam rail motor (later called railcar). The Locomotive Magazine in that year carried news of a new railcar every month. Most of these were bogie carriages with a small engine conventionally built on the same chassis. Originally envisaged to increase frequency and reduce costs on routes that competed with the then current arch enemy - the electric tram -there were exceptions. Tucked away at the end of an article on the latest batch of rail motors in the Locomotive Magazine of March 1905 there was a description of an experimental machine designed to be used on rural light railways. And she was very different from all the others too; a four-wheeled machine owing far more to road steam lorry practice than the blending of conventional locomotives and carriages that the others represented. Holman F Stephens was again innovating to try and keep down the cost of operating a rural light railway, and the Kent & East Sussex now acquired its 6th item of motive power when delivery was effected in March 1905.

The railmotor craze had started a year or two earlier. Soon after his appointment as General Manager of the London and South Western Railway, Sir Charles Owens came to the conclusion that material economies might be effected by running a powered single coach where the traffic did not call for a train of six or seven 4 or 6 wheeled vehicles hauled by an ordinary locomotive. The line from Fratton to East Southsea, the joint property of the London and South Western and the London, Brighton and South Coast companies was selected for the purpose of an experiment. In 1902 Dugald Drummond the chief mechanical engineer of the LSWR was requested to "take the subject into consideration" (nobody TOLD Drummond), and to devise a rail motor. The design produced at Nine Elms Works was ready for use in the following April and the first of two cars began regular working in June 1903. Even before this the Great Western Railway asked to copy the design. This was agreed and the GWR made the very sensible decision to substantially enlarge the boiler unit. Both railways immediately claimed a very appreciable reduction in the cost of haulage, without "the withdrawal of any accommodation required by the public". The other railways poured out designs over the next three years with very mixed success. Some persisted and met with modest success continuing services until World War I, but others quickly succumbed to poor performance and/or passenger discomfort. Only the GWR and the Lancashire and Yorkshire really persisted beyond this.

Matching the Railmotor craze at this time was the enthusiasm on the road for the steam lorry and in particular the then modern relatively lightweight 'Undertype' lorry with high speed geared engines and vertical boilers. Historic trials in Liverpool in 1899 and 1901 had proved the economy and practicability of the steam lorry, and a seminal book published in 1906 claimed "During the past fifteen years considerable progress has been made in high-speed engines, and reliable data are now available which prove beyond all doubt that this class of engine can be relied on-prophecies to the contrary notwithstanding-and that greater signs of wear in a given period are not more observable than in ordinary slow-running engines. The advantages of 'high speed' (in economical use of steam and power/weight ratio) are practically acknowledged by the majority of makers who run their engines as fast as they consider prudent."

The Sentinel lorry of the period had a classic Undertype configuration with a compact tube boiler mounted ahead of the front axle, an engine having cylinders with 6in bore and l0 in stroke slung amidships under the framing. It attained engine speeds of 300 revolutions per minute geared down through a chain drive to the rear wheels. Such speeds allowed a far more lightweight unit than railway locomotive type mechanisms but they tended to be more complicated and needed sophisticated gearing and lubrication, with all the moving parts running in a bath of oil.

There was another problem too. The early years of the twentieth century saw many makes of Undertype steam wagons come and go; and with hindsight all of them suffered from inefficient boilers. Many went well enough when supplied with sufficient steam but on hills they stalled because of the inability of their boilers to produce the required volume of steam quickly enough. Locomotive type boilers came back into fashion and weights increased until Sentinel perfected its designs in the early 1920s and the lighter vertical boiler made its come back. The Undertype could be a difficult wagon to design and maintain but it had one great point in its favour; if the failings in boiler design were cured, its compact design took up very little load space.

Stephens with his advocacy of a modern and cost effective approach to rural transport would have been very aware of all these developments and must have wished to try them. We can be fairly sure that he was actively involved in the design of the new railcar and took a particularly proprietorial attitude to it when it appeared. The firm he turned to build the Carriage portion was his current favourite R & Y Pickering of Wishaw near Glasgow who were predominantly wagon and carriage builders with no knowledge or experience of steam machinery. They took Stephens order under the name of the Kent & East Susex Railway on 8th August 1904 noting that 'they to supply Engine and Boiler' and it was dispatched to Robertsbridge on 10th February 1905. The new railcar's mechanism  purchased separately from Messrs Hutchinson and Company some months before the railcar was delivered. Messrs Hutchinson and Co was not a lorry or crane manufacturer although there was a Hutchison and Company, Boilermakers, 25 Mair Street, Glasgow in the 1905 Glasgow trade directory. Unfortunately we have virtually no record of the mechanical components of the Railmotor. We only have the bare details and a photograph of the interior to guide us. It had a pair of 5 ½ " (5" in K&ESR records) cylinders with ordinary (Stephenson) link motion, supplied with steam by a vertical multitubular boiler, and driving a layshaft connected by Reynolds Patent Silent Drive Chain to the nearest axle. Later secondary sources claim a piston stroke of 9", a boiler 2' 10" diameter by 5' working to a relatively low pressure of 1401bs. The photo of the cab interior shows a classic steam launch cylinder unit mounted transversely on the right hand side, supplied by a classic launch type vertical boiler on the left, driving a centrally mounted chain geared drive with Renold's Patent Silent Driving Chain.

Engine compartment

Although these basic units were far from modern design by road standards, and may indeed have been second hand, as a whole the rail motor was set up with considerable affinity to steam lorry style with relatively high speed unit with gearing and boiler mounted across the front. Amidships it carried a small quantity of water (quoted later as 150 gallons, perhaps enough for ten miles) to counter balance the weight of the power unit. However I doubt this was a satisfactory distribution of weight. Without a decent load in the passenger accommodation this distribution would have resulted in a very bouncy ride which would have got worse as the water was used up. In addition there would probably have been an imbalance between the we4ight of the Boiler on one side and the other cab machinery. An under slung lorry unit between the wheels would have vastly improved the weight distribution and consequent ride. Stephens was never good at designing track worthy vehicles.

The railcar body itself was a basic example of the Edwardian coachbuilder's art. A 17 foot wheelbase 4 wheeler, 30 foot over the buffers ( 24' over headstocks)  and with a body 27' 1" long, 9' wide and 10' 9" high it looked handsome but like the later petrol Railmotors passenger comfort was minimal to non-existent. Adjoining the engine room was, logically, a smoking compartment with 11 seats, then a non-smoking compartment for 20 and after that an intermediate vestibule open to the elements both sides, a guard’s compartment claimed to seat 6 and stand 4 with 12-14 milk churns and baggage. The guard’s compartment also contained basic driving controls with a form of steam shut off, a whistle cord and a gong to signal the driver. This all seems a little improbable in the space provided and if ever loaded like this on market days it would put modern tube travel in perspective.

The steam railmotor clearly lived up to its experimental label. High engine speeds stressed the crankshaft and two new ones were made in the first three years, new connecting rods were needed in 1909 and a new, smaller, pinion wheel was supplied in the same year. indeed enquiries for anew marine engine was made in January 1906 but were not pursued. From the start the Hutchinson boiler was shown as inadequate and after only 2 years it was replaced, in July 1907, by a new, considerably larger, one from Messrs White Bros, Stratford. The London trade directory for 1907 lists a Messrs White Brothers, Engineers and Machinery Merchants, Princes Wharf, High Street, Stratford East London but no further details are known. It seems likely that this boiler was second-hand.

The boiler change and associated work seems to have changed the appearance of the vehicle in several ways. The chimney was shortened and a large safety valve appeared on the roof to join the already prominent hooter. This hooter incidentally appears to be all but identical with that fitted by Stephens in about 1912 to 'Gazelle' which she still carries. The rail motor also appears to have a single acetylene lamp in mid cabin with some sort of associated container on the front of the guards end. The new boiler was also almost certainly the cause of a piece of work which Rolvenden probably carried out and should have been, and probably was, ashamed of. Two ugly doors were inserted in the driver's end next to the boiler with strap hinges of such crudity that later commentators, with some justice compared them with garden shed doors. However practical this might have been its appearance was the cause of some unjustified ridicule of the whole rail motor concept. The boiler also required a new feed pipe to be somewhat crudely plumbed in from the water tank. On a brighter note she probably also changed her identity at this time from her original designation of coach No 16 to the more dignified engine No 6. This increase in status seems to have been achieved simply by repainting the middle body panels from ivory to brown and painting on it K&ESR No 6. This gave a less flamboyant but no doubt more practical finish. Interestingly the internal vestibule was not repainted but kept its middle panel painted ivory until the end.

Mechanically the Railmotor might have settled down to service but conventional wisdom supported by the lack of photographic or written evidence suggests she never entered revenue earning service. However our first photograph of the Railmotor with its second boiler taken in the 1908-1911 period shows it displaying a Robertsbridge Junction destination board. Routine repairs such as re-tubing commensurate with regular use are given in the rolling stock register for 1909, 1910, 1911 and 1913. The public timetables for the period 1908-1914 however do show potential diagrams around sundry Tenterden -Robertsbridge Junction short workings, and the castle side siding at Bodiam was installed in 1910 and specifically authorised for railmotor use. Further Bradshaw in August –September 1909 and September 1913 show specific services footnoted for a ‘Motor Car’ and the footnote continued into mid-1914. There is no doubt therefore that she did enter regular service, albeit somewhat intermittently. Perhaps therefore she was at least as successful both mechanically and as a traffic machine as the contemporary railcars of the larger railways.

Substantial body repairs were evidently called for and probably carried out in June 1913. These involved the replacement of cracked side panels near the boiler and replacement and alteration of the beading on the guards end panels. It seems likely also that the guards end was substantially altered at this time with the old three window layout replaced by a more practical two window arrangement. At this overhaul too she probably lost her smart ivory and brown livery to adopt the then usual overall brown. Despite all this work the experiment was coming to an end. The Railmotor seems to have come to the end of its operational life sometime around 1914, following failure in service at Wittersham Road. It was certainly recorded as non-operational in 1915. The widow of Nelson Wood, a long time K&ESR employee and petrol railmotor driver reported to researchers in the 1970s that her end had come directly as a result of failure to generate sufficient steam to surmount that enemy of all under powered trains, Tenterden bank. One wonders how many times this had occurred before and why this event should have finally brought its service to an end.

No 6 did not "go gently into that good night". She was clearly a favourite child of Stephens and she was kept in good repair throughout the period of government control. She had become sufficiently well known in technical circles for Kyrle Willans one of the principal originators of the use of Sentinel engine units into locomotives and railcars, to refer favourably to her conception and she survived in good order well into the era of these her moral successors and cousins. The heyday of these successful machines in the mid 1920s saw the Pickering carefully stored in Rolvenden sidings and when her panelling deteriorated she was extensively repaired. Her old single long side panel on her most photographed left side was replaced with two new ones, complete with matching beading, and two other panels here were replaced. Did the Colonel have plans to replace the Achilles heel of old fashioned and worn steam plant with more up to date units like the Sentinel which by then was reliable, relatively cheap and probably available second hand off steam lorries? We know from photographs that a couple of the latest Sentinel locomotives were tested on the Shropshire and Montgomeryshire in 1927. Did this raise, even for a while, his interest sufficiently to get repairs done with the available scarce funds? Did the availability of the third petrol railcar, the Shefflex Set, bought in 1929 blunt or finish off any interest? We do not know.

With the Colonel's death in 1931 maintenance ceased and the Railmotor visibly dissolved at various Rolvenden locations over the next ten years, finally being written of and broken up in 1943. According to W H Austen jnr. her frame lives on as the steelwork in the base of the Rolvenden water tank. But as with so much about this elusive vehicle we may never know the real truth.

Brian Janes


Sources and Acknowledgements:

The Locomotive,

The Modem Road Lorry,

Glasgow University Archive


Westminster City Archive Library,

Glasgow Library,

John Miller


This article is a revised and updated version of one that appeared in The Tenterden Terrier No 88 in Summer 2002.