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Holidays on the Wilmington & Western
A condensed version of the following article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of The Lantern, the newsletter of Historic Red Clay Valley Inc., owner and operator of the Wilmington & Western Railroad. To subscribe to our newsletter and learn more about the history and activities of the railroad, become a member here.
By John La Costa
Photos by the author

The up train arrives at Medstead-Four Marks Station

Through the years, I have visited Great Britain many times and have had the pleasure of visiting many of their preserved railroads (railways). When I first visited in 1972, I was a fireman on the Wilmington & Western and I found the British railways both fascinating and quite unusual when compared to what I was used to. With almost no exceptions, the staff on these lines answered my somewhat technical questions and I slowly began to understand the engines and trains from the standpoint of a fireman and brakeman (I'm not sure of the British equivalent of the U.S. person who couples and uncouples the cars (wagons and coaches)). During the next few trips that spanned a number of years, I managed to get to about half of the steam railways of Great Britain, including a number of the narrow gauge lines in Wales.

My trips increased somewhat when a friend of mine and her husband moved to Scotland, and then moved to the Cardiff area. It was during one of these trips I visited the Mid-Hants Railway (www.watercressline.co.uk), southwest of London. By this time I had been promoted to an engineer on the W&W, but still spent a fair amount of time firing as I trained my fireman to run the engine, and if we had one, help the student fireman. The Mid-Hants, also known as the Watercress Line, was relatively new and had a line about the length of the normal W&W Greenback to Mt. Cuba run of five miles. The people at the Mid-Hants were very friendly and had plans to extend the line to the town of Alton along the original right-of-way. At Alton they would have a joint station with Brit Rail.

An Alton-to-Alresford train arrives on the down track at Alresford Station

The next time I returned, I rode to Alton on Brit Rail and got off the train, crossed the foot bridge over tracks one and two and down to the platform of the Mid-Hants. They had completed the extension of their line from Ropley (former northern end, or since it is closer to London, the "up" end of the line) to Alton. Due to changes at my normal place of business, i.e. where they pay me to work, I started doing a lot more traveling to Europe, and when I could arrange it, I stopped down to the Mid-Hants. In fact, I now volunteer at the shops in Ropley. Unlike at the W&W, my help is that of an unskilled set of hands, and I spend my time shoveling out the ash pit or wiping down an engine (loco). Well, that gives more than enough history - now to the differences.


While the W&W has two stations, assuming you count the infrequently used one in Hockessin, the Mid-Hants has four complete stations. One of the first things you will notice is that they all have high platforms, quite typical of the stations in Great Britain. The use of stone is also very prevalent, both in the walls to support the platforms and the buildings themselves. Assuming you arrive during the summer, flowers will abound, both in gardens and in pots on the platform and window boxes. This, along with stations, signage and staff, certainly gives you the impression you have stepped back in time. The one thing you will notice, even when no train is at the platform, is the large number of staff and volunteers at each of the four stations. This is a clear difference between U.S. and British practices - the British have fewer staff on the trains and more on the platforms.

The up train arrives at Ropley

If you are interested in signaling, as I am, you will not be disappointed with the U.K. railways. Each of the Mid-Hants stations has a signal system and signal box (tower). The signal at Alton was a temporary one when I first visited, but is now a completed color (colour) light style. The one at Ropley was also replaced with a more original looking one. By the 1970s, semaphores were almost completely gone where I lived in the U.S., so my first trip to Great Britain was a big surprise since most of the main line stations had semaphore systems. While the colors are the same - yellow for the distance signals and red for the home signals - the use of route signaling meant that there were many more signal heads than I had expected. The U.S. adopted a signaling system that tended to indicate the allowed speed, while the British system indicated the conditions of the route. On my next visit several years later, I saw a large amount of the semaphores replaced by color (colour) light signals. By the next visit my friends had moved to Ponty Prith, Wales, and besides having the longest passenger platform in Great Britain, all of the lines still had the semaphores and token machines.

The up train drops off Alresford-Ropley token at Ropley

A token machine is a device that allows the signal man to remove a token authorizing entry into a section of line (single track) between two stations. Both signalmen must operate their machines to allow the token to be removed at one end. The engine crew is not allowed to leave the station area unless they have the token key in their possession. For ease of handling, the key is placed in a small leather pouch with an opening so the crew can see that the proper token is in the pouch without having to remove it. The pouch is attached to a large metal loop that allows the signalman to exchange tokens with the locomotive crew without the train having to stop, much the same way train orders were passed to the crews of U.S. trains.

They started to replace token machines on the railways in Wales a number of years ago, but stopped mid-way due to lack of funds. The Mid-Hants has both color light and semaphore signals and uses token machines between each station to control the entry of trains. While the token machine was very popular in the U.K. for single line running, it did not find much use in the U.S.

The down train drops off Medstead-Ropley token

The token system has been a very effective method to help minimize the likelihood of two trains approaching each other on a single line track and was used by most of the steam lines I visited. This system requires a signalman at every station. As a side note, the colors of the levers in the U.S. mechanical interlockings (signal boxes) are the same as in the U.K.: red for signals, black for switches and blue for the facing point locks.


British equipment is smaller than what we have on the East Coast. This is a direct result of Great Britain having a very dense population and an established set of roads and bridges built for horse drawn coaches. When the railroads were first built in the U.S., these restrictions on size were missing or not as great, so while we adopted the British rail gauge of 4' 8½", our rolling stock and engines are larger.

The weight of the coaches used at the Mid-Hants is less than 35 tonnes, while the coaches we use are less than 45 tonnes (1 British Tonne = 1.1 U.S. Tons - Ed.). Using a four-car train on a non-busy day, the Mid-Hants has a train weight of about 140 tonnes, while the W&W consist of three coaches and two cabooses is over 175 tonnes.

The typical coach from Great Britain during the transition from steam to electric/diesel had doors along the side of the car rather than the American practice of doors at the ends. With the use of high platforms at all stations, the need for trainmen to help passengers off at each car was reduced. Another benefit was the speed at which the passengers could enter/exit a train, cutting down the time in the station. My guess is the long distances between stations in the U.S. and the inexpensive construction methods that were used here as we built westward were the reason we never adopted this approach. The use of multiple side doors is evident today in modern U.S. transit systems that use high platforms.

The up train arrives at Ropley Station

While the width of British coaches is narrower, the interior height is more noticeably shorter (not that you would hit your head). If you think about it, we have a large amount of overhead wasted space in our coaches.

Another difference in rolling stock is how one opens the door to leave the coach. On some U.K. coaches you have to drop the window, reach out and turn the handle to unlatch the door. Once unlatched, you can push the door open and exit. Now of course, they do assume you are somewhat logical, and that you won’t open the door until you are stopped. It may seem obvious, but one should not stand too close to the tracks as the train comes into the station lest someone open the door early and it hit you as the train passes by. I mention this because it was a source of many accidents. Modern U.K. trains lock the doors until the guard enables them to be opened, thus avoiding this whole issue.

On my first trip, I marveled at how smooth all of the starts were as compared to those on our railroad. I later realized there was another difference between the two systems: the buffers. When a passenger train is put together, each car (coach) is connected to the next using a very big turnbuckle with large loops at the end. The cars are pushed together to compress the buffers (the round objects toward the outside of each car), the brakes set, and then the connection is made by putting the loops over a hook at the center of each car's end sill. The downside of this method is that the coupling or uncoupling requires someone to manually go between the cars to do the work. The advantage of this method is that while we have about eight inches of slack to contend with, the U.K. has about one inch per car. The result is that the ride in the U.K. car is much smoother. To some extent, the entire train becomes one single piece of equipment and responds immediately to the engine.

Some of the steam engines you will see in the U.K. have three cylinders instead of two. The third is located between the wheels and makes for an even smoother ride in the train.

A triple-header rolls past Ropley Station

When I first went over in 1972, I asked about the vacuum brake and got a quick explanation by a guard on one of the British Railways trains I was riding. It wasn't until 2005 that I came across a scan of an old British vacuum instruction book on the Internet. This, combined with a cab ride on the Mid-Hants, finally gave me a good understanding of the automatic vacuum brake.

At around the turn of the last century, the U.S. decided to test both the vacuum brake and the air brake to see which was more appropriate for the U.S. As you might guess, the air brake won, but I have always wondered why the U.K. continued to use the vacuum brake well into the 1970s. The answers were not hard to find and we have already touched on one of them: the weight of the cars. A vacuum brake can develop, at most, 15 psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure across the brake cylinder piston. To find the force the brake piston can exert on the piston rod, you multiply the pressure difference between the two sides of the piston times the area of the piston. The air brake, at the time of the air brake trials, generated 50 psi across the piston, so it could exert almost four times the force of a similar size piston using vacuum. Another difference was the length of the trains. With the air brake, the apply-time and release-time were relatively quick. With the vacuum, the apply-and-release time increases as the train length increases.

So why did the U.K. stay with vacuum? My guess is that 1) the steam injector used to create the vacuum was far simpler than the air pump, and 2) only the passenger trains had through brakes and were not that long. The freight (goods) trains were short and had a brake van (a very heavy car with a set of brakes the guard could put on when required), so the issue of long trains did not apply. But most of all was the major shortcoming of the air brake. While it is fast to apply and release, it is not very fast when re-charging the local air reservoir. The vacuum brake never runs out of vacuum in its local reservoir. This makes it a very easy brake to use. The increased demand for larger and heavier coaches and freight (goods) cars have resulted in the U.K. system converting most, if not all, of its trains to air brakes and running many freight trains with through air brakes.

A steam locomotive runs around its train at Alresford Station

A good driver can hold the speed of the train to +/- 1 mph using the vacuum brake, even with a small leak in the train vacuum brake piping and hoses. It also allows the driver to adjust the amount of braking as the grade changes without having to release the brakes all the way as we do on our train. Like the more modern U.S. passenger brake systems that followed the "P" triple valve, the British vacuum brake can do a graduated release, which makes for a very smooth station stop. Since the vacuum brake uses a reference vacuum on each car that is never "lost" as the brakes are applied and released, the issue of running out of vacuum does not occur. On the other hand, the air brake, while having a higher braking force, loses air from the auxiliary reservoir for each cycle. Unless the brakes are left released long enough, it becomes harder to apply the brakes each cycle.


There is no equivalent of the U.S. conductor on a British steam train. The closest thing would be the guard. With the lack of a conductor on board the train, it becomes the stationmaster’s or guard's responsibility to determine when the train is ready to leave the station. During the day, the guard uses a green flag to signal the train's departure. When you hear him or her blow the small hand-held whistle, you had better be on the train.

Shunting coaches at Alton Station

If you go to the Mid-Hants, don't be surprised if the engine is running tender first for one way, since just as at the W&W, there is no turntable. The U.K. tended to run a number of their engines this way since a lot of their stations were stub-ended. The advantage the Mid-Hants has is that each station has a double track, so they can run the engine around the train at both ends.

The 25 mph speed limit allows the driver to have better control of the train's speed since he actually gets to open the throttle more than a small crack as we do at the W&W due to our 10 mph speed limit. On most of the engines I saw, the reverser in the cab is actually a wheel. This wheel is connected through a set of gears that moves the actual valve linkage. While not as fast as our air-assisted reverser, it is a positive control and works whether you have air or not. It also provides a finer control of the cut-off which is useful when trying to get back to a known state. This makes changing directions during switching (shunting) with a British locomotive a lot more work. Given a choice, I would opt for our air-assisted reverser for yard work and the British screw reverser for main line running.

Another difference is how little the whistle is used. One reason is the lack of road crossings at grade. There are no road crossings along the Mid-Hants and only one place where they need to blow for a fire access "road," and for that it is just one blow. Compared to the 16 crossings on our line, it makes for a lot less whistle use. The fact that the right-of-way is fenced also tends to minimize the need to warn people on or about the tracks. You don't find people wandering along the tracks at the Mid-Hants as you do at the W&W. At 25 mph, it is reasonable to use the reverser to adjust the speed of the train, rather than the throttle, as the grade changes slightly.

Steam meets steam at Ropley

The grades on the Mid-Hants are a little greater than ours, and certainly longer than ours. While the U.S. practice is to use percentage as a measure of a grade, the U.K. practice is to use a ratio of rise to run. A 1-in-100 would indicate a one foot change vertically for each 100 feet horizontally, or a 1% grade. The grade from Alresford (at the south end of the Mid-Hants) to Ropley is 1-in-80 up to Ropley. The grade continues up to the next station, Marks, at a rate of 1-in-120 and then down to Alton at a rate of 1-in-60. The result of these steep grades is that for about half of the trip the engine is working nicely to run at the speed limit of 25 mph, which is a government imposed limit on "light" railways. Given the way the Mid-Hants maintains their equipment, I am sure the trains could run much faster if they were allowed.


I have spent a number of days helping in the shop (shed) area. As you would expect, my duties were quite simple since the staff did not know what I was able to do and the methods and names of many tools are different. Such a simple request as, "Can you get me a 1-inch spanner?" or, "You need to get some paraffin," leave me asking for a translation. The machine shop is very well equipped and they have a number of machinists, so repair and replacement of many of the parts is done on site.

During one of my visits they were in the process of pouring a bearing for one of the engines. This involved making special fixtures to hold the bearing in place and to prevent the molten bearing material from leaking out. Unlike the Babbitt bearing I am used to working with at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum, these bearings use a much higher grade of material due to the speed and loads involved.

Bittern being restored in the shops at Ropley

On another day, I helped a machinist complete the assembly and alignment of the rod that adjusted the link and block on the outside reverse gear. This had been an interesting project since the original rod was about ¾" too short, so they had to "lengthen" it approximately 1-inch to get everything in line.

On yet another day I was assigned to help a young man remove the side rods of a main line engine so the main driving wheels could be removed. Since this engine was a much later design than our No. 98, it was interesting to see the improvements that had occurred over time. While this engine did not have roller bearings, it did have pressed-in bearings. Since their main line engines are lighter than ours, the two of us were able to remove the rods with little difficulty. During my next trip the wheels had been removed and the rods stored. During that trip, I was either shoveling out the ash pit (something that I knew how to do), cleaning the service engine (something I am used to doing at our railroad), or trying to get rust off the connecting rods of an out-of-service engine. I am happy to see that the W&W no longer has the rods painted on No. 98. I think the "metal look" looks just as good with our engines as those on the Mid-Hants. The real reason not to paint the rods is so one can see any cracks in the metal before they get too big.


I have had the pleasure of a few cab rides, or as they would say, a "ride on the footplate." On the first trip, which was many years ago, I watched the fireman, because even though I was an engineer (driver) on the W&W at that point, I still did a lot of firing.

In general, the size of the coal is larger and the shovel size is about equal to the small one some of us use at the W&W. Since most of the engines have the driver (engineer) on the left side, the fireman is on the right, which is great if you are left-handed. The grate area is about 45 sq. ft. for the one main line engine I saw (a 2-10-0) as compared to the 30 sq. ft. of No. 98. The larger grate area and higher speed result in more work for the fireman. The injectors are mostly non-lifting and, in some cases, use exhaust steam. For the larger engines, the entire day can be completed on one tender full of water. The mainline engines have a wider firebox grate, but they often are not as deep as ours, so they don’t have the long distance to get the coal to the front of the box. Depending on the amount of staff, the fireman may also have to handle the uncoupling and coupling of the engine at each end of the line.

The view from the footplate

As a result of the accident at the Gettysburg Railroad in 1995, we have converted our engines to use two sight glasses for the boiler water level, but the British have used two for years. The one obvious difference is the shut off valves above and below the glass that are controlled by one lever. A normal practice is that when the crew gets off the engine while it's in the shed, they shut off the sight glass. When I asked, they were surprised it wasn't obvious. They said, "What if the glass broke and no one was on the engine?" I was also surprised to find that the firebox door is hand-operated, rather than air-operated, via the treadle in the cab.

On the most recent trip to the Mid-Hants, I was fortunate to get another footplate ride, and although I still watched the fireman, my attention was on the driver and how he handled the train. The buffers between all of the cars and engine result in a train that has very little slack in comparison to our ex-Lackawanna coaches. The result is that while we must be very careful about the slack when coupling, the British have a much better shot at it. While I can always count the slack on our cars when we change direction, I have never felt it on the British trains.

One decision that the fireman had to make on the engine on which I was riding was which injector to use: the live steam or exhaust steam injector. Given the driver is working the engine sufficiently, there is enough steam pressure present to inject water into the boiler, resulting in a little less draft, but less wasted energy.

The vacuum brake results in a constant sound of escaping steam on the engine as the ejector continually runs to make up for any leaks in the vacuum brake system. Since the right-of-way is fenced, the British engines don't have big headlights, so there is no need for a turbine generator. Whereas we have to listen to the whine of the turbine, they have to listen to the hiss of steam.

The author in the cab of No. 58
Photo: Mike Ciosek
The track standards on the Mid-Hants are very good and this can be seen by how easy it is to stand while the engine is running at 25 mph. The line uses concrete ties in many places and is very well maintained. On none of my rides did I ever see a slow order. They clearly have very good track maintenance.
John La Costa lives in Lutherville, Md., and has been a member of HRCV since 1968. He has volunteered as an engineer since 1973 and was instrumental in the restoration of the Wilmington & Western's self-propelled rail car, No. 4662. Before retirement, John designed control systems for unmanned aerial vehicles.
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Wilmington, DE 19808
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