Saturday, 4 June 2016

Bagnall's Best: Driving "Isibutu" At Statfold...

Hi all. Well, what a fantastic day. Today I was rostered to drive at Statfold Barn's intensive June Enthusiasts Day and the day began like most have on the footplate: at dawn. I arrived at Statfold at around 5:40am and we enjoyed the now traditional 'gate queue'. SBR Roster Clerk and Engineer Phil then arrived and let us all in, with the gathered hoards fanning out across the yard to find their steeds for the day. No less than 16 different 2ft gauge locomotive would be in steam today and it was sure to be a great show, as always. I was lucky enough to have been rostered aboard my favourite SBR engine: Bagnall No2820 of 1945, now named "Isibutu". As she would be working the High Level line today, "Isibutu" was already waiting patiently in the High Level platform at the station, coupled to three of the larger coaches and with "Trangkil" and the Fowler tagged on the rear. The first job was to check the state of affairs in the large bullhead firebox. There was evidence of a warming fire which, having been raked through, made way for a fresh blaze. Having done my checks, collected some dirty rags and some fresh wood it was time to light the embryo fire. Soon enough, "Isibutu" was crackling away to herself nicely...
"06:00am: The Fire Is Lit"
More wood was gradually added across the fairly large grate and was allowed to take hold of its own accord. Though still 2ft gauge, "Isibutu" is a very large engine and has a considerable heating surface compared to the other loco's operating at Statfold. Fellow Bagnall goer and everyone's favourite Snooze Button Chaser 'Eddie the Late' soon arrived and added a good mound of coal to the fire. This produced the traditional 'Jones Column' which rose lethargically from the chimney and drifted steadily skyward. Over the way, "Harrogate" the lovely Peckett 0-6-0 was brewing up on the turntable...
Between us we gradually went around oiling and cleaning the big Bagnall. As I'd been on "Isibutu" once or twice before, I decided to assume the previous role. 2820 employs Bagnall Price valve gear which was the firm's alternative to the more common Walschaerts variety. Each side has an inside mounted eccentric which provides throw motion via a rocking shaft to the expansion link, with opposite motion provided by a lever bolted to the crosshead, assuming the momentum from there too. There are oiling points both outside and inside on 2820 and you must not forget the all important truck boxes on the front bogie; accessed via a trap door in the front running plate. The coupling rod and big end bearings are grease on "Isibutu" and I would be surprised if this was an original feature but it seems to work well. As always at Statfold time was quickly rolling round and at around 8:15am we headed off to grab our hot cuppa' and breakfast roll...
Upon our return to the engine pressure was building nicely and, following the usual Safety Briefing, 'Eddie the Late' made the final touches to the spic 'n' span appearance of "Isibutu"...
The plan of operations on the High Level line is fairly simple. You have one steam hauled train which is top & tailed and the other train is made up of the ever popular "Goose" rail bus. The trains operate at very regular intervals and pass each other at Oak Tree HL loop. Having exchanged the appropriate tokens, the trains can go their separate ways again. Naturally the top & tailed steam hauled train would see a one trip on, one trip off working for the engine(s) on each end. As we were on the rear, we would tail the first departing train at just gone 9:00am. The green 4-4-0 was now almost at full working pressure and was simmering nicely with a good level in the boiler. With a pip on the whistle to acknowledge the departure call from "Trangkil", away we went. The two 0-4-2s took us easily down the line, passing the "Goose" on route, before traversing the balloon loop. We soon arrived back at the HL loop at Oak Tree and waited for the bus to return. "Isibutu" was now feathering loudly at her Ramsbottom valves...
Having passed the bus, we were hauled neatly back up to Statfold Jnc where it would now be our turn to do the pulling. Assuming the role of Fireman today, Ed began making up the fire. Due to the exposed nature of the tubes on a boiler like this, firing is by no means advisable on the move. Furthermore, due to the very steep gradients on the SBR HL line, the fire must be nice and deep to prevent too much cold air being drawn through the damper and up onto the tubeplate...
The Driver's view ahead from 2820, looking down the mountain...
"The Road Ahead"
With a blast on the whistle following "Right Away" from the Guard, away we went. "Isibutu" dropped down easily through the car park and out onto the double track. In places, its a really good chuff for even her. She is very powerful and you can feel the strength under your hand as you open the regulator, but these stiff climbs will get hold of anything! We chugged easily around the balloon loop before attacking the first bank of the return run; up to HL loop. There are two things here to remember: 1) You have to give it some stick to get up the bank and 2) you need to drop enough speed to negotiate the facing points carefully because 2820 is a large lump to clean off the ballast. With the bus passed once again, we marched away. The crisp call of "Isibutu" chugging neatly up the field 1-notch back with 1/2 the regulator is really something to enjoy. This engine is beautifully set-up. The final climb into the car park and thus the HL platform at Statfold is always joined by a mixture of fear and excitement. The engine needs all she's got here really and you must be ready to catch a slip at any moment. The noise is incredible and "Isibutu" has even been known to set car alarms off when climbing up here in the past!

Having pulled in after a triumphant arrival, it was soon time to go again. You don't spend much time static on this job: its all go. Today's office was looking nice though, with Phil's fairly recent repainting and lining of the plate-work very much in evidence...
"Footplate of Bagnall 2820"
The day continued much as it started, with "Isibutu" being pulled on one trip, and us pulling them on another. Naturally assistance was given in places no matter who was pulling as that train is some handful on the steeper gradients. Though its very intensive, the HL line does offer a chance to get some miles in and you certainly aren't bored!...
Everywhere you went 2820 simply did what you wanted. She's an incredibly strong and free steaming machine: a pleasure to be on. Eddie had the big engine practically singing to him and we had no trouble with steaming ability or water level.

Now for some "Isibutu" history. Built in 1945 by the popular firm of Bagnall's, 2820 was one of 13 other large 4-4-0s of the same type built to operate on the Tongaat Sugar system in Natal, South Africa. The first of the 4-4-0s dated from 1907 with No2820 being the last of the engines produced, nearly 40 years later. They must have been good over there, despite their long wheelbases. Having said that, the Tongaat system apparently covered around 90 miles and so the loco's needed to provide prolonged steaming and good water capacity. 2820 was built as "Egolomi" and named after one of the neighbouring sugar farms. She later assumed the name "Robert Armstrong" and, along with her sisters, was recorded as being laid up in South Africa in 1970, with Tongaat having ceased rail movements. Tongaat was the first of the large South African sugar companies to move over to road transport. We believe that 6 of the Tongaat Sugar Bagnall's survive today: 4 in the UK and 2 abroad. 2820 was brought back to the UK and stored at the now defunct Knebworth Park and Wintergreen Railway. Here is a shot of her taken there in 1976 and kindly sent in... 
"2820 At Knebworth In 1976" (Pic - C.Yapp)
As you can see, 2820 had a spark arresting balloon stack chimney back then! I don't believe she had any restoration as such carried out until she found a home at the NGR at Toddington. Full restoration of the large 4-4-0 was carried out there and she returned to steam once more. During a visit to the WHHR at Porthmadog in 2007, the engine suffered a faulty regulator and was sent to Statfold for contract repair. She never left, and became part of the superb collection housed there. In preservation, 2820 has always carried the name "Isibutu". It seems that when she was chosen to come back to the UK, those who had her in Africa wanted to keep the "Robert Armstrong" nameplates and thus sent 2820 with the plates from her scrapped sister engine: Bagnall 2374 of 1929. 2820 has been "Isibutu" ever since and now offers a fitting tribute to the Tongaat Bagnall's that no longer survive. Her sister, No2819, is now working on the Lynton & Barnstaple Railway.

Back to us now. We were romping up and down the concrete road on both ends of the train and enjoyed plenty of train passing as well as parallel running. Here, the Guard aboard a train behind No19 & GP39 catches "Isibutu" tailing a HL service...
"On The Tail" (Pic - Mark H of SBR)
A moment of pensive reflection on "Isibutu" (just to prove I was on it!)...
"Driver Sam on Isibutu" (Pic - I.Whitfield)
Here we are steaming around the balloon loop on a later turn on the front...
"Isibutu On The Balloon Loop" (Pic - M.Waldron)
The day was a most enjoyable one, but a long one. Chris joined us briefly on the footplate of "Isibutu" to fire a trip to relieve Eddie. The backhead of the bullhead boiler certainly gives off some good heat and the cab was sweltering when the sun came out!...
Each time we were on the tail we took water from the hose at Statfold Jnc HL platform. We didn't need to as such but the old saying states "never pass a water column"...
I was having a fabulous time driving "Isibutu". Not only is she my favourite engine on SBR metals but she does just go so well. Its a pleasure to drive her...
"Isibutu Waits At Oak Tree HL Loop"
No sooner had we pulled a trip than we were tailing again and the welcome tool locker on the drivers side provided a nice seat to take a load off the legs...
"On The Tail" (Pic - Mark H of SBR)
The chuff out of Oak Tree up to Statfold is always an enjoyable one. The crisp bark is heard as "Isibutu" gets the weight moving, before softening slightly as you bring her back one. Acceleration is steady but the peace is shattered as she charges up towards the home signal on a good climb. The squealing of rails litters the air as she forces herself around the tight bend into the station mouth and then the regulator is opened again for the final slog into the car park up the stiff gradient. Its just great!...
"Isibutu On The Station Approach" (Pic - M.Howard)
By 4pm, after 20-odd trips, things were starting to wrap up and our last trip was an ECS run to collect the tokens and the balloon loop and "Goose" staff. 2820 was on the back for that one and looked lovely in the afternoon sun, showing her true profile...
A study of Fireman Ed who had just come back from a relaxing holiday in Norfolk, clinging to a rock in a Force 9...
Upon arrival at Statfold HL the Fowler & "Trangkil" were removed in order to take up their places in the 5pm Cavalcade. "Isibutu" had to wait for a diesel pilot to take hold of the stock before we too dropped down into the station yard for the cavalcade and whistle up. In fact, "Isibutu" started the whistle off, which is a childish pleasure that delights so many! Fun over, most of the engines returned to the shed front, one by one. "Isibutu" however was asked to work one final trip. We steamed down to Oak Tree on the Low Level line to collect the former L & B stock and return it for stabling at Statfold. This gave us a perfect chance to run the fire down more and it only required a quick rake through and free up at Statfold upon disposal...
"The Fire At Days End"
Unusually, due to the volume of locomotives, the final engines returning were disposed of in Platform 2 road on the low level line. "Isibutu" was the final engine to return for bedding down due to our final run on the ECS from Oak Tree...
"End of the Day for Isibutu"
The unconventional bullhead boiler fitted to quite a few Bagnall locomotives is often the topic of discussion for keyboard warriors on the steam forums. They have a reputation for being poor steamers but I don't know why. "Isibutu" steamed like there was no tomorrow and was very responsive and workable. There are videos here and here of todays operations. Overall, despite being biased as my favourite, "Isibutu" is beautiful, absolutely beautiful. I love the proportions, I love the strength of it and I love the feel of the machine when driving. Its lovely, its really nice. I am very grateful to Phil and of course the SBR for rostering us and allowing us to come along and have such a fantastic time on a brilliant engine. I must also of course thank my "the traffic was bad at 6am" companion 'Eddie the Late' for his company and firing aboard 2820 today: we had a lovely time. Brilliant, fantastic, the bees knees. "Isibutu" is a wonderful engine; practically perfect in every way. Love it. Best Regards, Sam...

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