For enthusiasts and researchers of the Great Eastern Railway

A55 Class 0-10-0WT 1903; 0-8-0 1906


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One of the most famous GER locomotives was the massive 0-10-0 tank engine No. 20, universally known as the ‘Decapod’. Following the success of the City & South London and the Central London electric ‘tube’ railways, there was a rash of proposals for similar lines in London, two of which were in the north-east area. Although operating the most intensive main line suburban services in London, the GER made very little profit from them. Commuter services have always been expensive to run, due to the fact that a large proportion of the locomotives and rolling stock required are only required for a few hours a day, spending most of their time in sidings on expensive land and tying up capital. In addition, the GER was hampered by the cheap workmen’s fares that Parliament had imposed on the Enfield and Chingford line services which were widely abused by many office workers who travelled to London early at the cheap fares and wiled away an hour or two before their offices opened. Indeed, the workmens fares on the Enfield line were the cheapest in Britain for many years. The GER could not afford any erosion of the traffic, and although they took out powers to electrify the NE London lines, there was no possibility of the money being available to carry this out in the near future. One of the claims of the rival proposals was that electric power enabled a 335 ton train to be accelerated to 30 mph in 30 seconds. The Board therefore decided that the GER should prove that steam power could do likewise. James Holden, the Locomotive Superintendent once again entrusted the design of the locomotive to F.V. Russell, who produced the experimental machine in January 1903. It is seen in the official photograph posed on Brentwood Bank.


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Even before it had turned a wheel, the ‘Decapod’ had set numerous records for the features of its construction. For example, it was the first three-cylinder locomotive to have its cranks set at 120º to one another. Along with the Great Northern Railway 4-4-2 No. 251 it was the first British locomotive to have a wide firebox boiler, and it was nevertheless the largest locomotive boiler built in the country at the time. The three cylinders were all horizontal, and a patented inside connecting rod enclosed the leading axle to achieve this. It was also the largest well tank locomotive ever constructed. A stretch of the Up Through Line near Chadwell Heath was used for testing the acceleration of the locomotive, where electrical contacts were installed beside the track, the tests being carried out on Sundays when the main line traffic could use the Local Line. The engine hauled a train of suburban carriages loaded with pig iron so that engine and train weighed the same as a loaded electric train. In between tests the locomotive was serviced at Brentwood, and it is seen here on one of these occasions fitted with indicator shelters and various test equipment. The electrical contact of the locomotive can be seen attached to the nearest leading guard-iron. On one occasion it reached 55mph descending Brentwood Bank when returning to Stratford at the end of the day’s testing. On the 26th April 1903 the target acceleration was achieved, in poor weather conditions of rain and blustery winds.


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At the conclusion of the trials the locomotive was returned to Stratford for the last time. On the 17th June it was the main exhibit in a visit of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and its success was celebrated at a dinner at the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street that evening. The photograph is understood to have been one of a number taken on this occasion. As can be seen, the engine was by this time still missing various parts that had been removed for the fitting of the testing equipment. Despite popular myth, the locomotive was never painted in blue livery and was not used in service – indeed, it was never ‘handed over’ to the Running Department in its original form. Apart from the fact that it was too heavy for some of the underbridges in the inner London area, it would not have been able to pass over many of the small-radius curves and turnouts, especially at Liverpool Street, whilst its coal and water capacity was totally inadequate for anything but the shortest of runs.


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Having spent some £5000 on the locomotive, it was not long before pressure was being brought on the Locomotive Department to make some use of No. 20. In May 1904 orders were issued for the preparation of drawings to convert it into an 0-8-0 tender engine, and for its actual rebuilding the following month. Nevertheless, it was not until two years later that it was taken into the works, and it was out-shopped on 3rd October 1906 as probably the most ungainly-looking 0-8-0 to be constructed in Britain, as can be seen here in its official photograph. The ‘rebuilding’ was very much an accounting exercise, for very little of the original locomotive was actually re-used. Indeed, a photograph recently came to light showing the 0-8-0 complete with indicator shelters for initial testing, standing in one of the workshops alongside the original engine, still largely complete. The components that were re-used appear to have consisted of the two outside cylinders, the front buffer beam, and four of the five wheel-sets, which must have been heavily-modified as regards quartering and balancing. The motion appears to have been completely new, although the shorter connecting rods were made to resemble the originals in form! The boiler was a ‘stretched’ version of the current Belpaire ‘Claud’ boiler which – even then – appeared to be too short for the frames. Its nominal tractive effort was actually slightly less than the current G58 class 0-6-0s (q.v.), but it did have the advantage of being seven tons heavier. The locomotive was put to work on the Cambridge line coal traffic, and quietly scrapped in December 1913 when its boiler needed heavy repair.