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North Eastern Railway Petrol-Electric Autocar No.3170
URGENT APPEAL - press release 21st May 2009 - download Word Document.
A 1903 forerunner of the DMUAt the start of the 20th century, several railway companies were considering various alternatives to the conventional passenger train formed from a steam engine and assorted carriages. One of these companies was the North Eastern Railway, with a reputation for being enterprising and receptive to new ideas. In particular, they were reviewing their operation of suburban passenger services and the need to run the engine round its train when reversing direction. On Tyneside, the NER was losing business to recently introduced electric trams which were proving very popular with the public. Their response was to introduce electric trains to operate an urban network of lines which would later develop into the Tyne and Wear Metro. Two experimental railcars were also ordered, to work other, non-electrified, parts of the NER network.
The first livery the autocars carried was NER coaching crimson lake, however, both were repainted in NER red and ivory before they entered service. In 1923, no.3170 was repainted in LNER teak before it was transferred to Starbeck shed near Harrogate for the summer timetable.
The autocars had a petrol engine and a generator in their engine rooms, producing electricity for two Westinghouse 55HP traction motors which were mounted on the bogie underneath. Various petrol engines were used during the autocars’ service. The first was a Napier 85HP vertical motor which was deemed unsatisfactory during the initial trials and replaced by a Wolseley 80HP 4cylinder horizontal model. In 1923, no. 3170 was given a third engine, a 225HP 6cylinder ex-WD engine rumoured to come from a First World War tank. This new engine gave 3170 more torque and enough power to haul an autocoach as a trailer, though it seems not to have affected the maximum speed. The fuel tank for the petrol engine was originally a 30 gallon type but this was replaced with a larger 70 gallon tank before the railcars entered service. The latter held enough fuel to operate a full day’s services.
With the second, Wolseley, engines, the autocars’ top speed was a modest 36mph, though acceleration to this took only 30 seconds, with similarly rapid braking. The autocars had three brakes, the traditional screw handbrake, Westinghouse airbrakes and an electro-magnetic track brake. This last was similar to that used by contemporary trams. When the brake was applied, a magnet would clamp onto the surface of the rail, creating friction and causing a brake shoe to be applied to the wheel. The cumulative effect was to stop the autocar in a very short distance.
With the first and second engines, the exhaust was mounted on the chassis underneath the engine room. No. 3170’s third engine required much more cooling and the exhaust was transferred to the roof. Throughout the autocars’ service, there was also a ventilation panel on the roof of the engine room. The autocars were fitted with a whistle which was blown by air from a compressor driven by an electric motor.
In 1908 both autocars were partially rebuilt to create a luggage area in place of the original vestibule. Two pairs of seats were removed to create the space for this, reducing capacity to 48 seats. They were then transferred south to Selby to work the Selby – Cawood branch which had been built under the provisions of the 1896 Light Railway Act. For much of the rest of their working lives the autocars were based at Selby and the NER built a timber shelter for them there in 1913. No. 3170 did work elsewhere though. After its third engine was installed in 1923, it was based at Starbeck shed near Harrogate, operating local services between York, Wetherby, Pateley Bridge and Ripon. Officially it was returned to Selby after the completion of the summer timetable, however, there is evidence to suggest that it did operate services elsewhere during the 1920s. It may have been used as a ‘relief’ or supplemental service on some LNER lines. The autocars took only ten minutes to enter service and in that respect, were ideal for dealing with unexpected surges of traffic.
The autocars were not as successful as the Tyneside electrics, probably due to them suffering technical problems and being pioneers of alternative traction in a world dominated by steam. They do seem to have been popular with the travelling public and generated additional traffic, which sometimes caused problems with overcrowding. In order to deal with the increased traffic, the NER usually replaced them with steam push/pull autotrains. The autocars were also regarded as being underpowered, despite their rapid acceleration. Possibly this was due to their low top speed. 3170’s more powerful third engine would have helped to redress any lack of power and the autocar’s new ability to haul an autocoach would have more than doubled its capacity. This DMS + DTS combination would also have been one of the first multiple units.
The LNER was not uninterested in the concept, and Armstrong diesel-electric railcars were tested in the 1930s, but by then Sentinel steam railcars had been introduced. Although these were not as reliable or popular, they had more seats and fitted better into the contemporary infrastructure. The autocars’ somewhat varied service history suggests the NER and LNER were not quite sure what use to make of them. I suspect that if more had been built, there would have been the incentive to persevere with the difficulties and achieve the necessary breakthroughs. Together with the application of other concepts such as ‘clock-face’ timetables and minimal ‘start-up’ time, the use of a dozen or more autocars ‘en-masse’ on some NER suburban services could have led to both the history of DMUs and suburban passenger trains being very different.
Stephen investigated various options of restoration and sourced a suitable underframe and bogies. A charitable trust was formed and took possession of 3170. This comprises Stephen Middleton, the Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway and Beamish. Membership is open to all, both armchair supporters and those wishing to take an active role in the project. The restoration will be based here on the Embsay and Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, with some work carried out elsewhere. No. 3170 will also receive its fourth engine. A suitable heritage engine could not be found, so the Trust decided to use a newly built unit of around 225HP. This will be both more efficient and more easily maintained. The autocar will be rebuilt in its post 1908 configuration, with the larger vestibule. We also plan to restore NER autocoach no. 3453, which the NER coach group at the NYMR has generously donated to the Trust. When fitted with the appropriate control equipment, this will allow the Trust to operate a truly unique 105 year old two car DEMU.
MORE INFORMATION: www.electricautocar.co.uk
More photos of NER No.3170