It is now rapidly approaching the anniversary of the first national lockdown brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, a day which in some ways seems a lifetime away yet remains so clear in my mind. At the time there had been a suspicion that something was coming so the Watercress Line engineering staff were working frantically to have everything safely locked away at Ropley just a couple of days before the announcement came. 3 months or so later all was unlocked and gradually the railway came back to life; our own engineering team were there as soon as the green light was given, ready to make up for all that lost time. Sadly progress was subsequently curtailed by new restrictions and lockdowns but frustrating though it was, we all understood the need to play our part and do what we could to protect those fantastic clinical teams working absolutely flat out in the NHS. What they did and continue to do is nothing short of amazing, we salute every one of them. But with spring around the corner and a buzz in the air from the highly successful vaccine rollout perhaps now is the time to reflect and consider how much, despite everything, the ULS achieved in the past 12 months.
First, the heavy rebuild of 499’s frames continued apace once we were able to return to site. Both motion brackets were riveted back on the frames; it sounds a straightforward job but believe me it wasn’t! Not all the holes are accessible with the holding up gun so those in the top ‘pockets’ required the use of a pneumatic holder-up. In the end all went well, there are a handful of rivets left to do which we’ll get on to as soon as the current lockdown eases. With the brackets secured we then had to lift the extension beams into place. These have to be a tight fit between the motion brackets and an angle section toward the rear of the loco; both fitted perfectly, another sign that we’ve got the new frames right!! The next major job was to start fixing new running plate; prior to this the valence sections were removed from storage for fettling and new angles for the frames cut and drilled … a laborious job in itself. By the end of summer all the angles had been riveted on, the valences were up and running plate over the cylinder blocks riveted on. Subsequently the sections which sit above the extension bars were cut and profiled with a curved piece welded on for the step above the motion bracket … one of the very visible differences between the Urie S15 and the later Maunsell variant. Once we can return to Ropley, riveting these pieces will likely be one of our first jobs. 2 cylinder cover castings were sent away for specialist weld repair and following their safe return the faces of these and the other 2 castings were machined. All 4 were temporarily fitted to the cylinder blocks to allow completion of the cladding.
A major development occurred in July last year which saw 499 return to the tracks for the first time in almost 10 years. Sadly it was only for an hour or so but it was a critical step as it enabled us to remove the trailing wheelset; we can now access all the horn block liners and axleboxes for repair.
A small but significant step in the sense that we all know 499 WILL steam again is that a couple of the guys have started cleaning up the frames and applying paint! Sadly it’s the side not visible from the running line but then as we told them, you can practice on the side people can’t see, then do it right on the side they can!!!
March 2020 saw boiler 799 enter the boiler shop at Ropley but there wasn’t any time to start work on it. Come the return to site in the summer, the first job for the staff was to untangle everything from lockdown before entering a period which saw them take the opportunity to really sort out all the workshops; it wasn’t until September that the guys got round to looking at our boiler. Boy did they get stuck in!! Some work was done on the smoke-box tube-plate which has had a section below the rivet line cut out and a new piece profiled ready for welding. The focus, however, has been on the firebox. All rivets were burnt out from the foundation ring. Following that, all the front stays were drilled out in order that the throatplate could be removed; not only was it removed but a new pressing was ordered from The South Devon Railway and this is currently sitting at Ropley. Further, a few hundred side stays have been drilled out, the L/H side sheet cut off ready for replacement and no doubt the R/H will follow soon. To say the work done on the boiler in such a short space of time is a monumental achievement is an understatement!
…..and it doesn’t end there. 499 resides outside the carriage shed so winter weather, particularly rain, always slows us down. Identifying the need to be able to push on regardless, the last job undertaken before we left for the current lockdown was to build a roof over the loco. Designed and built by Barry, no rainy day is ever likely to cause us a problem again.
To all our members may I thank you for your continuing support both financially and morally, you really are the backbone of the Society. To anyone reading this who is not a member, could I ask you to consider joining the ULS? This is a key moment in our history as we look to return to site and continue the project to return 499 to steam looking, as much as we possibly can, as she did when new in 1920. It’s a unique project, it’s an exciting project and it’s a project which WILL achieve its goal.
Thank you to everyone for reading this and remember, our open day is June 19th, we would love to see you.