Sunday, 12 December 2010

Return to Scunthorpe

Returning to a place which is full of memories can be a strange experience. In some ways it can often be sensible not to go back but sometimes you may find yourself drawn there. Scunthorpe is a such a place for me; as a place it sits in the shadow of the steelworks and areas which adjoin the works are often quite filthy, covered in a fine layer of whatever the works has spewed out that day. The works itself is a horrible dirty place but it’s a place which holds a lot of happy memories for me, even though I was only there for a few months.

On Saturday I did return to Scunthorpe and the steelworks for a brake van tour around the site. The tours are run by the Appleby Frodingham Railway Preservation Society, who occupy the former loco shed within the complex. The mere fact they can exist within the huge corporate entity which is Tata is fantastic and that they operate on the works’ railway system is just amazing!

The brake van tours take twice as long as the ‘normal’ tours and reach parts that the regular tours can’t. It was interesting to see things from a different perspective than I was used to. We’d been expecting to be hauled by one of the preserved diesel but a nice surprise was the Society’s Austerity tank, no. 22 in steam. The loco is a real credit to the society!

The first part of the tour took in the ‘High Line’ which is a self contained railway with dedicated locos and rolling stock which services the blast furnaces. The blast furnace staff look after their own track so it was an area in which I never worked during my time there. The wagons are interesting creations in their own right – they probably appear odd to those who haven’t experienced industrial railways. They’re much like Driving Van Trailers (DVTs) on the mainline, but are hopper wagons with a cab at one end. The do look rather sinister, or “like something from Death Train” as one of the lads I used to work with said!

This part of the works contrasts enormously with the next port of call. We took in the exchange sidings right next to the mainline – I don’t think the gleaming saddle tank would be quite what passengers travelling by TransPennine Express would be expecting to see! Following this we headed round the back of the blast furnaces before reversing and moving towards the Society’s shed for lunch – a most civilised way to conduct things!

It allowed chance for a leisurely lunch and a look round the shed – various locos ‘live’ here, both those in full working order and a number undergoing restoration. What seems strange is seeing one a Yorkshire Engine Company Janus type being restored when examples of the same type are plying their trade day in, day out round the works. The weather, as well as affecting the number on the tour, had also frozen the loco water supply! The works fire service helped out and replenished no. 22’s tank. And with the both loco and people refuelled we resumed our travels.

The second half of the tour took us right round the perimeter of the whole site – bearing in mind that the system totals around a hundred miles, this is no small journey. The first part from ‘Bottleneck Junction’, which crosses the public Dawes Lane, to the Mills Exchange Sidings (referred to normally as ‘Nine Control’ after the control tower there) is interesting being an industrial example of double track and allows for running at a much faster line speed than elsewhere within the complex. It’s also one of the less accessible parts of the site – if you were working down there, it could involve some rather ‘interesting’ routes around piles of coke and avoiding all sorts of obstacles! Having thundered out from beneath the Foreign Ore branch we coasted to a halt outside Nine Control. A long wait ensued and we would shortly discover why.

Twenty two took us between the mills – this is when the railway really feels industrial as in threads its way between enormous, towering buildings and large pieces of discarded equipment before diving into one of the mills where you immediately feel the heat coming from the freshly delivered billets which are awaiting rolling into all sorts of different sections. Almost as soon as darkness and dust surrounds you it’s gone again as you burst out into brightness as you round the tightest curve on the system which looks like it was laid in Peco setrack – it’s a wonder more space starved modellers don’t choose industrial subject where such tight curves not only look fine but are quite prototypical!

Soon we passed the Slab Bay where I spent a very cold week this time last year and slowly came up to the rear of the train ahead. A traffic supervisor coupled up and we were told what would be happening. We’d be banking a three hundred ton train up a 1 in 100 grade towards the rod mill! We had prime position just feet away from the locos smokebox and the sound was amazing! The exhaust was thunderously loud and this was undoubtedly the highlight of the day! We blasted up the grade towards Ashbyville Top adding a little to the fumes and pollution which the steelworks emits. The loco kept this going right up to the Rod Mill where the diesel uncoupled and retreated with a train of empty wagons leaving twenty two to move the wagons into the mill. The driver quite clearly enjoyed the trip, leaning out with a beaming grin across his face! Proper working steam and I wouldn’t have missed this for the world!

The final part of the trip seemed unremarkable compared with this effort but even this involved a sprint up the grade to the blast furnaces where the loco was given its head and the exhaust turned into a roar. After waiting by the furnaces we gently made our way back to the start and the end of a wonderful day.

The day brought back a lot of memories – it’s not long ago since I was there, but there were a lot of things which had which were already fading from my memory and it was lovely to be reminded of them. The only thing missing were the people I remembered.

I would encourage any enthusiast to go on one of these tours and help support the AFRPS – what they are preserving is just as important as the major heritage railways, perhaps more so as they are preserving these things in their natural environment rather than steam zoos into which many preserved railways seem have developed. We should celebrate the whole set up in Scunthorpe where an organisation set up to preserve out heritage exists alongside multi-million pound, multi-national industry.


  1. Brilliant! A wonderful day out is seems - and a super description of it. Thanks!

    We've a couple of videos of industrial lines but nothing to compare with your experience.

  2. Great write up and some very atmospheric pictures. A great read.