From Steam to Ka, an essay on efficiency

Guest writer Gordon Pye looks at part of the efficiency of transport

Back in the 1870s Francis William Webb was an excellent steam locomotive engineer, having been trained by and followed in the footsteps of John Ramsbottom, the man who invented the piston ring. He introduced some really good designs like the express 2-4-0 Precedent ( Jumbo ) class, of which ” Hardwicke ” survives in the NRM today. He also introduce a cheap goods locomotive with patent cast iron wheels ( 17 inch coal engine four foot five inch wheels ), with an 0-6-2 tank engine version, for mixed traffic his ” Cauliflower ” 18 inch cylinders and five foot two wheels. All the ” goods ” designs lasted until after the second world war, Hardwicke was preserved due to it achieving 67 Mph average between Crewe and Carlisle in the great race to the North. A coal tank also survives in preservation.


However, in the 1880s Webb got it into his head that if you could use the steam twice in a ” Compound ” you could theoretically save coal, so he produced the ” Experiment ” class. It had two relatively small outside high pressure cylinders with a massive single low pressure cylinder between the frames. They were not really a success as they would not run at speed due to the exhaust from the high pressure cylinder being restricted when the synchronized valve gear was notched up. They were technically a 2-4-0, but the driving wheels were not coupled, Webb affected to discern that this allowed for free running but examination of the design reveals that there was not space for coupling rods to pass the Joy valve gear on the outside cylinder which drove the rear axle. ( low pressure drove the front driving wheels ).


The next design the 2-2-2 ” Teutonic ” had a far larger boiler, and the inside valve gear was a slip eccentric so that the low pressure cylinder was always in full gear allowing a freer exhaust. They were considered a success but one could only manage 64 Mph from Euston to Crewe in the race to the north. There were also potential problems setting off after an engine had backed onto the train, the slip eccentric was in reverse so in theory when one set of driving wheels could slip forward with the other slipping backward.


By this time the operating department were beginning to question the economy of the new compounds, so Webb organized a test where one 2 cylinder simple 0-8-0 large goods engine was run alongside another boiler identical 3 cylinder compound 0-8-0 up from Crewe towards Stafford. One man decided just how much coal was shoveled into each firebox so the test was obviously rigged to favor the compound and not scientific at all. It was claimed that the compound saved 5% on coal, perhaps insufficient reward for complicating anything.


The next step was the 2-2-2-2 Greater Britain class, which having trailing wheels slipped very easily, they also had a pointless intermediate combustion chamber in the long boiler. Webb painted one white and sent it for exhibition in the USA, I believe it actually pulled trains over there but suspect that the Yanks were less than impressed. Webb also built 10 John Hick class 2-2-2-2’s with smaller wheels for north of Crewe which were also totally useless.


By the late 1890s the operating department were getting desperate for a locomotive capable of handling the increasingly heavy traffic. They frequently had to resort to double heading but there were just about enough ” Jumbo’s ” about. Webb’s answer was a four cylinder compound 4-4-0, yet despite earlier experience the high and low pressure valve gear was synchronized. The result was totally useless but it was not until 1903 that the staff plucked up enough courage to compel Webb to resign, then after Moon ( Webb’s best mate ) the general manager had also gone. Webb also produced a four cylinder mixed traffic 4-6-0, of which it was said reached its low maximum speed by the time the train had exited the platform. Just for a second getting back to the recycling aspect it was said that said 4-6-0’s used the driving wheels from withdrawn 1860’s Ramsbottom DX 0-6-0’s.


Whale the new CME rushed out a 4-4-0 the ” Precursor ” class based on the ” Cauliflower ” which managed to do the job, a 4-6-0 with slightly smaller wheels for north of Crewe was also introduced. Crew works had to work flat out to replace all the Webb follies but by 1910 all the new Whale designs were rendered obsolete with the advent of superheating.


It would appear that especially automotive engineering is in a similar position to Webb in the 1890s. My 2006 1000cc Kia is no better in fuel consumption or performance than my ” tweaked ” 1989 1000cc Metro, admittedly running on leaded petrol. Perhaps the greatest unnecessary modern polluter is air conditioning, out in Aussie in 1987-88 it was said that you needed a 1600 Toyota Corolla with air conditioning to get the same performance as a 1300 without it.


Don’t have AC on my Kia, no point in this country and all that complete bullshit they put out about driving with the window down causing a significant increase in fuel consumption doesn’t stand scrutiny. The whole vehicle aerodynamics quasi-religion is complete bollocks, in the late 1970s we were told to ignore it as negligible in any motion calculation.


A 1980s OU programme I watched several times outlined that all you need to do for aerodynamic stability is to round the corners off on a square van. My practical experience tends to bear this out, my Seddon Atki 400 with 265L RR Eagle and 13 foot 7 inch tautliner was a good education. It seemed to take you ages to accelerate upwards from 50, then at about 57 it was just like falling through an invisible wall and you were soon doing close to 70. Just like the OU programme said, a vehicle will build up its own streamlining as speed increases.


The above statement would appear to prove my and others practical experience that when the 56 Mph EU speed limiters were introduced for trucks fuel consumption actually went up in many cases. Fuel consumption of 38 tonne cement tankers running from Clitheroe to Coatbridge ( return empty ) went up from 9 Mpg to only 7 Mpg. Of course other factors than air resistance come into play like the now inability to store momentum running at hills, but apart from the Lune gorge at Lancaster little opportunity for this exists on the road north loaded.


In truth today’s high tech HGV’s are no more efficient than those of the 1980s, cost a fortune to manufacture and maintain and probably have a higher total carbon footprint per mile run overall. It must be time to get back to basic ” cheap ” vehicles using proven technology. Likewise trains, even a 1958 2000 hp English Electric Class 40 would pull an express eight coach train at 1 Mpg, no modern DMU can match that and the result is that passengers are crammed into 3 cars like sardines.


Of course if the politicians ( particularly the Tories in the 1950s ) had taken the advice of the engineers all our ” main ” railways would all be electrified by now. R.A. Riddles first CME of British Railways resigned in 1951 after warning the politicians that if they went down the diesel route they would never be able to afford mass electrification. Its just a pity we went down the 25 Kv AC route ( to save money for fewer substations and on lighter wire ), 1500V Dc could have offered benefits like simple regenerative braking.


It would appear that we are in a similar position to what Webb was in 1900, perhaps time to break open the eco-fascist driven political quasi-religion and reveal it for what it actually is. Some commentators point to the probability that Webb was suffering from some type of mental illness in his later years. Webb was 70 when forced to resign and only lived three years in retirement at Bournemouth until he died in 1906.


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  1. #2 by Matt L on January 10, 2010 - 12:08 pm

    The part of your article referencing Webb and the LNWR is so full of errors and blatant lies that it is perfectly obvious you have not bothered to properly research the locomotives, railway, or contemporary sources from enginemen.

    Firstly, Webb did not ‘get into his head’ the idea of compounding, he was inspired by work elsewhere (by Mallet amongst others) and was impressed by the economy and savings offered by the possibility of compound traction.

    His first compound was not the “experiment” class, it was a single engine converted from an existing type and the first true webb compound was called ‘Experiment’ and the rest of the class followed only after tests and differed from the original.

    The next design was NOT the ‘Teutonics’ but the Dreadnaughts, and the ‘Teutonics’ were among the best performing compounds of any type, hampered only by their uncoupled wheels.Also they were 2-2-2-0s not 2-2-2s!

    You claim ‘only 64 Mph from Euston to Crewe in the race to the north’ yet you discount it thrashed a lot of other entrants and that Hardwicke did a much better job, considering the compound had difficult weather and a full load this was a highly respectable score for any engine at the time!

    I am not going to bother commentating at length on the incredible amounts of errors on the other engines: the ‘Greater Britain’ sent to the USA was painted BLACK and the Americans found it of great interest and gave it a gold medal, the ‘John Hicks’ were excellent hill climbers but did suffer on the level, however they were not ‘useless’ as claimed.

    Webb’s compound 0-8-0s were good engines and were in advance of freight engines on other railways who were still building 0-6-0s, and the 4-4-0 compounds were among his best although not quite up to the Teutonics (especially the ‘Alfred the Greats’ and after they were converted to ‘Benbows’ by Whale even better).

    The 4-6-0 mixed traffic compound has been unfairly maglined and did some excellent work, and if anyone is to blame for any failings it was Webb’s successor who built the remaining members of the class! (just one was built before Webb’s retirement)

    As for Webb’s retirement, he was NOT forced out, he suffered a sudden mental breakdown and had to retire with NO force against him, the story of being forced out has been as a result of malicious rumours spread about by rivals at Crewe after he left. The evidence is in interviews made by drawing office staff and its clear you have not read beyond the usual tripe written by poor authors. And Sir Richard Moon got on famously with Webb because Webb delivered a superb taking for the shareholders with his efficiency and management of both Crewe Works and the LNWR itself.

    The ‘Precursor’ was based on the ‘Improved Precedent’ not the ‘Cauliflower’ and while it was a reasonable engine it was known as a ”mankiller” by firemen because of its appetite, and the 4-6-0 ‘Experiments’ were sluggish and not better than mediaocre experiments. The Webb designs were not ‘follies’ and many survived into LMS days.

    Superheating did not render all of the designs obsolete considering many other railways did not immediately adopt it either and many non superheated types continued for years. Also ,by that time C.J Bowen Cooke had replaced Whale and his own superheated designs were in control of the LNW’s major trains.

    In short your article was a pathetic piece of research and whatever rubbish you moralise about at the ending is not worth the time spent reading it. Any researcher or author worth his salt would have bothered to delve carefully into the carreer and achievements of a man so controversial in railway history as Webb but obviously sir you are not worthy of such an accolade.

    • #3 by Gordon Pye on February 5, 2010 - 8:42 am

      Only research I did was mostly based on the writings of expert Engineer WA Tuplin, you obviously think that the sun shines out of Webb’s arse. The fact of the matter is that Webb’s later designs were a complete failure in traffic, but that is not to say that his earlier ” simple ” were deficient in any way. The Precursor did follow the principle of the Cauliflower in that it shared the Joy valve gear with steam chests directly above the cylinders. The Precedent had Allan’s straight link valve gear ( basically Stephenson’s ) with the steam chests in a V between the cylinders. The 4-6-0 Whale experiments were deficient due to the shallow grate which was difficult to fire efficiently although one held the official LNWR speed record of 93 Mph. In any case the above article was written to give the reader the general idea, never meant to be a perfect chronological history

  2. #4 by Matt L on February 6, 2010 - 6:21 am

    Mr Tuplin is indeed an eminent engineer, however his writings on the steam locomotive are acknowledged as needing to be dealt with caution owing to his habit of imposing his views on the steam engine and denigrating even so great an engineer as George Jackson Churchward!

    Whereas you based your article on an engineer- regardless of his skill-who never saw the engines in action, contemporary sources have conclusively demonstrated the Webb compounds were a mixture of more than reasonable success and near miss, never abject failure.

    Giving the reader a ‘general’ idea is all very well and good is one thing, but to do so erroneously is a very poor idea. You have fallen into the same motion as a thousand other authors with no investigative digging- after Webb’s retirement a whitewash was thrown over the compounds by George Whale and a number of his subordinates, in order to partially justify the wholesale scrapping of many engines- creating a motive power shortage which never occurred under Webb. Its worth noting that the Works Manager under Whale, Trevithick, who condemned many engines to the scrap heap and is acknowledged as being very heavy handed in this, might well have succeeded Whale as Chief Mechanical Engineer. However, there is today suspicion that the board had watched with great annoyance the situation created by Whale’s scrapping spree, and that they rejected Trevithick for a man who was in the Webb tradition if not in compounding, C.J Bowen Cooke, and the ‘Claughtons’ have been described as almost ‘pure Webb’ by one author.

    The most surprising of all is that the supposed failure the ‘Bill Baileys’ survivied until 1920, and Webb compounds survived into the LMS era as long as 1928.

    As for the sun shining out of his arse, Webb had his failures- his compound tank engines were definitely not up to the task, but its worth noting that only four were built and the concept abandoned before 1900.

    The compound built for the american railroad was well received, regarded as economic and free steaming, its one defect being it was not a huge hauler. Certainly there is no reason why an American author would be keen on Webb, it is clear evidence that the type was if not a world beater was better than mediocre.

    Given Webb’s controversy (or any such railway controversy for that matter) siting one source is unacceptable- whether a general idea or not. I suggest you take a read of a variety of authors- the works of Edward Talbot have many fine anecdotes and a wealth of contemporary sources. O.S. Nock is critical but lists many fine runs made by the engines, although he too regards Whale in far too much esteem. The LNWR Society is by far the best people to contact for further information and they can point you in the direction of the correct data.

    I am defending Webb on his merits-and acknowledging he was not infallible- but the issue of compounding which has so denigrated his legacy must not be allowed to continue being falsely used against him when at last we have the evidence which suggests otherwise.

    • #5 by Gordon Pye on February 13, 2010 - 7:34 pm

      Just one small point but the only Webb compounds to survive in any number were the 0-8-0s which were OK for slow goods trains. Most of them were converted into two cylinder simples ASAP anyway, likewise the ” Bill Bailey ” 4-6-0s lasting until 1920, let us not forget that there had been a war on and every possible locomotive needed no mater how useless. Plenty of work on light slow local trains etc for bad loco’s, I remember seeing a picture of a ” John Hick ” on a short Shrewsbury local circa 1912. All the Webb 4-4-0 compound alleged express loco’s were soon converted to two cylinder simples. If some of the 0-8-0s did last until 1928 it was more due to the fact that the LNWR and then LMS were skint and couldn’t afford decent replacements. Perhaps all the money wasted on compounding by Webb eventually precipitated the LNWR being virtually taken over by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway in 1922, even prior to the grouping.

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