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The coaling plant story: TOWERS OF STRENGTH – Part 2

The demolition of Immingham’s mechanical coaling plant last year has left Britain with just one example of these huge ferro-concrete monoliths. Engine Shed Society president Nick Pigott concludes our historical survey of the towering landmarks that once dominated the scene at more than 100 steam depots.

WHETHER wagon-hoist or skip-hoist forms of operation were preferable for ferro-concrete coaling towers was a debate that occupied engineers for a considerable time.

Undisputed winner of the ‘coaling tower in the most scenic location’ prize was Inverness, which not only nestled amid Highland hills but overlooked the roundhouse’s remarkable castellated entrance-cum-water tank, known to railwaymen as ‘the Marble Arch’. In this late-1950s scene, the layered and rather top-heavy nature of the 1935-built coaling plant can be appreciated. Note also the steel ash plant on the left. AR GOULT

The wagon versions used large amounts of electricity in bodily lifting heavy weights to heights of 60ft or more and it was often found cheaper to empty the wagon into a tippler at ground level and raise a skip instead, even if that container held as much as 20 tons.  

The skip method also had the advantage that the operator didn’t have to climb by ladder to the top of the tower should a wagon need inspecting to ensure its contents had fully emptied.

With only two coaling plants left standing at the time, it was a real surprise when the North Yorkshire Moors heritage line decided in 1989 to build a mechanical coaling tower at its Grosmont motive power depot. Although designed in-house, its function and appearance owed much to the ‘Stranraer’ type of coaler built at several LMS sheds. JOHN HUNT

With a ground-level tippler, it was also easier if large foreign objects, such as loose timber wagon planks or metal bars, had accidentally found their way into a main line wagon, perhaps at a colliery, for they would jam the mechanism at ground level and could thus be more safely removed. 

There was also a lower risk of small objects falling out unnoticed and ending up buried in a loco’s tender if the contents of full wagons were not first inspected (which was impractical of course).

As mentioned in Part 1 of this article last month, Liverpool’s Edge Hill shed was the only one in Britain with a coaling plant combining the hopper-style storage and discharge element of a mechanical coaler with the steeply-inclined ramp of a traditional coaling stage. South Africa, however, had several of them. So high and spindly were they that the ‘pilot’ engine crews servicing them were indeed aptly named! This example at Germiston, near Johannesburg, was a true giant and is seen in 1991 with 12AR class 4-8-2 No. 1535 perched high above 25NC 4-8-4 No. 3472. To gain momentum, the pilot loco would normally take a run-up at the incline while propelling the loaded wagons. A spectacular sight… and sound! DAVID RODGERS

In one celebrated incident at Doncaster in the 1940s, a wagon containing loaded oil drums was tipped into the top of the tower by an unsuspecting operator.

When the next load of coal was dropped, the drums burst, sending hundreds of gallons of sticky liquid into the 40ft deep hopper and putting the plant out of action until it was cleaned up.

Even in day-to-day operation, there was a tendency for small amounts of lubricating oil to leak out of axleboxes while the wagons were inverted.

At some depots, this was considered too valuable to waste and gutters and barrels were fitted at the base of the hopper to catch it, but a lot of oil was simply lost or burnt in fireboxes. 

Lower in height than most of the other towers was the 1936-built plant at Bescot MPD. It was designed and built by the Wellman Smith Owen Engineering Co, and although it incorporated a wagon-hoist mechanism, it appears not to have found favour with the LMS and remained a one-off. The majority of ferro-concrete coalers were built by either the Henry Lees or Mitchell Conveyor companies.

The important job of ensuring the correct grade of coal entered the correct hopper was easier with a skip-hoist type, too.

Different grades of coal could be accurately targeted towards their respective hoppers by an electric traverser at the top of the tower, whereas with a wagon-hoist, care had to be taken to ensure the correct hopper compartment valve was open before the wagon was emptied.

Read more and view more images in the May 2019 issue of The RM – on sale now!

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