Return of the 'coffee Pot'

  • Auto-train replaces diesel multiple service for two weekends

  • 'Chaffinch' returns to the Honeybourne Line after 57 years 


Above picture: Hawksworth auto-trailer W128 Chaffinch is propelled by 14xx auto-tank no.1450 on the Severn Valley Railway.  Bringing up the rear is Collett auto-trailer no. 178 which has visited the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway with 1450 in the past. If two trailers were required it was common to sandwich the loco between the two (as above), but on the Cheltenham-Honeybourrne services, if needed, two coaches were usually coupled together and propelled towards Honeybourne. The driver can be seen in the driving compartment with his hand on the regulator, a long lever suspended from above the centre window.  This is connected by mechanical linkages to the locomotive's regulator. (Photo by Malcolm Ranieri)  


For two June weekends (in 2017) on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway, the clock will be turned back more six decades as the Red Timetable 'local' train service between Winchcombe and Laverton, normally operated by an historic diesel multiple-unit, will instead be worked by steam.


The service will an 'auto-train' comprising 14xx class 0-4-2T 'auto-tank' no. 1450 and 'auto-coach' no. W238. Members of the 14xx class formed the backbone of the stopping train service between Cheltenham St. James (the site of which is now occupied by a Waitrose store) and Honeybourne.


Described in other parts of the country as a 'push-pull' or 'rail motor' service, the coach is propelled in one direction and hauled in the other – obviating the need for the locomotive to run round its train. The auto-coach has a driving compartment at one end with mechanical linkages to the locomotive, allowing the driver to operate the principal controls.


The fireman remained on the engine and, apart from his firing duties was also responsible for operating the reverser and brake ejector which were not linked to the driving compartment.

 1400 class 0-4-2T no. 1424 appears to be coming to an abrupt halt at Hayles Abbey on 27 February 1960, judging by the water surging out of the tank filler.  The engine will have topped up at Toddington, a little over a mile previously.  In tow is W238 - the same auto-trailer visiting the railway once again (Photo: D H Ballantyne)

A delightful view typical of branch line services throughout the Western system.  1450 propels auto-trailer 178 away from Bewdley tunnel on the Severn Valley Railway.  The driver is in the front driving compartment while  firman is looking towards the direction of travel from the footplate (Picture: Malcolm Ranieri)

1400 class 0-4-2T no. 1450 at Winchcombe with auto-trailer 178 on 1 June 2007. The signal is off and the locomotive is about to propel its coach to Toddington.  The loco lamp on the buffer beam will contain a red filter and act as a tail lamp.  1450 was for a time, a resident at Toddington (Photo: Ian Crowder)

On the Honeybourne Line, the local train service was known as the 'coffe-pot'. The most plausible reason for this nickname is that the local service was originally worked by Great Western 'rail-motors' in which the steam locomotive was an integral part of a coach, with a driving cab at each end. These machines used a vertical boiler – somewhat similar in shape to a coffee pot. Although replaced by auto-trains in the 1920s, the name stuck!


In a remarkable quirk of history, auto-trailer W238 was one of those that worked the former Cheltenham-Honeybourne service and was photographed by D H Ballantyne at Hayles Abbey in February 1960, just before the service came to an end. In that image, the locomotive is 1424 (a sister to 1450 which, in fact, never worked on this line).


Auto-trains were widely used on branch line services throughout the Great Western system into the 1960s, as well as local services on main lines in London and the Midlands as well as Cheltenham-Honeybourne and Gloucester-Chalford. The locomotives most associated with the services were originally the Armstrong class 517 0-4-2T auto-tanks (introduced in 1868) and the Collett development of that class, the 1400 (originally 4800 class) 0-4-2Ts introduced in 1932. Some 0-6-0 pannier tank locomotives and 15 of the 4575 class 2-6-2Ts were were also auto fitted.


W238W 'Chaffinch'


The auto-coach visiting the railway – initially for the Cotswold Festival of Steam (27-29 May) and remaining for a couple of weeks, including for the official opening of Hayles Abbey Halt, is W238, named 'Chaffinch'.


Designed by the Great Western Railway's last Chief Mechanical Engineer, F W Hawksworth, W238 was completed by British Railways at Swindon in 1954 as part of the final batch of 10 auto-trailers built; to drawing number A43.


The interior décor of the coach is very different from the earlier versions. It was completed at a time when the first British Railways Mk 1 coaches and diesel multiple units were being produced, the latter intended to replace auto trains and the materials used reflect that transition between Great Western thinking and more modern design.

So, rather than timber veneer, the interior is finished with Formica while luggage racks are of aluminium, not wood. The seat ends are also metal rather than wood.  The coach was turned out in plain, unlined carmine and some were later repainted into BR lined maroon.


W238 is thought to have first worked on the Wye Valley line before being transferred to Gloucester, from where it was used on the Chalford service; possibly the Sharpness branch as well as the Cheltenham-Honebourne service. When these services ceased it moved to the Exe Valley line and finally to former Southern territory between Yeovil Town-Yeovil Junction and Seaton Junction-Seaton, being withdrawn in 1965 after just 11 years' service.


In preservation it was used on the Dart Valley Railway and then Paignton-Kingswear, where it eventually became an observation saloon, fitted with a corridor connection and the auto gear removed.


Now in the ownership of Mike Little and operated by Push-Pull Limited, it has been extensively restored to pretty much its original condition and is today based on the Severn Valley Railway, along with locomotive 1450.


Flight of fancy


Naming of coaches other than Pullman vehicles was rare in the UK. However Swindon decided to name the final batch of auto-trailers after British birds and the first two, W220 and W221 were named 'Thrush' and 'Wren' respectively. Although a full list of names was drawn up and authorised for use, for reasons unknown no more were applied.


Mike Little, owner of the coach, says: “To my mind it is regrettable that the remaining coaches never received their names – so I decided to give W238 one of the approved names, Chaffinch.


“We applied the name in the plain block lettering style that was applied to Thrush and Wren. And, although bird names were agreed, there is no record of the coach numbers to which they might have been applied.”


So could W238 have been named Chaffinch? Who knows. Nevertheless, the chaffinch is a widespread and popular species and its application to the coach is an agreeable choice. But there is no doubt that seeing this vehicle in use on a line it once worked on, will have triggered happy memories for local people who still recall the 'Coffee Pot' service with affection.  As a part of the Centenary Festival of Steam back in 2006 and in conjunction with the Gloucestershire Echo and BBC Radio Gloucestershire, we asked local people to share their memories of the line and in particular the "Coffeepot" auto service. The memories underline how important the service was to the rural communities it served and was much regretted when it ended.