Historical Background

The Twilight Years of the Steam Crane

The number of steam breakdown cranes on our railways reduced quite drastically in the 1960s but they far outnumbered diesel-engined cranes right up to the end of the 1970s.  However the writing was on the wall…

As already discussed in relation to the Modernisation Plan, British Railways placed an order with Cowans Sheldon in November 1959 for 22 new breakdown cranes comprising twelve of 75 tons capacity and ten of 30 tons capacity.  All but two in each size were steam powered, the remaining four being diesel-mechanical destined for the largely electrified Southern Region.  These four were the first breakdown cranes on Britain’s railways to be powered by internal combustion engines and they provided a foretaste of what was to come, i.e. full dieselisation of breakdown cranes, albeit some time hence.

It may come as a surprise that the bulk of the breakdown cranes ordered by BR for delivery into the 1960s were specified as steam-powered rather than diesel or electric.  However it is recorded in a memorandum issued by the British Transport Commission that steam was considered preferable for the following reasons:

The BTC memorandum went on to say that electrically-operated cranes were considered unsuitable because in the event of a derailment it may be necessary to cut off the power from overhead wires.

The delivery of the 30-ton and 75-ton ‘Modernisation Plan’ cranes resulted in a surplus of breakdown cranes in each of the receiving regions.  A total of 72 steam breakdown cranes were withdrawn during the 1960s, however this far outweighed the number of newly introduced cranes (which, as already stated, were just 22 in number).  Hence it wasn’t a simple case of ‘one in, one out’ so there must have been other reasons, as will be discussed:

Beeching’s report of 1963 entitled “The Reshaping of British Railways” led to a reduction in line miles by 25% and this, in conjunction with the closure or amalgamation of operating depots, reduced the need for several of the cranes.

Moreover, the time had come to dispose of cranes which were particularly ancient and incapable of lifting the heavy locos of the day; most of those dispensed with were in fact of 50 or more years in age.  It was becoming increasingly sensible to stable a limited number of high capacity cranes at strategic points in the railway system and reduce the scattering of those with lesser capabilities.

Further, the concurrent purchase of eleven sets of MFD (Maschinenfabrik Deutschland) re-railing equipment, and eleven vehicles to transport them in, meant that many recovery operations could be conducted without the need to deploy a crane at all.

Outdated BDC

This 15-ton breakdown crane, built by Cowans Sheldon in 1906 and withdrawn in 1963, was just one of many outdated cranes to be removed from service in the 1960s

Other reasons for the loss of steam breakdown cranes included accidental damage and line electrification.  For example, when the Southern Region’s Brighton MPD closed in 1964, its 1937-built Ransomes & Rapier 36-ton crane DS1196 was transferred to the CM&EE Department who soon overturned it by trying to slew an EMU bogie without the crane’s propping girders being utilised and as a consequence of this mishap it was written off.  The loss of DS1196 followed the ‘surplus to requirements’ disposal of three other steam cranes from the same region over a period of twelve months, from Eastleigh, Bournemouth and Feltham.  By the middle of 1966 all BDCs on the Southern Region’s Western Section, excepting Salisbury and Guildford, were diesel powered.

As noted, the increasing electrification may have influenced the speed of demise of the steam crane on the Southern region, however this was not applicable to the Eastern, London Midland, Western and Scottish regions, their 75-ton breakdown cranes remaining steam powered until the late 1970s.  In fact, though the overall number of breakdown cranes had reduced sharply over the past several years, steam had continued as the prime power source during that time.


Doncaster 75-ton steam crane ADRC96709 shortly before conversion to diesel-hydraulic.
This crane is now in preservation at the Great Central Railway.