Enter ‘Sir Keith Park’ - the new star of the SVR locomotive fleet

7th September 2012

Enter ‘Sir Keith Park’ - the new star of the SVR locomotive fleet THE train now arriving at the Severn Valley Railway’s two termini at Bridgnorth and Kidderminster….probably isn’t going to look anything like most visitors imagine!

For while the steam heritage line’s locomotive fleet is based largely on former GWR (Great Western Railway) and LMS (London, Midland & Scottish Railway) types that were familiar to people in the West Midlands in the old days of steam, the newest addition to the SVR’s  steam engine stud is distinctly a ‘foreigner’, with a very different look to it.

Former Southern Railway ‘Battle of Britain’ Class engine No. 34053 Sir Keith Park, which completed 'running-in' and 'clearance trials' on the 16-mile SVR last month, has now joined the line’s working fleet, and is regularly popping up on the railway’s timetabled passenger services - to the surprise of many.

In its heyday, this 1947-built ‘express passenger’ engine worked the heavy ‘continental boat trains’ such as ‘The Golden Arrow’ and ‘The Night Ferry’ between London and the south coast ports of Dover and Folkestone, and other fast expresses on the main line between London and Bournemouth, Salisbury and Exeter.

Its days as an engine in the British Railways fleet came to an end in 1965 when BR was in the throes of modernising, and replacing its steam locomotives with diesel and electric types – but instead of being scrapped, ‘Sir Keith Park’ led a charmed existence in a scrap yard in South Wales, evading the scrap man’s acetylene cutting torch for 18 years, until it was rescued as a preservation project in 1984.

During the next 15 years however the locomotive changed hands on three separate occasions, and instead of being restored, was used as a ‘parts donor’, providing spares for other restoration projects, and in 1999, when it was bought by its present owners, the steam enthusiast group Southern Locomotives, it had been so heavily stripped of parts, it was dubbed ‘Project Impossible’.

But motivated by the enormity of the challenge, Southern Locomotives resolved to honour the memory of Sir Keith Park the man - the New Zealander who only in recent years has been recognised as the Royal Air Force commander whose tactics won ‘the Battle of Britain’ – the aerial war with the German Luftwaffe in the skies over London in 1940 - and bring the engine back to ‘as new’ condition.

The restoration which cost well over half a million pounds, was carried out mainly at the group’s base at Sellindge in Kent, and at the Herston Workshops of the Swanage Railway in Dorset, but was completed at the Severn Valley Railway’s Brignorth Workshops, following its arrival from Dorset in May this year. The engine was steamed for the first time, and moved under its own power for the first time in 47 years, at Bridgnorth on July 13th this year.

Some 67-feet long and tipping the scales at more than 100 tons, ‘Sir Keith Park’ is
the biggest and heaviest engine in the Severn Valley Railway fleet, and in contrast to the railway’s tank engines, carries an air of prestige and authority befitting of one of the ‘Golden Arrow’ express engines.

Up to 10,000 steam enthusiasts will get their first glimpse of ‘Sir Keith Park’ as a working locomotive at the Severn Valley Railway’s big annual  Autumn Steam Gala in two weeks’ time (Friday September 21st – Sunday September 23rd), when the ‘Battle of Britain’ Class engine is joined by two other former Southern Railway locomotives never before seen on the Bridgnorth - Kidderminster line – ex-LSWR T9 ‘Greyhound No. 30120 – a celebrity visitor from Cornwall’s Bodmin & Wenford Railway -  and
‘U’ Class ‘Mogul’ No.31806, which will be on loan from the Mid-Hants Railway.

Said SVR General Manager Nick Ralls: “ ‘Sir Keith Park’ is something of a gold nugget, and a proud boast for us. The Air Vice Marshall after who the engine was named, is now acknowledged to have been the principal architect of Britain’s victory in the air battle which turned the course of World War 2 – but Southern Locomotives’ restoration of the engine which was at one point considered to be a complete no-hoper, is no less heroic.

“It’s a man’s engine, which has the combined virtues of being light enough to come within the safe working weight limits of Victoria Bridge which carries our line over the river at Arley, but powerful enough to work the heaviest trains that we run.

“I suspect that both our full-time staff and volunteers, as well as our visitors, will have different views on what is now the railway’s ‘top engine’ – but that’s a conflict we’re delighted to entertain. Southern Locomotives and ‘Sir Keith Park’ are both very important additions to the SVR family, and we welcome them warmly.”