Thursday, 7 April 2016

Square Deal

I I don't usually do current affairs (in the FR sense) on the blog but I'm going to make the exception on this occasion.

In recent weeks news has broken of a plan to build a 7th Double Fairlie and retire - perhaps permanently, perhaps not - the locomotive known to many of us as The Square.

I'm a little sad about this because Earl of Merioneth  was my childhood FR.

I don't recall ever seeing any other kind of Fairlie before the Earl, and there was only really ever Merddin, because LT was hidden away out of sight.

Its aesthetics were unashamedly modernist - even brutalist,  you might say - but to a child of around 10 years old it was all very impressive.

I mean, imagine, a brand new steam locomotive. Wow!

I don't remember seeing it actually running for years - we only caught glimpses of it in the yard at Boston Lodge as you can see above, which made it seem all the more mysterious.

Its design has always divided opinions and I recently commented on a picture someone posted on Facebook that it was no uglier than Little Wonder.

Reflecting on the news of its looming retirement in the last few days it seems to me that there many parallels.

Little Wonder, as you can see above, was not classically pretty. Not compared to the Spooner machines which followed, at least.

Little Wonder was conceived to haul a greater number of empty slates to Blaenau and nearly a hundred years on the Earl's design was driven by a desire to increase the efficiency of the tourist operation.

It may have been ill-conceived in the design of its axle load-busting fuel capacities but I think it's clear the intentions were the same.

Another uncanny similarity is that both had relatively short active careers before hard nosed commercial decisions brought about their replacement.

Both shook themselves to bits in short order, although unlike Little Wonder great efforts have been made to keep the Earl going since the fundamental boiler design issues became apparent.

Here is an archive snap Himself took of that boiler in the new cradle at Boston Lodge in 1974.

The cradle, by the way, is knackered, as are the notorious square tanks - hence the decision to steal its bogies and put them under a brand new locomotive.

As is well known at the end of the 1980's Earl of Merioneth was treated to a facelift that a Hollywod diva would have been proud of  - a quite remarkable transformation that turned it from a very utilitarian-looking machine into something that, although still unmistakably modern,  had some style about it.

I would like to hope that there will be plans for some meaningful preservation and display of the superstructure and that is is not just dumped in a shed in the way that Livingston Thompson was for a decade and a half.

I am concerned that the FR should not neglect its 1970's heritage.

It was the Back to Blaenau era.

Some of the things that were done then may seem ugly and embarrassing now but in time it will be thought of as one of the most significant periods in the FR's history.

I'm uncomfortable, for example, that all but one of the tin cars are to be scrapped or sold, with only the prototype 110 kept, and none of the production series.

Another example is that currently there are no carriages in all over red. That's a heritage livery, isn't it?

What would we give to still have Little Wonder in a museum as our greatest heritage treasure?

To me, Earl of Merioneth is the Little Wonder of the 20th century and must be treated accordingly.


  1. Although my childhood memories predate yours slightly - I remember EoM Mk 1 aka LT rather than the square - I share your concerns. I'm not against Victorian heritage - far from it - but the square (and the barge) are historical artefacts, and should be treated with the respect that that status deserves, not just put out of sight like some irksome child.

  2. Hello, just to say that all the tin cars have found new uses which is the best way to ensure they survive in good shape. OK four are at other railways but they will be looked after and used rather than left in a siding somewhere. The importance of EofM to many is appreciated (I joined FR in 1979). Paul

  3. Time to form the Square presevation society I think. If the square was taken over by a society which I think has been thought about by some, it would be non vital to the everyday running of the FR, so presumuably this would allow a EoM to visit other lines?

  4. Fully agree as another- like Paul the Square was in our formative years - "loss" of tincars, buffet 103 and dumping of the barge are tantamount to the loss of engines in the early preservation period, just proving the wheel is round- ish. As one of the active four that towed EoM1 to GYP all those years ago I watch this with interest ... Whizz

  5. You've changed my mind about the Square, or the "box" as I call it...and I must admit that I loved the Earl in that all black livery it carried for a short while a few years back. I can see that it does have a place in the scheme of things and that must be acknowledged and kept in some way...even though my formative FR years were the sixties :-)