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Steam Locomotion in the 21st Century

The Recent History of Steam Locomotive Development

Phil Girdlestone

September 1, 1954 - April 20, 2016

page updated 11 November 2017

photos and info courtesy Phil Girdlestone except as noted

Phil Girdlestone started his railway career in 1978 on the 2 foot gauge Ffestiniog Railway in North Wales, UK. He believed that there was much scope for improvement in the FR locomotives and set about trying to find ways of realising this. He analysed and improved a host of details, ranging from rod lubrication to plain bearing axlebox design to improve reliability as well as efforts to improve efficiency. He was part of the small team that re-designed and rebuilt an Alco 2-6-2T switcher, which had been built for the First World War battlefields and came to the FR in 1967. Its performance was revolutionised, haulage capacity being increased by 60%.

Alco 2-6-2T Mountaineer
Ffestiniog railway 1983

Ffestiniog locomotives were oil-fired and the worldwide increase in prices of the mid to late 1970's created quite a crisis, and the resulting use of inferior and cheaper qualities gave many operational problems. At this time Girdlestone got to know Porta and Wardale and as a result of this association drafted a plan to rebuild a locomotive with the Gas Producer Combustion System to enable a return to coal, reduce fuel costs and improve reliability. The design work was carried out during 1983 with long-range help and advice from Porta and Wardale and the locomotive (a Hunslet 2-4-0ST/T) was rebuilt under his direction during 1984 while he was Manager of Boston Lodge Works. Apart from the GPCS it had a Lempor exhaust system, improved superheat and other detail changes. After tuning up it gave fuel costs only 73% of that it would have incurred burning oil and compared with the Alco and articulated "Fairlie" types hauling the same weight trains it was some 50% cheaper. It was re-converted to burn oil in 1986 when prices dropped after he had left the FR.

Hunslet 2-4-0 Linda being prepared for duty at Boston Lodge 1985

Girdlestone was unhappy at the direction FR locomotive policy was heading at the time, which was towards "heritage" replicas of old designs and he believed that there was no reason why the form could not be preserved whilst the internal detail and efficiency was improved out of all recognition. In 1984 he had been offered the position of Wardale's assistant with American Coal Enterprises but funding was never obtained for this project. Instead in 1985 he took up the position of Project Engineer with Hugh Phillips Engineering, which had a contract to rehabilitate several Sudan Railway Corporation locomotives for the famine relief operation, which was then getting under way. As part of this he designed a Lempor exhaust system for these locomotives (North British SRC 310 Class 2-8-2's). This was fitted to No.313, the first of the six being overhauled and after comparative trials with brake locomotives showed a reduction in fuel consumption of 12% authority was granted for the remaining five to be so fitted. Unfortunately, although preliminary work was done to improve other SRC engines (a double Lempor was designed for the 500 Class 4-8-2's as well as other improvements) nothing more came of this mainly because the aid agencies were unhappy at the misuse of aid in Sudan and withdrew much of their support.

SRC 310 Class 2-8-2 fitted with Lempor exhaust system

In 1988 he was offered the position of Mechanical Engineer to Alfred County Railway, a 122km 2 foot gauge system in Natal, South Africa which had just become privatised. This used NGG16 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratts, the largest 2 foot gauge steam locomotives in the world. Redesigned (to Class NGG16A) they incorporated the GPCS, Lempor exhaust, improved spark arrestor, lightweight multi-ring articulated piston valves, improved valve events and improved mechanical lubrication. Two were so treated, the first, No.141 in 1989 and the second No.155 in 1990. In comparative testing 141 gave a fuel saving of 25% compared to a standard Garratt and this was easily maintained in regular service.

NGG16A Garratts No. 141 & 155 on a coastbound timber train 1992

In 1991, just before the change from SATS (South African Transport Services, the successor to South African Railways) and before the change to semi-privatised Spoornet he was co-opted on to a committee of the remaining steam people to determine what fuel options were open for a partial retention of steam. At that time steam was still in service (just) between Kimberley and De Aar and in shunting services on the Reef. The only result of this was the first oil-fired SAR steam locomotive since an experiment in1946. This was 15F 4-8-2 No.2916 which was converted at Germiston depot using equipment from East African Railways and he was brought in to help supervise the tests and tuning up.

15F No. 2916 at Germiston, PG second from left

The application of the East African American-type trough burners to No.2916 was not particularly successful and Girdlestone suggested an alternative. As a result he was asked to design equipment for the conversion of a 25NC 4-8-4. The impetus behind all this work was to equip locomotives for work during the dry season, the formation of Spoornet having seen elimination of steam in normal service. It was now operated on behalf of the Transnet Heritage Foundation and normal line clearing and the making of firebreaks had ceased. The new burners were circular with superior atomising characteristics and the first was applied to a 25NC of Beaconsfield depot at Kimberly. It was subsequently applied to a second 25NC No.3417 and retrospectively to 15F No.2916 with success.

25NC No.3501 at Orange River en route to De Aar
during trials with the improved oil burning equipment

During 1996 Girdlestone was approached by the West Coast Railway in Victoria, Australia to design modifications to their "R" Class 4-6-4 No. R711. Oil firing, a double Lempor exhaust and piston valve modifications were applied. In the 1980's, it operated the fastest (70mph) regularly scheduled passenger service in the world and reportedly gave up to 30% greater power and used 30% less fuel than the standard "R". A second locomotive, R766, was scheduled to be converted.

West Coast Railway No. R711

photo courtesy of Yuri Sos copyright 1999

Many thanks to Yuri Sos for the information on the R711

Unfortunately, the WCR suffered a series of setbacks resulted in the WCR ceasing operations in 2004.  Both locomotives now reside with Steamrail Victoria.  R711 was evidently returned to service in 2008; however, it's twin Lempor exhaust system has been removed.  R766 is currently being converted from broad to standard gauge, and if its twin Lempor was ever fitted, it has now been removed.

The main freight workings on the Alfred County Railway were dieselised in 1992 and steam only retained a very secondary role. Eventually Girdlestone resigned and ran his own company which specialized in locomotive and associated equipment manufacture in addition to supply of second hand equipment. His services also included design and consultancy, especially oil firing, boiler design to modern standards and adaptation of old standards, and modification work to enhance performance, efficiency and reliability. Phil maintained a huge database of information relating to design, past practice and modern locomotive development which was invaluable in assisting enquiries in many spheres. He continued a professional association with Porta until Porta's death in 2002 and was one of very few steam locomotive development engineers still active and was regularly consulted by railways and individuals worldwide.

Work has included design and manufacture of a Lempor exhaust for locomotive Camila (Tranex Turismo, Ushuaia, Argentina), a burner for the second "R" Class conversion (West Coast Railway, Australia) and the design of boilers and cylinders for new locomotives (UK customer).  In 2006, Girdlestone and Associates completed a second 0-4-0+0-4-0 Garratt for the FCAF in Argentina, incorporating significant improvements.

Trans-Siberian Express P36.0032

One of Phil's last steam projects was installing a dual-Lempor exhaust on Trans-Siberian Express 4-8-4 P36.0032 shown above.  Consideration was being given to the future addition of the Gas Producer Combustion System.  Read more about this locomotive here:

One of Phil's final efforts was the publication of a book on the design, development and history of the South African Railways Class 25NC and 25C 4-8-4 locomotives. Titled Camels and Cadillacs - A History of the South African Railways 25 Class Condensers and 25 NC 4-8-4's. The book had been available from Camden Miniature Steam Services in the UK. Apparently the original printing sold out and the book is not currently avaialble.

Sadly, Phil passed away on April 20, 2016 after a long battle with cancer. Read more about Phil's work here:

Another book by Phil has recently been published (October 2017), titled "Here Be Dragons", detailing his work with steam locomotives around the world. This book is also available from Camden Miniature Steam Services in the UK (


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