This is an account of a historic weekend in which Preston played a leading role.
Saturday August 3 1968
On this evening the very last two regular B.R. standard-gauge steam-hauled passenger service trains departed within minutes of each other from adjacent platforms on Preston station.
Officially, no plans had been made to mark the closure of Lostock Hall Motive Power Depot after its 66 years of life and the shed’s Ernie Heyes, was the driver of “Black Five” No 45318 which hauled the very last one of all, wasn’t aware he had been selected for the honour until the very last minute.
All week Ernie had been working diesels on the Settle-Carlisle line and on this Saturday night, the Liverpool passenger train should also have been hauled by a diesel… that is, until some strings appear to have been pulled at a very local level.
On the platform at Preston that evening was a seething mass of humanity keenly awaiting the arrival of the 5.05pm from London Euston, the rear coaches of which would form the 20.50 to Blackpool South – the penultimate train. More or less to time, the train glided quietly into Platform 5 behind a nondescript diesel.
Two bearded gentlemen, clad in top-hats and tail-coats, then proceeded to carry at shoulder height a mock coffin, draped with slogans on the impending demise of steam, and marched in a suitably dignified manner the full length of the platform. This gesture was visibly appreciated by most of those present, but received some strange looks from those less well-informed souls already on the train!
As soon as the diesel and its now-shortened train were on their way north towards Carlisle, Lostock Hall Driver Bob Barker slowly reversed his “Black Five” No 45212 up to the leading coach of the Blackpool-bound portion whilst fireman Ray Duckworth leapt down to couple-up. With its seven coaches now packed to the seams, Bob pulled confidently away from the platforms – the last of a great pageant of steam locomotives that had carried millions to the Fylde Coast down the years.
An even larger crowd had assembled for the 21.25 to Liverpool Exchange. Word had certainly got around, with a huge contingent of supporters having travelled to Preston from all parts. Black Five No 45318, which had been waiting patiently for its own share in the evening’s limelight, took up its position about the middle of Platform 6. With tripods and flashguns in profusion, an inevitable “gallery” quickly formed across the platform. At this point, a member of the station staff, along with another well-heeled gentleman, came striding purposefully towards the crowd, shouting in an authoritative voice, “Make way for the press!”
A well-known Prestonian steam photographer was then heard to exclaim, in no uncertain terms, “Oh b***** the Press!”
To a man, everyone stood firm and the local newspaper cameraman, despite whatever credentials he might have possessed, was forced to take his chance with the rest of the throng. As soon as fireman Tony Smith scrambled up from behind the tender onto the ballast, carriages brought by the 17.25 from Glasgow Central having been coupled up, the “right away” was given and 45318 eased out from under the lofty station roof against a battery of flash guns.
As if in defiance of its impending doom, the loco’s exhaust roared for all to hear as the train crossed the River Ribble and climbed steadily up the gradient towards Farington Curve Junction. Once the junction had been cleared, the train gathered momentum and, with Ernie apparently endeavouring to give his passengers something to remember, dashed across the arable flat landscape of West Lancashire, the little stations at Croston, Rufford, Burscough and Ormskirk flashing by in a blur.
A member of the stopwatch fraternity claimed 80mph at one point. Speed was certainly 78 through Maghull and previously 61 through Ormskirk. All too soon the train was threading its way through the built-up suburbs of Liverpool, past Aintree, where the outline of the closed engine shed loomed in the gathering dusk as a reminder of happier times.
A few minutes later, 45318 triumphantly edged its way slowly towards the buffer-stops of Liverpool Exchange station. The journey had taken 33 minutes and 48 seconds.
Sunday August 4 1968
All the glory on such an auspicious final day, centred on the various ‘Farewell to Steam’ specials.
Other than a couple of locomotives engaged on shunting duties in local sidings, these enthusiasts’ specials were the only trains running. Indeed, there had probably never before been such a concentration of specials in a single area… six of them in Lancashire at the same time.
Footplate crews arriving for work at Lostock Hall sheds early that morning found the place already a hive of activity. But official railway personnel were outnumbered both by enthusiasts and other members of the public wanting to witness the passing of an era.
Overnight, a record 13 engines had been groomed by clandestine amateur cleaners and, come the sunrise, the final curtain-call for steam stood in the yard in all its majesty, reflecting the early morning sunlight.
In ones and twos, throughout that morning, the last men and machines gradually left for their allocated rendezvous points, leaving a shed yard eerily empty and silent. Even the enthusiasts had now deserted their Mecca.
To say that things did not go well would be a gross understatement. For a variety of reasons, including the inevitable weekend engineering works, most of the special trains failed to keep to their booked timings. British Railways could not offer the weather as an excuse, as it had been fine and sunny all day long and at least the thousands of photographers lining various routes enjoyed their day, as conditions had been ideal.
With the onset of evening, very few observers other than diehard locals remained to witness the bitter end. At Lostock Hall, it took until around 4am on the Monday morning for the final special – the “Ayrshire Yeomanry” – to get back to Lostock Hall. Driver Andy Hall returned to a totally deserted engine shed. There was not another soul to be seen, so Andy’s claim to have been the very last steam footplateman on British Railways (special events the following weekend, aside) appears to be justified.
Walking with his fireman in the eerie half-light, Andy went to sign off duty, only to discover that the foreman’s office had been ransacked, presumably by souvenir hunters. Even the two shed telephones had been ripped off the wall. The bodies of the dearly departed were not yet cold, but the vultures were already striking.