“The Worst Kept Secret on the Southern Region…” Part One.


3417 standing at London Waterloo, 27th January 2024.

Writing Minion’s Note:

As you’ll all know by now, the everyone in the SETG has been in a flat spin for the last four months. Everything has been put to one side; family, shopping, housework, eating properly, a degree of sleep, good manners and (arguably) common sense. Us Minions are a tough breed, but it’s been a very very stressful few months. If you were at Waterloo on the 27th of January 2024, you’ll know why. For anyone else… Sit back and enjoy the tale!

Part One:
(In which the Minions wonder if they’ve bitten off more than they can chew)

Be cautious about inviting old friends over for tea, friends. If it weren’t for the power of Old Friends and Tea, 3417 might never have rocked up at Waterloo last weekend. During the usual railway activity of Industrial Gossiping, the conversation moved towards when and how we should relaunch 3417 into the public eye. That discussion slowly resolved into “let’s do this for Mr Pettitt himself.” The last time Mr Pettitt saw the unit outside captivity at Strawberry Hill was when the unit was delivered to the care of the Bluebell Railway at East Grinstead on January 17th 2009. At that stage that would have been more than 15 years ago. 15 years is a long time. So what date would we choose for a relaunch? The first and most obvious candidate was the 17th January 2024. Four months away. Surely we could have the unit ready in four months? Buckie broke out a calendar for 2024 and, once we had helped him with the long words and big numbers, he saw that 17th January 2024 would be a Wednesday. A Wednesday is no good if you want to stay out of the way of the Big Railway. Someone asked, “how about the nearest Saturday?” No one was sure, so we sent an enquiring email to a Very Useful Person at South Western Railway. A few days later they emailed us back saying that 20th January was no good either – engineering works would mean the line past our shed would be busy all day. No one wants a 50-year old museum piece* potentially blocking up a busy railway. “Alright”, said a small round exasperated voice, “what about the following weekend?” Another email was sent. Minions sat, clutching their hems and biting their lips anxiously. “Bing”, went Buckie’s phone. He looked at the phone, and then he grinned.

“The 27th is good, love. Let’s do it.”

Four months to get 3417 ready for the mainline. There was, to put it mildly, a lot to do. Firstly the unit would have to be up to scratch. That meant (in no particular order):

  • Getting the unit through Number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 & 9 Exams and dealing with any faults arising plus,
  • An ex-General Overhaul Exam plus,
  • A full door exam (CPM)
  • Restoring the unit to the National Rolling Stock Library
  • Passing an Ultrasonic Axle Test
  • Passing an MPI (magnetic particle inspection) test.
  • Additionally:
  • Completing all the outstanding interior requirements;
  • Rebuilding the interior of 76263, including three first class compartments, the standard saloon and the driving cab plus,
  • Finishing or at least neatly boxing up the re-wire of 70797 plus refitting the interior and,
  • A heavy interior and exterior clean.

And all of this work would have to happen in concert with all the other work. Before we go any further lets make one thing clear. This would have been a big ask for a fully equipped, fully staffed depot. For a group of 20 people who usually put in a few days a month on the project, we might as well have been suggesting an ascent of Mount Everest. From the inside. In the dark. Buckie frowned, Potter baulked and more than a few Minions muttered “I’m not sure we can get this done.” There was a degree of chin rubbing, sucking of air through teeth and drumming of fingers on desks and suchlke. But this was for Gordon.

“We like Gordon”, said the Minions. The Minions have never been shy of a bit of work.

And so we squared our shoulders and got on with it.

Buckie set to work using the planning tools of the modern railway – I refer of course to bits of paper covered in greasy finger prints, a biro that sometimes refuses to write until you scrub it vigorously on any other piece of paper and an unwashed china mug full of tea. Computers are fine and dandy, folks, but bits of paper don’t need to be plugged in – they can be folded, filed, dropped, mislaid, added to, doodled on to allow Big Thoughts to happen, screwed-up and thrown at Annoying People, used as tea mats and you can even read things from them if they still seem to be clean enough. What were we going to need to do to pull this off?

Organisation was key, and Buckie rapidly drew up a list of jobs for everyone to tackle:

  • Lynn & Potter: draught welts to replace (those bits of fabric around the doors to reduce drafts, but tend to get rotted through thanks to water ingress) – whole unit. Replace trim as required. Restore standard saloon 76263. Restore 1st Class compartments 76263.
  • Potter: as above, plus restore cab 76263
  • Richard S: machine and fit step boards. Any other wood working as required.
  • JD & Mick: Sort out 70797
  • Darren: Work with Richard S/Lynn & Potter on interiors. Other work as required.
  • Buckie: make greasy bits work, find more Minions and drink tea.
  • Everyone Else: worry and drink tea. Lots of tea.

One of our biggest advantages – having the shed at Strawberry Hill – is perversely also one of our biggest disadvantages. We are part of a live, working depot. So we can’t just invite Tom, Dick or Harry onto the yard and the more we looked, though, the more obvious it became that if we were going to meet the deadline, we were going to need more bodies to do the work. This is where the Old Boy network comes in very handy. Buckie rang around the houses; Phil Best (Besty), John ‘Billy’ Smart, Bob Hudson, Tony Francis, Mark Bott, Steve Trower , Doug Thompson – everyone scrambled to assist. Then there are the SWR apprentices Liam Tickle & Sam Smith who chipped in far over their pay grade. So the work started. The initial plan has always been to get 3417 back into shape for carrying passengers on heritage lines and we were on course to achieved that by mid-2024. But now we were talking about a press launch, at Waterloo, in front of the railway’s Great & Good. This is where we made a phone call to our old friend Roy Watts at the Bluebell Railway. At this distance I can’t quite recall the full scope of the conversation, but I’m fairly sure the phrases involved include “Help”, “So far out of our depth that we wouldn’t touch bottom if you covered us in concrete and chucked us into the North Sea” and “Bitten off more than we can chew.”

A little about Roy and 3417 at this point. Roy was in charge at the Bluebell when Gordon himself telephoned and asked if they would take on “his” 4VEP and has remained a staunch ally of the SETG ever since. This time, however, we needed the Bluebell to buy into this hair-brained scheme. Fortunately for us Roy knew our standards, knew our methods and was more than willing to go to the Bluebell and make our pitch. The Bluebell board gave us the thumbs up without hesitation (steam only, my arse) and from there, Roy was instrumental in getting the background paperwork in order to allow the plan to move. Roy is a good guy and has a lot on his plate, and despite all that he waded in and made things happen. We hear so many stories in preservation where ego,  Tiny Empire Building and simple spite get in the way of substantial things happening; there was none of this here. everyone said “Yes”, and tings happened quickly. Roy, you and your colleagues are bloody stars and we doff our caps to you all.

As well as the engineering side, we had to sort the operational side. How would we get 3417 to Waterloo? Could we run it in passenger service? Who do you telephone? How do you make “look, we want to get this unit that no one is really bothered about out of a shed and run it in service for the first time in about a decade but we haven’t got a lot of money” sound like a really sexy idea? Well, firstly, be careful about who you ring up: try ringing people for whom the railway is more than just a job. Secondly, mention that it’s for Gordon Pettitt. That helps as well. The third thing is leafing through your address book for current and former senior railway staff – things happen quicker if the commands filter down either from upstairs, or via people that the current crop of managers were taught to called “sir”. So Potter looked in his Little Book of Names and Roy looked in his, and a few emails were sent. Well, more than a few. Quite a lot in fact. At one point the keyboard on the office laptop started to smoke… But the answers came back, and all the replies were on one theme; how can we help? The guest list started grow…

Stay tuned for Part Two….

* – 3417, not Buckie. Buckie is older and in a much worse state of repair.

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