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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Double Decker Train Mystery That Lasted For 40 Years

On one particular day in the 1950's early 1960's, I witnessed a strange-looking train at Waterloo East station.  A brief encounter that created a 40-year mystery.
8-Car Southern Railway Double Decker Electric Multiple Unit

Childhood Memories Of A Strange Looking Train

Little did I realise, as I waited on a platform at London’s Waterloo East station on one particular day in the late 1950’s, early 1960's, that I was about to witness, albeit fleetingly and purely by chance, one of Britain’s railway experiments that far from living up to its expectations, turned out to be a ghastly and expensive failure.  

It was a brief encounter that created in its wake a mystery which would remain unsolved for almost forty years.

It was a warm afternoon in early September.  I was on the ‘Down’ platform waiting for the train that would take me home to Dover, dressed in my school uniform complete with cap and short trousers which my grandmother always insisted I travel in because ‘it made me look neat and tidy’.  Beneath my ‘travel clothes’ I always had to wear a clean vest, just in case I had an accident and had to be taken to hospital.  “What would the doctors and nurses think otherwise?”

To say that I was feeling pretty miserable that day would clearly have been an understatement.  I had recently spent six glorious week’s holiday at my grandmother’s home in Basingstoke, where an endless number of carefree days had been spent. 

As I sat on a platform seat, idly watching a bored Southern Railway porter wearily push a squeaky barrow, piled high with wicker baskets full of fluttering racing-pigeons along to the end of the platform, a crackling, popping sound caught my attention.  

Looking away from the porter, who was about to unload his barrow, I noticed an electric train approaching the railway station, its power shoes sending out bright blue and orange sparks as they made intermittent contact with the electrified ‘third rail’.  

Assuming that it was just another electric train, and I was only interested in Southern Railway steam locomotives, I was about to turn my attention back to the porter and his pigeons, when I noticed that there was something distinctly odd about its shape.

With the reflexes of a seasoned ‘train-spotter’, I pulled the dog-eared notebook from within my inside jacket pocket that I kept solely for recording train numbers, and scribbled down the number on the cab front – 4002.  As the train squealed to a halt my eyes nearly popped out of my head - it was a ‘double-decker’!  

8-Car Southern Railway Double Decker Electric Train

In green Southern Railway livery the train was four carriages long with a strange configuration of doors and windows unlike anything I had ever seen before.  Where the usual row of ‘slam doors’ would have been every other door was missing, replaced by a body panel above which a curved window overlapped onto the roof area.

It was an unusual-looking machine indeed.  The faces of the many bored passengers peered out through the windows on two levels, and I wondered how the top tier of travellers gained access to their seats; but as the doors were opening on the ‘blind’ side it was impossible to see.

Author's Brownie 127 Camera

Not wishing to miss an opportunity such as this I took hold of the Brownie 127 camera that hung around my neck by a thin black cord and raised it to my eye to take a picture.  I was so preoccupied with trying to fit the long train, into the tiny little viewfinder, I failed to notice my train was approaching, with the result that at the precise time I pressed the shutter button my train entered the viewfinder.  I would not have a perfect photograph, but at least I would have some kind of record of this unusual sighting.

Struggling aboard the Dover train as quickly as I could, holding the camera in one hand and my little brown suitcase in the other, I found an empty compartment and dived onto a seat near to the window to get a closer view of the double-decker.  To my total horror it had gone in the time it had taken me to find a seat.  In the vain hope of perhaps seeing it disappearing out of the station I jumped to my feet and frantically fumbled with the catches to open the narrow sliding windows, in order to poke my head through.  

As I did so my train lurched forward and I fell back onto my seat.  My camera hit me in the chest, the suitcase that had been perched precariously on the edge of the opposite seat fell to the floor, spilling the well-folded contents onto the floor amongst the cigarette ends and the little piles of ash.  

The platforms of Waterloo East slipped out of sight and the train began to meander through suburbs of south London.  All I could do now was to sit and wonder what it was that I had seen.  

Arriving at our prefab home a couple of hours later my father, who was no doubt overjoyed to see me home again after six weeks of peace and quiet, gave me an old fashioned look as I told him the story of the unusual train.  

“Sorry son I’ve never heard of that train”, he said.  Perhaps he regarded my vision as yet another product of my active imagination.  “I’ll ask at work, see if anybody knows anything”. 

The years rolled by, I grew up, started work, took up smoking ‘to be a man’, learned to drink beer, did a spell in the Army and got married.  

As my childhood stretched a long way behind me the encounter with the double-decker became no more than a fading, boyhood memory.  However, unexpectedly in 1995 all this was to change! 

During that year I happened to be visiting the Northampton & Lamport Railway following an article that I had read in the local newspaper about their latest acquisition - a Belgian steam tram named Yvonne.

After spending a pleasant and productive afternoon photographing the unusual tram, and hearing from its driver the story of how he had rescued the locomotive from a scrap-yard in Belgium, and brought it back to England, I struck up a conversation with one of the N&LR volunteers.  

We talked about the various items of rolling stock and locomotives that the railway had accumulated over the years, when for no apparent reason the ‘double-decker’ came to mind.  I mentioned what I had seen as a boy and waited for the inevitable blank look that would say, “I don’t know what you are talking about”.

To my great surprise I was wrong about his response.  “Oh yes”, he said, nodding knowingly.  “I can tell you a bit about that train”.

Sitting in the volunteers’ canteen having a cup of tea I learned that two experimental 4-car sets, numbers 4001 and 4002, had been built in the late 1940’s to help alleviate the chronic overcrowding on the Charing Cross – Gravesend line in Kent.  Designed by Oliver Bullied, who was also responsible for designing the steam locomotives that would often be seen hauling the 'Golden Arrow’ Pullman train between Dover and London’s Victoria station in the 1950’s, the double-decker was able to carry up to 552 passengers.  

“This was quite an astonishing feat”, the volunteer went on to tell me as he puffed on a hand-rolled cigarette, “bearing in mind that the conventional electric trains of the time only had a maximum capacity of 400”.  But, as I soon learned, the venture was doomed from the outset.

Apart from the numerous teething troubles after entering service on 2 November 1949, when it was withdrawn twice in the first month, it proved to be extremely unpopular with the travelling public.  Also, it took up twice as much loading time at stations and cost 50% more to build.  Despite these problems however, the two trains soldiered on in service until October 1971, when they were finally withdrawn.  

I couldn’t believe my luck.  My mystery had been solved at last!

“What became of them? I asked.
Before he could answer we were interrupted by the driver-owner of Yvonne, offering me a footplate ride on the tram which was about to leave the station.  I didn’t need to be asked twice, this was too good an opportunity to miss.  

Thanking the volunteer, and promising to meet him after the ride to find out what happened to the ‘double-decker’, I left the canteen and climbed aboard the simmering locomotive.   

Soon we were rattling and swaying along the track.  I was in my element.  I had never been in the cab of a steam locomotive and now I was living every schoolboy’s dream.

All too soon the ride was over.  I climbed down from the cab intending to take a few photographs as the driver prepared to make the return trip, but as I turned this way and that to get a proper reading from my camera’s light meter an astonishing sight grabbed my attention.  I couldn’t believe what it was I was looking at.  Standing against a set of buffers, vandalised and neglected, was the ‘double-decker’ from my childhood – number 4002!  Or at least the driving-trailer carriage of it was.

The body panels were rusted, virtually every window had been smashed and the once pristine livery had faded quite considerably.  It was difficult to believe that this unique example of railway history could end up in such a pitiful state, so far from its Southern Region home.  I was delighted to know that it had survived the years, and  ‘over the moon’ to see it once again.

On my return to the station I was disappointed to hear that my helpful friend had, by this time, gone home; and no-one else could shed any further light on the fate of the other train. I was now left with more questions than answers.

What had become of sister train 4001?  Where were the other carriages from 4002?  Are they lying somewhere abandoned and forgotten?  Did they fall prey to the scrapyard cutting torch, or were any of them rescued and returned to their former glory?  In my heart of hearts I would like to believe that it was the latter.

Just as those two trains were doomed to failure, so unfortunately was my childhood snapshot of 4002 taken on that platform all those years ago.  When I collected my prints from the chemist a few weeks later that particular image turned out to be, ironically, a double exposure.  I had forgotten to wind on the film!


Here is a 'Quick Find ' locator for all Steam/Diesel Locomotives - Diesel Multiple Units (DMU) - Electric Multiple Units (EMU) photos to be found across the 'Along These Tracksblog pages.

Steam Locomotives:
30075   30517   34016   60163   71000   7802

Diesel Locomotives:
08466   08909   09018   20107   20311   20314   31168   31288   31305   31462   31467
43081   43151   57307   60017   66005   66013   66086   66237   66502   66765   67006  67013   66017  67026   66717   66729   66731   66738

Diesel Multiple Units:
153329  153364   153366   153370  156411  165006   172344  172345  220006   220010   220018   220028   222002   222015

Electric Multiple Units:
310086   317327   323214   350120   350250   390128   450108   

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