Library book of the month - July 2016

This month we are delighted to have one of our fellows reviewing a new book about railway engineering practice and development.

Review of ‘The Functions & Organisation of the Midland Railway Engineers’ Department’
Review of ‘The Functions & Organisation of the Midland Railway Engineers’ Department’
  • Updated: 01 July, 2016
  • Author: M D Carter CEng FICE FPWI
The functions & organisation of the Midland Railway Engineers' department

Title: The functions & organisation of the Midland Railway Engineers' department
Author: A E Overton & R F Burrows
Year: Published by the Midland Railway Society 2015

This book is a modest but carefully researched historical note of some 85 pages detailing the functions and organisation of the Engineers' Department from the inception of the Midland Railway in 1844 until its amalgamation during the great railway grouping of 1922 into the London and Midland and Scottish Railway Company. The content of the book is far broader than the title would suggest. The book is profusely illustrated with both engineers and other key staff, and of course the railway infrastructure built and maintained in that period.

The authors have drawn on rare and unpublished photographs to illustrate their work and that in itself is a worthy achievement in the overloaded world of railway books. If there was a criticism of some of the illustrations, a few maps are too intense for the small-scale reproduction used and would have benefitted from full or double page reproduction – which has been used in some cases to good effect. Inevitably most illustrations with few exceptions are in black and white.

The book works on three levels. Firstly as a carefully researched historical record it will appeal to keen students of the Midland Railway development and history. Secondly it is of general interest to the enthusiast of Victorian railway development. Finally it contains examples of staff organisation and complex asset management practices which should be of interest (dare we say guidance!) to the modern railway engineer. For the modern practitioner there are wonderful photographs of construction and re-construction of structures (some still in use) which offer lessons both for maintainer and renewer of railway infrastructure today. Of course some practices fail modern health and safety tests as might be expected.

The various phases of organisation and reorganisation would provide interesting comparison to the modern Network Rail, particularly the disruption that inevitably seems to follow reorganisation. Some of the posts seem all too familiar, but some less so. The post of mining assistant is perhaps to be expected in a railway which made its money from coal in trucks (and businessmen in first class carriages). The post of dredging assistant is less expected (to maintain Heysham Docks). Then as now, senior staffs were under great pressure resulting in premature retirement or illness in service in too many cases.

The book contains interesting chapters on the development of the telegraph first for railway use and then for the general public by arrangement with the General Post Office. An account of the telegraph, signal department and Derby signal works rightly fill three chapters.

The increasing use of electricity is another fascinating aspect included in the book covering the uses of electricity for signalling and telegraphs, for lighting railway premises and later for railway traction. The Midland Railway made early use of electric traction. There is a particularly intriguing reference to a paper on electrifying the mainline between Bedford and London presented in 1900 by William Langdon, then electrical and telegraph engineer, to the Institution of Electrical Engineers – if only! At least the Midland was able to go ahead with electrifying the Lancaster, Morecambe and Heysham branch from 1906.

Appendix 4 'An Act of Wanton Destruction' illustrates the importance of modern custodians preserving important railway records and artefacts. The authors have done well to navigate around previous acts of vandalism in this area, some all too recent.

Overall this was a book I enjoyed reading on different levels. A book to be enjoyed at leisure by the railway enthusiast whether addicted to the Midland or not. Or a book recommended for the serious student of either the Midland Railway or general railway engineering practice and development. The authors are to be congratulated on their efforts.