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Caring for the survivors of the First World War battlefield supply lines

With the final departure of the last men who fought in the First World War, the restoration to working order of some of the equipment they used becomes even more important, to keep the memories alive.

The Greensand Railway Museum Trust was set up in 2000, as a UK Registered Charity, to restore and operate some of the narrow-gauge railway artefacts from that era. Sir William McAlpine is the Trust's President, and its Chairman is the railway author and journalist, Cliff Thomas.

Crucial to the war in the trenches was the massive network of narrow-gauge railways, which was built to supply the front lines on both sides. Among the companies providing equipment to the War Department Light Railways were the Baldwin Locomotive Works, of Philadelphia, USA, and the Motor Rail & Tram Car Company, of Bedford, England.

The Trust's first project was the restoration of War Department Light Railways No 778, one of a batch of 495 steam engines built in the USA by Baldwin for the British forces, and still the only one in working order in the UK.

Now attention switches to WDLR No 2182, the oldest survivor of the small number of Motor Rail 40hp "Simplex" petrol locomotives built with full armour plating, and the only one still in original mechanical condition.

778 the Iron War-Horse

The Welsh Highland Railway and the Ashover Light Railway were just two of the British narrow-gauge lines to use war-surplus Baldwins from the 1920s onwards. All had been scrapped by the early 1950s, and it seemed we would never experience this distinctive class again first-hand in the UK.

WDLR 778 had a different postwar life-story, however. One of a batch of 50 exported to the North Western Railway of India, in what is now part of Pakistan, it later moved to the sugar-cane fields further south. It was finally withdrawn in 1983, at the Upper India Sugar Mills, Khatauli, Uttar Pradesh, India.

One of two returned to the UK for preservation, it arrived at Leighton Buzzard in 1994 in very poor condition, as a long-term restoration project.

In 2000, the newly formed Greensand Railway Museum Trust launched an appeal for the restoration of No 778, and subsequently managed the project to completion. 778 was finally launched into public service in August 2007, 90 years after it was first built, and 60 years to the day since the last known steaming of this type in the UK--a farewell enthusiast special on the Ashover line.

Thanks to donations, steaming fees during its time in service, plus a generous donation from a model railway manufacturer which is about to produce a model version of 778, there was enough money to finance its first overhaul. It returned to Page's Park shed, from the works of Alan Keef Ltd, ahead of te 2016 season, and visited several other railways, as well as joining in the 1916 commemorations on its "home" railway.

With 2182 (below), it will celebrate its centenary in September 2017--look out for details!

2182 the rare breed

The static nature of the First World War battlefields led to the construction of thousands of miles of light railways, mostly to 2ft/60cm gauge, to supply the troops on both sides with all their necessities. Large numbers of steam locomotives were used, but they were visible and vulnerable near the front, and this led to a demand for internal-combustion motive power.

One of the leaders in this field was the Motor Rail & Tram Car Company Ltd, which established its works in nearby Bedford, where over 800 petrol-engined locomotives were built for the War Department Light Railways, between 1916 and 1918.

Most were of the small 20hp type, with no cover for the crew from weather or bullets, but over 260 of the 40hp type were built, and these were enclosed in a protective steel casing. A small number--27 it is believed--were fitted with full armour plating.

2182 is the oldest survivor of these, and is believed to be the only one still with its original engine and transmission. It is therefore probably unique.

Several demobbed Motor Rails were sold to the newly opened Leighton Buzzard Light Railway in 1919, including a couple of the armoured 40hp type, but unfortunately none survived.

2182 went to a brickworks near Barrow, where it lost the upper part of its armour-plating. It was bought privately for preservation from a scrapyard in the 1960s, and found its way to the Museum of Army Transport in Beverley, East Yorkshire, with the missing armour replaced by plywood.

After the Beverley site closed in 2003, it was offered to the Leighton Buzzard Railway, which at that time had "protected" 40hp loco No 3098 in its care, on long-term loan from the National Railway Museum.It was subsequently donated by its owners, the National Army Museum, to the Leighton Buzzard Railway, who transferred it to the GRMT to take on as a restoration project.

In preparation for the LBR's 90th anniversary celebrations in 2009, new wooden replacements for the armour were made and installed, and other transit damage repaired. This allowed it to take its rightful place in the superb displays of First World War military motive power.

We were delighted to have been awarded so far £11,500 under the Arts Council for England PRISM Fund, plus £500 from the Museum Development Bedfordshire Small Grants Scheme. We have also received some generous individual donations.

In August 2017 we were awarded £3,300 from The Association of Industrial Archaeology (AIA) from its restoration grant fund. The AIA is the national organisation for people who share an interest in Britain’s industrial past. It brings together groups and individuals with an interest and expertise in identifying, recording, preserving and presenting the remains of the industrial past.

Further information about AIA can be found by clicking the logo below.

For more information on our work, please contact us at:

The Greensand Railway Museum Trust,
Page's Park Station,
Billington Road,
Leighton Buzzard,
Bedfordshire, LU7 4TG
Phone: +44 (0)1525 373888
UK Registered Charity No 1088460

Material on this website may not be copied or republished without permission.

© 2020 The Greensand Railway Museum Trust

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