Posted on Leave a comment

#VE75 – Engines at War – Commemorating 75 Years since VE Day – Austerity 2-8-0

Robert Riddles and The Austerity 2-8-0

Perhaps during these unsettled time’s, it is appropriate that we talk about The Austerity Locomotive. Of all of my husband’s collection of 7 ¼” gauge engines I often feel that “The Austerity” is his favourite.

Let us first consider this auspicious locomotive designer Robert Riddles a man of considerable talent and foresight. The WD (War Department) 2-8-0 Austerity was designed by Robert Riddles who was the first chief mechanical engineer for British Railways.
Riddles was born in 1892 and started his career at the Crewe works of the London and North Western Railway as an apprentice in 1909, whilst training in the Mechanics Institute classes he also attended a course in electrical engineering.

He completed his apprenticeship in 1913 and then joined the Royal Engineers in France to serve in the Great War. He was badly wounded in France but returned to the LNWR at Crewe to become “The Bricks and Mortar Assistant ” with responsibility for building the new erecting shop in 1920.

On completion of the erecting shop he was put in charge of a small production progress department, and was sent to Horwich to study the methods used by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. During this time Riddles gained a lot of experience which enabled him to make a significant input and have a major influence over the re-organization at ” The Crewe ” works between 1925 and 1927.

During 1923 The LNWR became part of The London, Midland and Scottish Railway, hence on completion of the re-organisation at Crewe, Riddles was sent to re-organize the ex-Midland works at Derby that had by now become part of The LMS Railway. In his task here he was aided by the then Derby works manager H.G. Ivatt.
Interestingly during the general strike in May 1926 Riddles volunteered as a train driver, taking trains between Crewe, Manchester and Carlisle, he later claimed that this experience was an invaluable aid to his design work later.

In 1933 Riddles moved to Euston becoming assistant to Sir William Stanier (Chief Mechanical Engineer). Prior to the Second World War he moved to Glasgow as Mechanical and Electrical Engineer for Scotland. This was the first time that the two engineering disciplines had been combined in one title.
It was in 1939 at the start of the Second World War, that Riddles moved to the Ministry of Supply, becoming Director of Transportation Equipment. It was here that he later designed The WD Austerity 2-8-0 and The WD Austerity 2-10-0.

The Austerity 2-8-0 was first developed as a heavy freight war steam locomotive. The need to move heavy freight efficiently and quickly during the war effort was at first met by the LMS class 8F (A version sharing many common components with the Black Five) designed by Sir William Stanier.
The need for a simpler, more cost-effective heavy freight locomotive, which was quicker and easier to build gave rise to the Austerity. During 1943 Riddles modified the original design of the 8F to prioritise lower production costs.

The Austerity has a boiler of much simpler construction being parallel rather than the tapered boiler of the 8F and a round topped firebox rather than the 8F Belpaire firebox
He redesigned the fire box from the complex structure of the copper Belpaire fire box in the 8F, to a round topped steel construction fire box, castings and forgings were replaced by fabrications, cutting costs and production times.

As an added consideration some of the 2-8-0’s that were bound for Europe, were fitted with an air compressor on the front of the engine to make the engines compatible with the continental rolling stock that depended on air brakes. After the war, and on their return to Britain, these compressors were removed, in most cases. Some exceptions being certain locomotives used on the Southern Railway (later to become Southern Region) which ran a mix of air and vacuum brakes in some areas. Some merry-go-round wagons used on bulk coal deliveries to power stations also required compressed air to operate their bottom doors.

A further modification was also made to allow the engine to pull freight on less robust rail track. Riddles Austerity design weighted the driving wheels to balance the load of the coupling rods and connecting rods in the vertical meridian only, ignoring the horizontal force of the piston rods, pistons and Connecting rods (reciprocating mass).
Accepted practice was to add a third of the reciprocating mass to the rotating balance weights on the wheels, this reduced the fore and aft hunting at speed but introduced hammer blow into the cycle vertically. This kept the balance weights equal to weight of the motion in the vertical plain only.

The weight of the balance weights on the wheels was therefore considerably reduced and the effects of ” wheel hammer,” as the extra compensating weight built into the wheel (positioned opposite the crank pin) pounds down on to the track at each rotation, like a heavy hammer hitting the track at every cycle.

There is of course a drawback to this concession the engine will have a tendency to “Hunt” surging forward and back ( rather like a car with kangarooing petrol) as the horizontal force is unbalanced, fortunately this only seemed to become an issue above the speed of 40 to 45 miles per hour. There are tales of driver and firemen hopping onto the tender plate until engine speed dropped and curtailed this phenomena, as heavy freight trains rarely if ever exceeded 40 mph this was not a big drawback.

Riddles actually produced two very successful Austerity designs. As well as the 2-8-0 he also designed a 2-10-0, and the Hunslet Engine Company produced a third an 0-6-0 ST. All were designed to be cheap, easy to build and maintain and to burn indifferent coal.

They proved to be powerful for their size and could run-on poor-quality track. During the war these WD locomotives were used both in the UK and in Europe. It might be prudent to add at this point that these engines were designed and built during a crises with a service expectancy of only two years, however so many 2-8-0’s were produced that they had to be pressed back into freight service after the war due to shortages and the depleted state of the railways. Incredibly many Austerity’s remained in service until the end of steam, in normal use on British Mainline Railways

The individual railway companies knew that they would inherit The WD engines once the hostilities were over. They, of course, would have preferred to have the Stanier 8F’S but it was the Austerities that were built to aid the war effort.

It was the LNER which obtained the Austerity 2-8-0’s in large numbers after the war, reclassifying them 07. They of course went on to be inherited by British Railways after nationalization, and many of the 732 engines went on to give good service on slow heavy freight traffic almost to the end of steam.

In total 935 “2-8-0’s” were built making “The Austerity” one of the most produced classes of British Steam Locomotive. They were built at the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow and The Vulcan Foundry in Lancashire.

Sadly, they were withdrawn from service between 1959 and 1967. None of the 2-8-0’S were preserved, however one survivor of its type, originally built at the Vulcan Foundry in 1945, was returned to Britain from Sweden via The Netherlands in 1971.

As to Riddles himself he continued to influence the design and structure of the railways even influencing the appearance of the BR fleet. He believed like Ford that you could have any colour you liked as long as it was black. For the livery selection board he paraded a perfectly turned out LMS 5MT in LNWR black which stole the show. Riddles retired from BR in 1953 and died on 18th June 1983 aged 90 years.


Here is a link to a lovely image of the North British Locomotive Company drawing office staff lined up in front of a 2-8-0 completed locomotive.

Read more about Robert Riddles

Read more here: