At one time the primary method of hauling freight wagons was with one or several horses (or oxen). Sometimes these operated on what were called 'waggonways' which were very early railways that used wooden tracks. Once the technology became viable the horses / oxen were replaced by a heavy steam locomotive (and to support the greater weight the tracks became metal), and as technology changed further so locomotives powered by liquid fuel, gaseous fuel or electricity eventually supplanted the coal powered steam locomotives. For passengers it was the invention of the steam engine which acted as the catalyst for people to travel by railway rather than solely road-based stage-carriages (or boat) and although for many routes passenger trains made the same motive power progression as goods trains a new trend developed whereby having a large locomotive at one of the train changed having passenger carriages which were self-propelled, which means that there were smaller 'locomotives' spread along the train. With electricity it became possible for one train driver to control every individual 'locomotive' at the same time, and to join several small trains which typically were two or three carriages in length to form one longer train, all under the control of one train driver. Trains which operate in this way are frequently referred to as being 'multiple.units'
Self-propelled trains existed for many years alongside trains hauled by steam locomotives. The earliest versions actually consisted of a passenger railcar with a small steam engine at one end. These were often called Railmotors and their intended purpose was to provide a more economic way of operating low capacity passenger services.
Railmotors came in two basic variants, these being of a small 0-4-0 steam locomotive with one end of a passenger carriage hung on it like a semi-trailer and a passenger carriage with a steam engine built into one end of it. The latter type would sometimes have a vertical boiler which required less floor space.
Railmotors were not normally very powerful, usually being just about able to power themselves plus perhaps an extra carriage. This made them very inflexible, as they were unable to cope with greater than expected passenger demands - an example being busy market days on an otherwise lightly-used rural branch line. They were also unable to haul goods wagons, requiring conventional locomotives to be stationed on the same line for these duties.
Whilst in theory a way around the limited capacity of the Railmotor would have been to join two (more more) together to form a longer train (complete with unpowered passenger carriages) this solution was not adopted, one reason being that each railmotor still required a driver and fireman - whilst using a more powerful locomotive plus unpowered passenger carriages only required two members of staff.
In 1903 the Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced its first railmotor, and by the time production finished in 1908 it had a fleet of 99 carriage units plus 112 interchangeable power units which could be swapped between carriages to suit maintenance needs. Whilst there was no doubt that the railmotor offered many passenger enticing features and helped keep railway services successful in the face of tram and (nascent) motor bus competition, the vehicles themselves presented maintenance challenges in that when being serviced they took up much valuable workshop space (after all, they were longer than steam locomotives) and the proximity of the boiler made it difficult to keep the passenger space clean. In addition, their success soon became such that on some routes longer trains became required, but adding an extra carriage made them so sluggish that they often had difficulty keeping to the timetable.
To solve this (in 1905) the GWR experimented with adding extra equipment to some small tank engines and separate passenger carriages so that they could work as fixed units where the driver could drive from the far end of the passenger carriage(s), eliminating the need to run the engine round to the other end of the train at the end of each journey. These became known as auto-trains, with the carriages which were fitted with the vestibule and controls for the driver also being known as autocoaches or auto-trailers. This concept allowed the trains to operate in 'push-pull' mode, making them similar to short multiple-unit (electric) trains where only one of the passenger carriages are motored. Experience found that one intermediate trailer (which had been fitted with the required mechanical linking equipment) could be located between the autocoach and locomotive without there being so much slack in the mechanical linkings that the concept started to become unworkable. Another option was for trains to be formed of several autocoaches with the locomotive between them.
With trials of autotrains having proven successful, withdrawals of the railmotors began in 1914 and by 1935 they all had either been scrapped or converted to auto-trailers. The design proved very successful, with 163 examples in total - and the last being built by British Railways as late as 1954!
In addition to creating an 'almost' self-powered train where the power unit was powerful enough to haul several passenger carriages another advantage of the autotrain concept was that the locomotive could be detached for maintenance - or for use on a freight train.
None of the former GWR railmotors survived in that format but No.93 (which in 1934 became autocoach No.212) has been converted back to its original format - albeit with a new power unit. It is normally kept at the Didcot Railway Centre where it is sometimes used in passenger service.
These images come from several visits to the Didcot Railway Centre, in very different weather conditions.
GWR Railmotor No.93 painted in Edwardian-era Crimson Lake livery at the Didcot Railway Centre..
GWR Railmotor No.93 painted in Edwardian-era Crimson Lake livery at the Didcot Railway Centre.
At the termini station of Burlescombe.
Departing from Didcot Halt.
A closer side view, as seen at Burlescombe - note the fully lined livery! The luggage area is between the small passenger compartment in which smoking was permitted and the vertical (upright) coal powered steam engine.
Note the 'smoking' legend on the window glass.
Internal view of the larger passenger saloon, which is for non-smoking passengers.
At the far end is a small compartment which features the required mechanical apparatus for the train driver to control acceleration, braking and sound the whistle.
Another internal view of the larger passenger saloon, looking in the opposite direction..
At the far end of the image it is just possible to see inside the much smaller passenger compartment which was dedicated to passengers who liked to smoke - of course nowadays the entire train is designated as being 'non-smoking'.
More information about GWR Railmotor No.93 and the Didcot Railway Centre can be found by visiting these websites:
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