Giant train misses its stop in Carnforth

Fifty years ago moves were underway to rehome the world’s biggest locomotive in Carnforth until the ambitious dream hit the buffers as Mike Hill reports

By Michelle Blade
Friday, 12th March 2021, 3:46 pm

t was supposed to be the unmissable centre piece at the heart of one of Lancashire’s most exciting visitor attractions.

When the age of steam trains came to an end in 1968, enthusiasts adopted a depot just outside Carnforth railway station to became a base for steam locomotive preservation known as Steamtown.

The museum was already home to fine examples of trains from around the world when it was offered the chance to own a piece of railway history.

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Reminiscent of the old Steamtown days, Carnforth steam depot comes alive during an open weekend, with crowd-puller, the Hogwarts Express train in the foreground.

The American Challenger locomotive had a reputation as the largest steam engine ever made as it travelled the rails between the USA’s great cities from the mid-1930s.

Lancashire businessman Theo Birrell was one of the men behind Steamtown and he managed to pull off an amazing deal to secure one of the last two Challengers to put on permanent show at Carnforth.

And what made the coup even more remarkable was the Americans were reported to be happy to give away the giant for free.

The agreement followed eight years of talks involving the US Embassy, the top brass of the Union Pacific Railroad company and transatlantic meetings to get the deal done.

The former Steamtown site comes alive at an open event. Pictured from Geoff Hey from Carnforth's 1942 0-4-0 Saddle Tank engine.

After years of frustration, the breakthrough came when Mr Birrell contacted Union Pacific’s chairman Edward Harriman amid growing fears one of the final few remaining Challengers would be cut up for scrap.

The Harriman family was instrumental in building the first transcontinental railway across the Rockies 150 years ago and were considered among the most respected and influential families in the States.

Edward Harriman took up Mr Birrell’s request and secured permission from the president of Union Pacific to hand over one of the last two Challengers still in one piece.

But with the seemingly hardest part of the protracted process over, Mr Birell was faced with the considerable task of getting the Challenger from its home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Lancashire.

At a reported 650 tons in weight and 122ft in length, the monster of the railways stood 2ft 6ins higher than a double decker bus and shipping it halfway across the world would be no easy task.

A steel structure firm offered to provide free of charge a suitable home to house the engine but it would not reside at Carnforth.

Mr Birrell, who lived in Hest Bank, had a vision of placing Challenger on permanent display on Morecambe promenade.

As well as being a major attraction in itself, he hoped it would spur visitors on to spend a day at Steamtown with estimates it would have lured 250,000 people a year to the resort.

The team had two proposals for getting Challenger to England, either dragging it by rail the 2,000 miles from Wyoming to the east coast of America to be placed on a ship or breaking it into bits and reassembling it in its new home.

The problem was a simple one of costs.

The privately run American railway network was geared up for high speed trains with several companies operating trains in overlapping areas.

The operation called for finely timed schedules to avoid delays as fast trains cross from one track to another.

Because of the size and weight of Challenger, a large section of American rail traffic would be reduced almost to a halt while the prize engine lumbered thousands of miles across the country at 25mph, pulled by a large diesel locomotive.

“The companies would not be willing to put themselves out to that extent, merely to provide Britain with a showpiece,” Mr Birrell told the Post at the time.

“If Union Pacific had own one company over, that would have mucked up the next one along the line and so on.

“We just can’t do it unless we stop the whole system. If it had been possible to route it, the estimated cost was $28,000.”

If they could have got the train to the coast, the rest of the journey would have been comparatively easy with the idea to ship it to Liverpool and then up the coast to Heysham and then on to the road for the final few miles to its new home.

The alternate plan to dismantle and reassemble it in the UK would have incurred labour costs in America, shipment and then paying for the expertise to piece it all back together.

Mr Birrell said: “Remember over here it would not have been a money-making proposition because it would be on free display to children. To do the job this way, one could not expect much change out of £150,000.”