The Railway Operating Division, Royal Engineers

and a 'dump'of railway locomotive engines at Tattenham Corner station, Epsom Downs, 1919/20.

War Surplus Trains
War Surplus Trains at Tattenham Corner station, Epsom Downs, 1919/20
Image source The LNER Encyclopedia

The earliest of the Royal Engineers' railway operating companies, exclusively concerned with operation of full-size ('standard gauge') trains, were raised in April of 1915 and deployed to France in June of that year. They performed three basic functions:-
  1. The management of traffic.
  2. The provision of crews for locomotives.
  3. The repair of rolling stock and other items needed to keep a railway in operation.
Initially, the Division requisitioned about 600 locomotives of various types from thirteen UK railway companies.

Acquisition of ROD 2-8-0 locomotives - the 'Eight Coupled'

Since, as the war developed it became clear that the ROD needed its own standard heavy locomotive, the Royal Engineers adopted the Great Central Railway Class 8K (freight) 2-8-0 which had been designed by John G Robinson in 1911 and proven reliable. There were main three batches of orders, the first being placed between February and June 1917 for 223 locomotives. A second batch of orders was for 100 locomotives, commissioned between February and August 1918, followed by an order for 188 more in Autumn 1918 to sustain the UK's locomotive manufacturing industry after the war. Eventually, a total 521 ROD 2-8-0s were procured.

Richborough Wharfs

At Richborough in Kent, a whole new 'secret' port was built to expand Cross-Channel supply shipping capacity. Among its features was a ferry with three vessels capable of transporting railway rolling stock, artillery and supplies to the allied Front Lines. They were equipped with four sets of rails along the train deck and used a link span to load when in harbour. This was the first time that sea-going 'Roll on/roll off' ships had been used from Britain: operations began on 10 February 1918, conveying nearly 900 tons of cargo at a time. Among the total tonnage moved from Richborough were complete trains carrying tanks, direct from the factories to the British army in France, and two siege guns each weighing 189 tons rolled on to the cargo deck.

Train Ferry No. 3
Train Ferry No. 3 leaving Harwich c1928
This ship was built by Fairfield Govan and launched on 12 September 1917. Along with her sister ships
SS Train Ferry No. 1 and SS Train Ferry No. 2, they were the first vessels to offer regular transport
between Britain and continental Europe for rail freight vehicles. They were ordered by the British Army
to provide rail freight transport from Richborough harbour to the continent to sustain the war effort.
They had four sets of rails along the train deck and used a link span to load when in harbour.
Source Wikipedia

Army vehicles and railway carriages being loaded onto a ferry, 1918 NRM Ref:1997-7059_HOR_F_2528
Army vehicles and railway carriages being loaded onto a ferry, 1918 NRM Ref:1997-7059_HOR_F_2529
Army vehicles and railway carriages being loaded onto a ferry, 1918 NRM Ref:1997-7059_HOR_F_2535
Army vehicles and railway carriages being loaded onto a ferry at Southampton, 1918
Image source © National Railway Museum and SSPL

The South Eastern & Chatham Railway 1914-1919 explains: -
"The large military port of Richborough was during the war years a massive logistical headache. The port operated 24 hours a day and the SE&CR in conjunction with the army Railway Operating Division (R.O.D) was responsible for all rail movements. The Railway Operating Division drew its manpower from the officers and soldiers of the Royal Engineers many of whom were railwaymen in their civilian lives. The port of Richborough kept the British Army supplied with food, equipment and ammunition throughout the war years. Much of the heavier equipment (such as tanks) were routed to Richborough via Tonbridge, Ashford and Canterbury. Army Service Corps and Ordnance Corps personnel assisted the R.O.D with its primary tasks at Richborough. During the war years many "special" gun-powder trains were carefully loaded at Woolwich Arsenal and were then routed for marshalling via Hither Green and onwards to Charlton and finally Richborough Port Halt."

Post WWI

At the cessation of hostilities most of the locomotives were returned from overseas service to Richborough and a substantial number were subsequently parked in sidings on Epsom Downs - Supplement No. 2 to Working Time Table (SECR) covered arrangements for movement of 'dead' locomotives from Richborough Wharf to Tattenham Corner. (National Archives RAIL 975/21). The trains were 'worked' via Minster, Canterbury West, Ashford, Paddock Wood,Tonbridge, Redhill and Purley. The individual numbers of locomotives stored at Tattenham Corner were recorded in The Locomotive News and Railway Contractor for 1919.

In The Times of 20 August 1919 the Ministry of Munitions was called to account for allowing the locomotives and tenders to waste away in a depot. By 31 October nothing had changed with sheds of the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway 'full to their utmost capacity with railway engines…[which] overflow also on to the double line of track some distance towards Tadworth…' On 19 November, 100 of the 151 railway engines were reported to have been sold as a result of the publicity.

Later history

Details of the 'Robinson ROD's may be found listed at: - www.britishsteam.com/php_wd/usr_rods.php. For the locomotives clearly shown in the photograph at Tattenham Corner we are told: -
ROD 1959, built North British, No 22017, delivered January 1919 and served in France until December 1919 but was loaned to LNWR until August 1921 and subsequently stored at Queensferry until sold to LNER, December 1923. Withdrawn March 1964 at Langwith and sent for disposal at BR Doncaster Works, April 1964.

ROD 1960, built North British, No 22018, delivered Jan, 1919, and served in France, but was loaned to NER until August 1921 and subsequently stored at Royds Green until sold to GWR, May 1925. Withdrawn March 1929 at Paddington and sent for disposal to Swindon Works.
which dates the Tattenham Corner photograph later than 1919 and a copy sold at auction has been catalogued '4 February 1920'.

Another known to have been in the assembly of locomotives on 19 October 1919 was: -
ROD 1966, built by North British No. 22024, delivered February 1919 and served in France until circa October 1919, but was loaned to NER until August 1921 and subsequently stored at Royds Green until sold to GWR, May 1925. Withdrawn October 1928 at Oxley and sent for disposal to Swindon Works.
War Surplus Trains
War Surplus Trains at Tattenham Corner station, Epsom Downs, c. 1919
Image source not known

Brian Bouchard © Jan 2016.


A video clip showing one of the new military roll-on roll-off ships berthing and unloading at Dunkirk in November 1918 is available on the Imperial War Museums website. Also, if you are interested in other aspects of railways used in WW1 you may like to view Michael Portillo's Railways of the Great War.



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