GWR Autocoach

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A GWR Autocoach preserved at Didcot Railway Centre

The GWR Autocoach (or auto-trailer) is a type of coach that was used by the Great Western Railway for push-pull trains powered by a steam locomotive. The distinguishing design feature of an autocoach is the driving cab at one end, allowing the driver to control the train without needing to be located in the cab of the steam locomotive. This eliminates the need to run the engine round to the other end of the coach at the end of each journey.

When one or more autocoaches are connected to a suitably equipped steam locomotive, the combination is known as an auto-train, or, historically, a railmotor train. A steam locomotive provided with the equipment to be used as an autotrain is said to be auto-fitted.

The autocoach is the forerunner of the driving trailer used with push–pull trains.

Design features[edit]

Retractable steps for use at low platforms

A locomotive fitted with additional control equipment is used to power the autotrain.

When running 'autocoach first', the regulator is operated by a linkage to a rotating shaft running the length of the locomotive, passing below the cab floor. This engages (via a telescopic coupling) with another shaft running the full length below the floor of the autocoach. This shaft is turned by a second regulator lever in the cab of the autocoach. (See photograph sequence below.) The driver can operate the regulator, brakes and whistle from the far (cab) end of the autocoach; the fireman remains on the locomotive and (in addition to firing) also controls the valve gear settings. The driver can also warn of the train's approach using a large mechanical gong, prominently mounted high on the cab end of the autocoach, which is operated by stamping on a pedal on the floor of the cab. The driver, guard and fireman communicate with each other by an electric bell system.

Internally, the passenger section of the coach is divided into two open saloons – originally for smoking and non-smoking – with a lobby in the middle separating the two. There is usually a small guard's and luggage compartment at the 'loco' (non-driving) end of the coach. The seating layout is similar to the lower deck of a modern-day bus, with a mixture of normal seating and inwards-facing bench seats. Passengers access the coach via the lobby. The coach is equipped with retractable steps, which are extended if the train stops at rural halts with either low or non-existent platforms, and which fold-in tight against the coach underframe to keep them clear of line-side obstructions when the train is moving. These steps are controlled by the guard using levers in the lobby.

Some earlier autocoaches were converted from steam rail motors, by the removal of the integral steam engine. The most familiar type of autocoach was introduced in 1928. The design proved very long-lived, with 163 examples being built to a similar design. The last coaches were built some years after nationalisation by British Railways in 1954.

In operation[edit]

The non-driving end of preserved W225 in British Railways livery on the South Devon Railway

If more than one autocoach was used, the locomotive would usually be marshalled between the coaches, as 'play' in the control linkages could otherwise make operation difficult. This arrangement was not always possible where turntables were not convenient for turning coaches and hence up to two autocoaches could follow or lead a locomotive with cab ends away from the locomotive.[1]

Accidents and incidents[edit]

  • On 15 April 1923, carriage No. 70 formed a passenger train hauled by locomotive No. 215. The train was in a head-on collision with a freight train at Curry Rivel, Somerset due to a signalman's error. Nine people were injured.[2]
  • On 16 November 1937, an empty train in a siding at the eastern end of Ealing Broadway station (between platforms 2 and 3) was waiting to be called into the platform to form the next service to Denham when the driver started the train in thick fog without noticing either that the points were not set for the platform nor that the signals were against him, and the auto-trailer crashed into the signal box. This auto-trailer, no. 211 of Diagram A31, had been converted in August 1935 from steam rail motor no. 81 (Diagram Q1); it was repaired after the accident, and was not withdrawn until March 1959.[3][4][5][6][7]

Preserved examples[edit]

Number Built Current location Comments
38 1906 Telford Steam Railway Out of service
92 1912 Didcot Railway Centre In working order. Partner to the Steam Railmotor.[8]
163 1928 Llangollen Railway Restored to working order with the assistance of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant
167 1929 Llangollen Railway In working order
169 1929 West Somerset Railway Under restoration at Williton by a small team of volunteers for Locomotive 5542 Ltd which also owns Auto-trailer W233 and auto-fitted locomotive 5542[9]
174 1930 Llangollen Railway Under restoration
178 1930 Severn Valley Railway[10] [11]
190 1933 Didcot Railway Centre In working order
225 1951 South Devon Railway In working order
228 1951 South Devon Railway In working order
231 1951 Didcot Railway Centre In working order
232 1951 Bodmin and Wenford Railway On Dartmouth Steam Railway from 1971 until 2008 where it was used as a first class saloon for which its auto-control gear and cab fittings were removed.
233 1951 South Devon Railway W233 was built by BR at Swindon Works in August 1951 to a Great Western Railway design. It is owned by Locomotive 5542 Ltd which also owns GWR prairie tank No 5542 (auto fitted) and GWR Auto-trailer No 169. It finished its passenger service with BR, which was mainly on the Yatton-Clevedon Branch, in 1964 and was subsequently used by BR for a variety of non-passenger purposes as Test Car 1 at Derby D of D, (the old CM&EE.) where it was used for ride testing all types of new and old freight rolling stock. It was part of a catenary test train hired by Balfour Beatty for the then new Channel Tunnel and where it achieved 104 M.P.H. in test runs. When purchased by 5542 Ltd in July 2013, it had no seats, a large diesel generator, a kitchen sink unit, remnants of computer equipment, BR Mk 1 toilet, dual Air/Vacuum brakes, B4 bogies, Oleo pneumatic buffers and all of its auto-train control gear removed. It has subsequently been completely refurbished.
238 1954 Severn Valley Railway Named Chaffinch[12]
240 1954 South Devon Railway Awaiting restoration having been used for some years as a PW Department mess van in Dart Valley Railway days

Auto-fitted locomotives[edit]

Several locomotive classes included examples equipped to work in autotrains at different times. These included:

Type Locomotives fitted Introduced Comments
455 Class 2-4-0T About 40 Originally introduced 1869, some fitted with auto gear after 1905.[13]
517 Class 0-4-2T 86 Originally introduced 1868, some fitted with auto gear after 1905.[13]
1076 Class 0-6-0ST/PT 21 Originally introduced 1870, some fitted with auto gear after 1905.[13]
2021 Class 0-6-0ST/PT 27 Originally introduced 1897, some fitted with auto gear after 1905.[13]
4575 Class 2-6-2T 15 1953 Originally introduced 1927, a few fitted with auto gear in 1953.[13] Preserved auto-fitted examples are 5526, 5542, 5572 (cab end only fitted).
4800 Class 0-4-2T 75 1932 Renumbered as 1400 Class, auto-fitted version of 5800 Class. 1420, 1442, 1450, 1466 are preserved.[13]
5400 Class 0-6-0PT 25 1930 All locomotives auto-fitted. None preserved.[13]
6400 Class 0-6-0PT 40 1932 Smaller wheel version of 5400 Class. All locomotives auto-fitted. 6412, 6430, 6435 are preserved.[13]


  1. ^ Kingdom, Anthony R; Lang, Mike (2004). The Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead Railway. ARK Publications (Railways). pp. 32, 43, 62 etc. ISBN 1-873029-09-8.
  2. ^ Vaughan, Adrian (1989). Obstruction Danger. Wellingborough: Patrick Stephens Limited. pp. 29–32. ISBN 1-85260-055-1.
  3. ^ Trevena, Arthur (1980). Trains in Trouble. Vol. 1. Redruth: Atlantic Books. p. 41. ISBN 0-906899-01-X.
  4. ^ Lewis, John (1991). Great Western Auto Trailers - Part One: Pre-Grouping Vehicles. Didcot: Wild Swan. pp. 197–200. ISBN 0-906867-99-1.
  5. ^ Lewis, John (1995). Great Western Auto Trailers - Part Two: Post-Grouping and Absorbed Vehicles. Didcot: Wild Swan. p. 312. ISBN 1-874103-25-9.
  6. ^ Mitchell, Victor E.; Smith, Keith (April 2000). Ealing to Slough. Western Main Lines. Midhurst: Middleton Press. map IV, figs. 9, 10. ISBN 1-901706-42-7.
  7. ^ "Accident at Ealing Broadway on 16th November 1937". The Railways Archive. Retrieved 29 October 2014.
  8. ^ "Latest News". GWR Steam Railmotor and Trailer Project. January 2013 – Completion of Auto Trailer 92 & the End of the Project. Archived from the original on 28 November 2012. Retrieved 21 February 2013.
  9. ^ "Auto Trailer 169". Archived from the original on 23 July 2008. Retrieved 11 May 2009.
  10. ^ SVR News Issue 186 Page 15
  11. ^ "Railway Heritage Register Carriage Survey". Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  12. ^ "Railway Heritage Register Carriage Survey". Retrieved 6 May 2015.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Veal, Colin; Goodman, John (1981). Auto-Trains and Steam Rail Motors of the Great Western. Didcot: Great Western Society. ISBN 0-902956-06-X.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]