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 lineside 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]

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]

When used on rural branch lines these coaches were normally paired with a 517 or, after 1932, 4800/1400 Class 0-4-2 tank locomotive; some 0-6-0 pannier tanks were also fitted for autotrain working. Autocoaches were also used on some main-line duties; a famous one being that between Gloucester and Chalford on the Golden Valley Line route between Gloucester and Swindon. They could also be found on some London inner-suburban services out of Paddington, where they were usually powered by the faster and more powerful 5400 Class 0-6-0 pannier tanks. Auto-trains on the steeply graded routes in the South Wales valleys often used the smaller-wheeled 6400 Class engines.

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]

The non-driving end of W225 in British Railways livery on the South Devon Railway
  • No.38. Currently undergoing repairs at the Telford Steam Railway. In Maroon livery.
  • No.92. Built 1912. Restored to full working order at the Llangollen Railway and based at Didcot Railway centre as partner to their Steam Railmotor.[8]
  • No.163. Built 1928. Restored to full working order with the assistance of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. It is currently (2007) at the Llangollen Railway, in North Wales, where it is in use as a static or mobile classroom, in addition to conventional passenger-carrying duties. In Chocolate & Cream livery.
  • No.167. Built 1929. Restored to full working order, and in use at the Llangollen Railway alongside No.163. In Carmine & Cream livery.
  • No.169. Built 1929. Currently under restoration at Williton on the West Somerset Railway. It is owned as by the 5542 Group and is auto-fitted at each end.[9]
  • No.174. Built 1930. Currently under restoration at the Llangollen Railway.
  • No.178. Built 1930. Moved to the Severn Valley Railway in March 2014.[10] In Chocolate & Cream livery.[11]
  • No.190. Built 1933. Preserved in working order at the Didcot Railway Centre, although their locomotive with the necessary control equipment, number 1466, is currently (2011) out-of-service awaiting overhaul. In Chocolate & Cream livery.
  • Nos W225, W228, W233 and W240 are all based at the South Devon Railway. Built by British Railways 1951–54, 225 & 228 have both been given the correct British Railways' crimson-and-cream livery, and are in working order. 240, in inauthentic and very faded Chocolate & Cream, is currently awaiting restoration having been used for some years as a PW Department mess van in Dart Valley Railway days.
  • W231 is in working order at Didcot Railway Centre, it has recently had a repaint in Crimson & Cream; it used to run in Western Region chocolate and cream, which was the wrong livery as it was built in 1951 by British Railways.
  • W232 was based at the Paignton & Dartmouth Steam Railway for many years where it was used as a first class saloon for which its auto-control gear and cab fittings were removed. It has now been returned to full working order at the Bodmin & Wenford Railway with the refitting all the removed components. In Maroon livery.
  • W238. Built 1954. Moved to the Severn Valley Railway in March 2014.[10] In Maroon livery and named 'Chaffinch'.[12]

Auto-fitted locomotives[edit]

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

Type Locos fitted Introduced  
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]

In fiction[edit]

In The Railway Series No.23, Enterprising Engines, four former GWR autocoaches, named Isabel, Dulcie, Alice and Mirabel, are saved from scrap and brought to the fictional North Western Railway to work on the Tidmouth-Arlesburgh branch line there with ex-Great Western tank engines, Duck and Oliver. However they do not appear in the television series based on the books.


  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. Retrieved 21 February 2013. 
  9. ^ "Auto Trailer 169". Archived from the original on 2008-06-23. Retrieved 2009-05-11. 
  10. ^ a b 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]

  • Lewis, John (1991). Great Western Railway Auto Trailers: Pre-grouping Vehicles (Part 1). Wild Swan. p. 208 pages. ISBN 0-906867-99-1. 
  • Lewis, John (1995). Great Western Railway Auto Trailers: Post-Grouping and Absorbed Vehicles (Part 2). Wild Swan Publications Ltd. p. 184 pages. ISBN 1-874103-25-9. 
  • Lewis, John (2004). Great Western Steam Railmotors: and their services. Wild Swan Publications Ltd. ISBN 1-874103-96-8. 

External links[edit]