Slam doors, apprentices and the other woman!

17 January 2019


Railway restoration projects are nothing new in the UK. We all love our rail history. One project, the Bluebell Railway’s 4VEP, number 3417 ‘Gordon Pettitt’ grabbed TBM’s attention. Here’s how we have been helping out... 

First, what’s the project all about? In a nutshell, back in 2004, a nice chap called Chris Buckland was tasked with finding a 4VEP to “do up”. It was to mark the end of slam door units run by South West Trains.

Sifting through the files, of the first 20 VEPs built it soon became clear that no. 3417 was the best of the lot. Built in York back in 1967, it became the focus of the project. This particular unit had largely run on the London to Bournemouth route until the fleet was removed from service.

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Fully restored, it was then launched to great public acclaim and was stabled at Wimbledon.

The yo-yo slam door unit

At this point, 3417 was owned by South West Trains. It was used for a number of special duties. All well and good, and there was considerable interest from the railway enthusiast community. The end of SWT ownership came in 2009 when the unit was sold to the Bluebell Railway for a token £1. To say that the team who had looked after the unit under SWT were upset would be an understatement; they thought that it was the end – although they couldn’t have been more wrong.

There were several offers to store 3417 in secure, under-cover accommodation. However, the offer only lasted a year. Then it was the Bournemouth depot for open storage, briefly at Wimbledon, back to Bournemouth and then finally Clapham. It wasn’t unfair to describe 3417 as the Wimbledon Park Yo-Yo!

Then a breakthrough. Thanks to support from Chris Jackson, Chief Editor of the Railway Gazette Group, a deal was brokered with Bombardier to have 3417 fully repainted at their works in Ilford, East London. It was a great way to utilise their apprenticeship program; the trainees got to work on a piece of classic traction and the project team gained a first-class repaint.

Along with this, Siemens Mobility offered secure covered storage at their facilities at the Strawberry Hill depot when the unit returned from Ilford.

Bringing moquette back to life

For us, it all started with Steve Upton, aka Driver Potter (@DriverPotter on Twitter) and Paul Bigland (@PaulMBigland), a railway writer and talented photographer. It was back in April 2017, and the power of rail contacts brought us together. The 4VEP project was full steam ahead, reworking, mending, borrowing and adapting to get the slam door restored. They encountered a few issues when it came to things like seats, and that’s where TBM originally came in.

We like to think we know a thing or two about railway carriage seating. TBM supports train operators across the UK. If it’s not seat cover cleaning, it’s assessing the fire retardant barriers or recoating grab handles mounted on the top of seats – amongst many other passenger comfort services.

Pitching in with the 3417 restoration was fabulous. It gave the team, and especially some of the younger TBM technicians, some challenging sets of seats to bring back to life. We’re talking old moquette, but the fabric is hard-wearing and made to serve a lifetime. 

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Luckily, there was another bonus just around the corner. Thanks to Mr Pettitt himself (former General Manager of the Southern Region of British Rail, and therefore a keen supporter of the project) a contact at the Network Southeast Railway Society & the National Railway Museum managed to source an amount of moquette. That meant that badly worn and damaged seating could be refreshed with new fabric.

TBM also supplied general cleaning services to arrest the decay of the interior trim, and also re-coated light fittings to a professional finish.

The wider rail industry also helped out. From Unipart Rail to Porterbrook and South Western Railway, the project team have enjoyed great support. The unit’s “home” will continue to be at Strawberry Hill. 

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End of the line?

The end is in sight, but thankfully it’s not the end of the line for 3417. For the project team, the goal is seeing the unit leave Waterloo under its own power, clear signals with a load of happy passengers aboard. To get there they’ll have to jump through a lot of hoops, but they will get there.

And finally, well almost, a few quotes from some of the dedicated people involved with the project:

Darren Franklin, one of the 4VEP senior fitters, summed up TBM’s contribution to the project very succinctly: "Help from companies such as TBM is invaluable. It not only gives our small team a massive boost to morale, but it gives a huge boost to the project. Their help has freed up our skilled staff and moved us forwards as a group. Suddenly we are able to concentrate our efforts more efficiently and move forward more rapidly.”

Chris Buckland, the SETG senior engineer and the reason why 3417 survived into preservation, is pragmatic in his view: “For me, it’s about the history of the unit. It was mundane, boring, part of everyday life for those moving in and out of Waterloo for 40 years. The fact that she is the last working example is proof that staff and enthusiasts can develop an affection for what is basically white goods! The 3417 is no Deltic; it’s much rarer than that. I spent my life as a fitter swearing at them, shunting them, changing brake blocks, fixing them - they could be hard work and you sometimes needed a lot of tools, bad language and the occasional ‘Irish Spanner’ to get them back into traffic. But just as you hate beer when you are a youngster, you grow to love it as time goes on. The VEP is like that; an acquired taste, and once you acquire the love it’s there for life.” 

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Steve Trower had this to say: “I enjoy all aspects of railway preservation and I grew up riding around on slam door trains before they were withdrawn. I want to be able to re-live my younger days of travelling around on the main line on a slam door train. Best way to do that? Get involved with getting 3417 back where she belongs. I also work for the railways, having done an apprenticeship with what was SWT and then going on to do maintenance before going into incident response. I never got the chance to work on the slam door trains while they were in service, so for me it’s an extension to my job, which I love. Unlike modern plug & play trains this is proper engineering which for me is a lot more rewarding than component exchange. It’s fantastic to see so much support for the project both from the railway industry and the general public. Once we've got her back on the mainline I hope that tours will be filled and we can show off everyone's hard work to get her there. I want to be sat in First Class on the first tour out of Waterloo down the South Western Main Line (or round the Hounslow Loop!) with my fellow volunteers, enjoying the fruits of my labour!”

It’s been a real labour of love. As Steve Upton’s girlfriend likes to refer to it… “The Other Woman.” Whatever, one thing is certain - slam door 3417 will ride again...

You can catch a clip of 3417 in action back in 2009 HERE.

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