ON June 6, 1913, with war just a whisker away, the North Eastern Railway (NER) demanded a dramatic drum roll and announced that it was creating the first line to use electric locomotives in the country.
Indeed, it said, not just the first in this country but in the entire world.
What a claim to fame.
The line, said the NER, would join Shildon with Teesside. It would provide the voracious furnaces of Teesside with a never-ending and cheap supply of south Durham coal.
There would be no shortage of steel should the Empire go to war.
Unfortunately, there were one or two things wrong with the NER’s announcement.
For a start, in this country alone, there were already several electrified lines. In fact, there was the Tyneside Electric, which NER itself had electrified in 1904 (these early suburban lines form the basis of today’s Tyne and Wear Metro system).
Abroad, they were even further advanced. The Baltimore Belt Line into New York used electricity from 1895 and the mountainous Valtellina line in Italy ran electric locos with a top speed of 70mph from 1902.
Nevertheless, the Shildon to Newport (Teesside) line was historic.
It was an idea at least 50 years ahead of its time, and it created a claim to fame for the Clarence Railway that we overlooked in the article three weeks ago.
The Clarence, you may remember, opened in 1833, running through the heart of south Durham from Aycliffe to Port Clarence on the north bank of the Tees. Its branchlines probed up to Coxhoe, across to Byers Green, into Chilton and eventually round to Hartlepool.
Its only real claim to fame was that it was the first railway built anywhere in the world specifically to compete with another railway and so it merits only a footnote in history. That other railway was the Stockton and Darlington Railway (S&DR), and the Quaker-faced businessmen who ran the S&DR squeezed the Clarence so hard that it never made any profit.
In 1863, the Clarence merged into NER where it remained anonymously until Vincent Raven became the railway’s chief mechanical officer in 1910. Raven was a visionary and, inspired by visits to the US, he wanted to experiment with electricity.
His goal was to electrify the East Coast Main Line but, first of all, he needed a trial line.
The trial line needed to be in an area with a good electricity supply – the North-East ticked that box as its supply was already powerful enough to fuel its heavy industries.
The trial line needed to be short but well used and, preferably, without passengers who inconveniently liked their trains to run to a timetable. The Clarence ticked these boxes because it was only 18 miles long and it carried only vast quantities of coal and minerals.
Construction work began on the £200,000 project in 1913.
Two large sub-stations were built: one called Erimus near the Newport marshalling yard on Teesside, the other called Aycliffe near the Blacksmith’s Arms at Preston-le-Skerne. The latter was a hulking brick construction that remained until the A1(M) came charging through in the mid-1Sixties.
Ten electric engines were built at the North Road workshops in Darlington. They were numbered 3 to 12 (Nos 1 and 2 had been built in 1905 for use in Newcastle) and they were called Bo-Bos because of their wheel arrangement.
The electrified line was completed by January 10, 1916, and was deemed a success. The Bo-Bos could haul 1,400 tons at 25mph. It took them 57 minutes to travel the line, and Raven, right, worked out that five electric locos were doing the work of 13 steam ones. He was so impressed that he commissioned North Road to build Bo-Bo No 13 – an experimental electric passenger loco that Raven believed would soon run on the East Coast Main Line.
It never did. In fact, the exciting Shildon to Newport electrical experiment soon turned into a white elephant when the First World War ended. Traffic on the line declined, particularly following the 1921 coal strike. The Durham coalfield’s heyday was past. In fact, the depression of the Twenties signalled the end of the heyday massive heavy industries. It also meant there was no money to invest in vast infrastructure projects like electrification of railway lines.
The East Coast Main Line project was quietly shelved.
By 1935, the Shildon to Newport line was carrying a seventh of the traffic of 1915. It needed a major overhaul. The powers-that-be decided to revert to steampower – afterall, there were large numbers of steam locos in mothballs, looking for a use, due to the recession.
And so the electrical experiment faded away. The Bo-Bos went into storage in Darlington and then Newcastle before it became clear no one wanted them and they were scrapped in 1950 (No 11 escaped and shunted at Ilford depot in London, until 1964).
The Clarence Railway subsided quietly back into the footnotes of history. Its star flickered briefly into life once more in 1941 when Royal Ordnance Factory 28 was built at Aycliffe.
The Clarence had the job of transporting some of the 12,000 munitions workers to the factory.
Station A was built at Simpasture for people who lived in Bishop Auckland, Crook and Durham, and Station B was built at Demons Bridge (a bridge over Demons Beck) for people from Teesside, Hartlepool and Seaham.
Once the Second World War was over, the Clarence stepped back into the shadows.
Even without the Beeching Axe of the Sixties, its future was in jeopardy.
The A1(M) was being planned to slice through it at Preston-le-Skerne and the Darlington/Sedgefield back lane was due for upgrading at Elstob – these would require expensive crossings.
Plus, near Simpasture Junction, a coal fire had started burning slowly underground in the mid-Fifties. It was still burning when the Beeching report was published on March 27, 1963, and the Clarence was axed on June 22, 1963.
With thanks to Richard Barber.