Rod Stewart backing £3.4m scheme to rebuild East Anglian 'railway icon'

Rod Stewart is backing a £3.4m scheme to build a replica of a B17 steam locomotive.

Rod Stewart is backing a £3.4m scheme to build a replica of a B17 steam locomotive, which used to be a familiar sight in Norfolk and Suffolk. - Credit: Ian MacCabe, Rod Stewart image: Archant

Rocker Sir Rod Stewart is backing a £3.4m scheme to build a working replica of a class of famous steam locomotives that used to pull 90mph crack express trains between London and East Anglia some 90 years ago.

The Sandringham Class of B17 engines – nicknamed “The Footballers” because many of them were named after famous football clubs, including Norwich City, were once a familiar sight throughout Norfolk and Suffolk.

But none of the 73 locomotives – designed by Sir Nigel Gresley, the genius engineer behind “Flying Scotsman” – survived the breaker’s yard when British Rail sent them for scrap as they phased out steam power during the late 1950s.

Rod Stewart in concert at Carrow Road, Norwich.; photo by Adrian Judd

Train lover Rod Stewart is the patron of the B17 Steam Locomotive charity trust. - Credit: Archant Norfolk 2011

Now a group of 200 rail enthusiasts, many of them based in East Anglia, have formed the B17 Steam Locomotive charity trust with train lover Sir Rod as their patron.

And they have started building their new B17 engine, provisionally named “Spirit of Sandringham”, at a Sheffield factory with help from engineering students at the city’s university.

The mainframe and chassis are already in place and with a bit of luck the loco will be operating on heritage railways and hauling special excursion trains over mainline routes before the end of the decade.

The Manchester United B17 steam locomotive.

A group of 200 rail enthusiasts, many of them based in East Anglia, have formed the B17 Steam Locomotive charity trust, pictured is the Manchester United locomotive. - Credit: Neville Stead

One of the men behind the scheme is trust director John Peat, from Wymondham, who said: “The B17 really was a railway icon, but there are very few photos or memories of this class of engine.

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“We’d love to hear the experiences of any former railwaymen who worked with them or has photos. It is vital to glean as much information as possible before the knowledge disappears.

“We are also looking for people who would like to help us recreate this locomotive – either with financial support, through joining the trust, sponsorship or by offering their skills.”

The first B17, with its 4-6-0 wheel configuration, was built in 1928 for the Great Eastern Railway and named “Sandringham” after the Royal Family’s Norfolk residence.

As well as the London express routes, they were also earmarked to pull a cross-country boat train nearly 300 miles from Harwich to Manchester and Liverpool.

Many of the early B17s were called after stately homes, with number 2847 “Helmingham Hall” chosen to pull King George V’s funeral train back to London after he died at Sandringham in 1936.

The Grimsby Town B17 steam locomotive.

It is hoped the locomotive will be operating on heritage railways and hauling special excursion trains over mainline routes before the end of the decade. - Credit: Neville Stead

But the last 25 built were named after football teams – the first of them being “Grimsby Town”, “Arsenal”, “Sheffield United”, three of the FA Cup semi-finalists during the 1935-36 season, and “Derby County”.

“Darlington”, “Huddersfield Town”, “Sunderland” and “Leeds United” followed, before later in 1936 number 2859 was called “Norwich City” –  only to be renamed “East Anglian” the following year and given a new streamlined shape ready to pull a daily express train from Norwich to London.

This service  – also called “The East Anglian” – ran for the first time on Monday, September 27, 1937, with crowds of excited spectators turning out to watch it reach almost 80mph on the approach to Diss.

In its heyday, it was regarded as one of the country’s most luxurious trains, timetabled to cover the 115 miles (185km) between Norwich and Liverpool Street in just 130 minutes at an average speed of 53mph, despite stopping at Ipswich to pick up more passengers.

The Norwich City B17 steam locomotive.

The Sandringham Class of B17 engines were nicknamed “The Footballers” because many of them were named after famous football clubs, including Norwich City (pictured). - Credit: Ian MacCabe

But in 1938 the name “Norwich City” was back – this time transferred to engine number 2839, which had started out as “Rendelsham Hall” – a misspelling of Baron Rendlesham’s former estate near Wickham Market.  

Not only had railway bosses managed to spell the name wrong, but they then discovered the Baron had sold his stately pile to become a high-class nursing home for drug addicts and recovering alcoholics.

Brian Hall, B17 Trust chairman, said: “That wasn’t quite the image the embarrassed railway company wanted to project on one of their locos. So they changed the name to ‘Norwich City’ instead.

“Well, you can’t get much more respectable than that, can you?”

For details of the project, visit b17steamloco.com or email b17enquiries@gmail.com

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