John Horton: The Colin Kerswill Memorial steam tour – and its special connection to Thanet

Colin Kerswill with A4 Pacific loco BITTERN, Photo by Chris Allen

By John Horton

The date August 11th 1968 may not seem much to many people, but to die hard steam railway enthusiasts, that date was the end of an era.

On that fateful day, British Railways ran the last ever Steam Train on Britain’s Railways, with “The Fifteen Guinea Special” , hauled by 2 Stanier Black 5 locos and the last Britannia Class loco, 70013 OLIVER CROMWELL. After that date, steam was to be no more, and thousands of steam locos were towed away, destined for cutting up at various scrap yards across Britain, the most famous of all being Dai Woodhams, in Barry Island, South Wales. Ironically, because of his decision to cut up scrap wagons first, he inadvertently allowed the steam preservation movement to be born.

August 11th this year will be very poignant for me as on this date, Steam Dreams rail company will be operating a  steam hauled rail tour from London Victoria, via Chatham and Faversham, down to Dover Priory. After taking on water the tour will set off again, along the Dover Coastline to Folkestone, Ashford and back to London, but this will be a very special trip for me, as the train is called “The Colin Kerswill Memorial”.

Colin, was a former work colleague of mine, we were both employed by Network South East as train drivers. He was based at Gillingham and I was based at Ramsgate and we, along with 3 others also engaged as drivers, were Schools Safety Advisors.

Our job was to visit every school within our allocated area from Primary through to Secondary Education, warning of the dangers of trespass on the railway, and how our railways were not playgrounds, but dangerous places to play upon and with tragic consequences if the warnings were ignored.

Colin covered area one, which was Birchington, Westgate, Minster, and outer Ramsgate, I covered Margate, Broadstairs, Ramsgate, as well as Sandwich, and Deal. Although it may sound small it’s surprising just how many schools there were in each of our districts.

At the end of each session we ran a question and answer session for the children/ students and this helped secure the unique bond we had with each school. Colin’s particular favourite school was Birchington Primary, he always said they made wonderful cakes and he eagerly looked forward to their annual visit. Our visits usually started before the Easter break and concluded before the summer holidays.

Each visit ensured every pupil in each school received a “goodie bag” containing badges, pens, pencils, rulers, runners and a colouring book – oh how times have changed since those days. Now the responsibility for school safety visits lays with Network Rail and in partnership with British Transport Police.

We took pride in our respective areas, and it was so up lifting to receive letters and drawings from the children at the schools we visited, so much thought went into each and every one and we truly appreciated every single one we received, to know we had made a difference to a young person’s life and succeeded in our objective was reward enough.

Colin, progressed through the ranks. He had started on the railway in 1952 and after national service he entered the footplate grade in 1956 (anyone who wanted to become a driver entered the “footplate grade”) starting at Faversham Depot, then transferring to Hither Green to become a driver, later transferring to Gillingham driving diesel and electrics.

Colin was always conscientious and loved steam. In the 1990s British Rail set up a panel/link of people to specifically work Steam Specials in the South East and it was obvious Colin would be a part of this. In 1995 he moved to Hoo Junc, still working with DB Cargo on steam locos, finally retiring as a traction inspector in 2015.

He was also a traction inspector for would-be drivers on the South Devon Railway at Buckfastleigh, where funnily enough I worked at in 2008 after leaving the railway service and we were both shocked to see other there one day, as he was “passing out” a trainee, and I was busy making tea!

Colin drove the first ever “Cathedrals Express” to Canterbury in June 2000, a steam rail tour operated by Steam Dreams, and was a very familiar face at the charge of steam locomotives within Kent and the South Eastern network, but also on other lines he knew well.

He had charge of many famous locomotives, including A3 Pacific “Flying Scotsman” and A4 Pacific “Bittern” of the former London and North Eastern Railway.

Sadly on 13th April this year, aged 86, Colin passed away, and yet another end of an era had arrived, no more would we see his smile from the cab of his beloved steam locos as he raced through the Kent countryside, including Thanet, on steam excursions, nor his wave and friendly toot of the whistle as he saw his former colleagues filming or photographing his efforts as the loco screamed past, hauling a rake of coaches behind.

He encouraged and coaxed many a trainee, sharing his skills and giving tips on how to handle such majestic beasts on the iron road. He will be deeply missed, and this tour will be a fitting tribute to a well-respected man, I know his family will be so proud as they ride upon this special train as a tribute to a very special man.

1 Comment

  1. This excursion is now going to be Diesel pulled ! The operator has cancelled the steam loco due to the very dry conditions and chances of causing a line side fire etc .

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