Locomotives of the GER
The locomotives of the Great Eastern Railway are often poorly-regarded and misunderstood by the casual railway enthusiast. There are several reasons for this, amongst which are the GER system's relative geographical isolation, for it served the 'bulge' of East Anglia on the east side of the British mainland. Thus, it was bounded to the North and East by the North Sea, and to the South by the River Thames, so that the only connections to other railways were to the West. It did not serve any particularly glamorous destinations, nor did it participate in the Anglo-Scottish express passenger traffic. It had considerable boat train traffic from Harwich and Parkeston Quay, but this was principally business and commercial travel to and from the Netherlands, Denmark and Northern Europe. The railway had considerable success in building up seasonal excursion and holiday traffic to coastal resorts such as Clacton, Yarmouth, Cromer and Hunstanton, but the east coast climate could not rival that of the South coast and West Country resorts.
The freight traffic of the GER was mainly agricultural, as the area had little in the way of heavy industry, mining or quarrying. However, it did eventually come to haul considerable coal traffic south from the Yorkshire coalfields, but - for the most part - this passed over Britain's least-known main line, the Great Northern & Great Eastern Joint, from Doncaster to March.
Suburban passenger services have never excited the railway enthusiast in any case, even though the GER ran the most intensive steam-worked services in the World.
What is generally known by the 'enthusiast in the street' is that the GER had some tolerably-good locomotives, such as the 4-4-0 Claud Hamiltons and the B-12 4-6-0s, and that a number of ancient 0-6-0s with tall chimneys and squat boilers - not to mention the last working British 2-4-0s - survived throughout the 1950s on branch and cross-country lines.
These last points serve to illustrate how the GER is often misunderstood. Although the J-15 class 0-6-0 design dated back to 1883, the majority of the last survivors were actually built in the 20th century. Although having originally been the railway's standard goods engine, those built from 1899 onwards had been constructed as mixed-traffic locomotives.
The survival of the last working 2-4-0s in Britain was due to a number of factors. Much of the GER system had originally been cheaply constructed, and many cross-country lines suffered from severe weight restrictions, and could not take the larger tank engines. The J-15 0-6-0s could do the work of the 2-4-0s, but these duties involved a certain amount of main line running, such as on the Colchester - Cambridge route. The larger driving wheels of the 2-4-0s enabled them to run faster and avoid delaying traffic. Furthermore, it was economical to keep the 2-4-0s in traffic, as they used the same standard boiler as the J-15 0-6-0s. Until the Second World War, they also shared common cylinders and motion components with other classes. Steam locomotives are basically simple machines, and can be kept going indefinitely with the right maintenance and repair - witness the number of locomotives on our preserved railways that are nominally between 100 and 130 years old and still going strong. The final factor that kept the 2-4-0s going was that until the advent of the BR diesel multiple unit trains in the mid-1950s, there was nothing light enough, or fast enough to replace them.