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Turntables and Triangles

Above: Class A1 No. 60132 is prepared for turning on the 70-foot turntable at Grantham Loco in August 1949.  Photograph by Peter Wilkinson

by John Clayson


Locomotive turning was an essential operation at most engine sheds and major termini in the days of the steam railway.  Steam locomotives, except those which spent their working lives on shunting duties, were designed to travel 'chimney first' whenever possible because:

  • they rode better and more safely through curves and junctions;
  • footplates were optimised for forward travel in terms of the layout of the controls and the shelter of the crew;
  • with the chimney 'uphill' on a steep gradient there is a greater depth of water covering the firebox;
  • technically, the valve gear design and valve arrangements were usually set up in favour of forward gear, aiding efficiency;
  • ...and, of course, the streamlined profile of locomotives such as the A4s could only be effective if they were travelling forward!

Turntables may predate the main line railways, because they were probably used on some horsedrawn waggonways.  At the earliest principal stations there were circular rotating platforms with inset rails on which a single goods wagon or a 4-wheeled carriage could be transferred to another track set at right angles.  Three are seen below, in the foreground, at the Crown Street, Liverpool, terminus of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1833.

By S.G. Hughes - T.T. Bury (1833 revised edition), Coloured Views on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. London: Ackermann & Co; plate 8.

Though they could be used to manoeuvre just one vehicle at a time using only manual power, these small turntables occupied less space than a set of points.  They survived in goods yards into the 20th century, including at Grantham as shown below.

Four wagon turntables are shown in the Up side goods yard at Grantham on a plan which was originally surveyed in 1914.  They were near the granary, just south of the passenger station.  Subsequent annotations indicate their removal in the mid-1920s.

To turn locomotives a larger and much more substantially engineered device was needed.  The rotating part was a strong, centrally pivoted girder on which the locomotive to be turned was positioned so that the weight was as well balanced as possible.

This short feature appeared in The Grantham Journal on 2nd August 1930 as part of a series titled 'Our Railways'.
From The British Newspaper Archive

All but the largest and most modern locomotive turntables were manually powered by the crew, who pushed against extension bars at each end.  The masonry surrounding the turntable had a trackway of raised treads to provide a foothold.  A large steam locomotive of the 1930s-1960s, fully prepared with coal and water, weighed up to 170 tons.

An alternative to the turntable is a geometrical arrangement of track which, when traversed by a locomotive (or indeed a train), has the effect of reversing its direction of travel.  The most common of these are the reversing loop and the triangular junction.  Such track layouts can either be part of the local railway operational infrastructure or, more rarely, they can be specially constructed solely for the purpose of locomotive turning.

Locomotive Turning Facilities at Grantham

Grantham's role as a locomotive changeover point on the East Coast Main Line became established in 1862.  Improvements to the shed facilities, including a locomotive turntable, became essential so that any main line locomotive could be prepared for duty in either direction.

In addition to the reasons for turning outlined previously, it is beneficial for a locomotive to have its chimney uphill when travelling over a steeply inclined section of the line.  This is related to boiler safety, and the longer the locomotive's boiler the more it becomes desirable that it faces uphill.  From the 1940s until 1963 some of the largest heavy freight locomotives based at Grantham shed worked the steeply graded ironstone branch from Highdyke, so it was important that they were sent out from the shed facing the right direction.

Two Class O2 locomotives pass through the station in June 1962 on the up main line, southbound for Highdyke. The north facing one, No.63935 nearer the camera, will be going to pick up an ironstone train for Frodingham. The south facing one, equipped with a tablet catcher, will be heading up the branch, chimney first ascending the bank from High Dyke yard.
Photograph by Cedric A. Clayson.

Turntables were used at Grantham Loco until 1950/51, when a specially constructed compact 'crossover triangle' was set out on land to the west of the shed.  Grantham's turning triangle  remained in use until the shed closed in 1963.

In the Grantham area a variety of turning facilities remote from the shed have been available to the north.  The best-known is the former triangular junction at Barkston which was in operation between 1882 and 1972.  An alternative option, via Barkston South Junction, Barkston East Junction and Allington Junction, was available between 1875 and 2005.

Since 2005 the 'Allington Chord' has, in theory, provided a turning triangle facility.  However, since the end of the regular use of steam locomotives turning has become unnecessary for the normal operational needs of the railway, so the local signalling arrangements at Allington do not provide for the set of moves required for turning.


So far as we know there have been five turntables at Grantham shed occupying four different sites, though at most only two were ever in operation at the same time.

For ease of identification on this page we are identifying them as Turntables 'A' to 'E', but of course they were never known as such when in service.

Turntables 'A' and 'B'

'Turntable A', Grantham's first turntable, was installed in about 1862, situated on the east side of the Engine Shed (later to become known as the 'Old Shed'), opposite the south end of the Western Platform.  It was 40 feet in diameter.

'Turntable B' is said to have been a relocation of 'Turntable A' to a new site, opposite the north end of the station, in about 1889.  There is a turntable shown at both sites on the map below which was surveyed in 1885, so this point needs further research.

This map, surveyed in 1885, shows the two earliest turntables at Grantham.
Grantham North signal box is near the top left corner.  The distinctive hexagonal building is the town's Victorian workhouse.  The GNR bought this land when the institution was relocated to Dysart Road in the early1890s so they could widen the congested northern approach to the station.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Turntables 'A' and 'B' were suitable for the 4-2-2, 2-4-0 and 0-6-0 locomotives used by the GNR during the 19th century.

Grantham engine shed seen from the Western Platform of the station.  The track layout, including the turntable and the lifting gantry, is as shown on the map above.   The turntable visible on the far left was Grantham's earliest, 'Turntable A'.
The building on the right was originally built in about 1855 as a two-road carriage shed. A loco shed adjoined it on the west. In about 1863 the two buildings were amalgamated under the Loco department.
Photograph by P. W. Pilcher; print kindly lent by Graham Cloxton.
A version of this photograph which shows a little more of the turntable appears on page 92 (top) of 'GNR Engine Sheds Vol. 1: Southern Area'. It is credited 'Collection Kenneth Leech'.
This plan of 1887 shows, to the north and west of the passenger station, the Grantham Poor Law Union Workhouse and 'Turntable B'.  In 1892 the building marked 'Fever Hospital' was demolished and a track was laid between the north end of the loco yard and the spur at the south end of the turntable.

We believe that the following accident took place on 'Turntable B', though it could have been at 'Turntable C' which had been brought into use the previous year.

This report appeared in The Grantham Journal on Saturday 1st October 1898.
From The British Newspaper Archive

Arthur D. Scrimshire was the uncle of Alfred Scrimshire, who was Chief Clerk in the Stationmaster's office in the 1930s and appears in the photograph here.

'Turntable B' was removed in about 1903 to enable the construction of a new goods line to the west of the passenger station.

'Turntable C'

'Turntable C', 52 feet in diameter, was installed in 1897 to enable the Great Northern Railway's larger 4-4-2 'Atlantic' locomotives to be operated from Grantham shed.  It was built at the south end of the Loco site, next to Springfield Road, at the same time as the adjacent 'Top Shed'.

A plan showing the 52 foot diameter turntable (turntable C) next to Springfield Road. Enginemen's Mutual Improvement classes were held in the nearby Class Room.
This aerial photograph, taken on 19th April 1950, shows the 52-foot turntable beside the 'top shed'.
© English Heritage

Accident on Monday 26th August 1915

(from The Grantham Journal of 31st July 1915)

Locomotives in Collision – On Monday evening an accident involving damage to two G.N.R. engines, other rolling stock, and buffer stops occurred at the Springfield locomotive sheds.  From information to hand, we understand that an Atlantic type engine got temporarily out of control, and collided with another locomotive of an earlier pattern that was on the turntable.  The latter engine dashed with great force into two stationary tenders, which, in turn, drove the buffer stops clean out of the yard beneath the footpath on Springfield Road, the asphalt of which was dislodged.  Fortunately, no one was injured, but the damage to the engines was rather extensive.

The site of this accident is shown in the aerial photograph of 1950 above; note that there are two wagons positioned where the two tenders would have been in 1915.

'Turntable C' was out of use by 1947.  While it remained in service there were two turntables available at Grantham shed.  The site of 'Turntable C' was obliterated when a spur of the turning triangle was constructed in 1951.

'Turntable D'

In 1891 the Great Northern Railway bought the former Grantham Workhouse site to enable the constricted northern end of the station and shed layout to be extended to the west in future years.  The railway extended across the workhouse land in stages, demolishing the buildings and raising the lower-lying ground to track level by tipping spoil onto the site.  The infilling process was probably not carefully controlled, laying up problems for the railway which would have to be dealt with half a century later.

'Turntable D', 55 feet in diameter, was built on part of the old workhouse site in 1903. It replaced the old 40-foot diameter 'Turntable B', which was too small for newer locomotives and whose site was needed for a proposed new goods line which would be built to bypass the passenger station.

The 55 foot diameter turntable ('Turntable D') on the site of the old workhouse. The buildings shown with red shading at the top centre are the last of the workhouse buildings to remain standing, the former infirmary.
The Ordnance Survey 25 inches = 1 Mile map revised in 1903 shows Turntable C, installed alongside the newly built 'Top Shed' near Springfield Road, and Turntable D, whose approach track has necessitated the removal of a corner of the disused workhouse.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

'Turntable D' was removed in 1921.  However, being only 18 years old it was fit for further service and was relocated that February to the GNR's Bradford Hammerton Street loco shed.

Bradford Hammerton Street shed and the surrounding area in 1958, showing the location of the turntable transferred there from Grantham in 1921.

'Turntable E'

At the beginning of the 1920s, with the A1 'Pacific' locomotives under construction, it was clear that Grantham shed would need a larger turntable than those of 52 feet and 55 feet diameter then in service (Turntables 'C' and 'D').  So in 1921 'Turntable D' was replaced on the same site by a new 70-foot diameter turntable, 'Turntable E'.

The Ordnance Survey 25 inches = 1 Mile map revised in 1929, shows the new 'Turntable E' which has replaced 'Turntable D' at the same location. There is no longer any sign of the workhouse buildings.
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
In August 1949 Peter Wilkinson photographed class A1 locomotive No.60132 (later named Marmion), moving onto Grantham shed's 70-foot turntable.  No. 60132 was based at Gateshead, on Tyneside, and has probably just arrived from the north. It will be turned as the first stage in its preparation for a homeward trip.
Photograph lent by Peter Wilkinson.
No. 60132 is being made ready for turning. The turntable is powered by the locomotive's vacuum brake system. The vacuum hose has been connected by one of the crew who, with his right hand, is turning the cock which will connect the locomotive's brake pipe with the turntable machinery. The other crew member is leaning out of the cab window, waiting for a sign that the hose is connected. He will then 'create vacuum' in the brake pipe using the brake valve in the cab, and the turntable will begin to revolve.
Photograph lent by Peter Wilkinson

In 1950 the foundation of 'Turntable E' began to show signs of subsidence.  This was probably due to the instability of the ground on which it stood, this being spoil tipped some fifty years earlier covering the site of the old workhouse.  There seemed little that could be done to stabilise the site.  However, British Railways owned a substantial area of land to the west of the Loco, where a turning triangle could be speedily laid out, and this option was implemented (see below).

This aerial photograph, taken on 19th April 1950, shows that the 70-foot turntable has been removed.
© English Heritage

Grantham's 70-foot turntable was fit for further service.  It was installed at Melton Constable in Norfolk, as shown in the two photographs below, where it remained in use until 1959.

Melton Constable Turntable

© David Bill.  Click image for source.

Rail Photoprints: 65000 - 65999 &emdash; 65567-Melton Constable-290858-HB1438

Class J17 No. 65567 on the turntable at Melton Constable on 29th August 1958 while Ivatt Class 4 No. 43156 stands alongside the shed building. © - Hugh Ballantyne

Does anyone know of any photographs showing Turntables 'A', 'B', 'C' or 'D' at Grantham?  If you do please let us know.

Turning Triangles

When turntable facilities at Grantham shed were unavailable, for example because of breakdown or accident and after 'Turntable E' became disabled in 1950, resort was made to turning triangles.

Barkston South and East Junctions and Allington Junction

From 29th October 1875 until the closure of Barkston East and South Junctions on 3rd October 2005 it was possible to turn locomotives using the route shown below, a 13-mile round trip.

Turning via Barkston Junction and Allington Junction was available between October 1875 and October 2005.

The last known proper turning move at Grantham took place using this route on 25th October 2003, whilst Barkston East Junction was still open.  The steam loco, B1 No. 61264, arrived at Grantham from Nottingham facing the wrong way round to take forward a northbound rail tour, The Lincolnshire Poacher.  It was sent from Grantham to Barkston East (tender first) via the ECML; it then made its way (facing forward) to Allington Junction finally returning (tender first) to Grantham along the Nottingham line, ready to take over the rail tour.  A delay to the Empty Coaching Stock meant the tour started from Finsbury Park, and not Kings Cross as booked.

Barkston Junction - South, East and North

A shorter route using the three legs of the triangle at Barkston Junction was possible for 90 years, from April 1882 until the closure of the curve between Barkston North and Barkston East Junctions on 29th April 1972.  This was a 10-mile round trip.

Turning via Barkston South, East and North Junctions was available from April 1882 until April 1972.

The Turning Triangle at Grantham Shed

When it was realised that the 70-foot turntable would be difficult to keep in service because of unstable ground conditions other options were considered.  A normal triangle with track curvature suitable for use by express locomotives would occupy many acres of land.  However, thanks to the GNR buying up more property in the 1890s than it required for its immediate needs, sufficient railway-owned land was available nearby to lay out a space-saving 'cross-legged' triangle, in which two of the sides intersected in a flat crossing.

This aerial photograph, taken on 19th April 1950, shows the locations of the two turntables near top left (70-foot) and bottom right (52-foot), and the roughly rectangular piece of land, to the right of the diagonal boundary wall and covered by allotments, where the turning triangle would soon be constructed.
© English Heritage
Here is the turning triangle alongside the Loco.  All three sets of points were sprung and were 'run through' in the trailing direction, so the fireman did not need to get down to set the road. Locomotives took the western loop first - the lower loop in this photo.  At night and in thick fog special care had to be taken when approaching the flat crossing because there was no signalling.
This photograph shows how close the end of the first leg of 'the angle' came to the west wall of the top shed.
When Mick Grummitt was a telegraph lad on duty st the North Box one day, a train came in from the north with a hot axle box on the locomotive. The locomotive was changed and its crew, from Heaton in Newcastle, went onto 'the angle' to turn. Not being familiar with the layout they failed to stop in time and made a hole in the wall of the shed. This rendered the angle out of use until the locomotive was recovered, and engines had to travel to Barkston Junction to turn.

Grantham Loco was unique in Britain in having a turning triangle which was on shed territory and not shared by normal railway traffic.  'Going round the angle' to turn a locomotive became a well established part of the Grantham Loco tradition.  Many young cleaners had their first experience at the controls under the guidance of an experienced hand, and youngsters from Grantham railway families were taken aboard on quiet evenings for 'a trip round the angle' on the footplate.

No. 60103 Flying Scotsman is turning on the triangle beside the shed.  The houses behind face onto Springfield Road - the row at bottom right in both aerial photogtaphs above. The locomotive is in mid-gear because the driver is in the act of changing direction at the western apex of 'the 'angle'.
Photograph by Mike Bacon.

The turning triangle at Grantham Loco was in use daily for 12 years until September 1963, when the shed closed.

Allington Junction and Chord

The Allington Chord opened on 3rd October 2005.  Its principal purpose was to divert traffic between Grantham and Spalding away from the stretch of the East Coast Main Line between Grantham and the former South Junction at Barkston.

The junctions at each apex are controlled from Allington signal box, built at the same time as the chord.  It replaced the old GNR Allington Junction box which controlled the original divergence of the Grantham and Sleaford lines, now known as Allington West Junction.

The chord created a triangular junction at Allington which, in theory, could be used for locomotive turning.  However, since the end of the regular use of steam locomotives turning has become unnecessary for the normal operational needs of the railway, and the signalling layout at Allington does not allow for the true turning of locomotives or trains through each leg of the triangle.

These days the only feasible option is to send a train from Grantham all the way to Sleaford, via the East and North Junctions, to cross over at Sleaford and return to Allington, when it can then be reversed via the West Junction; however this is time consuming and adds needless mileage - Allington to Sleaford and return is about 30 miles.

There are occasional times when a piece of engineers' (Yellow Plant) machinery needs turning round before or after a job, but this is usually achieved whilst the line(s) are under engineers' possession. This probably occurs about once or twice a year.

There are instances where an engineers' machine arriving from Sleaford, for example, towards Grantham may be the wrong way round for using the Allington Chord - these are then routed via the West Junction, from where they merely reverse direction towards Grantham.


Information for this article has been drawn from many published sources, in particular the following:

Great Northern Railway Engine Sheds - Volume 1, Southern Area by Roger Griffiths & John Hooper (Book Law / Railbus in association with Challenger (reprint), 2001)

The Layout Development of the Grantham Area Part 4: The Northern Junctions (Grantham North Jn [exclusive] to Barkston North Jn, including Ambergate Yard), parts (i) to (vi) by Don Anderson, published in Great Northern News Nos. 191 to 196 (The Great Northern Railway Society, 2013-2014)

My thanks to Andy Hides of the Grantham Railway Sports & Social Club for information about the more recent period.

Copyright note:  the article above is published with the appropriate permissions.  For information about copyright of the content of this website, Tracks through Grantham,  please read our Copyright page.

7 thoughts on “Turntables and Triangles

  1. Tim Pratt

    A brilliant article, many thanks. I saw many locos turned on the triangle and to see one of these beasts close up on Springfield Road was awe inspiring.

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Thanks for that Kevin. There are still a few corners to fill out and I hope more information will come to light.

    1. TracksthroughGrantham1

      Hello Rich,
      Thanks for getting in touch. It's always good to receive positive feedback.
      John Clayson


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