Phil Girdlestone started working with locomotives in 1970 as a part time fireman and then driver on the Ffestiniog Railway (FR). He joined the permanent staff in 1978, reaching the post of Works Manager at Boston Lodge Works, where in addition to maintenance work he started to make modifications to improve locomotive perfo2rmance, most notably the conversion to coal burning of Hunslet 2-4-0 ‘Linda’ which incorporated the GPCS, Lempor exhaust, Master mechanics spark arrestor and improved superheater. At the fuel prices then current this locomotive cost 73% of the amount it did when burning oil, some 50% less when compared to the larger oil burning locomotives hauling the same weight trains, and was used in the same rosters as the oil burners.
After the collapse of the ACE scheme in America in 1985 where he had been offered the post of Wardale’s assistant he joined Hugh Phillips Engineering in Wales as Project Engineer for the contract to refurbish and improve locomotives of the Sudan Railways Corporation, then urgently required for famine relief trains. This included the designing of a Lempor exhaust for these locomotives which reduced fuel consumption by 12% in comparative trials.
In 1986 the management of the Estrada de Ferro Dona Teresa Cristina coal carrying line in Brasil requested from HPE a detailed scheme for the rebuilding and modernisation of their metre gauge Texas 2-10-4 locomotives, and he undertook this in close collaboration with Porta, but various factors conspired to ensure that this scheme was not implemeted.
At the end of this work Girdlestone moved to South Africa in 1988 to take up the position of Mechanical Engineer on the Alfred County Railway (ACR), a privatised former SAR 2 foot gauge common carrier line. His responsibilities included locomotive improvements,and two of the line’s 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratts (the largest 2 foot gauge locomotives ever built) nos. 141 and 155 were rebuilt by him. The first of these was No.141 (which acquired the name the ‘Red Dragon’) and the modifications included the GPCS, Lempor exhaust, low draught loss spark arrestor, improved piston valves and events and variable delivery improved mechanical lubrication. These gave a very creditable minimum overall cost saving of 20% in normal service.
Between 1993 and 1996 his experience with oil firing on the FR and in Sudan enabled him to act as a consultant to the successors of the SAR and to the West Coast Railway in Australia for the conversion of large locomotives from coal to oil firing.
The ACR was mostly dieselised from 1992 onwards and Girdlestone left the railway in 1999 to set up his own company, Girdlestone & Associates, specialising in all aspects of steam locomotive development and manufacturing work. This has included the design and supply of Lempor exhaust systems, oil burning equipment and other items for the FCAF locomotives in Argentina, of oil burning equipment for several Spanish locomotives, and a double Lempor exhaust for the Russian P36 4-8-4 owned by G W travel and used on their luxury trains operating out of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
A new Garratt locomotive was built for the FCAF in 2006 based on the existing example but incorporating a superheated boiler with a Belpaire firebox, Lempor exhaust, and improved piston valves and valve events. Currently he is retained as consulting engineer for FCAF in Argentina on several matters.
Phil wrote a book titled ‘Here Be Dragons – A Journey With Steam to the End of the World’ describing his experiences over his career. As yet, the book has not been published. In 2014 Phil's second book was published. Titled "Camels and Cadillacs", it presented a detailed history of the South African Railways Class 25 and 25 NC 4-8-4s.
Phil also producing a series of prints of highly detailed CAD drawings of South African steam locomotives, including The Red Devil, 19D No. 2644 and NGG16A No. 141. An example of his work illustrating SAR Class 19D 4-8-2 No 2644 (as modified by David Wardale in 1979) is shown below.
An enlarged detail of the same drawing appears below:
Another example of his fine draftsmanship (completed in 2012) is illustrated below:
Phil died at his home in South Africa in April 2016. He will be missed by friends around the world and by the wider community of Modern Steam supporters.