How the Hogwarts Express was saved from a Welsh scrapyard


Emerging from the clouds of steam engulfing platform nine and three-quarters, the gleaming Hogwarts Express commands a special place in the hearts of Harry Potter fans.

Yet there was a time when the only place this engine could call home, was a south Wales scrapyard where it lay rotting among the hulks of a bygone era.

That is because the locomotive that entranced millions of Potter viewers and now sits proudly in Warner Brothers Studios, was once earmarked to be dismantled for the furnace.

Written off, abandoned and forgotten for 17 years, this lowly engine’s final destiny was originally far from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

But the story of humble GWR 5972 Olton Hall, is as enchanting as any told by JK Rowling.

«It was in a hell of a state after being sat for nearly 20 years in a scrapyard,» recalled James Shuttleworth, of West Coast Railway, the heritage rail operator that rescued the engine.

«As renovations go, it was nothing out of the ordinary. But then Warner Brothers came along.»

Built more than 80 years ago, GWR 5972 was among the work-horses of the rail network in the industrial heartland of south Wales in the 1940s and 1950s.

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In a golden era for steam train travel, Olton Hall was a regular feature on one of Great Western Railways’ mainline routes to London Paddington.

But amid the move towards diesel and electric, the engine’s days were numbered.

After a spell in Plymouth, it returned to south Wales in 1959 before finally being withdrawn from Cardiff East Dock shed in 1963.

Set for scrap

When it was bought by the owners of a scrapyard in Barry Docks, more commonly known as the «locomotive’s graveyard», in the Vale of Glamorgan – the future looked bleak.

More than 80% of steam locomotives on heritage railways in the UK today can be traced back to Woodham'sImage copyrightPETER BRABHAM
Image captionMore than 80% of steam locomotives on heritage railways in the UK today can be traced back to Woodham’s

«British Rail started getting rid of steam in the ’60s, so once a locomotive needed any sort of work, they got rid,» explained Mr Shuttleworth.

«Almost all of the 22,000 steam locomotives were chopped up for scrap, either for the Far East or many to fuel the furnaces of south Wales.»

Woodham Brothers, a pebble’s throw from Barry Island pleasure beach, soon became a treasure trove for rail enthusiasts.

But Olton Hall’s reincarnation was to prove unique.

Olton Hall was first re-steamed in 1997, the same year JK Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher's StoneImage copyrightVALERIE MACON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Image captionOlton Hall was first re-steamed in 1997, the same year JK Rowling published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Purchased in 1981 by David Smith, now the owner of West Coast Railways, it took a small army of volunteers 16 years to restore the express to its former glory.

Yet there was to be another twist that saw 5972 rise from the ashes like Prof Dumbledore’s faithful phoenix Fawkes.

Hollywood called

«There had been a lot of deterioration in that time so it took a lot of work,» said Mr Shuttleworth.

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«You can’t just throw in some water and fire up the boiler or you would have gone skyward very quickly. So you almost have to start all over again.

«But we had it up and running charter trips on tracks in the north of England.

«It hadn’t done anything extraordinary, but then we had a call from Warner Brothers.»

Renovation work took place at Horbury Junction near Wakefield and Carnforth, LancashireImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionRenovation work took place at Horbury Junction near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, and Carnforth, Lancashire

When the first Harry Potter novel – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – was to be turned into a movie, film-makers were desperate for an authentic steam engine to represent the Hogwarts Express.

«Hogwarts was set in Scotland and Warner Brothers knew we operated on the West Highland Line,» said Mr Shuttleworth.

«They wanted an engine that was quintessentially British and JK Rowling had apparently seen one on a journey from Edinburgh to London.

«When the artistic director showed me a photo of what they wanted, a Hall class engine, I replied, ‘That’s easy, we’ve got one of those’.»

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