Motive power depot

Last updated
Northern Pacific Railroad Shops NP Shops 5.jpg
Northern Pacific Railroad Shops
Inside a diesel shed Inside the Diesel shed showing the bogie exchange mechanism.jpg
Inside a diesel shed
Old railway depot in Suonenjoki, Finland Veturitalli - Suonenjoen asema-alue - Suonenjoki.jpg
Old railway depot in Suonenjoki, Finland

The motive power depot (MPD) or locomotive depot, or traction maintenance depot (TMD), is the place where locomotives are usually housed, repaired and maintained when not being used. They were originally known as "running sheds", "engine sheds" or, for short, just sheds. Facilities are provided for refuelling and replenishing water, lubricating oil and grease and, for steam engines, disposal of the ash. There are often workshops for day to day repairs and maintenance, although locomotive building and major overhauls are usually carried out in the locomotive works. (Note: In American English, the term depot is used to refer to passenger stations or goods (freight) facilities and not to vehicle maintenance facilities.)


German practice

The equivalent of such depots in German-speaking countries is the Bahnbetriebswerk or Bw which has similar functions, with major repairs and overhauls being carried out at Ausbesserungswerke . The number of these reduced drastically on the changeover from steam to diesel and electric traction and most modern Bw in Germany are specialised depots, often responsible for a single rail class.

Engine sheds in the steam era

Engine sheds could be found in many towns and cities, as well as in rural locations. They were built by the railway companies to provide accommodation for their locomotives that provided their local train services. Each engine shed would have an allocation of locomotives that would reflect the duties carried out by that depot. Most depots had a mixture of passenger, freight and shunting locomotives but some, such as Mexborough, had predominantly freight locomotives reflecting the industrial nature of that area in South Yorkshire. Others, such as Kings Cross engine shed in London, predominantly provided locomotives for passenger workings.

Nearly all depots at this time had a number of shunting locomotives. Normally 0-4-0T or 0-6-0T tank engines, these would be allocated to shunt turns and could be found in goods yards, carriage sidings, goods depots and docks.

Many large rail connected industrial sites also had engine sheds, primarily using shunting locomotives.


Each railway company had its own architectural design of engine shed, but there were three basic designs of shed:

The turntables for straight and dead end sheds were generally outside. Those in roundhouses could be inside, such as those at York in the UK, or outside, such as that at the East Broad Top Railroad & Coal Company in Rockhill, Pennsylvania, USA.


There were six primary activities that took place at the sheds.

Ash removal

When a steam engine arrived on shed, it would drop its fire and the ash that had built up would be removed. Disposal of the ash was a filthy job and carried out at quiet times, although some bigger depots had facilities for disposing of ash more efficiently. Study of photographs from the steam era show it was not uncommon for piles of ash to be scattered around the depot site.

Boiler washout

After completing their last duty and arriving on shed, locomotives would have a regular boiler washout to remove scale, improve efficiency and protect safety. [1] :31


Locomotives generally ran on coal. Initially this job was done by hand and many depots had significant coal stacks on site. These would be neatly constructed with the outer walls constructed of dry blocks much in the style of a dry stone wall with smaller pieces behind these. [2] :222–3 As technology advanced and the bigger sheds got busier, this process became mechanised and huge coaling towers above the neighbourhoods indicated where the engine shed was. The sheds were not clean places to work. The large east London depot of Stratford had an engineman’s dormitory and its occupants would “wake up with a layer of coal dust covering them and the bed”. [1] :20


Another key requirement of the steam engine is a supply of water which is carried in the tenders or tanks of the engines. In Australia, water was also carried in water gins (a water tank mounted on a wagon) due to longer distances covered and scarcer water resources. In depots where the limescale content of water was high (known in some areas as ‘Hard Water), water softening plants were introduced. At Norwich engine shed in the UK, the sludge was discharged into a tank and emptied every three years or so with the sludge being dumped into the sea at Lowestoft. [1] :71


Tender locomotives required turning so they were facing the right way before their next duty. In the early days, these were typically around 45 feet long. As the technology improved and engines got bigger, then the turntables got longer. In order to turn a locomotive the engine had to be balanced quite precisely on the turntable and it could then be literally pushed around.

Some turntables could be powered by fixing the vacuum brake of the engine to the turntable and using that to turn the engine.

Later turntables were electrically operated. Many diesel locomotives in the UK have a cab at each end removing the need for the turntables. However, in Australia and America, there are a number of single ended locomotives and turntables are still in use.


Engine sheds would carry out basic maintenance and the bigger sheds would carry out more complex repairs. Locomotives that required further repair were sent to the company’s locomotive works. Withdrawn locomotives could often be found at some depots before their final trips to the scrapyard.


In the UK, the general practice is that one shed would have a number of smaller sub-sheds where there were fewer facilities. When engines allocated to sub-sheds required repairs, they were often exchanged for a similar engine or perhaps just visiting the main depot on a Sunday when traffic levels were considerably lower.

In terms of locomotive allocation, it seems to have been the practice that for some railways locomotives were all allocated to the main shed but in others each shed had its specific allocation of locomotives.

A list of the British sub-sheds can be found here.


The drivers and fireman were the visible face of the engine shed and, as such, certain sheds had reputations for clean locomotives thanks to the dedication of those men. Many companies allocated a specific main line locomotive to a crew and they would usually take a personal interest in the cleanliness of their engine; some companies offered a prize to the crew of the best kept engine.

Many drivers would spend their own time on improving their knowledge and sharing best practice with younger drivers. The footplate staff (as drivers and fireman were known) were unionised from the 19th century and in the UK were generally in the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (later ASLEF) whilst other shed staff tended to be in the National Union of Railwaymen.

Many engine shed workers put up with very poor conditions for many years. In the 1950s and 1960s, the rise of manufacturing industry saw many staff leaving the railway for better working conditions (and pay) and many railways started to modernise as a result. [1]

Engine sheds in the modern era

An evening view of Kollam Junction railway station and Kollam MEMU Shed Kollam Junction railway station - An evening view.jpg
An evening view of Kollam Junction railway station and Kollam MEMU Shed

The maintenance of the new diesel locomotives in filthy steam sheds soon proved difficult and, although some old sheds survived, many new diesel depots were built on new sites or on the sites of the old steam sheds. The major problem was the disposal of oil, which initially was left lying around causing pollution and safety issues. The new depots were equipped to deal with diesel fuel and the ability to access the underside, as well as upper body work, was improved.

The tasks were not that much different in that diesel locomotives were fuelled rather than coaled, although they did require water as early diesels were equipped with steam generators for train heating purposes.

Since privatisation in the UK, some depots are now operated by the train builders who maintain the trains under contract with train operators.

Stabling and fuelling points

Around railway networks, there are locations just used for the coaling/fuelling of locomotives and the stabling of stock, either overnight or between duties. These are generally not regarded as engine sheds.

See also

Related Research Articles

St Blazey engine shed

St Blazey Engine Shed is located in Par, Cornwall, United Kingdom, although it is named after the adjacent village of St Blazey. It was built in 1874 as the headquarters of the Cornwall Minerals Railway but for many years was a depot of the Great Western Railway. The current depot operator is DB Cargo and the depot TOPS code is BZ.

Old Oak Common TMD

Old Oak Common TMD was a traction maintenance depot located west of London Paddington, in Old Oak Common. The depot was the main facility for the storage and servicing of locomotives and multiple-units from Paddington. The depot codes were OC for the diesel depot and OO for the carriage shed. In steam days the shed code was 81A.

Laira Traction and Rolling Stock Maintenance Depot

Laira T&RSMD is a railway traction and rolling stock maintenance depot situated in Plymouth, Devon, England. The depot is operated by Great Western Railway and is mainly concerned with the overhaul and daily servicing of their fleet of High Speed Trains and also the DMUs used on local services. The depot code "LA" is used to identify rolling stock based there.

Carlisle Upperby TMD

Carlisle Upperby TMD is a former railway traction maintenance depot situated in Carlisle, England. The depot is owned by DB Cargo UK. The depot was originally of service to steam locomotives. The depot code is now CL. The old steam shed used to be known colloquially as "the Lanky", a reference to its origins as the main depot of the Lancaster and Carlisle railway.

Tyseley TMD Railway depot in Birmingham, England

Tyseley TMD is a railway Traction Maintenance Depot situated in Tyseley, Birmingham, England.

Cardiff Canton TMD Railway maintenance depot in Cardiff, Wales

Cardiff Canton TMD is a diesel locomotive traction maintenance depot in Cardiff, Wales. Its depot code is CF. It is operated by Transport for Wales. The depot is used by Transport for Wales fleet and some Cross Country Class 170s.

Gateshead TMD Locomotive maintenance yard in the North of England

Gateshead TMD was a railway Traction Maintenance Depot situated in Gateshead, England. The depot code was 52A during the steam era and GD later on.

Penzance TMD Railway Traction Maintenance Depot in Cornwall, England

Penzance TMD, also known as Long Rock TMD, is a railway Traction Maintenance Depot situated in the village of Long Rock east of Penzance, Cornwall, England, and is the most westerly and southerly rail depot in the country. The depot operator is Great Western Railway. The depot code is PZ.

Thornaby TMD

Thornaby TMD was a railway Traction Maintenance Depot situated in Thornaby, England, latterly operated by DB Schenker. The depot was situated to the east of Thornaby, on the northern side of the line to Middlesbrough.

Hither Green TMD

Hither Green (London) Traction Maintenance Depot or Hither Green (London) TMD is a railway depot used for the maintenance and servicing of freight trains adjacent to the Hither Green marshalling yard. The depot is a hub for moving freight around southeast England. Hither Green TMD is owned and operated by DBS. The official depot code is HG. In steam days the shed code was 73C.

March TMD

March TMD was a railway Traction Maintenance Depot situated near March, England. March was a steam locomotive shed under British Railways with the depot code 31B; the depot code of the diesel depot under BR was MR. The nearest railway station is March, and the depot was located close to the Whitemoor Marshalling Yard. Despite its rural location, in the 1970s it accommodated a similar number of locomotives to the comparatively larger Toton TMD and served as the main diesel depot for East Anglia.

Stratford TMD Railway depot in London

Stratford TMD was a traction maintenance depot located in Stratford, London, England close to the Great Eastern Main Line. It was located just west of Stratford station, on a site now occupied by Stratford International station. The depot was at one time the biggest on the London and North Eastern Railway with locomotives covering duties from express services to freight workings in London's docks.

Bahnbetriebswerk (steam locomotives)

A Bahnbetriebswerk is a German railway depot where the maintenance of locomotives and other rolling stock is carried out. It is roughly equivalent to a locomotive shed, running shed or motive power depot. These were of great importance during the steam locomotive era to ensure the smooth running of locomotive-hauled services. Bahnbetriebswerke had a large number of facilities in order to be able to carry out their various maintenance tasks. As a result, they needed a lot of staff and were often the largest employers in the area.

Junee railway station

Junee railway station is a heritage-listed railway station located on the Main South line in New South Wales, Australia. It serves the town of Junee in the Junee Shire. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 2 April 1999.

There were a number of engine sheds and railway works located in York. The large York North engine shed became the National Railway Museum in 1975.

Ipswich engine shed

Ipswich engine shed was an engine shed located in Ipswich, Suffolk on the Great Eastern Main Line. It was located just south of Stoke tunnel and the current Ipswich railway station. Locomotives accessed the site from Halifax Junction which was also the junction for the Griffin Wharf branch of Ipswich docks. The depot opened in 1846 and closed in 1968 although the site remained in railway use for a further thirty years.

Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot

Broadmeadow Locomotive Depot was a large locomotive depot consisting of two roundhouse buildings and associated facilities constructed by the New South Wales Government Railways adjacent to the marshalling yard on the Main Northern line at Broadmeadow. Construction of the locomotive depot at Broadmeadow commenced in 1923 to replace the existing crowded loco sheds at Woodville Junction at Hamilton, with the depot opening in March 1924. It was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register on 2 April 1999.

Norwich engine shed was located in Norwich, England and was opened in 1843. It closed in 1982 and was replaced by a new modern facility at Crown Point.

Rockhampton Railway Workshops

Rockhampton Railway Workshops is a heritage-listed railway workshop at 380 Bolsover Street, Depot Hill, Rockhampton Region, Queensland, Australia. It was built from 1915 to 1953. It is also known as Rockhampton Roundhouse. It was added to the Queensland Heritage Register on 21 August 1992.

Botanic Gardens TMD

Botanic Gardens TMD was an engine shed in Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire, England. As one of the principal engine sheds in the Hull area, Botanic Gardens was the one closest to the main Hull Paragon station and its locomotives were responsible for working passenger services in the area. This entry also covers the engine sheds in the Paragon area that preceded Botanic Gardens.


  1. 1 2 3 4 Hawkins, Chris; Reeves, George (1986). Great Eastern Railway Engine sheds Part 1. Wild Swan publications. ISBN   0 906867 401.
  2. Hawkins, Chris; Reeves, George (1987). Great Eastern Railway Engine Sheds Part 2. Wild Swan publications. ISBN   0 906867 48 7.