A Railwayman's War - Chapter 11

The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system

By Derek Welch

Betty Aged About 18
Derek Welch

Ray and his driver had picked up a train of empty wagons that had been made up from those at Harpenden and Luton.  They were well into the haul to Wellingborough, and the double summertime of the war years made the late shift a little more bearable.

“My God!  Will you look at that,” the driver suddenly exclaimed. 

Ray looked in the indicated direction.  The sky before them was filled with more aircraft than either of them had ever seen in one place before.  There were planes of every type.  Old, new, some that defied description.

“Someone’s going to cop a packet tonight,” muttered Ray.

“Yes,” replied the driver, “Germany, judging by the direction.”  

Their route did not coincide with the route of the aircraft for too much longer and the spectacle was soon left behind.  They read in the paper the next morning that what they had witnessed, the evening before, had been the first thousand bomber raid of the war.  Although about three hundred planes had not returned, the raid, and many others, proved to be a terrible blow to the enemy.  

Summertime had faded into a chilly autumn, as beautiful as only an English autumn can be.  The weather conditions had conspired against man and his works and had cloaked a large portion of the country with a week-long blanket of fog.  The railways soldiered on.  Men not knowing where they would end up, when they would get home.  Wives trying desperately to make dinner look appetizing, even though it had been in the oven for three hours.

It was on one of these nights that Ray and driver Harry were taking a train of empties to Wellingborough.  They were in the cab of 3245.  This was a 3F, and had all internal motions.  All this meant was that the cylinders, valve gear and the like, were tucked away out of sight  – inside, between the wheels.  As the repair shed personnel seemed to operate on an ‘only mend the bits the boss can see’ basis, the engine leaked steam from almost everywhere.  The steam swirled up in a plume each side of the engine.  On a clear day it was hard enough to see where you were going, on a night as foggy as this it was like driving with a white sack over your head.  

They came round a corner, north of Sharnbrook, and luckily caught a glimpse of the distant signal.  It was on.  They knew that there would be a very good chance that the next signal would stop them.  The section that lay between the signals was slightly uphill, so they could not coast.  The regulator had to be kept open and the steam had to keep blowing up.

“I can’t see a bloody thing,” moaned Harry, more in desperation than anything else.

“I’ve got an idea,” said Ray, picking up the smoke box spanner, “I’ll go along the engine to the front, and if the signal’s red, I’ll tap on the handrail three times.  If it’s off, I’ll just come back.” 

He started out of the cab of the moving engine.

“For Christ’s sake don’t fall off,” said Harry with a worried look on his face, “I’ll never find you in this fog.” 

Ray continued, clinging on to the handrail that went along the side of the boiler, the engine clattering and hissing beneath him.  He passed through the offending cloud of steam and reached the smoke box.  He stood, watching, for several minutes before the signal came into view.  It was off, OK to continue, so he made his way back to the cab.

“It’s off, mate,” he said, jumping back in,”you can keep going.” 

Neither of them thought any more about Ray’s excursion.  If Hollywood had filmed it, there would have been a team of stunt men, weeks of planning and countless safety devices.  There would also have been much back-slapping and congratulations when it was over.  But to Ray, it had just been all in a day’s work.  

Some good, however, did come from the foul weather.  Most days, Ray would start at six pm, and continue way past his time until nine am before he would be relieved.  He sometimes never clocked off until ten thirty.  So, at the end of the week, he was queuing outside the booking office window, along with everyone else.  His turn came, and the chief booking clerk, who handed out the wages, looked at Ray’s pay check disc number, 91, and consulted his book.  He shouted out the amount, “Thirteen pounds, fifteen shillings and thrupence.” 

Other drivers and firemen looked at Ray with amazement.  As it was about double the normal wage, this was not surprising.  The clerk looked at Ray, and in a surly, looking-down voice, said, “How did you manage to get this lot?” 

Ray boiled a little. “What’s it got to do with you?” he asked. “Mind your own bloody business.”  

To read today’s newspapers, one could be forgiven for thinking that trees are a fairly recent invention.  The railway system seems to slither to a halt at the end of September, and does not seem to start again until April.  Modern locomotives are just as powerful as steam, they are easier to drive, much easier to maintain.  They only lack two small, but important, things.  One, a sand box, and two, a fireman to bang it when it clogs up. 

To explain.  In every loco shed there was always a bin full of heated sand.  The heat served to keep the sand dry, and the sand served to stop engine wheels from slipping.  On the sides of all steam locos was a steel box.  This was filled with the dry sand and when slippage occurred, the driver would operate the mechanism and sand would flow, from a pipe, directly onto the track under the wheels.  A jet of steam blowing across the mouth of this tube siphoned out the sand and moistened it so that it would adhere to both track and wheels.  

If the sand became damp, instead of flowing, it just sat inside the box in a sullen lump.  The fireman would then have to lean out of  the cab and lovingly persuade it to flow again.  He did this by beating the daylights out of the box with the smoke box spanner.  Most crews made a point of carrying a small sack of sand with them on the footplate.  If the sand box could not be unclogged, Ray would have to tip sand onto the shovel, and, standing on the bottom cab step, holding on with one hand, he would sprinkle sand under the wheels directly. 

Wet leaves are very, very slippery.  Engines have been known not only to come to a standstill, wheels still turning, but even to slide backwards.  What can happen in such events, was graphically illustrated one day at Moorgate Street station.   

Moorgate was the place where surface met tube.  A long, downward sloping tunnel led to the open air main line platform.  Most steam trains would terminate here, although a few would continue into the tube system proper.  This was the only place that this happened. 

Even then, there was only one type of engine that was converted to allow this.  This was a Fowler 2.6.2. passenger tank, known as ‘The Moorgate Engine’.  Going in wasn’t too bad, coming out again, however, had to be tackled precisely.  The slope out was long and steep and always full of smoke.  To make matters worse, halfway up, a branch line led off to Hertford.  This was controlled by an electric, red signal.  

The line also ended up at Kings Cross, and an orange light would allow the train to leave, but the crew knew that to do so was unwise as they would probably be held up at the red, inside the tunnel.  One wet day, a driver, Herbie, and his fireman, decided to chance it, and left Kings Cross on amber.  Sure enough, they got stopped at the red signal in the tunnel. 

Eventually, they were allowed to go, and off they set.  They had not got far, when the wheels began to slip.  They sanded, and slipped, sanded, slipped, and made very little headway.  They had to keep going, rules stated that they could not go back, and to stop in the tunnel without a major reason was extremely unwise. 

The engine, by now, was slipping badly.  Much puffing and snorting had reduced the conditions in the tunnel to an unimaginable level.  When the sand box clogged, they began to get nervous.  

They finally made it out.  At the top of the slope, outside the tunnel, is the Islip Street signal box.  It was here that they stopped and told the signalman that they wanted to be relieved at the next station.  They made it to Kentish Town on a combination of experience and sheer willpower.  Not only were they relieved, but they were taken to hospital suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.  

In 1948, an incident occurred that illustrated how unwise it is to cut corners ANYWHERE, when dealing with the daily running of a railway. It was just after lunch, Ray had finished his shift and was preparing to go home. 

As he passed, a colleague greeted him. “Hallo, Ray.  Have you heard about the crash?  Timetables are going to be way off tomorrow.” 

Ray stopped. “No, what crash?”

“Oh well,” came the reply, “seems that a coupling broke. Wagons everywhere, dozens of them.”  The colleague had the satisfied air of one who has been first with the news.

“Anyone hurt?” asked Ray.  “Where did it happen?”

“No one injured,” stated the friend.  “It happened on the slope, north of Harpenden.  Oh well, see you later, bye.” 

Ray raised a hand. “Yes, thanks, bye.” 

On the way home, Ray weighed the facts.  One, no one hurt, so it wouldn’t be ghoulish.  Two, it wasn’t raining, so he wouldn’t get wet.  Three, he knew the area, and how to get to it.  Four, and most importantly, he had nothing better to do this afternoon.



Explain the excursion to his wife.

Ray was back on his bike.  He had met up with his friend, Ken, who was accompanying him on the seven mile ride.  

The accident had happened on a slight decline between Harpenden and Luton.  An eight freight had been pulling a train of eighty four empty wagons.  As the train had picked up speed, down the slope, the driver had looked back.  The rear half of the train was falling behind.  A coupling had broken; the front half, being on the gradient, had accelerated faster than the breakaway, rear section.  The driver slowed the engine a little to allow the gap to close.  As he was slowing, the rear wagons came onto the down slope and began to pick up speed.  Instead of coming gently together, as the driver had planned, they slammed into the back of the front section with such force that they de-railed themselves.  

When they arrived at the trackside, after trekking across fields, Ray and Ken were not too surprised to find quite a crowd had already gathered. Ray’s colleague had been correct.  There were dozens of trucks strewn about.  The lines were to be closed for most of the day.  

As they watched, the breakdown gangs went about their business.  The enormous steam crane swinging trucks this way and that.  One onlooker touched a raw nerve, when he turned to Ray and very haughtily pronounced, “Everything breaks under nationalization.”

“Nationalization has nothing to do with THIS mate,” replied Ray, angrily, “this is down to bad maintenance, directly due to the run-down of the whole system.” 

Ken elbowed  him in the ribs.  Ray subsided.  Nationalization had brought out the worst in human nature.  The rail network was already suffering from the deprivations of the war years.  When the government had decided to buy it, lock, stock and barrel, money that had been earmarked for things such as future expansion, essential maintenance and the like, had, as if by magic, ceased to exist.  Many a pocket bulged where before it had not.  What the government bought had been a viable transport system.  What they got was little more than a huge scrap yard.  

Government officials tend to deal with the written description rather then the real thing.  Never has so much wool been pulled over so many eyes…….  

This page was added on 08/01/2014.

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