A Railwayman's War - Chapter 13
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
The working conditions of the day were, looking back, little short of savage. Ray tells me that he ‘THINKS’ some of the larger loco sheds actually had HOT water for the men to wash in. The St Albans loco, however, was only small and did not rate any such pampering. The only washing facilities were situated in the roster room. A single stone sink, with a single COLD tap. A single bar of carbolic soap served only to irritate the skin – it left the dirt virtually untouched.
After several minutes of fruitless scrubbing, the men were allowed to attempt to dry themselves on the roller towel. This was not like the roller towels of today, this was just a two yard length of ‘tea towel’ type material sewed into a loop, and hung over a wooden roller that was screwed to the wall. The dirt that the soap failed to remove, usually ended up on the towel. This, of course, greatly upset the sweeper up, whose job it was to change it.
Riding a bicycle home, in mid-winter, with damp hands, explained why many railwaymen had hands that were chapped, cracked and bleeding. Ray’s sister asked him, one day, “Why don’t you wash the dirt off of yourself?” He had to explain that the ‘dirt’ was actually severe chapping.
It was, nevertheless, important to have reasonably clean hands, as the first thing that a crew did would be to fill out ‘the cards’. These were two cards around which the railway revolved. It was impossible to write them with the accumulated grime that came from putting an engine away. Cleaning the fire box and the smoke box has never been a ‘Best Clothes’ job.
The two cards were one of either the REPAIR card, or the NO REPAIR card. The no repair card meant that the engine they had just put away was in proper running order and was fit for its next trip. The repair card, on the other hand, listed any faults that had been noticed by the driver. These were things like, ‘middle steam joint leaking’ or ‘big end knocking’ and a host of similar events. This card was scrutinised by the foreman himself and was supposed to instigate the repair procedure.
The other card was the man’s ‘time card’. This was exactly what it sounds. An employee would write on this card the time that he started and the time that he finished. It was difficult to steal any time, as the card would be checked against the driver’s time sheet. This sheet, the driver would fill in as the journey progressed. He would fill in the arrival times as he got to each appointed place.
The guard had another sheet that he would fill. Only he would record departure times as well as the arrivals. The only time that the fireman, who was also on the driver’s sheet, could gain, was if the driver was feeling generous. Some drivers would call the time ‘SIX THIRTY’, some would call six thirty one, ‘SIX THIRTY FIVE’. All these extra minutes added up to a little more overtime.
One thing that was NEVER mentioned on the sheets was if the driver let the fireman drive. Provided that everything went smoothly, everyone turned a blind eye. It could be a risky business for the driver though. If the fireman did make a bad mistake, the driver would be in double trouble.
Ray made such a mistake, one day, and was lucky that the consequences were not more serious. On this occasion, Ray was driving. They were taking thirteen empty corridor coaches into St Pancras, which were to be picked up by a larger engine and form an express train. They were stopped at the outer signal. The window of the signal box opened, and a yellow flag was waved from it.
This told Ray that there was something already in the platform that he was to enter. It was usually a parcels van – parcel traffic was at an unbelievably high level. It was a common sight to see whole trains made of nothing but parcel vans. So high was the volume of traffic, that these vans were placed anywhere that there was a gap and unloading access.
Ray took the train into the platform at caution, this was little more than a walking pace. Sure enough, a solitary van sat at the end of the platform. He pulled up to the van, slowly. The driver said nothing. Ray was aiming to stop about a foot away from the van and started to brake. He had mis-timed it. He stopped, but only after he had squeezed the buffers on the van. He had the brakes on hard so that the buffers on all of the coaches were also squeezed. With vacuum brakes, the vacuum holds the brakes OFF.
This was to be an important factor. The train wheels had barely stopped, when the passengers started to get on. Ray could not move the engine to relax the buffers. The driver looked at Ray and spoke for the first time. “I knew you’d do that. You were too cocky. I know that you have to get all of the train into the platform, but you don’t have to hit anything. The shunters have already uncoupled us. When they connect the engine the other end, he’ll let off his brakes. All the coaches will move. People could be getting on with children. So let that be a lesson to you.”
Ray looked out of the cab, and sure enough, the train suddenly moved two feet forward. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. The platform buffers were only of the rigid type. The platforms used by the overnight express trains had large hydraulic buffers. Ray was always uneasy about the way that these drivers came into the platform. They seemed to enter the station at sixty miles an hour; they always stopped a foot short of the buffers though.
These buffers were tested at regular intervals, usually when there were no passengers about. The method of testing would have unnerved most ordinary people. The test was as simple as it was effective: an engine was driven into the platform at about thirty miles an hour. The brakes were not applied. The engine hit the buffers at speed; if the engine could be driven away, the buffers were deemed working.
The drivers of these engines took care to leave their boxes or bags somewhere secure. These could be considered their own, personal tenders. They contained the most precious of all possessions, the tea ingredients. Before the war, most men would carry a small, wooden box. Ray’s own father carried just such a chest. His contained not only his bottle of tea (Arthur preferred to brew his own at home) but his red rule book, his black engine manual, various oil wicks, and his sandwiches.
His children would await his homecoming eagerly, if they were home and not in bed. His query of ‘WHO WANTS A SANDWICH?’ would be met with cries of delight. I, myself, remember the same thing when I was a child. Royalty has never feasted upon such delicious morsels as those dog-eared, stale left-overs. Those sandwiches were as much of a treat as the finest presents. Please don’t ask why.
After the war, working men found an unexpected windfall staring at them. They found that the old gas mask bag also made a perfect work bag. Ray’s contained his tea can. This was an enamel metal can, round and tapering toward the top. The top also doubled as a cup, it even had a handle. These cans came in two sizes: one pint, and one and a half pints. They had a sturdy, square, wire handle that came in handy for hanging on the water gauge. If the tea had to be warmed further, the can could be hung over the fire box. It is impossible to imagine just how stewed tea can become in these conditions.
Ray’s bag also contained an old medicine bottle full of milk. The tea and sugar were kept in the same tin. This tin could be bought from any ironmongers at a cost of a few pence. It was unusual in as much as it had a lid at either end. The ‘bottom’ of the tin was in the middle, making it effectively two tins in one: tea one end, sugar the other. It was oval, roughly the size of a cigarette packet, and indispensable.
A crew that were to be together on a regular basis would take it in turns to provide the tin. The driver’s one day, the fireman’s the next. Hot water could be got from mess rooms: all had a kettle; larger ones, such as St Pancras, had a gas urn. The larger messes also sold food, although most crews preferred to bring their own. This was not out of any desire to save money, although this was a factor, but was simply a precaution forced on them. They had no way of knowing where the shift would take them. The expected warmth of the St Pancras mess room could end up as the footplate in a cold Wellingborough siding.
One warm, summer’s day, Ray was driving a ‘Moorgate’ engine. It was the driver’s turn to fetch the tea. A situation was brewing. But first, to explain about the engine. It was a standard Stanier 2.6.2. side tank engine, converted to run in the underground railway tunnels in the Moorgate area.
As you can imagine, the underground is not the most ideal environment for a steam locomotive and only twenty or so were built. To cut down on the emissions, several things had to be modified. First, the driver would pull a lever that closed off the chimney. All the smoke and exhaust steam was now piped to the side water tanks. This, naturally, made the water very hot. As the engine only carried fifteen hundred gallons, this process did not take long.
The injectors would only put COLD water into the boiler, so the Weir pump came into being. This pump was a vertical, steam driven piston. The top part was the steam powered end, the bottom was the pump. A handle in the cab was supposed to start the thing off.
It must be said that the Weir pump had a mind of its own. It would only work when it felt like it. It never felt like it often. When it worked, it would make a regular ‘tick tock’ type rhythm as it pumped water, at a steady rate, into the boiler. If it didn’t want to pump, it would just race away with a ‘taca taca taca’ noise.
The fireman would go to the front of the engine where the thing sat, clinging to the right hand side of the smoke box, and insert the special spanner through the special slot and into the special hole. He would then pump the spanner up and down like mad in a, usually, vain attempt to get the damned thing to operate. As a general rule, the Weir pump would only work ONCE a day. When it was going, it would go on all day. But if it were turned off…… Ray states that in all his years of going into Moorgate, he never once managed it with the chimney shut.
So, back to the story. The train left St Albans at about one twenty five pm. It was a glorious summer’s day and they were to make the trip to St Pancras, leaving at about four forty pm.
Before they left, the driver said to Ray, “You take it. Don’t forget that it’s all stations.”
Ray was happy to oblige, and set to the task of driving. As it was hot, the carriage heating was off. After Elstree, it is mostly downhill, so the train could coast most of the way. All these factors meant that the engine did not require anywhere near its usual amount of steam. So Ray found it strange that the driver was shovelling coal like Lucifer stoking the fires of Hades. The driver did, however, let the water level drop down to the normal ‘half a glass’.
Ray pulled into platform one. This was the short platform, used for six-coach local trains. No sooner were they stationary, than the driver got off of the engine, with the tea can, and sauntered towards the mess room on platform seven. Ray stayed with the engine, as the rules required. The steam pressure started to rise and Ray operated the injectors to put a little more water into the boiler. They would not work. He tried again, same result. The fire, that the driver had so thoughtfully built right up, showed no sign whatsoever of dying down at all.
Ray began to worry. He tried the Weir pump. The boiler, by this time, was getting very thirsty indeed. Of course, the Weir pump flatly refused to have anything to do with the situation at all and just clattered.
Ray took stock of the situation. The water level was so low that it did not show in the glass, the Weir pump would not work, the driver was not back with the tea and last but by no means least, the fire was still large enough to take the train back to St Albans without another lump of coal ever being added. Throughout all of this, the safety valve was letting off the excess steam. Ray began to worry that the lead plugs, set into the top of the fire box, would melt. The water level inside the boiler was certainly low enough to cause concern.
He decided that the only course of action was to dump the fire. As he was in platform one, the task was made that much easier. The other platforms were set close together, the space just did not exist that would allow the fire to be dumped onto the track. Platform one, however, was next to the outside wall of the station complex and the resulting gap was wide enough to allow Ray to dispose of the coals.
He took the long handled shovel, and set to work. By the time that he had finished there was a glowing heap of burning coal that weighed many hundredweight. Ray finished the job with a cold fire box and a hot shovel. He had not wiped the sweat from his forehead when the driver came strolling back.
“You look a bit hot, what’s up?” was his half hearted greeting.
Ray looked at him His temper as warm as his body. “I’ve just chucked the bloody fire out,” he said in a tone that said ‘where were you’.
“Why?” replied the driver in a tone that said ‘I’m looking forward to this tea’.
Ray’s answer was as hot as he was. “Because I couldn’t get the BLANK BLANK injectors to work.”
“Oh,” the driver said. “I’d better see about another engine then.”
And so saying he turned on his heel and sauntered off the way he had come. This did not improve Ray’s humour. He had taken the tea with him.
St Pancras always had a spare engine floating about. It was used for shunting and the like. It pulled the Moorgate engine into the siding by the water crane and was duly coupled to the train that Ray was on. They found out the next day that the spare crew had filled the engine with water as the tank had been almost empty. The injectors would not work, however, until the steam pressure had fallen to forty pounds a square inch. Ray’s actions had saved the engine from serious damage.