A Railwayman's War - Chapter 6
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
One of the routes, worked by the control link, is these days known as ‘the Nicky line’. It was known then simply as ‘The Hemel Hempstead Branch’. This line existed mainly to transport coal to the Boxmore gas works. It consisted of a single line of track meandering through the Hertfordshire countryside. In some respects it represented a microcosm of the whole rail network. It was almost a law unto itself.
The only entrance to the system was at Harpenden junction. Slowly past the signal box, pick up ‘the staff’ from the signalman, and away for the shift. ‘The staff’ was an aluminium handle that was about two inches in diameter, and about eighteen inches long. Half way along the shaft was a disc, the size of a tea plate, with the ubiquitous L.M.S. logo. On one end, was a brass ‘back door type’ key that fitted the locks that made safe all branch line points not controlled by a signal box.
The line started from Harpenden station and peeled off from the ‘down fast’ line. It went round a sharp bend, down a slight dip, and straight into an up gradient of one in thirty-seven. The crew would get as much speed up as possible at the dip and drive, hard, to the top. The train would never be longer than fourteen wagons, ten or twelve coal and the rest goods, but even so complaints were regularly received from the people who lived close to the line. The most common complaint was ‘that train keeps making my crockery rattle’. If the train was being pulled by a 3F, then the problem was even worse.
The cause of this disruption lay in the lever that set the cylinder valve gear. To start moving, the lever was pushed all the way in, giving full steam pressure to the cylinders. As the engine built up momentum, the lever would be pulled out, a little at a time. Now we come to the hiccup. The lever was on a ratchet, so when the engine came to a gradient, the lever could only be moved by momentarily closing the regulator, and THEN moving in a notch. It was when the regulator was opened again that the trouble started and the complaints came in.
As soon as the crew got the engine to the level at the top of this daunting slope, they would stop and check the water level. The driver would simply say ‘How is it?’, and the fireman would reply ‘OK’ or ‘Needs a bit more, wait’.
A little further on stood Roundwood Halt, just before the more gentle down gradient that went to Redbourn station and siding. On past Godwin’s Halt and a very sharp ‘S’ bend. This had to be taken extremely slowly to avoid derailment. Onward, past the fireworks factory – a collection of odd little huts, spread across a large field in an attempt to avert a major incident. The factory had its own siding, and, this being wartime, the place was devoted to the production of munitions.
Now came the long, straight run down the slope past Hemel Hempstead station and on to Heath Park Halt. The train would be stopped on the gradient and the guard would put his van brake on. The driver would move slowly forwards and when all the wagons were pulling their couplings tight, he would stop. The guard would then uncouple the coal trucks and return to the van.
Meanwhile, the fireman walked to the points and unlocked them. The driver took the engine, and any goods wagons, into the sidings. He would give a short blast on the whistle and the fireman would change the points back. The guard would very gently let his brake off and allow the train to coast down the hill and into the gas works.
The driver and fireman would then simply leave the goods wagons and follow the train. The full wagons would be shunted into their place and the empty ones were made into a train. The guard would put his tea on, and the engine crew would return to the Heath Park sidings to shunt the goods and return the empties.
The whole train would now return to Harpenden junction, deposit the empty trucks, and pick up a single passenger coach. They would return, all stops, to Hemel, picking up mostly school children. At Hemel station there was a porter’s hut, and it was into this that the crew would go for a cup of tea and a bite to eat.
After their meal break they would return to Harpenden and spend the remainder of the shift shunting. They would deliver coal to the many merchants who were based there and, just before ‘knocking off’, would make up the train for the afternoon shift. And so the whole thing would be repeated.
The morning shift would start at St Albans at four forty five am, ten minutes looking at the notice board, five minutes to get on the engine and away at five am. The engine would already be prepared by the ‘preparation link’. Ray did not like this link: it started at twelve thirty five am and worked through until eight am. He would have to leave home at about a quarter past midnight to get to work on time, and this meant that for around two hours, he would sit, alone, in his house, the family having gone to bed.
One afternoon, they were running bunker first towards Hemel. They had just sounded the whistle for the small ‘WOMANED’ crossing – since the crossing keeper had disappeared into the sunset, his wife had continued the task. It was not the most strenuous of work. Her duties involved opening the gate for the train and letting off a nearby signal, and closing the gate when the train had passed, setting the signal to stop again. She got all this right, most of the time. At least once, she forgot about the signal and the gates ended up as firewood. But this time, Ray and his driver passed safely.
A little further on was a small-holding. The buildings were on one side of the track and on the other was a field. It was in this field that the farmer kept his only cow. Ray had just put a bit on the fire when he looked up. “There’s a cow on the line,” he shouted, suddenly very aware of what would happen if a couple of hundred tons of train hit a ton of cow at thirty miles an hour.
The driver slammed on the brakes and time seemed to slow down. The engine skidded and screeched, trucks slamming together. The cow walking, unconcerned, across the line. The farmer, who was also very much aware of what a couple of hundred tons of train would do to his prized possession, was leaping up and down uttering things that it is probably just as well could not be heard.
In true Hollywood style, just at the very last split second, the cow turned to its left and began to walk down the side of the track. The engine missed it by a single inch. Just as Ray let out a relieved breath, the farmer, who by this time was almost foaming at the mouth, threw his walking stick. The stick hit Ray a hefty clout in the ribs. This rather annoyed and hurt Ray.
“Stop, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind,” Ray said, angrily, to the driver. The driver carried on going. “Will you stop this thing?” said Ray, his ribs aching.
“No,” said the driver flatly.
So the only revenge that Ray ever got for his bruises was to watch the farmers walking stick burn in the fire box.
The same driver caused quite a stir on another occasion. They had been playing ha’penny nap with the porter, a genial old chap, during their break at Hemel. They had shunted the Redbourn sidings and were on the way to Harpenden. Ray had noticed the driver becoming increasingly agitated, he had started to mutter and was searching through his pockets. Suddenly, he slammed the brakes on, stopping the train of empty trucks so quickly that the clatter of wagons crashing together must have been heard for miles.
“What’s up?” asked Ray, perplexed.
“I’ve left my wallet at Hemel,” the driver said. “There’s ten quid in it.”
“Ten quid,” echoed Ray. “What the hell are you carrying that much for?”
Before he could answer, the guard appeared. “What the hell are you playing at? You shook me off my seat.”
The driver repeated his tale. “I’ve left it in the porter’s hut.”
“So now what happens?” asked the guard.
“We go back to get it, of course,” said the driver, indignantly.
The guard mounted the engine just as the driver started back.
“We’ll leave the train in Redbourn sidings and just take the engine. It’ll be quicker,” mumbled the driver, more to himself than anyone else.
At length, they arrived at Hemel Hempstead. They all trooped into the porter’s hut. “Can I have my wallet please?” the driver asked, looking around.
The wallet was not to be seen. The porter looked round and under, eventually saying, “It’s not here, mate.”
All the way back the driver was muttering. When they got back to St Albans, the driver had worked himself into such a state. “I’m going straight to the police. That porter won’t get away with it.”
Ray and the guard tried to calm him, eventually saying, “Look, check at home first. You never know, do you?”
They all went home in dark mood. The next day the tension of the event had built. The driver arrived for his shift and did not speak.
“Well?” asked Ray. “What’s happening?”
“I got home last night, and the first thing the wife said was ‘Did you know that you left your wallet on the bedside table?’ Do I feel foolish?”
Ray heaved a sigh of relief; the tension melted instantly. “Well, I hope you apologize to the porter, poor bloke.”
Such was the general atmosphere of this little microcosm. The driver, shamefaced, begged forgiveness and the porter, jovially, told him to ‘think nothing of it’. In no time at all, everything was back to normal.
Life has a habit of seeking out such idylls as these, and will cheerfully wither the odd vine just, it seems, to keep us in our place.
It was another beautiful summer morning. Six am, and already the sun had dispelled the night’s chill. The driver and fireman had, a few minutes before, passed Roundwood Halt and were going down the gentle slope towards Redbourn. The trackside banks had long since disappeared beneath a profusion of vegetation. The train travelled through almost a tunnel of overhanging trees. Further down the slope, the banks flattened out and moved apart, forming into what looked almost like a country lane. The water level was well up, the fire had been fed, God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.
The fireman leaned on the side window rim idly watching the world go by; the driver was doing much the same. A little way in front of them, a man walked, the morning sun catching the blue cloud of smoke from his cigarette. The driver gave a toot on the whistle, half to let the man know he was approaching and half in greeting. The man raised his arm, and, with a wave, acknowledged.
The driver continued to watch the man, mostly because he was comfortable, and the man just happened to be in his line of sight. When the engine was about twenty feet from him, the man calmly put out his cigarette and knelt down next to the track putting his neck onto the rail.
The few seconds between his actions and his death stretched into long minutes for the driver. He knew that four hundred tons of train, coal and engine going downhill took hundreds of yards to come to a stop. He could only watch the inevitable. When they did come to a halt he jumped from the engine and ran back to the body. A glance told him that help was futile.
They got back on the engine and continued on, in silence, to Redbourn. The station was deserted; they eventually reported the incident at Hemel Hempstead. Some time later they found out that the man had been suffering from throat cancer and was not only in great pain, but had difficulty eating and drinking. It would seem that he too knew the stopping distance of a train.
On the footplate of a 2.6.2. tank, pulling empty wagons up from Redbourn to Harpenden, stood Ray and his driver. They were going round a corner when they saw four cows on the line ahead. The driver, like Ray, was a country chap and knew that cows are not best known for their courage.
In the cab, the driver has a tap that opens the cylinder drain taps. These taps are used when the engine has been stationary, and let out any water that has collected in the main cylinders. The driver just opened these taps a little. The noise that the escaping steam made has been known to startle grown men: the cows stood no chance.
So there was the scene, engine hissing, cows fleeing, white eyed and mooing. Ray had a mental picture of this spectacle still going strong all the way to London. But after about half a mile or so, the cows peeled off to the sides and the train passed harmlessly through the middle of them. Another crew, and indeed other cows, were not quite so fortunate.
The small station at Redbourn was laid out in typical country branch line manner – a small platform and a single siding. It was common practice to use the main branch line during the shunt. The crew would take the train into the siding and couple the empties. They would then pull the whole lot out onto the main line, uncouple the empties and shunt them past the siding.
All went well until the driver noticed the empty wagons leaping into the air. On investigation they found that a small herd of cows had wandered onto the track and had been decimated by the relatively silent-running wagons. Indeed, one hapless cow’s neck had been pushed right into its body. The train was also de-railed.
De-railment on this line was a serious matter. This was graphically demonstrated by an incident involving another crew, the fireman of which proved himself very much human.
The crew were coming from Hemel to Heath Park gas works with a train of coal and goods. They left the coal wagons hanging on the guards van as usual and started toward the siding to park the goods. The fireman was an incorrigible ladies’ man: he thought it not only his right, but his duty, to point himself out to any and all young ladies in his vicinity. As the engine passed over the points, the fireman saw two girls that he felt may benefit from the knowledge of his presence. Without thinking (all history in two words!!), he grabbed the whistle and gave a quick ‘toot, toot’. The driver seeing what he was about to do, just had time to shout ‘don’t do that’. His warning coincided with the whistle blasts.
Events began to unfurl with that awful, unstoppable inevitability that always precedes great failures. The guard let his brake off, just enough to allow the train to creep down the hill. His brake could control the train – it could NOT stop it. The guard, realising that his ‘OK to start’ signal had been given in error, was powerless to avert the collision. The train of fully loaded coal trucks hit the two goods wagons still attached to the engine, de-railing them. The trucks, now firmly in the grip of gravity, de-railed and overturned. They came to rest at the bottom of the embankment.
The hundred tons of coal that were strewn everywhere was one problem easily solved. In no time at all a small army of housewives, armed with scuttles and buckets, helped to remove the lot. However, the only way to clear the remaining mayhem was for the massive steam crane to make the journey from Kentish Town to the crash site. This cumbersome monster was pulled by an equally large engine, and it took quite some time to negotiate the quirky branch line. The crockery certainly rattled that day. Altogether, the line was out of commission for several days.
It was not always the fault of the railway though. During the war years the American forces were stationed at Bovingdon aerodrome. They would use the particularly long runway to land the heavier freight aircraft. The line was out of service for a week when a tank transporter, complete with tank, attempted to go under the metal bridge that spanned a road called Marlowes. That there was insufficient room was unfortunately not discovered until the tank had collided with the metal span and shifted it two feet nearer to London.
One of the advantages of working a country branch was the odd chance to observe nature at very close quarters. One such occasion, although brief, remains vivid in Ray’s memory to this day.
Ray and his driver were almost at Redbourn on a warm, late summer afternoon. The rabbits were so numerous that Ray thought of them in swarms. The approaching engine always scattered them, and, like a flock of sparrows, they tried to go in every direction at once.
Now, rabbits are not the most intelligent of creatures and it was not unusual for one to decide that things as large as railway engines could not run as fast as a panic-stricken bunny. They normally saw the error of their ways within a few yards or so and peeled off, either left or right.
One particular rabbit, though, was a little slower to get the message. On and on he raced, the engine getting ever nearer. At last he decided that enough was enough and veered to the left. Unfortunately, the engine caught him up at just this precise moment. The last that Ray saw of the hapless animal was when its head, complete with ears, emerged from between the wheels and rolled down the bank.
Sound is a vital part of country life: to lay in a field listening to a distant tractor, or to hear the familiar sound of horses hooves on the road. The breeze in the trees, sounding almost like surf upon a distant beach. All are pleasant, comforting sounds. When Ray one day heard the sound of shotguns, he was not in the least discomforted. (It is doubtful whether the rabbits shared his calm.)
Travelling through a cutting, Ray saw, laying on the bank, looking at the passing world – legs in the air – a hare. “Stop,” Ray shouted, “go back! I’ve seen a hare!”
The driver happily complied. When they reached the spot, Ray climbed down from the footplate and inspected the animal. It was obviously stone dead, with evidence of shotgun pellet wounds. Ray picked it up and got back onto the engine. The driver looked first at the hare, then at Ray.
“Dinner,” said Ray simply.
As the line connected to the down fast line, the engine on the branch often had to wait. This wait could be anything up to half an hour. So, weather permitting, Ray would often utilize this time by getting off the engine and having himself an explore.
It is quite amazing just what can turn up at such times. On one occasion Ray found a hand grenade. It turned out to be a dummy that had been lost by the Home Guard, but the initial panic it caused was, nevertheless, quite entertaining.
One excursion turned up a snake skin. ‘There might be a snake too,’ mused Ray. A search of the immediate area did indeed root out a grass snake of about one foot in length. This, Ray placed in his hat. On the way back to Harpenden, they had to slow down to pass a gang of plate layers. On the spur of the moment, Ray dropped the snake into their midst. Their panic reminded him very much of the rabbits.