A Railwayman's War - Chapter 9
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
Some people have said that the blackout disrupted the railways more than the Luftwaffe. Incidents and accidents like the one which follows were regrettably not uncommon.
It was late one Sunday night and the driver was taking an engine to the coaling stage in St Albans. With him was the seventeen-year-old son of a neighbour of his. The coaling stage was a large concrete building that stood close to the loco shed. The engine to be coaled up ran in, a hand’s width away from a wall. On the other side of this wall were the trucks of coal that would be loaded. The loading was done with the aid of an antique, electric hoist. This hoist was shaped like a giant ‘V’, with the winch gear in the middle. Six or so buckets were lined up: each carried about a quarter of a ton of coal. One bucket was hooked onto one end of the cable that depended from each arm of the ‘V’. The bucket at the other end was filled, by shovel, and hoisted over the wall. Full bucket up, empty one down.
The single handle that controlled this operation was operated by an old chap who was no stranger to the brewer’s art. If his reactions were a trifle soggy, the bucket would strike the top of the gantry and the cable would jump off of the pulley. Someone would then have to shin up and replace it.
This whole contraption swivelled at its base and would lower the full bucket directly into the tender. The driver had reached the points that gave access and slowed right down to let the lad alight. The points were of the ‘catch point’ type. This simply meant that they were operated by an adjacent lever and would snap back to their original position, automatically, once the stock had passed. The boy put his foot on the pedal to unlock the mechanism, and pulled the lever. The engine passed over smoothly.
Leaving the points to sort themselves out, the lad, who had only worked on the railway for a month or two, then made his fatal mistake. Committing one of the most serious breaches of any of the railway’s myriad rules, he jumped onto the engine step and, holding the hand rail, he rode the step. The rules stated that he should have boarded the engine completely.
The driver was looking out of the other side of the engine, and the blackout meant that his peripheral vision was severely hampered. The first he knew about the boy’s error was when he heard a terrible, horrifying scream. His head snapped round just as the lad’s face exploded. He had been dragged completely into the three inch gap between the engine and the wall and had been literally rolled up. Later, the only way that the body could be removed was to tie it to the hand rail with rope and reverse the engine out.
In our enlightened times, the railway offers help and counselling to drivers, or indeed ANY employees, that have been involved in an incident. In that world, the driver was left to handle the situation on his own. To report that he was said never to be the same man again would be superfluous.
Taking a few days off was impossible. Any time lost that was not due to genuine illness was a disciplinary matter. Genuine was defined as anything of the ‘broken or bleeding’ type; virtually all else was deemed ‘your problem’. Even annual summer holiday had to be taken on a seniority first basis. Ray well remembers making the best of his fortnight, but his options were a trifle limited when it came to having fun. After all, there is only so much to do in Jaywick, in March.
The sickness situation can best be illustrated by an incident that occurred when Ray was a child.
A day, not unlike many others. Something unusual caught the eye of the few people that were around. A bus was coming down their road. It was not, nor ever had been, on a bus route. The bus stopped outside the Welch household. Arthur thanked the driver and hopped off. When he continued to hop to his door, people knew that he had injured himself.
“What’s happened to you?” his wife asked.
Arthur grinned at her. “I’ve fallen off a tender. I was on top stacking the coal to make it safe when the coal shifted and tipped me off. I fell about twelve feet. I felt it go when I hit the ground. Doesn’t half hurt.”
He sat, gratefully, on a kitchen chair.
“I’ll make you a cup of tea,” said his wife. “Tell me the whole story.”
Arthur rolled up his trouser leg to reveal an ankle that was tightly strapped and a leg that was badly swollen, the bruising colouring it black and blue.
Arthur continued with his story. As he had lain on the ground, he could feel the pain in his leg getting worse by the second. A couple of his work mates ran to his aid.
“Are you OK Jimmy?” was the first question.
“No I’m bloody well not!” was the gist of the reply.
They helped him to his feet. He could not put weight on the leg. Hospital was decided upon as the best course of action and the foreman’s permission was sought.
The foreman, knowing that Arthur was not one to swing the lead, readily agreed. “Yes, you’d best go up the hospital if you can’t walk on it.”
So off went Arthur, hopping, to the bus stop. The doctor took an X- ray and pronounced the ankle broken. He strapped it with crepe bandage and sent Arthur home. More hopping, onto the bus and then a sit down.
As he was about to get off at his stop, the bus driver told him to sit down. “You can’t go like that, I’ll give you a lift.”
And so Arthur got home, on one leg, without a walking stick. Or other help. He was to be off work for almost two months. Seven children, and living on just accident pay.
Accident pay worked out to be about twenty per cent of normal wages. The first three days were not paid at all. Accident pay lasted for thirteen weeks; it was then cut to about ten per cent of normal wages for a further period of thirteen weeks. This was ordinary sick pay and was the only benefit that was received for illness. Ray joined, as did most railwaymen, the ‘National Deposit Friendly Society’. This cost him two shillings and sixpence a week – not much by today’s standards, but then, it would buy Sunday’s joint. Even this august body only paid a few shillings a week for a couple of months or so, and even then only after six weeks’ sickness. After that, your savings. After that, nothing. Little wonder that people turned in for work, regardless of their physical condition.
Many modern trains have public telephones installed in the coaches, such is the standard of communications now. In those days, the telephone was regarded, by the management, as something of an invasion of privacy. They relied upon good, old fashioned ‘word of mouth’. The mere fact that this method proved haphazard did nothing to shake their faith. Minor incidents adopted the appearance of total disaster, simply because no one person had a complete picture of what was going on. Ray was involved in one such happening.
Ray and his driver were waiting inside the signal box at St Albans, north. The box overlooked the rear of Clarence Park, and on this particular afternoon it was as good a place to stand as any. They had received orders to relieve a Bedford-based crew that were running the afternoon pick up. This was a train that would ‘station hop’, picking up and setting down small quantities of local goods as it went. The driver had told the signalman to stop the train at the home signal that was almost opposite the box. The signalman pulled the levers that set the outer signal to caution, and the home to danger.
“Danger on, he’ll stop,” he said, and the three of them settled to wait the few minutes before the train arrived.
Coming into St Albans from the north, there is a gradual decline that stretches the two miles or so from Sandridge village to the city itself. It was normal practice to close the regulator at this point and allow the train to coast. For this reason, Ray expected to see the engine before he heard it. Half a mile from the box is a bend. Not a sharp one, but enough to obscure the view. The first sign they had of trouble, was the sound of a whistle repeatedly going, PIP PIP PIP PIP. This was the standard signal ‘SOMETHING IS WRONG’. The train appeared around the bend and it was instantly obvious that it was not going to stop.
Ray looked at the engine’s funnel. The steam pattern told him that it was in reverse. ‘Something must be VERY wrong,’ thought Ray.
The signalman did the only thing that he could and pulled the danger signal off. This meant that not only did it give the driver a little more time, but the signalman would not have to report the driver for passing a danger signal, as he was bound to do.
The driver knew that he was coming into St Albans station and as he had seen the distant at caution, he knew that the home would be at danger and thought that there was a train in front of him. When he saw the caution he applied the brake. Nothing happened; nothing that is except for the sound of escaping steam.
As he passed, Ray saw that the driver was as white as a sheet. Not knowing that he was only being stopped so that he could be relieved, he thought that his last hour had come. He finally came to a halt a full hundred yards past the home signal. Ray and his driver ran over to the engine.
They could see no sign of the fireman. The man had realised that they were not going to stop and, grabbing a small coal pick, had jumped from the engine. The fireman’s actions were not sparked by cowardice, far from it. He had leapt from a train that had been travelling at almost thirty miles an hour. He had then, LITERALLY, risked life and limb by using the handle of the pick to unhook the heavy brake levers that were on the trucks. He had even managed to put a few of the locking pins in. Undoubtedly, his actions helped to stop the train.
They found that a brake pipe nut, under the cab floor, had come undone, rendering the engine brakes useless. Ray and driver quickly uncoupled the engine and, using the handbrake, took it the few yards into the loco shed. The nut was quickly tightened by a fitter, and within half an hour the train was on its way once more.
Ray remembers the fireman’s return to the engine. He looked Ray straight in the eye and said, “I’ll never do that again, and don’t you try it, mate. Just let it go, let it go.”
The line between Chiltern Green and Luton narrowed from the usual goods line and separate passenger line down to just two lines. These were labelled goods/passenger. This meant that between six thirty and nine am commuter traffic would take precedence over all else. Any goods train that was UNLUCKY enough to arrive at Chiltern Green junction after the appointed hour would face a two and a half hour wait. The crews would then reach London a little too late to take another job. They would normally end up going home early. To avoid all this disappointment the St Albans crews would race, headlong, to beat the deadline….HONEST!!
The trains thus detained would first be warned by the signalman that there were ‘trains in front’. To do this he would wave a yellow flag out of the signal box window. One morning, a 4 freight pulling a train-load of potatoes to the markets of the capital did not receive the flag. ‘Oh well,’ thought the driver and opened it up to get up a bit of speed so that the coming gradient could be climbed at a respectable pace.
The crew saw the train waiting in front of them in good time so had enough time to attempt to stop. When it was obvious that they were not going to make it, they did the only thing left. They jumped. The guard of the other train had arrived at this conclusion somewhat ahead of them. The trains collided.
Thankfully, nobody was hurt; the engine, however, did not fare so well. After leaving the track, it rolled down a bank, taking a few trucks with it. The mess was duly cleared up, and the sorry engine taken to the sheds at St Albans. The necessary repairs were considered too extensive for the limited facilities of the local workshop, so it was decided to send the engine back to its birthplace. The enormous town-sized yards at Derby.
The method that was employed to take a dead engine any distance was to couple it between two LIVE engines. A fireman would be detailed to ride the centre loco, just in case something happened. The idea was for him to apply the dead engine’s handbrake.
This trip, Ray was to be ‘pig in the middle’. It was a freezing, cold morning when they set out. This, however, was the least of Ray’s troubles. The engine had lost the wooden cab floor during the crash, and the driver’s seat had been broken, reducing it to half its size. Somebody took pity on Ray and gave him a bucket, filled with burning coals.
Ray was to go as far as Wellingborough, where his duty ended. He spent the trip perched on the broken stump of seat, clinging to the twisted hand rail. Every so often, he would hang his bucket outside, letting the biting wind fan the dying coals back to life. The track going past beneath his feet, where the floor should have been, made sure that his frozen hands did not lose their grip.
Between Bedford and Wellingborough is a place known as Sharnbrook. It is here that the main line crossed the river Ouse. The great viaduct bridge, being one of the few level sections in the area, was an ideal spot for a water trough.
The troughs were as effective as they were simple. A steam locomotive’s boiler generates staggering amounts of steam; to do this it needs an equally impressive quantity of water. Most people are familiar with the water tower and hose type of fill: this, however, has one big drawback. You have to stop.
The water troughs allowed engines to take on water at speed. The principal is simple. Water is only soft and wet when both it and you are stationary. Anyone who has swung their hand in a swimming pool, and sent a stream of water out to splash someone, has demonstrated a fundamental rule: when you hit it at speed, water is as hard as stone. Luckily, it remains a lot more flexible though.
The troughs were many hundreds of yards in length, dead level, and filled with water. Some engines had a scoop that could be lowered into the water. The pipe, fixed to the top of the scoop, channelled the liquid into the tender’s tank. To get enough pressure in this pipe to ensure that the water went all the way up required the engine to be travelling at great speed. Indeed, most drivers considered anything less than flat out was too slow.
It was to these troughs that a coal train, pulled by an eight freight engine, came. The driver, like most others, had been winding the powerful locomotive up to almost seventy miles an hour. As they came round the slight bend, they saw a guard running toward them, waving his arms frantically. He was the guard of a stationary goods train that was on the same track, in front of them. He had heard them coming and had recognised the sound of a labouring freight engine. Knowing that the stationary train he was on was occupying the only goods line that went in that direction, he knew what would probably happen. He jumped down and tried, nevertheless, to warn them.
His warning came too late. The mighty engine weighed close to a hundred tons. Its loaded tender, another fifty. The sixty four loaded coal trucks weighed nearly nine hundred tons. A thousand tons travelling at seventy miles an hour needs to be driven, carefully, to a halt.
The engine hit the rear of the waiting train. The guard, later, stated that it mounted the wreckage and went straight up into the air – engine, tender, both were airborne. It seemed to reach a fantastic height when it started to fall away, sideways. It plunged over the side of the bridge and buried itself many feet into the mud of the river. The trucks were still coupled and hanging, just like a string of sausages.
It was found later, after examination of the wreck, that the crew had tried valiantly to stop. The engine was in reverse, the vacuum brake was on, as was the tender brake. They never had a chance.
The whole incident had been caused by a signalman forgetting to return a signal to the danger position. The driver and fireman both lost their lives: they had been scalded to death. The fireman had been a large, powerful man. When they found his body, it was wedged between the boiler and the cab roof. It had been shrunken to less than three feet in length.
Some ingenious thinking did, however, rise above the norm. This is not to say that the rail designers were in any way lacking, it simply means that complex problems, sometimes, were solved in an ingeniously simple way.
The problem of parking engines when space was limited, for instance, was overcome by the ’roundhouse’ type of shed. This was a shed that, as its name suggests, was round. It was laid out, inside, rather like a cartwheel. The single line entered, straight onto a hand operated turntable. The parking lines, anything up to eighteen of them, were arranged around this, similar to the spokes of the wheel. Under each was a maintenance pit.
At the ends of the parking lines was a simple, nine-inch-high kink in the rails. This was supposed to act as a stop. It did, most of the time. As has already been discussed, putting an engine away involved dumping the fire, leaving the crew with only the steam in the boiler to work with. This left hardly any room for error – the more the crew did with the engine, the less steam was left to do it with.
On some engines, this became more art than science. The compound engine was a good example of this. Although it was a very powerful loco, the large wheels meant that if the brakes were not adjusted properly, when the steam pressure fell below a certain point, the brakes would refuse to work. The engine would then continue on its merry way, straight through the wall. Anyone entering a roundhouse for the first time, was struck by the new brick work at the end of each parking line, so this was far from unusual.
Engines were normally parked bunker first, so the luckless fireman of the offending crew would fetch the enormous, flat ended crowbar that was kept in these sheds for just such occasions. The tender, weighing a lot lot less than the engine, was usually fairly easy to re-rail.
At St Albans depot, there were only two pits. These were housed in a large shed, side by side. The two lines leading to them had, just before the entrance, a diagonal link, going from right to left. One night, Ray and a driver were on shed duty. This just meant that they put away, moved, parked and generally tidied up any loose ends that would occur.
About halfway through the shift, the steamraiser came up to them. Steamraising was a job that involved just that. Men, including some who had failed their driving test, had the task of doing the rounds of all engines parked overnight. It was their job to ensure that engines that may have had to be moved had steam enough to do so.
The steamraiser was the solitary figure that could be seen trudging round in the wee small hours. The job was somewhat lonely and isolated, which may have contributed to the later incident. The steamraiser told Ray and the driver that he wanted to move an engine that was in the shed. The engine concerned was a compound and had been in for a few days while repairs were carried out. It was parked on the left hand track and only had a few pounds per square inch of pressure in the boiler.
They all three walked to the sheds, the steamraiser getting onto the engine when they arrived. He tried the regulator again, the engine just hissed at him.
Ray started to walk away. “I’ll tow you out with thirty nine, OK?” he said as he walked to the two six two that was parked on the right hand line, a hundred yards or so away.
On his way past, Ray changed the two sets of points that controlled the link track. He got aboard the old engine and started off. As he got onto the diagonal link, he saw the compound had started and was coming straight at him.
He threw the old engine into reverse and went back as rapidly as possible. The two locomotives missed by inches. The steamraiser had finally got the compound to move, and had neglected to inform anyone. The driver was last seen running backwards, at full speed, shouting ‘whoa! whoa! whoa!’.
Ray and his driver were shunting around the yard at St Albans, north. They were using the small shunting engine, number 1854. Ray looked: he saw a plate layer bending over something, holding a piece of string in his hand. This struck Ray as a trifle odd. It coincided with a slight lull in the day’s work.
Ray turned and said to the driver, “Won’t be a minute. I’m just going over to have a look.”
He climbed down off of the engine and walked over. When he got to the man’s side, he saw that a black mongrel dog had been run over by a train. The unfortunate animal had lost both of its legs on the left side of its body. It just lay, shaking with shock and fear. The plate layer had tied the string to the dog, and was trying to pull it clear of the track.
“Poor thing,” said Ray, “what on earth are you doing?”
The man looked up. “I’m not going to touch it, it might bite me.”
Ray felt angry at the man’s thoughtlessness. He knelt by the dog. “Let me try.”
Gently, Ray began to stroke the animal. Its eyes flicked toward him, and away again. “Come on boy,” he said softly.
Ray lifted the dog and carried it over to the grass bank at the side of the signal box.
The signalman looked down at him from his window. “Leave it there mate, I’ll call the police.”
At that moment the driver gave a short blast on the whistle. Ray went back to the engine. About an hour later, they were back at that end of the yard. There was no sign of the dog. Ray never found out what happened to the animal.
A similar incident occurred at St Pancras. Ray was on a passenger job and was pulling out of the platform, heading for the resting bay. They passed a group of plate layers gathered around a dog. As they drove slowly by, they could see that the dog had had one back leg cut off. The last that Ray and his driver saw of the animal, it was being carried toward the station buildings.
As it happened, they were in the resting bay the next day, when one of the group walked by.
“What happened to that dog, yesterday?” asked Ray.
“We tried to drown it in a water butt,” replied the man, casually.
Ray and driver were aghast. “What the hell did you do that for?” they asked.
“To put it out of its misery,” replied the plate layer in a matter-of-fact tone.
Exasperated, Ray said, “Didn’t anyone call the vet?”
“Oh,” said the man, “we never thought of that.”