March 1964

In which I continue work as a Management Trainee on British Railways and ride through the Severn Tunnel on a steam emgine.

Monday 2 March

My return to Derby from St.Pancras this morning was better than last Friday.  We had a type 4 and reached 95 m.p.h. for several miles. 

Friday 6 March

Travelled from Derby to Worksop via Nottingham and Mansfield.

Sunday 8 March

I returned from Worksop to Reading via Retford.  The 19.09 from Retford left about 45 minutes late with an A2 4-6-2 substituting for a failed diesel.  This is probably my last trip behind an Eastern Region Pacific (it was).  The engine, No. 60518, did very well and it was a joy to hear the exhaust.  I am sorry I didn't try to ride on her.  From Paddington I came back to Reading on the 23.25 behind a Castle.

Monday 9 March

I have started again at Acton Yard. I get on very well with Mr. Vile, the Yardmaster.  I found out today that I am acting as his assistant. I took a trip round to Park Royal on the 14.00 class 9 freight.  I went tround in the brake van and came back on the engine, a 94xx pannier tank.  On leaving Park Royal yard we got the siding exit signal and the first two dummies but the dummy controlling the crossover from the Up to the Down Mains was on.  We managed to pull up to find that the points were not fully across and we would ubdoubtedly have split the pints had we not stopped in time.  A good swift kick cleared the rods and the signal cleared.

Acton is a double ended yard which was shunted from both ends towards the middle. It was presided over by an Inspector at each end, while the Yardmaster's Office was situated literally and figuratively in the middle. He would receive complaints from both ends at the same time. The day would start regularly the same way. Some fifteen minutes after the Yardmaster had arrived, Bill Bannister, the west end Inspector would walk in and help himself to a cup of tea, while Albert Lipscombe, the east end Inspector would be on the phone. There would then follow a thirty minute long scathing analysis of what was wrong with the railway in general and the other end of the yard (respectively) in particular. The Yard master had a knack of saying the right things at the right time all the while he was doing something else. During this time, the unsupervised shunters would be knocking wagons around with gay abandon trying to see who could make the most noise outside the office. The honour of their respective end having been defended, the inspectors would then return to their work and relative peace would return to the yard. Talk about playing both ends against the middle.

There was never any lack of coal in the yard. If they started to run out they would run a wagon of coal short and then hit the next one up hard against it. It was then a case of out with the buckets and shovels to clear up the mess. They also tried this with a wagon of fertilizer with unfortunate results. The fertilizer was too strong and killed the entire Acton tomato crop.

I suppose that it was in the yard office at Acton that I proved myself as a railwayman. One morning somebody came in and reported that one of the 9400 class steam engines had hit a lorry. The unfortunate lorry driver was brought in badly shaken but none the worse from his experience as I asked;

"Is the engine alright?"
In the hushed silence there was a whispered reply:
"There speaks a true railwayman."

The lorry had been practically demolished, while all that had happened to the steam engine was that it had lost some of its accumulated grime and rust.

Another day a freight Inspector from Paddington was in the office asking us how things were going. I started to sound off about those silly devils in Divisional Office who had made us send our old brakevan away. We had kept an old van in the yard to do the odd trip across the main line. It wasn't good for anything else but we had equipped the van with flags and detonators and when we wanted to make the move there was no need to search around for a suitable van and then ensure that it was properly equipped. The inspector made some polite comments and quickly left. As soon as he had closed the door everyone, bar me, broke out into fits of laughter. It turned out that the van had been removed on that Inspector's orders. Everybody knew this except me and a seemingly innocent question had started my angry tirade. I had been beautifully set up.

Saturday 21 March
My time at Acton Yard is now over. I quite enjoyed it. Mr. Vile was especially helpful. I found that I was getting into the swing of things and could be of help - then, of course, I am moved on. In my report on Acton YardI predicted that it would be closed with the advent of block and liner trains - I was right.

I have heard that my training programme is going to be interrupted in May in order that I can help with the Berks and Hants line bus stop scheme.  It is due to come in in May but Mr. Coles-Phillips is going to Derby so I am to be around in order that I can put my fingers on the right papers etc., if anything goes wrong.  I am very pleased indeed.

I had a trip over a line which is new to me today.  I caught the 14.02 from Maidenhead (otherwise known as Virgin City to the railway fraternity) which goes via Bourne End to High Wycombe to Aylsbury. I haven't been past Princes Risborough before.  I came back to High Wycombe and then decided to go back to London - Marylebone.  I returned to Reading on the 16.05 ex-Paddington.

Sunday 22 March
How did locomotive crews cope in the Severn Tunnel?
I went down to Bristol this morning.  We were about 30 minutes late owing to rail relaying and Wrong Line Working.  I spent Sunday to Wednesday nights at Brian Ward's house in Warmley, travelling every day to Severn Tunnel Junction from Lawrence Hill station (Bristol).  I had a good time at STJ.  Mr. Evans, the Relief Yardmaster and Mr. Westhead, Assistant Yardmaster made me welcome.  I visited Magor, an absorbed station, right on the Newport MAS (Multiple Aspect Signalling) area.  It has a small panel.

Driver's side view of the west portal of the Severn Tunnel.  Taken by Brian Ward on  2-6-2T 5171 on  15 May 1964.
Like at Acton, there was never any lack of coal at Severn Tunnel Junction, because the yard was ankle deep in the stuff. Coal was the predominant traffic and the impacts in this manual hump yard were sometimes very severe. The wagons were braked by Chasers. These stout fellows would run across the tracks and chase the wagons to apply the brakes. They would frequently insert their brake sticks and ride on them. This dangerous practice horrified me, but they seemed to think it was better than running. I was told that the casualty rate was high.

Severn Tunnel Junction maintained a number of tank engines to act as bankers for trains going through the tunnel. I took the opportunity to ride one of these to get a first hand look at the tunnel. 2-6-2 tank 4121 was in bad shape and was long overdue for shopping or scrapping. The sixteen-year old fireman was very inexperienced and had never fired with Welsh coal before. We were to bank a Manchester to Plymouth passenger train which had a "Warship" diesel hydraulic with only one engine working. Upon reflection, the Warship might have made better time without us. It would at least have been able to get a run at the tunnel and I don't think that we provided any assistance. We backed down ahead of the Warship and quickly coupled up. The driver gave enough steam to help the diesel start the train and get it on to the 1 in 90 grade then eased off, to save precious steam until it was needed the most. The tunnel is about four and a half miles long with severe gradients at both ends and a short level stretch in the middle. We charged into the tunnel and quickly gathered speed. The engine was very rough indeed and I was glad that there were doors to the cab. I said so to the driver - his only reply was that there was no need to worry as there was a recognized procedure to follow if somebody fell out of a train. He knew, as he had gone out with the inspection train to look for some remains only last week. Reassured, I went back to the fireman's side to look for the lamps that signalled the bottom of the tunnel.

One light on the tunnel wall indicates the beginning of the level stretch - the bottom of the tunnel. The regulator was opened wide and the lever was dropped down. Two lights indicated that we were on the climb out of the tunnel and the chattering from the front increased somewhat. With a very green fire the firedoors were kept tightly closed so that we were clattering and banging our way along in complete darkness. Pressure began to drop and I wondered exactly how much assistance we were giving to the Warship. Looking back through the bunker, I could see the crew of the diesel who had turned the cab lights on and were relaxing with their feet up. We ground out of the tunnel and climbed to Pilning with a mile or so of level going where, with the diesel pushing us, we managed to raise steam pressure from 150 lbs. to 160 lbs. before we hit the bottom of the severe grade up to Patchway. By the time we had entered the next tunnel pressure was down to 140 lbs. and there was a shower of sparks raining down upon the cab roof all the way through. This tunnel is even worse that the Severn Tunnel proper because it is a single bore and a stall in this restricted space could be disastrous. We were down to 120 Ibs. and fifteen miles per hour as we struggled out of the tunnel and gratefully arrived at Filton. It was a good job that the diesel could maintain the train brake vacuum, we certainly couldn't have done. We cut off from the train and the Warship made its own way downhill to Bristol where another locomotive was waiting to take over for the rest of the run.

We returned to Pilning where I found out that sister engine 5191 was about to go back light to Severn Tunnel Junction. I climbed thankfully down from 4121 and rode back on 5191. This engine was in even worse condition. All of the cab controls were stiff and the driver was glad of my help when it came to opening the regulator.
I had had enough by the time we arrived back and was very glad to climb gratefully into the comfortable train home. This was an example of the other side to footplate work. It takes a special type of man to put up with those conditions on a regular basis at all hours of the day and night. These men are the salt of the earth and, used properly, could have contributed towards making a railway second to none. Instead of that, I fear British Railways abused and squandered its greatest asset. I wrote in one of my reports at this time:

"I have found amoung the footplate staff a very great tendency to make comparisons between the railway of 1964 and the Great Western Railway. This seems to be most marked among the supervisory grades to the point where present day working is almost prejudiced by this attitude. There still exists a very strong spirit among the footplate grades which, if used properly, could prove a useful weapon in the present situation."

There was no evidence that management understood this and was this lack of faith in the men that caused me to resign eventualIy.

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