Out of Gas

Reading the piece in the July Spareboard (San Diego-bound Amtrak train runs out of fuel) reminded me that I once faced a similar problem which also resulted in dire consequences. 

In the mid-1960s I was Assistant Station Manager for British Railways at Reading, a large, mainly passenger, station some thirty miles west of the London terminus of Paddington.  This job was mainly concerned with keeping the trains moving (we had about 350 passenger trains a day that were booked to stop as well as some 50 through passengers – and there were also the freight trains to squeeze in).  It was great experience and I used up a great deal of shoe leather keeping things going.

One morning I arrived early to find a train stopped in the through road with a dead locomotive on the front.  It turned out to be a sleeping car train whose occupants were dozing comfortably blissfully unaware that their train had run out of fuel but that I was going to save the day.  A quick chat with the driver (engineer) ascertained the engine was unable to move:

“Good job we had a clear road in Guv’, ‘coz’ I coasted the last fifteen miles.”

This shows the east end of the station with the three main lines in the foreground and the two relief lines further back.

Now this was the time of changeover from steam to diesel and diesel breakdowns were quite frequent, so frequent that I had a spare locomotive, known as a “pilot”, to change out failed diesels.  When changing a locomotive I would normally remove the recalcitrant machine and replace it with my pilot.  The diesel depot would then send someone to get the failed unit working which I could then use as my pilot.  However, because the train locomotive could not move, I put the pilot ahead and sent the whole lot off to London.  The crew on the pilot were delighted – a trip to London meant serious money to them.

The delay was not very great and I called control (dispatcher or rail traffic controller) to tell them that the Sleeper would be a little late and could I have my locomotive back as soon as possible please.

This shows the west end of the station with my pilot, a “Western” class diesel hydraulic skulking in bay platform three. The three main lines are just above the pilot.  The Sleeper was standing in the middle line.

I then went on to other things.  There was always something happening at Reading, a baby abandoned in the Waiting Room, a bunch of drunken sailors causing a ruckus etc.  But I was soon called into the boss’ office and it was clear that I was in trouble.  The Sleeper was scheduled to go into a specific platform at Paddington which was just long enough for the train.  With an additional locomotive on the front the back of the train was out foul of the switch and some five or six platforms were shut off, and this just at the start of the morning commuter rush.  The result was chaos.  Paddington was able to get a locomotive on the rear but they couldn’t remove the train until all the sleepy passengers had detrained which took almost half an hour.

As I left the boss’s office with my tail between my legs I reflected – I thought I had done a good job but I had omitted to tell control that the Sleeper was longer by an additional locomotive.  Ah well – back to that abandoned baby or was it the drink dispensing machine that frequently delivered a piping hot cup of coffee flavored with tomato soup instead of cream?

Ottawa Central Railway, Spareboard, September 2008.

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