Assistant Station Manager - Reading

The west end of the station seen from the Reading tower under construction.  A DMU is standing in platform 6 while a diesel shunter is hauling a rake of vanfits along the goods line.

I was interested to learn that big improvements are taking place to the railway infrastructure at Reading.  I was Assistant at Reading from 1965 to 1967 following my period as a Management Trainee.  Two new positions had been created to assist Mr. Snow, the Station Manager, following the integration of the Southern operation through the construction of a new platform (No. 4A) and the closure of Reading Southern station. The other ASM, "Nick" Nicholson, had had a great deal of experience and I was to rely upon him frequently for help and advice. His big round face seemed to be split by an ear-to-ear grin which grew wider when the going got tough. It seemed that the more trains became delayed, locos failed or men booked sick, the wider was Nick's smile.

Reading was busy, even in those days. Three hundred and fifty passenger trains were booked to call in an average day and there were as well the parcels and freight trains and the fast passenger trains that passed through at 90 mph. At one time in the evening peak there was a train booked into every platform except the Down Main which had a succession of four non-stop expresses running at five minute intervals.

The station had eleven platforms which were grouped into three sections, Down Side, Middle and Up Side. The first group had an inspector and two foremen, the second an inspector and one foreman while a foreman controlled the Up side which was mainly parcels. Train movements were assisted by a Yard Foreman whose shunters were a vital part of the operation. Right from the start it was evident that two platforms should have been built for the trains off the Southern.  The plan was for the electric trains to use platform 4A and the diesel trains from Guildford and Redhill to use one of the platforms in the main station, usually platform 7, occasionally platform 9.  However, this required all diesel trains to cross both main lines and delays were frequent.  This was resolved with the construction the second bay, platform 4B, but that was after my time at Reading.

The new signal system worked pretty well although fine tuning was required.   Getting a DMU into the servicing sidings could cause problems.  One time, during the evening rush I wanted to clear a six-car DMU from platform seven into the servicing sidings.  A quick talk with the panel revealed that there was a margin provided I did it straight away.  With no shunter immediately available I went with it myself.  What we didn't know was how much room was available in the sidings.  As it happened, the previous DMU into the servicing bay was only just clear of the track circuit so we were forced to stand blocking all main lines until the servicing bay was cleared.  The ten minute delay to all trains was not appreciated and we were quickly able to make the case for extended track circuiting in the diesel depot.

Inside the Reading CTC panel.  Ted Blackall is smoking a pipe.  It must have been a slack time as one man is reading a paper.

We had some good inspectors, all of them hard working, although it was surprising that little things could upset them. We nearly had a strike over whistles one day. British Railways, in its wisdom, had decided that plastic whistles would be cheaper than the traditional metal ones and had started to issue cheap and nasty brown plastic ones. What had not been thought about, however, was the other uses to which a whistle is put. An Inspector, when seeing out a train at night, has his lamp in one hand and his whistle in the other. The only way he can press the "Train Ready to Start" plunger, which gives the signal to the panel box, is to hit the plunger with his whistle cupped in the palm of his hand. It only took a couple of weeks of this treatment and the luckless Inspector would hit the plunger and find himself with a handful of pieces of plastic whistle. The metal whistles would stand up to a great deal of this treatment and we had to order some more in a hurry. To this day one of my treasured possessions is a BR metal whistle that is curiously bowed on both sides of the bowl. That trusty whistle gave sterling service all through my career with British Railways, I don't know how many I would have gone through if I had had to use the plastic ones.

The Platform Foremen were an interesting and enterprising group. The most outstanding was a big French Canadian who was every Englishman's idea of the barrel-chested Canadian lumberjack. Red Lagace was as strong as an ox and it was rumoured that he had once actually carried a four-wheeled platform trolley over the two main lines single handed. Red was a very useful person to have around in the late evening when the drunks, who tended to congregate round the station, could occasionally get out of hand. He could, however, be very tactful on occasions when an irate passenger had missed a connecting train.

Bill Holloway was one of the Foremen who took care of the electric trains in platform 4A. Every other Thursday, around 11:00, Bill would disappear for an hour. He would return with a two wheeled barrow carrying a laundry hamper filled to the brim with seconds from Huntley and Palmer's biscuit factory. Bill's first port of call would be the Station Manager's office and by 14:00 the whole station staff would be stocked up with biscuits. These sold very cheaply considering that, in many cases, all that was wrong was incorrect wrapping.

While at Reading, I don't think I paid full price for anything. There was always somebody who knew someone who could get a discount. Every so often there would be a sale taking place in the Panel Signal Box where a good selection of wares from contraceptives to shampoo would be displayed on the floor. One of the Panel Inspectors had a brother in Petticoat Lane (a London Market) and nobody ever dared ask where his wares came from.

The high density of traffic meant that any untoward delay, such as a locomotive failure, could quickly play havoc with the timetable. I started at Reading at about the time that the Brush Sulzer type 4 diesel electrics were being phased in. Reading was the first point out of Paddington where a fresh locomotive could be obtained and this meant that we were frequently required to provide a new locomotive at short notice for a passenger train. If the locomotive had made it as far as Reading on the up journey there was a good chance that it would make it through to Paddington. (That is unless the locomotive had run out of fuel, and that happened on more than one occasion.)

We had a pilot at Reading, usually a Western class diesel hydraulic, which we used for shunting parcels vans and we could quickly make a straight change but there could be complications. In most cases the main line crews were not familiar with the shunting signals and I had to find somebody to go with them, or go myself, to ensure that they would clear the appropriate track circuits. The change over was also complicated by the fact that the Reading Enginemen didn't know the diesel electrics so that the failed loco couldn't be moved until an appropriate driver had been found. On one memorable occasion three consecutive down trains failed in a fifteen minute period. Our pilot went on the first one and the loco dept. found another for the second but I seem to remember that the loco that came off the first one went back on to the third which subsequently made it only as far as Didcot.

Such out of course delays would cause problems with trains making connections at Reading. Holding a train for one that had been delayed could cause even greater problems at other points and could quickly snowball. To counter this Paddington had drawn up a set of instructions called the Connection Pamphlet. This set out for each train the connecting trains for which it could be held and the maximum amount of time that it could be held. In my first week one of the Inspectors came to me and innocently pointed out that one of the evening commuter trains was late and should he hold the Didcot connection. Taking out from my pocket my brand new copy of the Connection Pamphlet I ascertained that the Didcot would have been delayed longer than the pamphlet allowed and so I said to let the Didcot go. Problem solved, or so I thought.

I was busily thinking about something else when the delayed train came in, but I was quickly jolted back to reality when an irate band of commuters burst into my office and gave me hell for letting "their" train go. I quickly decided that it wouldn't be polite to tell them that the last time that I saw it, it had British Railways painted on the side! Hiding behind the Connection Pamphlet did me no good - it was wrenched away and ripped to shreds right in front of my eyes. The rucus reached a peak when an elderly man began to menace me with his walking stick. Luckily one of the railway policemen happened to be passing and I escaped in one piece. The row went on so long that they very nearly missed the next train. I learned an important lesson from this experience. The Connection Pamphlet is a guide that is to be resorted to when expedient but, more important, if you do resort to it, make sure that you are not around when your chickens come home to roost'. I quickly found places in which to hide under such circumstances.

I was in my office a little later, still recovering from this experience when I was accosted by another irate passenger brandishing a cup of coffee. He had purchased it from the platform vending machine that had mixed coffee with chicken soup. It was a new machine that had not been adjusted to flush out the tubes properly. That machine had a will of its own. We would experience a sadistic pleasure watching the expression on people's faces seeing the eagerly anticipated drink quietly running down the drain when the cup failed to drop.

I was extremely fortunate in that we had only two derailments involving passenger trains and no fatalities during my period as ASM. The 0850 Paddington to Penzance, the Royal Duchy came off on the Reading West Curve because of a broken rail. I went into the Panel Box and picked up a phone to provide co-ordination with Nick who was on the platform. I didn't put the receiver back in its rest for four-hours. The second derailment was a sideswiping which effectively shut up half of the station for three days. The closest we ever came to a disaster concerned a down freight train which piled up on the down relief line just after passing through the station. We found that the problem was a burnt out journal bearing on a coal wagon. The remains of the journal were found on the up side of the station and the wagon had passed through the platform road on three bearings. It was 08:00 and the station was crowded with several hundred commuters. I still shudder when I think of the carnage that could have resulted had the train piled up while passing through the station itself.

The east end of the station seen from the Reading tower under construction.  The Southern station is on the right with the tracks now removed

Christmas was always a trying time. Everybody worked twelve hour shifts for several weeks beforehand and tempers would become frayed around mid-December. Neither Nick nor I liked working nights, so we decided to alternate the two shifts. I worked the day shift for the first week (06:00 to 18:00) then Saturday 06:00 to 14:00 and back  from 22:00 to 06:00 Sunday morning. Next week I would work the night shift 18:00 to 06:00. A couple of weeks of this and by the time Christmas arrived, all I wanted to do was to sleep.

Christmas started early at Reading, usually in late November when the parcels and parcels post traffic started to build up. British Railways runs a large number of additional parcels-post trains and we would open up a special facility to handle them in the cattle dock. The first year the first special train was run before we had opened up the cattle dock and we had no option than to unload it in the afternoon in the middle platform. Fred, the middle Inspector was not happy and my phone nearly went red hot but I had found that the best thing to do with Fred was to let him have his say and not argue about it. After he had got it off his chest, he would calm down and then set to and do a good job. I stayed away from the middle platform for a couple of hours so that by the time the evening rush had commenced there was an enormous pile of mail bags 10 to 12 feet high, right down the centre of the platform. Many commuters would fling open the doors as the train was running down the platform, jump off the moving train and rush to be first out through the ticket barrier. This time the luckless commuters jumped off and ran into and half way up the mountain of mail. The look on Fred's face and the sight of these people sprawled over the mail bags, made the afternoon's toil well worthwhile.

With the additional number of vans around things could quickly get out of hand. There was always a problem clearing parcels trains to the Southern via Redhill and Waterloo would quickly put a block on us. This had to be very carefully watched as we had very little siding capacity. When the block did come off, one had to resort to dirty tricks to keep the station working fluid. One Sunday we had a dead train at East Junction that the Southern had finally agreed to accept.  We also had five vans taking up valuable space in the station itself which the Southern had refused. Luckily, the engine crew came from Reading and I stopped them in the station. While the Southern guard was arguing about it, the Yard Foreman was tying the five vans on to the engine and, seeing that he was anxious to go home, the guard realized that he had been outflanked. They went up to East Junction, picked up the dead train and left for the Southern. I breathed a sigh of relief as I gave the concise details to control, but forgot to mention the additional five vans. This resulted in a complaint from Regional Headquarters after Christmas, but by that time everybody had developed very short memories.

Christmas working at night was almost entirely parcels oriented. At times it was a nightmare, with trains running hopelessly out of course and everything going wrong at once. I can remember only isolated fragments:
- the long train that came in from the West Country. Every van had to be searched for Reading mail, while the tail fouled all four main lines.
- the steam locomotives that the Midland Region insisted on sending even though we had no water or other facilities at Reading. One night a driver of a Black Five refused to move his train until he had taken water. All we could do was to use a garden hose from the fire hydrant which took over an hour.
- walking down to Scours Lane to bring in a freight train that had broken in two. Everybody was jittery because the Mail Train was stuck at the next signal behind it and the Great Train Robbery was fresh in everyone's mind.
- a broken block joint at East Junction. I allowed a parcels train over it at 5 mph and hoped that it would hold - it did!

A week or so before Christmas, the parcels traffic would die down and we would be able to clear the decks for the onslaught of the passengers. This was easier than parcels work because a special timetable was planned in advance and theoretically all we had to do was to get the trains in and out according to the pre-arranged schedule. At least the passengers had legs but they also had voices. Trains invariably became out of course and things would get hectic. One afternoon two days before Christmas a signal failure at Paddington stopped all trains leaving London for just over an hour. When the problem was rectified, Paddington opened the floodgates and we had to deal with a continuous succession of main line trains. Paddington has a large number of platforms, while we had only the one that was used regularly for down main line trains. The signalling did permit two-way movements on the middle platform, but we did not know in which order the trains were coming at us. I decided that we would keep the trains on the down main and clear them as quickly as possible. Of course, the first one down wanted a new engine! A senior officer from Divisional Headquarters was following me around, and demanded that I use the middle platform. I explained that this would create more delay but he wouldn't believe me, so I eventually agreed to put one train down the middle. The resulting delay while we moved several hundred old ladies down the steps, through the underpass and up the steps to the middle platform, to say nothing of the insults from the Postal Inspector whose mail missed the train proved my point with a vengeance. To top it all we managed to delay two up trains crossing the train over and back to the main line. Pure railway operating is one thing but one must always consider crowd control problems as well. The platform logs contained many entries "Mr. X's instructions" as reason for delays that day.

Christmas was tough but it did have its lighter side such as when a student postman left a bag of mail too close to the platform edge. The Down Bristol Pullman picked it up at 85 mph and distributed Christmas Cards all the way between Reading and Reading West Junction.

Around six o'clock on Christmas Eve the station would become deserted. A sort of calm would descend upon the platforms that we had finally cleared of parcels. There would be a chance to sweep up, put the platform trolleys in a reasonably neat array and recover from the rigours of the previous month. The lull after the storm was really the lull before the next one as we still had to contend with the rush for the New Year.

Although life as an ASM was difficult at times the experience was really worth while and I came to enjoy myself even though I would wear through the soles of my shoes in five weeks. Every day was different and I never knew what new problems I would have to contend with from one day to the next. The following are isolated fragments of the sorts of items that could crop up:
- the porter who was busy stowing a passenger's luggage in a train when the Inspector gave the right away. He finished up at Didcot.
- the baby that was abandoned in the down side waiting room. We were beseiged by reporters and to get rid of them I went into the nearest waiting room and pointed to the nearest bench as being where the baby was found. I wasn't on duty at the time and I knew it was the wrong room but the press was satisfied. My picture duly appeared in the papers as the person who had found the baby pointing to the exact spot where it was found.
- the steam-hauled weed killing train that found its way into the electric bay. This was, I believe the only steam train to find its way into that platform. The driver didn't know the road but went out the same way he came in; "I just followed the rails and here I am"
- the man who was riding on the buffers of one of the coaches of "The Golden Hind". We sent "Stop and Examine Train" to Theale but he ran away across the fields.
- the kid who had escaped from borstal. The ticket collector picked him up because when asked where he was going the reply was "Nowhere"
- the BBC film crew who took over the station for a day to film a sequence for a TV series. The director was very resentful of the passengers who would inevitably get in his way.
- the night I performed the unforgivable sin of stopping "The Golden Hind" (known to railwaymen as The Brass Arse) to put on a passenger who had missed the connection to Newbury where the train was booked to stop. The Down Main signal was approach controlled so that it wouldn't clear normally until speed had been reduced to 40 mph. Drivers came to expect this and would leave it to the last minute  expecting the signal to clear. Of course it didn't clear that night and the train nearly over-ran the signal. I couldn't have delayed the train very much as the grateful passenger realized what I was doing and jumped aboard very quickly. Even so, it took two weeks for the furor from Paddington to die down after that one.
- the children who actually walked on the third rail carrying 750 volts. It would only have taken a false move to have seen them electrocuted.
- the first time that we had to operate an electrical block switch. The operator, wearing rubber gloves, uses a wooden pole to shut off power to the third rail. This gives a bang and a blinding flash. We had a derailment in the electric sidings one morning and Ron, the Down Side Inspector was instructed by Woking Power Room to shut off a particular switch. Ron disappeared towards the sidings wearing a brand new pair of large red rubber gloves and with his knees quaking. He came back a little while later to report that he couldn't find the switch. It turned out that it had been destroyed in the derailment.
- searching for a body between Reading and Didcot on a Hymek loco with a flashlight, some blankets and a stretcher. It helps to know who on the station is not squeamish about picking up pieces of human body. It was a false alarm but I have often wondered how I would have reacted if it had been for real.
- sending an out of gauge parcels van to Basingstoke.  The Great Western Railway was built to a wide rail gauge but even after this was changed to standard in 1892 the GWR main line still had a wider clearance envelope and vehicles were built to this until recent times.  One day I was short of parcels vans and sent an ex-GWR van to Basingstoke.  It was quickly send back to me with all the handles and grabs neatly piled inside on the floor.  One side had been swept clean at the first narrow gauge bridge out of Reading.  The other side was swept clean on the way back.  Wally, the carriage and wagon inspector repaired all the damage and nothing was said.

If my career at Reading had started quietly it nearly ended with a bang - literally. I worked the early turn of my last day. The commuter trains had gone well and I was in the Station Announcer's booth trying to scrounge a cup of tea when there was a phone call from Paddington Control. As I put the phone down I could feel myself breaking into a cold sweat and there was a horrible tingling sensation in the base of my spine. The conversation with Benny had been very short.
"Mr. Churcher, Scotland Yard have just called. There may be a bomb on the nine o'clock Padd. It's probably a hoax, but you'd better check it out."
"OK, I'll call you back." was my mumbled reply. 
My legs were beginning to turn to jelly as I sat down and tried to collect my thoughts. The 09:00 was one of the faster trains that would cover the 35 miles from Paddington in about 30 minutes. It was 09:10 and I had 20 minutes.
My first call was to the Down Side Inspector.
"Ron, there may be a bomb on the nine o'clock Padd. We'll  keep her on four (platform four), get everybody out on the platform then search the train. I'll be over in a minute."
There was a muffled oath, followed by; "OK,  boss."

My next call was to the Panel Box. The Inspector agreed that we should keep the train on its booked platform but that the signal would be off so that we could make a quick getaway if necessary. We also agreed that he would stop all trains on adjacent lines as a precaution.
By 09:15 I had informed the railway police who took it very calmly:
"Just you leave everything to us. We'll search the train."
The next call was to the Station Manager. He seemed worried, probably because his office was on platform four. Having instructed Maisie, the Station Announcer, I decided to go over to platform four. My watch said 09:20, the travelling bomb would now be approaching Maidenhead at 90 to 95 mph.
I burst into the Station Manager's office to hear one end of a heated argument he was having with the Panel Box Inspector.
"You have it your way, but I still think we should stop it in the country. It might be more difficult to get the passengers out but if it goes off here it will blow my station to pieces."
The station building was at least seventy years old and there had been plans to rebuild it for the last forty. It was in poor condition and I suggested that it might not be such a bad idea if it was blown up, at least we would then get the new station we had been asking for. This suggestion was not well received. He slammed down the phone, had a good look around his office as if it might be for the last time, stalked out and disappeared. My office was on the other side of the station. 

Outside on the platform I found the Down Side Inspector. We decided to move the passengers around to one of the bay platforms so that they would be protected by some parcels vans. We looked across to the middle platform where Charlie, the other Inspector was grinning at us with an expression that said:
"Rather you than me."
09:25. I called the Panel Box.
"She's just through Twyford. She'll be with you in a couple of minutes."
Looking up the line we could see a small speck approaching in the distance. In the other direction the down main signal changed from red, through yellow and double yellow to green. At least we would have a clear road out. The blue and yellow Western class diesel hydraulic was doing forty at the platform end but the driver brought his locomotive to a smooth stop right where I was standing. He grinned down at me:
"Twenty eight minutes. Not bad, eh?"
"We've just been given the tip that you may have a bomb on board. If it had gone off you might never have made it. Better get your mate to look through the engine and be ready to take off in a hurry."
The grin quickly disappeared from his face. The fireman went back to search the locomotive while the driver sat tensely trying not to look worried.
Looking back down the train I could see the passengers scurrying out and round to the bay platform. One man from the Restaurant Car, a piece of toast in his hand was complaining bitterly; "You might at least let me finish my breakfast first."
The police were doing a good job but it seemed an age before I could tell Maisie to tell the passengers that they could re-board the train. Of course, it turned out to be a hoax.
Ron gave the "Right Away" and we watched the train begin to pick up speed. In the Restaurant Car, the angry passenger was being soothed somewhat with a second cup of tea. I watched the tail lamp disappear towards the west and went back to my office where the phone was ringing. Benny was pleased to hear that our station was still in one piece.
"Yes, but I was very nearly assaulted by an irate passenger brandishing a piece of toast."
His reply surprised me a little;
"Gee, all I do is sit in this office all day. You people have all the fun."

Even that wasn't my last incident at Reading. Just before the end of the shift I decided to have a final look around. Behind the station by the freight avoiding lines I found a neat pile of door handles and grab irons. Somebody had left a wagon standing foul of a switch and our newspaper vans had been swept clean on one side. This created quite a panic as these vehicles are specially equipped with tables for the sorters who travel on the train and cannot be substituted in a hurry.
That was one problem I left for somebody else!

From Reading I moved to Cardiff and eventually Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire.  My career on British Railways ended when I emigrated to Canada in 1968.  The track improvements underway at Reading are exciting and I could have really used this flexibility while I was Assistant in the 1960s.

Unpublished Article

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