'The Freight Boys'

This page portrays what life was like for the footplate crews on goods movements during the steam days.

It explains the difficulties they had to maintain safety, which entailed team work between the footplate men and the guards, who played a
big part in this, by using the brake to help avoid snatching the couplings which could have led to catastrophic safety problems.

The details on this page are provided by articles written by John Hilton and Charles Meacher
  from the Back Track magazine of winter 1987.



John Hilton

The humble freight train driver had a perhaps more onerous job than the driver of express passenger trains. He had two major problems
to contend with. Firstly, being able to stop the train with only the engine and guard’s brakes and, secondly, keeping
the couplings stretched out all the time to avoid a snatch.

The old three link coupling fitting to the freight wagons would, when stretched out, allow a six to nine inch gap between the wagons.

 When the distance the buffers could be compressed is added it is possible for the length of a 40 wagon coal train to vary by up to 60 feet, depending upon
the state of the buffers and couplings. Very careful handling on the part of the driver and guard was required to avoid a severe snatch of the couplings which
could cause them to break and so part the train, or, at the least, throw the guard to the floor and the engine crew against the boiler.


Care had to he exercised when starting away with a train. The guard would light his trail lamps and in winter the brake van fire. He would then walk up
to the locomotive calculating the train’s weight which he would give to the driver, such as 30 on, equal to 42 (i.e. 42 loaded 10 ton wagons).

 Whilst he was walking back to the brake the driver would have received ‘right away’. Probably all 30 wagons had their buffers
compressed and it was necessary to pull away very slowly by opening and closing the regulator several times until all the
couplings were stretched.

 When the guard had jumped onto his van he would wave a white light to the engine crew (which would be acknowledged} to show
he was on and the train was in proper order.

 It was also the normal practice to exchange similar signals when passing through certain junctions to show that the train was complete and in good
order, Factory Junction {Stewarts Lane) being a typical point.


It was usual on the Southern for the guard to assist the driver by using his brake to keep the couplings tight and the drivers would run their trains accordingly.
 When leaving Ashford West Yard for London for example, it was a case of thrashing the locomotive to Lenham where the guard would then screw his brake on hard.
 Once this was done steam was shut off, the train running through the dips in the line with the couplings stretched out until
Bearstead where the engine brake would be applied for the speed restriction through Maidstone.


Even very slight variations in gradient presented problems. Nobody today thinks to be on their guard when running through Wateringbury, where
the slight downhill gradient changes to an uphill one. However, when in charge of a long, 80 wagon freight from Paddock Wood to Hoo Junction it was
necessary to increase the regulator opening when passing through the station to ensure the locomotive would travel faster uphill than the wagons
were travelling downhill, otherwise the rear wagons, travelling faster than those at the front, would bunch together causing the couplings to slacken.

 When the rear portion started to go uphill the couplings would stretch out again causing the violent tug.


When going down a long gradient I have explained that the guard could hold the train back. If he did not do so then the
only thing the driver could do was to shut off steam and apply the brake, having the whole of the train buffered up on him.
At the bottom of the gradient he could then slowly release the brake enabling the train to run itself out again.
 And when he felt that this had happened he would slowly pull away.

Where there is a shorter dip, such as at Wadhurst, the guard would have applied his brake before going downhill allowing the driver to keep steam on and
the couplings tight. If the guard did not apply his brake then there were two options open to the driver, he could either go like the clappers downhill
hoping to keep the couplings tight or he could shut off steam, apply the brake, run through the dip with the buffers compressed and then stretch the train out again.

In one instance it is still necessary to do this today, with a train of 16 ton mineral wagons fitted with instanter couplings. Working such a train from
Brixton to Peckham Rye it is uphill to Cambria Jct, downhill to Denmark Hill and then slightly uphill.
 Although today’s modern locomotives travel rapidly they will not pull away fast enough through Denmark Hill and there
is a heavy ‘tug’ on the locomotive.

 The only way to overcome this is to go downhill as fast as possible, apply the locomotive straight air brake in
Denmark Hill platform and slowly release it.


At certain places, such as West Norwood, there were additional difficulties. It was uphill to Leigham Junction, then slightly downhill for a
short distance to West Norwood Junction when the gradient became steeper to the station where there is a 20 mph restriction before climbing to
Gipsy Hill. Indeed, to my knowledge, this was the only place where guards were instructed to assist the driver.
 The only way to deal with this problem was to come over Leigham Junction very slow, often 5 mph, then gradually increase speed and then go
 flat out when in the platform.

There were certain places where no driver would go right up to a signal because, if he did, he could not restart the train.

 Leaving Battersea Yard for Norwood one would never go right up to Poparts Junction signal; the locomotive
would stop just past Longhedge Junction until the signals came off.

 This had the advantage on the daytime ‘accelerated timing’ Norwood trips that one could have a tying start as the couplings were tight.

 Even today when working the heavy Cliffe-Purley aggregate trains drivers still stop at Longhedge to await Popart Junction signals.

It was at this very place that I came upon the London Midland practice of their guards not working the brake.

Called upon one day to conduct a Willesden driver from Clapham Junction to Norwood and with the Willesden guard working through with no pilot man
the driver naturally let me have the regulator.

 The same moment that I opened the regulator fully on approaching the station I felt the train come into me, and had I not brought the train to a stand, there and then, we
would have broken away in the station.

I was working the train as I normally did, expecting the guard to assist me, but apparently the Midland drivers always felt it better to have all the
weight of the train themselves.

 The number of breakaways, and injuries to guards, were minimal, a tribute to the ability of the crews to run
these heavy freight trains year after year often under very difficult conditions.


The signalman's view of the western approaches to Wooton Bassett station (closed in 1965), west of Swindon in September 1955 headed by Churchward 2-8-0 No. 3846, a coal train from South Wales
rumbles slowly through, London bound. Then entirely unremarkable in every way.  (PHOTO : R.C.RILEY)


Charles Meacher.

Then the end came for the steam locomotive on Britain’s railways this coincided with the rapid decline of another familiar railway feature  -  shunting.

 For more than a hundred years the endless sorting of wagons and passenger coaches had been time consuming and labour intensive.

 It was also wasteful and this was reflected in the low wages paid to shunters and goods guards. In towns and cities and elsewhere shunting was carried out on a
grand scale in stations and yards close to the dwellings of tolerant citizens who came to accept steam noises and clattering wagons as part of their environment.


Shunting duties were reserved for young men in the line of promotion, although the best jobs went to ‘accommodated’ drivers with eyesight and health problems.
 At breweries, distilleries, coal yards and other choice two-shifted jobs these unfortunates would take things easily as they approached retiring age
sustained by regular brews and a dram or two of the ‘cratur’.

Yards such as Portobello and Niddrie with their busy N 15s were

worked by younger men with enough stamina to survive the seemingly endless to and fro movements. This monotony on the night shift tended to
act like a drug on my weary mind as I fought to keep my eyes open and respond to the shunters’ lamp signals - a terrible feeling.

Shunters in large marshalling yards usually worked in pairs, N01 and N02.

To the uninitiated a shunter’s job was unattractive, to say the least, especially in inclement weather when they dressed like fishermen and plodded through
puddles alongside moving wagons. The art of using a shunting pole often escaped beginners and holding a hand lamp at the same time was really testing.

 A man either made a career of shunting or resigned after a few days. The careerist was a treasure to any yardmaster and his ability to organise traffic and keep things moving
 made the shunter most suitable for supervisory work; many were happy to remain shunters and work regular shifts rather than accept a freight guard’s unearthly hours of duty.

Passenger train shunting was a dirty job. It was necessary to crawl between vehicles for coupling purposes, and shunters also had to man-handle
large shields which fitted on carriage ends sealing the vestibule at the end of a train.

 The stalwarts at Waverley station were long serving employees and between jobs they would supplement their earnings by ‘pockling’, that is,
carrying passengers’ luggage and receiving ‘tips’.

 Porters employed for this job didn’t always approve but in bygone days there was enough portering for all concerned, even C&W men participated.

In Edinburgh’s big yards and stations the locomen had to coal their engines from a wagon, also oil the motions and clean the fire, ashpan and
smokebox at regular intervals. During the hours of darkness this work was done in the light of a smokey flare lamp. Shunting may have been looked
upon by some people as a meanly job but I have known main line drivers to shy away from shunting work that frightened them, re-stocking the coal
bank at St Margarets shed, for example.


Shunting passenger vehicles using the automatic brake is very different from dealing with a slack - coupled train with only the engine steam brake to control the train.
 With the automatic system the brake acts on each carriage more or less simultaneously; a slack - coupled train is more difficult to control and sudden
braking could very easily burst a coupling or dislodge a load, apart from creating difficulties for the shunter.

 In these situations a driver had to bear in mind the effect his braking would have on ‘loose’ wagons subject to delayed retardation; the engine could be all but
stopped while the wagon wheels continued to turn.

It was comforting for a driver to know the shunter was strong enough and able enough to pin down wagon brakes effectively.
 Young, inexperienced shunters had to be watched, too much was at stake and there was no margin for error.

 For convenience some of these lads tended to use a shunting pole by resting it on the buffer spindle when uncoupling. They might have got away
with it but there was a real chance of the buffer being compressed inside the casting and the shunting pole crushed in the process.
 It was much safer to rest the pole on the buffer casting when uncoupling.

Throwing a heavy coupling over a draw hook in order to couple two wagons together is not easy unless the expertise of the shunter is available.

 The secret is to swing the coupling with the shunting pole as it hangs loosely. Then, as it swings in the direction of the draw hook, guide it into place with the pole.

 It is more difficult to hook a wagon running against a stationary train but a good shunter seldom missed.
Shunters needed a good geographical knowledge of British railways if they were to succeed in their job.

 When a train arrived at a marshalling yard the wagons could be destined for places far and near; each one to be shunted into roads where
trains were made up for particular routes.

 The two shunters would first of all check the new arrival and inspect the wagon tickets which indicated the final destination. Sometimes it was necessary
to despatch a wagon to another local yard where it would be attached to a suitable train service.

Little books were available for guidance on interchange points but the experienced shunter seldom referred to these.

As he checked each wagon he would chalk it in accordance with the road in the yard allocated. Sometimes it was a number he chalked on the wagon side or
it could be a nickname for a particular road, such titles being widely used on the railways. Meanwhile, the shunting engine would be simmering at the head
of the train, the driver and fireman quietly talking or as was usual on the night shift  - dozing.

Suddenly there would be a loud bang on the side of the cab accompanied by a shout, “Right! Draw back!” At Portobello it was sometimes necessary
to alert the signalman at the East Junction, so the engine whistle was sounded as per the code book. After pulling the train back some distance the
direction was reversed and gravitational shunting with loco commenced. As the N02 shunter uncoupled each wagon, or group of wagons the N01 man
 controlled the points and let the vehicles run free into particular roads occasionally dropping wagon brakes to impede the speed.

All the activity and hard work plus irregular hours involved with railway shunting is now part of history but at the time it was an important part of our heritage.

 Although wasteful to an economist the system created work and job satisfaction for thousands of dedicated raiiwaymen. The soft puffs of
a light engine; the strong staccato exhaust of a loco straining to lift a heavy load; shunters’ whistles and engine whistles; a cacophonous symphony lost in
 clouds of steam and smoke.

 Strange to say, these circumstances came as a comfort to near neighbours and seemed to suggest that
all was well with the world outside.