Seventy Years Ago - Railways at War

Taking a look back at the railway scene 70 years ago.

The Railway Scene 70 Years Ago Was Not a Pretty One

The golden days of streamlined record-breaking luxury services were now a memory and the glistening express locomotives had by and large, now become wartime workhorses in a black livery carried under a layer of grime.

Many passenger services had been retimed and carried far longer and heavier loads at slower speeds. Non passenger trains were given priority to ensure the war effort was not held up for the lack of petrol, oil, coal and other minerals vital to keep production in full swing.

Railway Works such as Eastleigh, Wolverton, Doncaster, Derby and Swindon were used to make armaments, military vehicles and even warplanes. The railways themselves were in essence a nationalised business run by a Government wartime Railway Executive that paid the ‘Big Four’ a facility fee to operate trains and maintain the network. They retained their individual identities though until 1948 when Nationalisation came as a direct result of the war.

Wartime damage to the system was kept under wraps for obvious reasons and leisure travel all but barred at this time to keep resources free for troop and other military purposes. Other hard news was also heavily censored and the following information has been collated from Phil Marsh’s railwayana collection.

Finally, spare a thought for the steam locomotive crews: They had to run in darkness and became targets for enemy planes who could see the orange glow from the fire despite cab sheeting fitted in an attempt to hide the night-time glow. Other operational railwaymen and women had to keep the system running and could also not take cover. These were the unsung and unseen heroes.

Worst Snow for a Century Claim

The onset of winter at the start of 1941 saw 56 hours of continuous snow falling from February 18 in the North East. Drifts of 14 feet deep were recorded and telegraph poles and wires snapped under the weight. As the snowfall ended, over 50 trains had been reported trapped in snow trying to reach Newcastle, the reported centre of the blizzard.

There were 25 minor derailments noted as all routes north from Newcastle were blocked. A total of 32 branch lines were also blocked with 37 different passenger services disrupted and trains took over 24 hours to reach Newcastle from Kings Cross. After the snow stopped falling, a hard frost set in followed by floods when the temperature rose.

Five special snow clearing trains were formed and sent out and they took five days to clear many blockages allowing 70% of the network to operate. The railway workers were assisted by the armed forces in the clearance work.

Shifting Coal

Coal production in the first World War was vital because the navy used coal as fuel whereas in the second World War, ships mainly used fuel oil. In theory this freed up some capacity for the railways but the reality was the opposite. Before the war coal was transported in bulk by coastal steamers from the various coalfields but now the output had to be carried by rail as the Navy could not protect every ship and in any case, many had been requisitioned.

The railways carried around 165 million tons of coal each year in the late 1930s and this figure was vastly exceeded in 1941. This created operating problems because the majority of wagons were 4-wheeled unbraked wagons used to convey the coal in low speed trains. This brought powerful passenger locomotives onto goods work and an estimated 600,000 privately owned wagons were requisitioned into service to carry the coal.

Before the war, the railways used 15 million tons of coal a year which was graded into various categories. In the war, the coal was not specially selected and allocated for specific use – drivers and firemen had to use what they could get!

Respite for The Troops

The London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMSR) fitted out third class compartments as buffets to serve tea, coffee and other refreshments to members of the Forces. The LNER specially staffed 32 stations for the Armed Services’ welfare providing sustenance and rest facilities. A total of 57 rooms were put to use at these locations ranging from a refreshment room at Hull to a new mail bag room at Kings Cross.

Model Railways Still Flourish!

Despite the war, renowned model railway manufacturers Bassett Lowke Ltd still produced a catalogue for 1941. This included a new section which advertised a LMSR 2-6-2T and wagons from the same company. Signalling systems and permanent way items for your model railway layouts were also advertised!

Motive Power Depot Work and Blackout Precautions

Motive Power Depots (MPDs) were obviously vital to the railway war effort and had to be lit in hours of darkness thus providing a clear target for enemy bombers. Lighting was ‘subdued’ as it was called at the time, and master switches installed around the depots which would plunge the depot into immediate darkness if required.

Other precautions had to be employed such as when dropping a fire from an engine. This had to be immediately damped down to avoid an orange glow being seen from the air. Some walls in depots were whitewashed to help workers find their way round the Depot.

Engines had to be kept ready for what was called ‘Government Traffic’ which meant a locomotive could be requested without notice for a special train which would run without a timetable.

The Blitz and How the Railways Carried On

London’s deep tube stations were used as air raid shelters by night creating largely safe but ‘cosy’ conditions for people to take refuge in. The Blitz took place in 1941 and brought serious damage to the railways – but they carried on.

London Underground carriage No. 14233 was given a new lease of life and re-introduced to service in late 1941. This was made from parts of bomb damaged District Line car No. 013167 and other parts from itself, (a Metropolitan carriage) which had also survived bomb damage that year.

The UK’s ports also suffered many attacks and not only on the south coast. The Atlantic facing ports of Liverpool and Glasgow also suffered tremendously.

Portable Recovery Equipment

Bomb damage had to be repaired quickly and portable machinery used for moving stock and mobile air compressors were produced to assist with ballasting for example. Even some shunting engines were built using flame proof equipment.

Women and The Railways

Women were now brought into what was traditionally decreed as men’s work on the railways. This included pretty much every non-footplate type of work including signalling and platform work. Locomotive preparation work was allowed in some depots though.

They proved themselves very capable in carrying out what had been seen as men’s duties and kept things running. Many railway occupations had been deemed to be ‘reserved’ which meant the person was exempt from military call-up.

Speed Restrictions

Speed restrictions had been put in place in late 1940 when an air raid warning had been given. This limited trains to a top speed of 15mph in daylight alerts. In February 1941, the speed limit increased to 25mph and doubled to 30mph for after-dark warnings and raids.

An overall speed limit of 60mph had been imposed generally with the onset of war, but in early 1941, this was increased to 75 on the LMSR where the track condition permitted. This allowed service recovery as passenger trains were still only timed at between 50 and 60mph.

New Locomotives

Sir Nigel Gresley designed and had built a ‘V4’ class 2-6-2 tender engine for general purpose use. This was based on his successful pre-war ‘V2’ design engine which was used equally well on goods or express passenger services. The ‘V4’ was designed to be lighter than the ‘V2’ giving it a greater route availability as it weighed 23 tons less and it also had a smaller wheelbase allowing it to negotiate tighter curves than the ‘V2’. The engines were numbered starting at 3401 and were introduced from March 1941 and carried 6 tons of coal and 3500 gallons of water.

Gresley had also designed an electric locomotive for the Wath route across the Pennines. One was built but the rest had to wait until after the war.

Alterations were being designed for the provision of fire extinguishers on steam locomotives generally. This was in the form of mechanical fittings to boilers and water tanks providing a jet of water onto a fire via a hose line fitted to the injector.

Halls with no Names on the GWR!

The GWR were building their ‘Hall’ class locomotives in 1941. Numbers 6914 and 6915 were named Langton Hall and Mursley Hall respectively but from number 6916 onwards, they ran without nameplates but with the words ‘Hall Class’ painted on the splashers!

The GWR also built three coach streamlined railcar sets for use between Cardiff and Birmingham and could carry 172 passengers at high speeds.

Southern Railway Streamlined Locomotives

The famous Southern Railway Locomotive designer O V S Bulleid defied the Railway Executive by describing his express passenger streamlined locomotives as ‘Mixed Traffic’ to them and was given authority to construct the class. This was express engines were deemed not required in the war as express trains didn’t run. There was a huge need for these ‘Mixed Traffic’ classes though and the streamlining was described as air-smoothed to avoid any express train connotations. These were the first English steam locomotives to carry all electric lighting.

They were known as the ‘Merchant Navy’ Class and the first 10 were built in 1941, the first of the class named Channel Packet and numbered 21C1 – the continental way which described the wheel arrangement. The leading ‘2’ describes the amount of carrying axles in front of the driving wheels, the second number gives the amount of such axles behind the drivers. The letter ‘C’ denotes that there are three driving axles, being the third letter of the alphabet. The last number denotes the actual engine number.

LNER Builds Engines for Russia

The LNER exported 92 2-8-0 freight engines to ‘our friends in Russia’ in 1941. These were refurbished with copper fireboxes and fitted with steam brakes. The engines were built by the Great Central Railway at Gorton as far back as 20 years previously.

Railway Deaths

Arguably the greatest locomotive designer, Sir Nigel Gresley, died aged 64 in Hertford. He was awarded the CBE in 1920 for Services in the Great War, and Knighted in 1936 after the introduction of his streamlined A4s on ‘The Silver Jubilee’ service revolutionising steam travel worldwide. This paved the way for ‘The Coronation’ and ‘West Riding Limited’ similar fast services in 1937. He held the position of Chief Mechanical Engineer for 30 years and the LNER named their 100th Pacific Locomotive after him – which is preserved today.

Lord Stamp who was chairman of the LMSR, another giant of the railways also died in 1941.

Line Closures and Re-openings

Many lines were closed for passenger trains as were some stations but some lines were completely shut. One example was the mile long 3’ 6 ½ ” gauge LNER operated Cruden Bay Hotel Tramway which ran between Cruden Bay Station and the Great North of Scotland Railway’s hotel there.

The overhead electrified tramway boasted two carriages, two bogie wagons and an open trailer truck which was used for conveying coal and other goods. The bogie wagons carried boilers and components to the hotel as required. The stock was built at the Kittybrewster Works in 1899.

The service between Brynmawr and Pontypool via Abersychan and Talywain was also stopped but trains were re-instated with the May timetable change date on the Easton and Church Hope Railway. Passenger services between Sheffield Victoria and Barnsley Court House ceased, but were re-instated after a month or so!

Passenger services on the Port Of London Authority Line between Customs House and Becton also ceased as did trains between Broad Street and Great Northern stations as did the Kings Cross to Moorgate trains. The West London Line between Clapham and Willesden was also closed for passenger traffic.

The GWR reopened the Yealmpton branch after years of closure from November 3, 1941. Eight trains a day to Plymouth Friary were run and this was historical importance because it was the first re-opening of a branch line which had been closed to passengers because of road competition.

Welsh Highland Track Sold for Scrap

Rails from the Welsh Highland Line was to be sold for scrap helping the munitions industry it was announced in March 1941. A few months later it was suggested that the track should be given to the nation as a walking route for ramblers.

Wolvertons Mobile Workshop and Canteen

To keep the production lines and deliveries moving, Wolverton Works built mobile repair facilities to keep the road fleet operational. These carried a generator and welding equipment, a fitters’ bench, and carried spare parts and tools.

Mobile canteens were also built which could be rail mounted or carried on a flat-bed road truck. They were fitted with batteries, coal for a cooking stove, a washing up facility and storage areas.

Tank Trains in Mock Battles

Autumn 1941 saw the railways involved in mock battles moving armoured trains and troops around various parts of the network at short notice in two stages. These were deemed a success and valuable experience gained from the manoeuvres and the first included both enemy and friendly trains and the running of back-up troop trains.

The second stage was planned by the military but the railway had to be reactive and was not allowed to pre-plan for the exercise. This included moving vehicles and troops from small stations without prior knowledge of the railway authorities to see how they would cope.

American Gesture of Solidarity

The Central Railroad of New Jersey presented the LMSR with three fully equipped ambulances on July 24 as a gesture of friendship and in recognition of the visit of the ‘Coronation Scot’ train a few years earlier. It was also stated to be in recognition of all British railwaymen and women keeping essential wartime services operating.

A Century of Bradshaws

The well known Bradshaw’s Railway Guide (Timetable) celebrated its Centenary in December 1941. It now cost 3/- (or 15p).


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