1) 1963 snow leaflet. Courtesy of the Phil Marsh collection

What the railways were doing 50 years ago.

Published 28th March 2013

Recovering from the big freeze as Beeching Report was being finalised

The railways in Spring 1963 were recovering from one of the most severe winters on record and rail.co.uk looks at how the steam age railway coped 50 years ago. This long cold winter was the backdrop as the finishing touches to the Beeching report were being made for its publication on March 27, 1963.

Obviously many places were used to snow but those places in the south and west, such as Devon, Dorset, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight were paralysed by the ice and snow. The then still extensive rail network proved to be the salvation of many towns and communities as special trains ferried essential food and fuel supplies to the population as roads remained blocked. Some closed lines were reopened to help distribution of these essential supplies.

Isle of Wight residents were reported as asking what would they have done without their railway as the hilly island’s roads were blocked with deep snowdrifts. This was echoed around many other areas in the UK.

The western region of British Railways provided extra trains to convey stranded cars from the west country back to Kensington Olympia. They had been driven to the southwest for Christmas and when the snows came from Boxing Day onwards, drivers abandoned their cars and took the train back to London.

Snow joke as Unions call for more snow!

It wasn’t all good news as the electrified southern region network ground to a halt due to ice on the conductor rails. In fact, steam locomotives were re-instated and used to pull electric trains to keep the services running!

This did not prevent the rail unions saying that the expected rail closures should not take place based on purely commercial grounds. They cited routes such as the Alston to Haltwhistle branch providing the only working route between these towns in the Pennines. Minehead, Sidmouth, Seaton and Weymouth were also only accessible by rail and all these places were under threat of losing their rail services at this time.

The unions called for more snow in Devon, Dorset and Somerset if it protected the railways there! The Buxton to Ashbourne line was re-opened to supply food to residents as roads were blocked by huge drifts up to 20 feet deep.

Ice falls

Ice in tunnels created a hazard as icicles formed and hung from the ventilation shafts. They were hit by trains or fell onto the track and blocked the line. Half a ton of ice fell inside Chipping Sodbury tunnel (on the western main line), during a brief thaw and blocked the line. In Wales, ten tons of ice and stone fell onto the track at Caerphilly while at Torpantau, an estimated 50 tons of snow and ice on the tunnel entrance stopped the trains.

Some lines were closed for a few days and were dug out by teams of permanent way staff who had often themselves had to walk several miles to the blockage.


The West Highland Line was offered a new lease of life with an industrial development at Corpach near Fort William which guaranteed freight for 20 years, removing the threat of closure.

But the not so good news was that freight wagons’ brake rigging and couplings froze solid in the snow creating huge obstacles to operating services. Despite these problems, thousands of tons of coal was taken in extra trains from Yorkshire to the midlands and London, making sure power supplies were maintained.

Adverse Weather Conditions

The snow and ice affected the still mainly steam operated railway in many ways. Water troughs froze which meant that locomotives could not collect water as the train was running so time was lost at stations when stops were prolonged to enable water to be taken. Despite fires being lit under the water towers, the underground pipes froze at some locations causing huge problems.

The tops of tenders and tanks on locomotives froze creating very dangerous ice rinks on them and the firemen had to take care not to slip over while on an engine. Steam heated trains froze up as the steam condensed in heating pipes due to the cold and then froze blocking the steam pipes.

Brake blocks froze to train wheels as when they were applied, the metal warmed up and melted the snow and ice but refroze after being at a stand for any length of time.

Snow became trapped between point blades so derailments happened and snow also weighed down signal wires that ran alongside the track bringing signalling problems. In many areas, the snow was deeper than the rails and no track could be seen. Hundreds of steam locomotives were fitted with steam lances and these were used to melt ice and snow using high pressure steam

Flying Scotsman rescued and Mallard’s last trip

Alan Pegler bought the LNER A1 Pacific No. 60103/4472 Flying Scotsman from British Railways for £3000. The engine ran at a proven 100mph on November 30 1934 creating an immediate British icon. Its final run in regular service was from Kings Cross on January 14 working the 115pm Kings Cross to Leeds train as far as Doncaster, when it moved into its preserved history.

World speed steam speed holder, LNER ‘A4’ No. 60022 Mallard, was about to be withdrawn and preserved by BR. It operated its last long distance train from London to Exeter and back for enthusiasts covering 367 miles reaching 92 mph to the delight of the 500 passengers.

London Underground celebrations and a new line is built

London Transport celebrated its centenary with displays and special trains on the Paddington to Moorgate line. The Victoria Line was under construction at this time and promised a huge leap forward in automation in train operations and ticketing arrangements including automatic ticket gates at stations.

Electric trains run on the West Coast Main Line

The first electric services ran from Manchester to Stafford from January 1963, the precursor of todays electric services. Stafford’s new station opened for business at the same time as the electric trains commenced operations. New carriages were being designed and some had toilets that were flushed by pressing a pedal on the floor which also lifted the seat!

Railway Clearing House closes

The Railway Clearing House was set up in 1842 to allocate revenue between the hundreds of railway companies and when the railways were nationalised in 1948, it was no longer required. The company was finally closed down at the end of March 1963 although it had only been ‘ticking over’ since 1955.

Written by Phil Marsh


Have your say...

Please note: you have to be logged into the site before you can leave a comment


Posted on Monday 1st April 2013 | 3:30 PM

I have just joined this site and was surprised so much on this site and also includes checking train times and fares.Great site alround.

Michael Cox


Posted on Monday 1st April 2013 | 3:30 PM

I have just joined this site and was surprised so much on this site and also includes checking train times and fares.Great site alround.

Michael Cox

Liverpool street station in the UK at rush hour

Help and advice with train travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK should be a pleasure, not a headache. So if you’re taking a train on the UK railway, start your journey here. We’ve lots of hints, tips and advice to help you find your way around, travel smoothly and arrive in style by train.

Read more

eurostars passing at 375mph from the drivers seat in france


Welcome to our #railchat page. Our #railchat discussions take place over on Twitter, with our resident expert Phil Marsh. If you would like to get involved, please do join us, and use the dedicated hashtag #railchat. See our previous discussions below:

Read more

Old steam train in Shanty Town Museum

Locomotives & Engines

Our rail network would be nothing without them. From Stephenson's Rocket to British Rail Class 92 and beyond, explore the facts, information and anecdotes behind the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that built the age of the train.

Read more


Latest Tweets


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh to London Kings Cross by Train

Book in advance with redspottedhanky.com and save 85% advanced bookings.

From £21.00

Buy now

Millenium Dome, London

Birmingham New Street to London Euston by Train

Book in advance with redspottedhanky.com and save 92% on advance bookings.

From £6

Buy now

You may also like...



Follow us on Twitter and become part of our rail community!



redspottedhanky.com is the easy way to buy cheap train tickets online.



Control your business fuel costs with a supermarket fuel card – free to apply, no ongoing account charges and no monthly minimum spend.