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Wartime railways blocked 75 years ago due to the white stuff falling

Published: 31st January 2015

January/February 1940 – lines blocked between Dover and Inverness by the white stuff

The winter of 1939/40 brought the railway many challenges in the form of heavy falls of the white stuff which blocked lines from the English Channel to the north of Scotland. This made supporting the war effort even more challenging as lines simply had to be kept open for obvious reasons. Supply lines had to be kept open for the UK armed forces in France and the naval ports around the British Isles.

In chronological order, an estimated 50 tons the white stuff fell on November 27 1939 but 24 hours later just before 7pm, the signalman at Shakespeare signalbox heard a large chalk fall from the towering cliffs above the railway and he blocked the line to traffic sending the ‘Obstruction – Danger’ message to the adjacent signalboxes.

It was a good call as shortly after, an estimated 25,000 cubic yards of chalk fell across the Southern Railway’s line and sidings overlooking the English Channel. In fact, the force was so great, the sidings ended up in the sea. The chalk falls were caused by excessive rainfall in the Autumn of 1939 and the line was buried to a depth of around 20 feet for a distance of 80 yards.

Some of the rocks weighed 10 tons and four mechanical excavators were brought to the site but these could only move rocks up to ¾ of a ton so anything larger than that was blasted into smaller manageable chunks and cleared.

But before the line could re-open, loose chalk on the cliffs above the line had to be moved by men working in harnesses or dynamited. No work could be carried out in darkness because of the war so work was limited to no more than 8 hours a day.

This blockage affected the British Expeditionary Forces Christmas leave trains which were diverted via Chatham adding to traffic congestion. Then to compound matters, the weather turned cold, very cold. The saturated white cliffs of Dover froze and the ice dislodged more rock onto the track. When the thaw set in from February 5th 1940, the line was again closed due to more chalk and flint tumbling onto the track. It reopened on February 8 for daylight hours only and was subject to an inspection every dawn.

Matters remained bad because on February 24th, around 10,000 tons of chalk fell from the 450 foot high cliff and again blocked the line. The speed the chalk fell at from such a height destroyed the line again and the sea wall leaving the track hanging over the sea. One 200 foot long section was buried by up to 15 feet of chalk so the mechanical excavators were moved along the coast to dig the next bit of track out.

There were two more falls within 24 hours bringing over 100,000 tons of chalk near to the line, but not onto it as at this location, the cliff edge was set back from the railway and protected by a slight dip. Trains ran again from March 10 in daylight hours and by night from April 21st

The snow also fell hampering the war effort

Exceptionally cold and snowy conditions hit the wartime UK 75 years ago and blocking 1,500 miles of line with drifts up to 15 feet deep between Buntingford in Hertfordshire, Fakenham in Suffolk, Beattock in Scotland and Garsdale in the Pennines. The lines were closed despite having 300 snowploughs available (today it is less than 10% of this number), and in some areas, three and four steam locomotives had to be used to push the ploughs through snowbound cuttings.

Many trains were trapped with six passenger services and three freight trains trapped around Beattock and another 13 trains and seven locomotives in the Peak district with the Settle and Carlisle line blocked as was the Dumfries route.

Carlisle cut-off

At the start of February, the only Anglo-Scottish route open was via Doncaster and Newcastle but all lines linking Carlisle were shut. Temperatures plummeted at the end of January for 72 hours and this brought snow and ice in point blades which meant they could not be used.

The Southern Railways electrified routes had to use steam locomotives to pull electric trains as the conductor rails were covered in ice and snow despite special de-icing trains running. London Transport services were also halted because of ice despite sleet trains running trying to keep lines open. The de-icing trains caused a build-up of ice on the conductor rails as temperatures dropped to minus 14 centigrade and the de-icing fluid froze. These rails it was reported became encased in up to two inches of ice which had to be chipped off by hand!

Frozen troughs

An unheard of cause of a speed restriction occurred near Northallerton when water troughs froze lifting them above their normal level imposing a 30mph speed restriction. Hundreds of miles of telegraph and telephone wires collapsed under the weight of ice and snow as did thousands of telegraph poles around the UK.

A landslip by Watford tunnel derailed a train resulting in the derailment of a local train and one passenger death. Other falls took place on the Southern Railway and again, steam locomotives had to pull electric trains as conductor rails were dislodged.

What if…………?

So it is a salutary lesson that while all this was going on, so was the war but the railways delivered and a week into February 75 years ago, the railway was pretty much back to normal and being prepared for the May 1940 evacuation of forces through the Channel Ports. What if the chalk falls had happened a few months later and closed the line while the evacuation was underway?

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