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Unit Loads - Containers from the 1830's to the 1970's

The idea behind the 'unit load' is to put an entire shipment into standard boxes or containers and where necessary to provide specialised handling equipment for these boxes. Technically a cardboard carton of tin cans is a unit load, the equipment required to move it being a pair of hands. Hands are however expensive, particularly when large volumes of low value material had to be moved. The larger the unit loads the greater the reduction in handling time for a given quantity of cargo. To make economic sense any container system has to be widely adopted, prior to the 1930's this meant that the majority of containers used were for bulk flows of minerals. Things then began to change as road transport improved and the road-rail container became increasingly important. In the 1960's the use of the ISO container for international shipping provoked another major change and influenced the development of railway services, notably in the use of Freightliner services.

Overview - 1830-2003

Containers of various kinds were in regular use on the canals from the 1780's and wooden containers were adopted by the Liverpool & Manchester line in the 1830's for both coal and general goods (as described in the Historical Background section). These coal containers were built because of the way the mine was worked but in 1841 Brunel introduced iron mineral containers in south Wales. These were provided so the rather friable (easily broken) coal from the mines served by the Vale of Neath Railway could be transported to Swansea docks. At the docks they were lowered into the hold of the ship before being emptied via a bottom door, reducing the distance the coal had to fall. The boxes were about eight feet long but about four and a half feet wide and were carried four to a wagon. Similar boxes were used at several other locations, two companies around Wigan used iron coal containers of the general Brunel type.

Containerisation requires standardisation to work and for many years only minerals provided a sufficiently regular trade to support the required investment. The railways themselves were reluctant to invest in containerisation. The Liverpool & Manchester Railway built open frame 'skeliton (sic) wagons' to carry rectangular bottom-door coal containers already in use of the canals but used their standard flat wagons to carry Pickfords general goods containers.

Most of the mineral containers were simply rather large rectangular buckets made of either iron or wood and although many travelled on specially built wagons a lot were carried in three and four plank standard open wagons. Each railway wagon could carry (typically) three or four oblong containers arranged along the wagon or six square shaped containers in two rows of three.

During the pre grouping era the Great Eastern Railway operated a container service for the luggage of passengers sailing to Europe via Harwich. The containers were roughly square in section made of planks with timber outside framing, they were painted light 'freight grey' with G E on the side in white. The South East & Chatham Railway also operated a luggage container service for passengers heading for the continent but I have not been able to trace the details of the containers used.

By about 1900 road furniture vans were fitted with removable wheels so they could be moved on standard railway wagons, these evolved into covered furniture containers by the time of the First World War. Building on the work done by the pre grouping (pre 1923) companies railway container designs were standardised during the later 1920's. The new RCH approved standard containers were based on the existing designs of the time. This move was mainly lead by the LMS who began promoting containers in 1928 in order to counter the competition from road haulage companies for door-to-door services. I believe the earliest railway company door-to-door container services started in about 1926 but I cannot confirm the details.

By the 1930's the container had proved its worth for furniture removals work and was also popular for the transport of higher value cargo. One of the big successes for the railway container was the shipment of meat and although the railways continued to build vans for the carriage of meat the containers dominated this trade from the mid 1930's onward. The LNER only used meat containers for this trade after 1935, and several of these might be included in a fast express goods train rake. British fresh meat was shipped mainly from Scotland hanging on hooks in ventilated containers. Imported frozen meat was carried from the docks in refrigerated and insulated containers.

British railways built many thousands of containers, mainly to the standard pre-war 'van' type designs. Up to the 1960's it was usual to send containers through the system as single loads, hauled in standard mixed goods trains but under British Railways that all-container 'liner' services began to emerge in the late 1950's.

Probably the first example of a nominally all-container train service was the BR/London Midland Region 'Condor' (container-door-to-door) service. Condor used the existing pre-war container designs on standard container wagons and with a few specially modified long wheelbase wagons as well (sketch shown below). Condor operated as a fixed 'liner' service between London and Glasgow.

There were continuing experiments to find ways of reducing the handling time and manpower required for loading and unloading containers from railway wagons. Many of these experiments employed novel lifting and securing arrangements, one example was the 'light alloy Type A container' used for McVitie & Price biscuit traffic from about 1961 until (I believe) the early 1970's. These used steel pins on the wagon which engaged with sockets in the corners of the underside of the container and they had no lifting rings on the roof but employed a pallet type base allowing them to be moved using a (big) fork lift truck. The containers had smooth sides and a slight camber to the roof. One end was smooth, the other was fitted with a small door. On the railway wagon they were carried with the door ends facing each other. Ten vacuum fitted ten foot wheelbase railway wagons were converted for this traffic, each to carry two of the containers, and as they were basically a chassis with three transverse steel bars (to which the corner securing pins for the containers were fitted) modelling a loaded example is not that difficult. Unfortunately I do not know what the base colour for the containers was or how they operated but I believe they ran between London and Scotland. See also Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling for details of the cranes and other equipment used for containers and a sketch of the McVitie & Price container lorry.

The BR/LMR Condor service was a success and BR/LMR followed it with their 'Speedfreight' service, initially operating between Manchester and London, then expanded to other yards around the country. Speedfreight employed a new quick securing system similar to that on the McVities wagons to reduce loading time for containers. Later Condor services included Speedfreight containers and their wagons. Some bogie flats were also modified for both Condor and Speedfreight services. Speedfreight containers were lifted on and off the wagons using a crane equipped with long drop down arms that engaged in lifting points on the base of the container, eliminating the need for someone to climb on top to attach lifting chains.

In the later 1950's specialised containers were developed for transporting bulk materials such as cement, dolomite, coal and potash. These new designs were carried on purpose built wagons using conventional British four wheeled wagon chassis.

The introduction of the ISO container and its widespread acceptance for international shipping meant they offered cost advantages over the traditional designs developed by the British railway companies. The ISO containers, originally eight foot high and eight foot wide were built in multiples of ten foot lengths. The eight by eight end profile placed them outside the limits of the British loading gauge and in the mid 1960's specially built rolling stock was developed to carry them. This resulted in the setting up of Freightliners as a separate business to handle these containers. Freightliners services and their containers are discussed in detail in the section on Freight Operations - Air Braked Freightliner Container Services.

By the 1980's specialised container services were under development for a wide range of cargo. These employ non ISO containers but these are fitted with standard ISO lifting and securing points so they can be dealt with using readily available container handling equipment (see also Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling).

Early Container Design

Most railway containers were originally built up in a similar way to standard wagon and van bodies; planks on a wooden frame, often with the framing on the outside to give a smooth interior. Metal mineral containers date back to the 1830's but from the early 1930's development was much more rapid with experimental designs built in a wide range of materials including smooth and ribbed pressed steel and plywood.

On the non-minerals trades both closed (van type) and open (wagon type) containers were used, the latter were never really popular however. As long ago as the 1830's various designs of open wooden or iron containers for carrying minerals were used, mainly for coal. The top illustration in the sketch below is based on a photograph of the East Lancashire Railway's yard at Preston dated about 1860. The picture was published in a book on the railways of Preston courtesy of the Harris Museum. It shows simple wooden skips loaded into one-plank wagons, one of the wagons has only two containers loaded, one at either end. The interior of the empty wagons in the same photograph appears to be smooth with no baulks for holding the skips in place but the side planks appear to be about three or four inches thick. Apparently similar wagons in the same photograph were carrying general goods. Also shown are a steel GWR mineral container, used for stone and coal, dating from about 1930 and a pre-grouping Midland Railway bunker coal wagon, used for delivering coal in the wooden boxes to its ships at the docks. The LMS later used the Midland containers and wagons for shipping crushed stone from Rhylstone and Embsay quarries in the Yorkshire Dales.

Fig ___ Pre-Nationalisation Mineral containers Sketch showing Pre-Nationalisation Mineral containers

Containers resembling crane grabs were produced for removing spoil and earth (at least by the GWR), these were generally shipped in standard open wagons and would be lifted out by crane at the disposal site and unfastened to discharge them.

By the time of the First World War 'furniture containers' were in use, transported in standard (usually one plank) wagons. There is a photo dated 1916 in G. F. Chadwick's book on North Staffs Railway Wagons showing two such containers. The containers had horizontal or diagonal side planking and the same diagonal lifting straps as seen on the Peco model.

By the early 1930's McVitie & Price, the Scottish biscuit makers, were using an outside-framed wooden box about four foot wide, five foot long and five foot high which had lifting lugs at the top so it could be lifted on and off railway and road vehicles by a crane. Four of these boxes could fit in a standard open wagon (although they usually went singly) but they required a tarpaulin cover when in transit.

The popularity of the more general purpose, railway owned, containers began in the 1920's and quite rapidly a degree of standardisation was achieved on the basic sizes and the method of securing them to a wagon. This enabled the boxes to travel on another companies wagon if required. Purpose built container wagons for these standard sized containers were introduced in the 1930's, the first GWR Conflat (as per the Peco ten foot wheel base model) was built in 1931.

Closed or 'van' type containers were the most common. They were used for high value cargoes such as gramophones, carpets, confectionery, baths, pianos, tinned goods, plants and shrubs. Closed containers were all between 6' 6" to 7' 6" high and they were built in two basic floor sizes, short and long, both 7' 7 1/2" wide with the smaller types being 6' 11" long and larger being 16' 5" long.

The short closed container was called the Type A and the long version Type B. There was a second letter added to the container prefix which indicated the specific type, for example the BK is a furniture container and BC is for bicycles (both offered by Peco). Fleetline offer white metal models of the plain A type and the insulated AF type.

The most common type of closed container was the BD, illustrated below, which had side doors as well as an end door and so could be loaded from a loading dock whilst still on its wagon. This basic design was in production from the early 1930's right up to 1958.

Variants on the BD included the BM, a ventilated design for meat traffic fitted with hooks inside and distinguished externally by it's livery and by small ventilation panels to either side of the side doors and on the ends.

Chilled meat and other perishables were shipped in FM type refrigerated containers. Basically similar to the BD but sometimes slightly smaller and sometimes lacking the end door, they were usually distinguished by colour, the details will be found in the section on liveries.

Both the furniture carrying BK and the bicycle container type BC were fitted with end doors only. The difference between these was simply the provision in the BC of racks for 78 bikes. Prior to the introduction of these containers bikes were shipped in metal frames, stacked two rows high, in ordinary open wagons, these were then covered with a tarpaulin before shipping.

The British Railways designs resembled the LMS standard planked containers but British Railways added diagonal strapping to the doors, similar to that on the doors of the Hornby Minitrix or Lima BR Ventilated Vans.

Fig ___ Standard closed containers Sketch showing Standard closed containers

The container supplied by Peco is a furniture container (Type BK) and dates from 1933. These were less common in general traffic than the BD type with side as well as end doors. The raised panel in the upper corner of the Peco body side was provided for traders self adhesive labels.

Parkwood Models have now released a kit comprising a Type A and a Type B container which can be used on a Peco conflat or on a 'converted' wagon such as the P D Marsh 1 plank open. The Peco short wheelbase bolster wagon can be modified to represent an ex LMS 1 plank container wagon and if the container is to be permanently fixed the standard Peco chassis can be easily modified to represent the LMS open-framed container wagon.

Containers were built in both wood and steel, rare examples of steel types date back as far as the 1920's but steel did not catch on until the mid to late 1930's. Most containers were built from wooden planks, the steel types could have either smooth sides or pressed-metal sides with ribs or bulges formed into the steel for strength. Vulcanised fibre, the kind of material used for the old fashioned rectangular suitcase, was tried in the early 1930's but plywood was used for containers only from the late 1930's.

The 'Big Four' standard planked wooden containers remained the most common up to the 1970's but there were variations using different materials and construction methods, some privately owned containers were distinctly different, the example shown below has recessed panels suggesting an 'outside framed' construction. The container was sketched from a photo but I am not sure of the date, the lack of standard securing rings suggests it may well pre-date the introduction of standard flat wagons for containers in the early 1930s.

Fig ___ Lyons Tea 'outside-framed' closed container Sketch showing Lyons Tea outside-framed closed container

Standard planked containers can be built using 1mm scribed card from Slaters, although the end doors on type A or B boxes take a little fettling, but plain sided steel or plywood containers can be knocked up quite easily from postcard. If you make a mess of a container you can always assume there was a leak in the roof and cover it with a tarpaulin.

Fig ___ Tarpaulin draped over a leaky container in British Railways days Sketch showing Tarpaulin draped over a leaky container in British Railways days

Also produced were a range of open containers, resembling open bodied wagons with bracing bars across the top (coded C or D). The C and larger D types had roughly the same floor size as the closed A and B containers respectively and these open types were carried on the same wagons as the van types boxes. Open containers were mainly used for building materials, principally fragile items such as earthenware drain and sewer pipes.

Some were used for transporting cast iron baths from the foundry to the enamelling factory, which was not railway served. They were collected at the local goods yard by horse drawn or motor lorries. The C size were generally of 5-plank construction, but if using scribed card for this make them 6 'planks' high and sand/carve the bottom plank down. The standard D types had doors in each side and a drop-down end and were commonly 5 plank, and again if using scribed card I would recommend using 6 'planks' and reducing the thickness of the bottom plank.

There were variations, in pre British Railways days there were C's built with low sides (as low as two foot high), used for heavy materials such as Portland stone, and D's were built with 5 as well as 6 plank bodies. The DX had all four sides hinged along the bottom edge, secured with three large clips on each corner. The sides were six planks high, so start with a seven plank side and reduce the bottom plank as above.

Both the C and D types and their variants used removable reinforcing timbers across the top, fitted with an arched metal bracket (to support a tarpaulin). These are the only tricky bit to model but adding the tarpaulin is one option to get round this problem. Ropes were often looped over the body of the container and tided to the lifting/securing rings to keep the contents in place. The C and D type containers were never terribly popular and their popularity waned further after the Second World War. Production stopped in 1954 and by the early 1960's most of the existing stock was out of service.

There was a further standard type, coded H which was only four foot wide by seven foot long, four of these would fit on a standard conflat wagon but they generally travelled in normal open wagons. The H containers were three planks high but the planks were about eight inches wide giving an over all height of about two feet. They had two timber 'runners' underneath, with metal side straps. The lifting loops were attached to the top of the metal side strips. Some of the H containers had an open top and one end hinged to drop down, others had lids to form a flat top. The H type containers were commonly used for 'building materials', roofing tiles, china ware and the like, the H being taken as an abbreviation for 'hod'. One option when modelling the covered H type is to make the basic body from two lengths of 4mm square balsa strip, available from model shops, adding detail with postcard.

Fig ___ Standard open containers Sketch showing Standard open containers

The SR had a rather distinctive non standard insulated container, with diagonal planked sides, used to carry frozen meat. These Southern Railway `F' type containers were shorter than a B but longer than an A and the design was peculiar to the SR. They were carried on specially converted long wheel base open carriage truck wagons which retained their 'RUCK' coding. This type is not currently available commercially but could be made up using scribed card or plasticard and using a Peco example to copy the end shape. The container is shown in the section on liveries and the wagon is described in the section on Kit Bashing.

Fish also requires rapid shipment from the ports to the fish markets and there were some experiments with transporting live fish in tanks of water. A standard design evolved for these tank containers, the Midland Railway built some in the 1880's, the Great Northern was moving them on purpose built dual-braked wagons by the 1890's and the Great Central Railway did not build any fish vans, relying instead on these containers. The MR built special wagons with a low 'ladder' side, the GNR wagons were of rather more simple construction (at least from a modelling point of view, see Freight Operations - - Non Passenger Coaching Stock - Introduction, Fish & Newspapers for a sketch) and the GCR used standard one plank wagons. The GN wagons and tanks remained in use into the later 1920's, possibly the early 30's. According to Mr. Essery in his book on Midland Railway Goods Wagons these containers were phased out by 1914 and I have seen no references to the LMS using such containers but the GWR used (perhaps experimentally) what appeared to be the same design, although not for live fish. There is a photograph dating from the 1930's of such a container being loaded with fish and ice in Janet Russels book on GWR Company Servants. The containers had a heavy outside frame and a top comprising two pairs of heavy flap type lids. The GWR used standard container carrying 'Conflat' wagons for these fish containers and the wagons were apparently marked as being reserved for this traffic to avoid any possibility of a wagon not being available. To model this wagon a Peco container wagon could be fitted with raised vacuum brake connections (fitted to allow coupling to passenger stock).

Fig ___ Live fish containers Sketch showing construction of Live fish containers

The LMS used a collapsible wooden container for fish traffic, but I believe these travelled inside vans.

The LMS was at the forefront of the containerisation movement, initially they modified standard three plank open wagons to carry them by fitting them with securing points on the upper sides. From the later 1920's all the Big Four companies and British Railways produced special wagons for carrying containers. A lot of these wagons were conversions based on redundant underframes, as cattle traffic was falling vacuum fitted cattle wagons were converted and with the shift to six wheeled milk tank wagons the old four wheeled chassis (which were owned by the railway company) were also switched to container duties. Container flat wagons were equipped with chains and `bottle screw' or turnbuckle tensioning devices to hold the load. When not in use the chains sat in pockets or troughs along the sides of the vehicle.

The Southern Railway was a little different in this respect, they used wagons for containers based on open carriage trucks and these were not equipped with the securing chains and bottle-screws used by the other companies. Southern practice was to secure the container with rope, a cheaper but more time consuming approach. The Southern container flats were also widely used for moving road vehicles, some were even used for ferry traffic to the Continent (see also Railway Freight Operations - Road Vehicles, Military Traffic and Farm Machinery).

The standard container carrying vehicles could carry two Type A containers or a single type B, but note that if a single A type is loaded on a wagon it is always placed centrally so as to maintain the balance of the vehicle. The Southern Railway built a number of contains it classes as 'B' but which were in fact rather shorter than the RCH standard design, these had the securing loops and could be carried on other companies wagons but whereas a standard B type container required only ropes from the end rings to the buffers for securing the smaller types required rather a lot of roping down (full details of the SR containers and associated wagons will be found in the long awaited and recently published SR Wagons Vol.4, see bibliography).

Fig ___ Containers on container wagons showing securing methods Sketch showing Containers on container wagons showing securing methods

Although the various companies agreed on standard designs of container, to a common RCH specification, the wagons they used were a distinctly varied selection. The Peco Conflat wagon is a GWR standard design, later adopted by BR. The standard purpose built LMS container flat was a floor-less chassis with corner plates and pockets for the securing chains added. You can knock up an LMS type loaded with a 'B' type container or two 'A' containers by using a Peco ten foot wheelbase steel chassis kit. Simply add side drop-down 'foot plates' and container locating plates from plastic or paper card. The container(s) will have to have holes cut in the bottom to clear the coupling blocks on the Peco chassis. Details of building some alternative container flat wagons will be found in the section on Kit Bashing.

Although being able to remove a container from a wagon is an attractive idea I found I rarely bothered to do this in practice and now I add container fastening chains and bottle screws made from bent up wire. On some these lie alongside the container, which remains removable, on others they lead clear of the ends of the container down to the wagon, and on these the whole assembly is glued in place.
Adding the securing chains improves the look of the thing, in the models shown below the A type has its chains secured to the outer securing points and is not removable. The insulated F type container, a cut down Peco kit, has chains glued to the sides as though attached to the inner securing points and this container is removable.

Fig___ Models of containers showing securing chains

Models of containers showing securing chains added from thread and twisted wire

There were never quite enough special wagons available for containers and they often ended up being moved in low sided open wagons, tied in with ropes. The 1 plank and 3 plank types were preferable for this traffic as the crane had to lift the container over the sides of the wagon. As noted above some of these wagons were modified for the work, with attachment points along the top of the sides for container securing chains. On unmodified wagons the ropes would be attached to the tarpaulin hooks provided on the chassis, but they were also regularly looped over the buffers on the wagon.

Fig ___ Two 'A' type containers roped into a three plank wagon Two 'A' type containers roped into a three plank wagon

Under BR single B type containers were sometimes carried in high sided (5 plank or the steel equivalent) open wagons. The fit was a close one so the doors could not be opened in transit (preventing pilfering) and they did not need to be roped down. The problems came when the wagon arrived at a goods yard with only a standard size hand crane as these cranes were not tall enough to lift the container over the sides of the wagon, which had to be sent on to a better equipped station where the box could be transferred onto a more suitable wagon and sent back.

There were also a number of unusual container wagons, the photograph shows a model of a carriage truck (coded RUCK) designed by the LSWR to carry horse drawn van bodies minus their wheels for the meat traffic from the docks to London (where the wheels were re-fitted for local deliveries). These wagons were later used by the SR for pairs of (smaller than standard) meat containers and a few survived into the early years of BR when they were pressed into service carrying (typically) a single B container sitting in the centre of the wagon. The model shown has not yet had securing chains added to the container, which is a Peco model.

Model of RUCK wagon with container

In the 1940's a few road tanks equipped for transportation on railway wagons and de-mountable tank containers were built for beer by the LMS and GWR, but it was under British Railways that considerable numbers of specialised container types, including de-mountable tanks, were produced. Similarly there were a few road tank transporter wagons built by the Big Four, notably for collecting milk from outlying creameries but also some for chemical traffic. These had to be fitted with RCH approved securing rings so they could be chained down onto the railway wagon. BR built further examples of these tanks and used them for a range of traffics.

Early British Railways Containers

The pre-war RCH standard type wooden bodied containers as offered by Peco (type BK) and more recently Parkwood Models (who offer a rather handy twin pack of a Type A and a side-and-end door Type BD) were still in use into the early 1970's. These pre-war container designs were used for the `Condor' container door to door service of London Midland region, introduced in 1959 running between London (Hendon) and Glasgow and usually drawn by the splendidly ugly Metro-Vic co-bo diesels. A number of vacuum braked `plate' wagons were modified for this particular service, carrying one B type container and one smaller A type on an open framed chassis with no floor. These wagons were coded 'Conflat P'. Conflat A's were also used and occasional non-container wagons and tanks were seen in the rakes as well.

Fig ___ Loaded Conflat P for the Condor service sketch of Loaded Conflat P for the Condor service
Experiments continued with different container types, using materials such as fibreglass or moulded plastic in place of the traditional pressed steel, plywood or wood planking. One easy to model type was an experimental B type container with a fibreglass body and roller-shutter doors in the sides. Unfortunately I am not sure how many were built or what traffic they were used for.

An unusual type was produced was the AFP (A means the smaller size closed container design, F signifies insulated for frozen cargo, and P indicates it is designed to carry palletised loads). These were produced in both sheet metal and moulded plastic versions and were equipped with dry ice (frozen carbon dioxide) bunkers to keep the cargo cold in transit. An early adopter was Birds Eye frozen foods who began operating them in their own livery in about 1961. BR also used these containers painted in their standard pale blue with black markings 'insulated' container livery and in the late 1960's some former Birds Eye boxes appeared in the (much easier to replicate) Macfisheries livery.

They were carried in pairs on a fleet of fifty twelve foot wheelbase 'Conflat B' wagons (converted from pipe wagons), to which they were attached using the standard bottle-screws and chains, and transferred to road semi-trailers for delivery using standard RCH type roof mounted lifting rings. There were also some fifteen foot wheelbase flat wagons converted for this traffic (I am not sure of the origin or exact dimensions of these wagons), coded Conflat I they lacked the chain pockets on the central sides and were marked 'For use with AFP pallet containers only'. The longer body meant there was a clear area at each end (about eighteen inches) and a central gap (about two feet) between the containers.

I believe the AFP containers were not standard A size boxes, given that two of them were a snug fit on a twenty one foot long chassis I think they were actually about nine to ten feet long.

Another unusual but colourful design was the light alloy (sheet metal) container used by McVittie & Price (biscuits). These had no roof lifting points at all, and hence no diagonal straps on the sides, but had a base designed to be lifted using a fork-lift truck. They employed a new method of securing the container to the railway wagon using four steel pins which engaged with sockets in the corners on the underside of the container base. I believe this may have preceded a similar securing method used for the Speedfreight service as described below that used rather more elaborate cone shaped pins. The earliest photograph I have seen is in Don Rowlands book on BR Wagons (see Bibliography) which is dated 1961. These containers had a door on one side only and in traffic they moved in pairs on a ten foot wheelbase chassis with the doors facing each other. As only five wagons were built for these containers they must have operated in general goods trains or possibly in specific container-only services such as the London Midland Region Condor service. They were moved on the road sitting on a specially built lorry with a Luton body, cut away at the rear to accommodate the container (see also Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling).

Fig___ Non Standard early BR era containers

AFP boxes in Birds Eye, BR and Macfisheries livery, McVitie and Price containers

BR built at least one large insulated container, I believe about thirty feet long, which could be carried on Rectank bogie wagons. Developed for military tanks these wagons had a slightly lower central section to the floor with short ramped sections at each end. This dropped floor was as low as that on a Freightliner flat and allowed the large container to fit within the loading gauge (as far as I am aware the later ISO standard boxes were not moved on rectanks). The container itself appears to be made of fibreglass laid on a timber frame, but I could be wrong on that. It had RCH type roof mounted lifting rings but would require a gantry crane to move it and so could only have operated between major towns.

Powder Containers

As well as wagon and van bodied containers there have been various types of 'de-mountable tank' designs, used for carrying a wide range of chemical liquids and powders such as flour and cement. British Railways coded the containers for bulk materials in the L series and flour was carried in LF type tank containers. Built in the late 1950's the LF containers lasted until the early 1970's. Resembling tanks used for liquids and discharged by suction they were carried on modified standard Conflat wagons. Something rather close can be fettled using a Peco ten foot wheel base tank body with plasticard details running on a standard Peco Conflat.

Fig ___ LF flour container based on Peco tank Sketch of LF flour container based on peco tank

Powders proved to be a problem for bulk handling, they settled in transit and even with vigorous banging on the sides the cargo often stayed stubbornly inside. This problem was finally solved in the 1950's with the introduction of air fluidisation, as used on the presflo and cemflo tank wagons. Having said which BR produced the successful 'L' type container for cement, these were rectangular boxes with ribbed sides. A large hatch on the top was used for loading and they were discharged via a door in the bottom. I have seen them mentioned as being used for 'limestone' traffic in the late 1970's but I cannot confirm if this is correct, lime would seem a more likely cargo for them. They remained in use into the 1980's serving steel works and carrying (I think) limestone.

Fig ___ Models of L type containers

Photo of model of L type containers on wagon

The model shown was an early attempt, it lacks the top securing bars and side discharge handle. These can be added using florists steel 'rose wire'. A photo of a better model will be added later.

Wheeled Containers

BR introduced a number of small wheeled containers, the 'S' type was roughly a six foot cube with a canvass cover on top that was used for ferry traffic to Scottish islands. There is a photograph in Don Rowlands book on BR wagons (see bibliography) showing them loaded in pairs into drop-side medium steel bodied wagons but I do not know what routes they appeared on. The much more numerous SW type saw widespread use, after the Suez crisis of 1955-56 when oil prices rose dramatically BR had major problems acquiring enough of these to meet demand. I have not found any photographs showing these containers loaded into open wagons, they may have been shipped in vans, but collection and delivery appears to have favoured two containers roped down to a flat-bed semi trailer. A couple of these make handy set dressing in a busy goods yard scene.

Fig ___ SW type wheeled containers

SW type wheeled containers

Speedfreight Containers

In the 1961 London Midland Region introduced a new container system, marketed as Speedfreight, initially for services between London and Manchester (Speedfreight containers were later included in Condor London to Glasgow service). Early Speedfreight containers resembled the pre-war designs but they had recesses on the underside of the floor that engaged with cone shaped mountings on the wagon. This eliminated the need to use chains and turn buckles to secure the container to the wagon and speeded up the loading and unloading operation. This meant they could not be handled using the traditional goods yard cranes and could only run between specially equipped depots. The cranes used for Speedfreight services are more fully discussed in the section on Railway Company Goods Facilities - Container handling.

British Railways developed a number of light metal alloy designs specifically for the Speedfreight service. These were all about seven foot wide and six and a half foot high but the BA general merchandise type and the FA insulated type were scaled to run on modified Conflat A wagons whilst the CA general merchandise design was half again as long and was carried on a new type of 'Conflat P' wagon. As with the Condor Conflat P's these were based on the Peco type plate wagon. The Speedfreight containers coded CA, BA and FA all had both side and end doors. The shorter types (BA and FA) had a side doors which slid to the rear to open. All had the Speedfreight lifting points on the base, at nine foot separation and some CA and FA containers also had Freightliner lifting points at twelve foot separation between centres. There were a small number of eighteen foot long open containers built for Speedfreight services. These were a plain metal ('five plank'sized) box fitted with four metal inverted U shaped hoops to support a tarpaulin (bringing the overall height to the Speedfrieght standard of 7ft 4.5 inches). I have only seen one photograph showing these, and it was only partly visible, so I was not able to attempt a sketch. The open containers were (I believe) designed to be lifted on and off the wagons by fork lift truck but as they were intended for Speedfreight services they presumably also had Speedfreight lifting points. The only published reference I have found to these open containers is in Don Rowland's book British Railways Wagons where they are listed as type BO in the diagram lists.

Fig___ Speedfreight Containers

Speedfreight container types

I had a lot of difficulty in finding details on Speefreight services, so I put up a question on the uk.railway newsgroup and Brian Williams was able to advise-
'Speedfreight' was the brand name used for the bottom-lift containers, which extended to other terminals which used either gantry cranes or large Lancer-Boss forklifts with grapples to handle the containers. I'm pretty certain I remember seeing them at Swansea High St (Goods) back in the early 1970s.
Regarding the wagons used- there were at least three types. The first ones were Conflat As, which had the corners built up to locate the containers. These were followed by modified Plate VBs, which were fitted with secondary springs to improve the ride. These were eventually retired, and again modified to carry timber to the pulp mill at Corpach.
The final generation of wagons were modified Boplate Es, which lasted until the mutation of Speedfreight into Freightliner- some of the larger ex-Speedfreight boxes served with Freightliner in the pre-Twistlock and toplift era. The Boplates went on serve as 'Conflat ISOs', carrying either flat containers or low-sided ones, being too high to carry normal ISO boxes- traffic for these include coil to Newport Docks and china clay from Par- the very last of them saw out their days carrying potash and rock-salt containers from Boulby. Towards the end of 'conventional' container haulage, it was rare to see ordinary Conflats, with most containers being carried in 5-plank opens. This meant that they didn't need to be chained down, and also that the boxes couldn't be opened in transit- this made them popular with the MoD, amongst others.
The Boplate E wagons were numbered in the B94xxx series, they were 52 ft over headstocks, for use with containers the three-plank drop sides and planked floor were removed, revealing the metal framing underneath. I have also seen references to bogie conflats numbered in the B51xxxx series, I believe these were converted carriage underframes, if so they would be of the 57 ft variety.

By the later 1960's the ISO standard container was starting to catch on world wide and this lead to the development of the Freightliner service on British Railways. Later Speedfreight containers, scaled to run on existing Conflat wagons, also had secondary lifting points fitted to suit the lifting gear used by the early Freightliner built containers (which also used grapple arm lifting gear). The Speedfreight service was wound down and ceased operating in about 1971.

Paul Bartlett's rail wagon photographs website (see App 7 Useful Links) contains photographs of various unusual or experimental container designs.

In the mid 1960's the railways had owned nearly thirty two thousand assorted containers, by the end of the 1970's there were only about three hundred non Freightliner containers left on the books and it is doubtful if any of the old RCH standard types, with their associated Conflat wagons, were used after 1977 at the very latest (outlasting the newer Speedfreight types). The only exception I know of being the L type as mentioned above.

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