Freight Operations - Categories of Goods Train and usage of rolling stock
This section discusses the various classes of goods train operated by the railways and provides some information on the employment of specific types of rolling stock.
Categories of Goods Train
The railways had to operate a range of goods services, catering
for the wide ranging needs of their customers. They had to provide local
facilities for people sending or receiving goods by rail and these had to be
served by frequent stopping trains, dropping off and collecting vehicles. They
also had to offer high speed long haul services to compete with the increasing
competition from the roads. As various goods were seasonal in nature special
trains had to be laid on and there were occasional special one-off jobs such as
moving an entire farm with all its animals and equipment, or transporting a
single out-of-gauge load such as a steam boiler or electrical
The categories of goods train listed below are of a more general nature and are intended to give an overview of the actual operation of goods services. The railways had a number of categories for their goods trains, based on the probable speed of the train and the likelihood it would be stopping along the way. The official categories were indicated by the 'headcodes' carried on the locomotives as listed in the section on Communications, Control and Signalling - Bell Codes & Locomotive Head Codes
Pick Up Goods Trains
At the bottom end of the scale was the `Pick Up Goods', a leisurely exercise serving all the stations on a particular line with sundries and wagon load traffic. A locomotive would collect a rake of wagons destined for stations or private sidings on the line and drop these off as it passed through, collecting wagons for return as it did so. Speeds were low and sometimes the pick up goods train would pause in the goods yard after shunting to leave the line clear for a passenger train to pass. The timetables for these trains were rather vague.
The make up of such a train was varied to say the least, as few as one wagon or as many as thirty, and I have seen photographs with just a loco and brake van on the move. Pick up goods often included a single goods van containing small consignments for the stations on the line that could be dropped off at the passenger platform without shunting into the goods yard. Different companies had different names for this van, the Somerset & Dorset called it a Road Van, the GWR called it a Station Truck and the North Eastern Railway (and the LNER) used the term Road Wagon. On quieter lines the guards brake van served for this duty.
On return to the main line station, or the marshaling yard at the junction with the main line, the wagons would be sorted and marshalled to be collected by trains heading for the mainline station or junction nearest their destination. This might involve a journey of several stages, with the wagons being resorted several times in marshaling yards. Once they arrived at their final main line station or junction some might well be collected by the pick up goods for delivery along a branch line.
By the end of the 1960's British Railways had pulled out of sundries traffic to concentrate on the long haul 'liner' business and block workings of minerals, petroleum products, metals and products such as cement. They did maintain a limited capacity for single wagon load traffic but throughout the system the local goods yards at stations were being closed down and the single wagon load deliveries were increasingly confined to private sidings.
Express Freight & Seasonal Specials
Express freight services were first seen in the 1890's but not common until about 1905. The rules for a freight train to be classed as an express were that it should have no less than one third of the wagons fitted with continuous brakes and no Private Owner wagons were allowed in the rake. Express freights were only used for fast long distance 'trunk' hauls.
Express freight services fell into two categories; those running on a regular scheduled basis (called `Liner' services) and the seasonal specials, for example Scottish raspberries being shipped down to the Home Counties.
The liner services often acquired unofficial names such as The Sauce (a London-Worcester service) and the railway companies, recognising the benefit of staff identifying with a task, used these 'unofficial' names in their literature. In 1928 the LNER set up their officially named full wagon load 'Green Arrow' service, offering registered overnight transits. By the mid 1930's the various express goods services might consist of rakes of 60 wagons or more and often included non-passenger coaching stock such as 4 and 6 wheeled CCT and GUV vans and even bogie stock. The British Railways Southern Region 4-wheeled GUV/CCT, available as a kit from P. D. Marsh, was regularly marshalled into such trains.
All 'named' goods services ended with the outbreak of World War Two but in 1953 British Railways re-introduced named services, beginning with the re-instatement of the Green Arrow service on the former LNER lines to carry full wagon loads to the docks for export. By this time all Green arrow services were fully fitted and within a few years the service was being offered between major centres in the UK as well as the export services to the docks. Other 'named' goods services were introduced promising next day delivery for the older style containers and full wagon loads. BR referred to these services by their names and although name boards were not fitted to the loco's or stock some wagons were marked as being reserved for particular services.
One example using reserved stock was the `Condor' container service, which ran down the West Coast Main Line between Glasgow and London and promised next-day delivery for containers.
This service used the pre-war standard container types running in the main on standard four wheeled container wagons such as those on offer from Peco but with a number of modified Plate wagons which could carry one large ('B' type) and one small ('A' type) container.
Other 'named' freight trains operating in the 60's and 70's included the 'North East Trader', running from Brighton to fifteen towns between Peterborough and Newcastle, the 'Midlands Merseyman' between Brighton and thirteen towns in the Midlands and North West, and the 'Chilterns Trader', also running to the North West from the South East. Loco's used on these trains varied from the heavy Class 4 diesels to the smaller Class 25's and Class 33's.
The second category of express freight, those trains run only for a special purpose such as seasonal farm produce traffic, were obviously less common although the restrictions on rolling stock remained the same.
As specialised vans were often in short supply various wagon types would be pressed into service for seasonal traffic. One common sight was vacuum braked cattle wagons covered with a tarpaulin being used for fruit or vegetables.
The seasons do not merely reflect the agricultural year, in the autumn there would be block loads of blankets in vans going to the shops ready for winter. The vans used often had the blanket making firms details displayed on a painted tarpaulin attached to the one or more of the vans in the rake.
Seasonal traffic is more fully discussed in the section on Freight Operations - Livestock & Seasonal Traffic.
The mixed train is a passenger train with some goods vehicles attached (in the early days there were occasionally passenger coaches attached to goods trains but this was rare other than for milk traffic (see Non Passenger Coaching Stock - Milk). The very early railways preferred to have the goods wagons at the locomotive end as this made shunting a bit easier, unfortunately this made it more difficult to fit continuous braking systems and by the 1860's the Railway Inspectorate insisted that any unfitted stock was behind the passenger coaches (to allow the vacuum brakes to be operational) and was putting pressure on the railways to discontinue the mixed train services altogether. The Regulation of the Railways Act 1889 placed many restrictions on the mixed train and by the end of the 1890's they were very rarely seen on main lines.
Mixed trains could be run at any time on 'light railways', providing the trains never exceeded 20 mph (a general restriction on Light Railways) and they remained in use on the more bucolic country lines. On branch lines the Board of Trade would allow a number of such trains to be run subject to a speed restriction of 30 mph but on main lines each mixed train had to be officially sanctioned before it was allowed to operate.
Country branch lines quite frequently saw trains with a couple of goods wagons or vans and a brake van attached to the rear of a couple of coaches. This meant that the coach brakes could be used and in winter the engine could supply steam for heating. If there were more than about ten wagons attached a second goods brake van would be added, and another if there were more than twenty wagons and so on. Generally mixed trains were fairly short however, so this would not have been a very common problem.
Most of the larger companies had the odd branch that saw regular mixed trains. Even the Metropolitan Railway, normally associated with intensive suburban services, operated one such country branch line, leading out to a terminus at Brill. This line was operated exclusively by mixed trains right up until it closed in the mid 1930's.
In spite of the rules about having the guard at the rear of the train you will occasionally see pictures of a couple of coaches with a small number (usually no more than three) wagons or more commonly vans attached to the rear but with no following brake van. This was allowed where the goods vehicles were equipped with vacuum brakes, if a coupling broke the brakes on the entire train would be activated so no wagons could be left unknowingly on the track and the goods wagons or vans could not roll away down the gradient.
On the Southern Railway it was common practice to add a bogie luggage van to the rear of a passenger train although these vans were not equipped with gangway connections and so could not be accessed by the guard. These vans tagged on the tail of the train were known as 'swingers' on the SR. Other companies may have had similar policies but I am not aware of the details. There were rules about how many axles there could be behind the Guards compartment, but again I cannot confirm the exact details.
One point to note with mixed trains is that where oil tank wagons were included in the rake (only done when no goods train was available for them) it was standard practice to place these at the rear of the rake. A single low sided vehicle, not a van, always separated them from the brake van and as with all oil or inflammable traffic the wagons to either side had to be carrying non flammable materials, a barrier wagon (or van) being inserted where this was not otherwise possible.
Mixed trains, usually involving cattle wagons, fruit vans or milk tank wagons, operated into the late 1950's on branch lines. As noted above the inclusion of goods vehicles restricted the maximum speed of the train and so mixed working was not a feature of main line, long haul, passenger trains.
In 1959 the banning of four and six wheeled vehicles from passenger trains brought a temporary end to the mixed train on British lines.
The original diesel multiple units were actually geared to pull a trailing load of a van or two and I believe this was occasionally seen in the 1950's. I have heard rumours of bogie parcels vans being hauled by DMU's on branch lines in the South East in the 1980's but I do not have any definite details of such workings.
In 1984 regular mixed train services were re-introduced between Aberdeen and Wick using modified bogie container flats which could run with passenger stock. In these Scottish services a typical make up might be a class 27 loco with a couple of conflats and three or four coaches behind. In Northern Ireland in the 1980's they sometimes used DMU motor coaches to pull container flats about the place, but I believe these do not carry passengers at the same time.
Railway operations also involve large numbers of service trains, the service vehicles would not normally be run in general goods trains but would be hauled separately. Ballast trains could be as long as any on the system but many departmental workings involved a rake of only a few wagons.
On a modern layout you require fuel oil wagons for diesels and up to the early 1990's these could be pretty old as well. There are photographs of several examples from the 1970's in Dave Larkin's book on Departmental Stock. There were two riveted tanks on old loco tender underframes used as the fuel store for DMU's at Northwich, Cheshire which have been described in the section on departmental wagon design (see Fig ___). I photographed them in 1984 and they were written up in the N gauge journal with details of construction and `livery', basically Humbrol `track colour' with no visible markings.
Wagon Types & Operational Usage
The following information was supplied by Richard (of Beam Ends Land Rover Spares) who was a freight train guard from 1979 until 1982 (when he changed to signalman).
The basic character of freight trains seen in the UK changed little until the mid 1960's. At the front end of the train was the locomotive, do note that tender loco's were seldom allowed to travel tender first as the Board of Trade considered that coal dust blowing back off the tender would inhibit the keeping of a proper look out ahead. More recently the class 20 diesels were regarded with some suspicion in this respect as it was considered that their long engine housing with the cab at one end would cause problems with visibility. Some steam loco's, notably tank engines and later mixed traffic types (such as the Minitrix 4MT 2-6-0) had a back to the cab to permit tender (or bunker) first running.
Guards Brake Vans
Up to the early 1980's, at the opposite end of the train to the loco, was the brake van, at least that was the plan. There were instances (on branch lines) where the rake had reversed direction and the brake van was left at the locomotive end. Goods brake vans appeared in about 1850, they were marked 'Break Van' up to about 1870, and soon became a legal requirement on the tail of every goods train. From about 1850 to the mid 1970's every train (passenger or goods) moving on a `running line' (that is any line not in a yard or on private property) had to have a guard's brake van attached at the rear.
The guard was the man technically in charge of the train, the loco crew were expected to be busy looking after the engine so the guard was the man responsible for the train should anything go wrong. One of the guard's jobs was to try and maintain the tension in the wagon couplings along the train, if these went slack and the loco pulled them suddenly tight a coupling might fail. In practice the problem was compounded if the guard had the brake vans brakes on when the pull occurred and generally train drivers asked the guard only to apply the brake if they 'whistled' for them. The guard was equipped with assorted flags and `detonators', if the train stopped for any reason the guard used these to warn other drivers that the line was blocked. Detonators are small explosive charges which can be attached to the line, see under Communications, Control & Signalling for further information.
Additional brake vans were added when a particularly heavy train was on the move, for example a train of a hundred mineral wagons might well have two vans attached, it was common to have the additional brake van at the locomotive end of the rake. You will occasionally see a brake van at each end of a shorter rake of wagons where the train was going to reverse direction at some point in the journey so the van did not need to be shunted. Examples would include trains leaving the main line to collect wagons from stations or factories on a branch line before returning to the main line. This is usually called a 'top and tailed' train, although that term is also used when an assisting loco is at the rear. The additional brake van at the front of the rake was relatively common on the Somerset & Dorset line.
The brake van and locomotive would be from the same company, you would not see an LNER loco hauling a train with a GWR 'toad' brake van on the rear. The exceptions to this were the Joint companies, operated by more than one railway company, the Midland & Great Northern, the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway and the Cheshire Lines Committee (CLC) all had their own brake vans. Longest lasting were those of the CLC, which was jointly operated by the LMS and LNER and who's brake vans could be seen on LMS and more particularly on LNER trains. The CLC continued to operate it's own fleet of brake vans until nationalisation in 1947. These were generally of LNER design and odd examples have been photographed into the mid 1950's still in CLC colours.
There was considerable variation in brake van design although after about 1900 most vans were built with long wheelbase chassis, typically fifteen to eighteen feet wheelbase. The goods brake van was often used to carry small consignments to be dropped off at passenger platforms along the line so some vans were built with side doors. All the larger companies used vans built to their own specific designs but they also inherited a number of vans from smaller companies. Many of these vans were absorbed by larger companies, notably at the Grouping of 1923, and a few survived into the 1940's. Few if any of these odd designs survived into the British Railways era, those which managed it were only seen on secondary branch lines.
Fig ___ Garstang & Knott End Rly brake van
Incidentally the red or white bodied lamps fitted on brake vans were not to warn approaching traffic, the `block' system where only one train was allowed on track between two signal boxes at any one time theoretically eliminated this possibility. The lamps were there so that the signalman (or woman) could check that the train was complete as it passed the signal box, no wagons having been left behind in the section. The lights were changed when the train pulled onto a siding so crews on the main line would see their route was clear. Today, when brake vans are no longer used, a flashing light is added to the last wagon in a train for the same purpose.
Freightliners tried adding a guards container on the last wagon of a rake but the riding characteristics were dreadful, they tried conventional brake vans but these fared badly at high speeds so in about 1967 they switched to using passenger brake coaches. These disappeared in about 1970 when agreement was reached with the unions to move the guard from the rear of the train to the rear compartment on the locomotive.
In 1985 the rail unions agreed to single man operation of some freight trains, the first time trains had not had a guard on board for over one hundred and fifty years. The guards van and guard were still required for trains of `unfitted' stock or trains with a mix of air and vacuum braked wagons with only some of the brakes operational. By the end of the 1980's unfitted stock and trains of mixed air and vacuum braked stock had virtually disappeared other than in departmental trains. Brake vans were (and I believe are) required where dangerous chemicals are carried, the rules are that if a train stops or suffers an accident the guard has to make his way back down the line to place detonators on the track to warn any following train of the obstruction. Given the dangerous nature of some chemicals it was felt that he should not have to make his way past the dangerous cargo in the event of an incident or accident. There were still old style BR built brake vans tagged on the rear of chemical trains in the 1990's, there were also purpose built air-braked barrier wagons at each end of the rake of wagons, one protecting the engine the other the guards van. Barrier wagons are more fully discussed in the section on Freight Operation - Explosives, corrosives and compressed gasses
Unfitted trains always had a brake van (very rare by 1979 except for Engineers trains) - I only ever worked one Class 9 (Exeter to Acton Goods - usually a Class 7 mish-mash).
Class 7/8 also always had brake van. The fitted head was marhsalled to give the best brake force - either air or vacuum, which ever gave the best braking.
Class 6 (Fully fitted - including piped only, but not the last two wagons) - no brake van.
The train speed for all of the above was determined by the Guard - the train weight being divided by the brake force available (including the engine) and at a table in the Sectional Appendix being consulted - subject to the slowest wagon in the train - except for exceptional loads and cripples (usually hot boxes being moved to a suitable location for repair), this was 35mph, or 15mph were the box was still hot (i.e. had not been inspected and re-greased).
Thus if a train consisted of 3 Speedlink wagons, the rear two being piped only, a brake van would be used, but with a Class 47 and one braked Speedlink wagon not loaded above Medium the speed would be 75mph (as there would be sufficient brake force). If the loaded wagon was loaded Heavy it would be 60mph, as it would be if either of the piped wagons was loaded Heavy as the Speedlink fleet were (almost) all 60mph loaded Heavy, 75mph from Empty to Medium.
The example above might seem a bit odd, but the brake van might come in handy if more wagons were added to the train list later on the journey.
If all the three wagons in the example above were fitted, and the brake van was fitted (most were unfitted or piped only) then the Guard could ride in the rear of the engine, even though a van was there.
No differentiation was made between air and vacuum brakes - all that counted was the brake force available.
Trip workings almost always took a brake van along, as it provided a mobile set of blocks when shunting. Brake vans also got taken along where reach wagons were required and one was not kept on site - though lighting the stove was frowned upon!
Passenger trains, in exceptional circumstances (i.e something had gone wrong en route) could have pipe only coaches (I forget the rules here - we didn't do much passenger work), but the last coach had to have working brakes unless the line ahead was dead level or a falling gradient. The Guard would advise the Driver of the number of defective brakes, and he would drive accordingly. The train list for a passenger train simply consisted of the number or carriages and total weight of the train (the engine didn't count, whereas on a freight train it was included) as lack of brake force would not be an issue unless a failure had occurred.
Interestingly, a light engine was always restricted to 2/3 line speed - due to lack of brake force (and boy was that true....)!
There were only four cases where the Guard and Driver, in the event of an incident, were exempted from walking towards each other as the first action after the event - these were O11MY Military Explosive, Octel (Tetra Ethyl Lead, motor car anti-knock petrol additive), Hydro-Cyanic Acid and Nuclear Flasks - know as the "The Four Ooh-Nasties" on our patch - these were also the only four examples of a van being required on a fully fitted train. Other chemicals etc were, depending on what they were, required to have various barrier wagon requirements - ordinary Military Explosive, for example, required 2 SLU's each end (SLU stands for Standard Length Unit, 21 feet or 7 yards, a measure used to establish train length and capacity of loops and sidings).
The ideals when working a loose-coupled or partially fitted train are to avoid snatches and bumps. If properly driven the guard will get a reasonable ride.
The basic rule for attaining this happy state is "Don't do anything suddenly". Starting away should be steady, taking up coupling slack (assuming that the train isn't already 'at the stretch' at a constant rate. This is achieved by the gradual increasing of power as the weight of wagons is taken up. Similarly, when stopping, a gentle brake application should be made to buffer the wagons up before applying the brake more fully.
So far as the van brake is concerned, unless the guard is well-experienced and competent it's usually best if he leaves it alone. Handling the van brake badly means that the guard is making a rod for his own back. If the driver really needs the assistance of the van brake he will whistle for it.
Keeping the train stretched when passing through dips or over humps is the best way to avoid snatches.
There are exceptions to this - if a train is put into a loop where it will only just fit it makes sense for the guard to apply his brake in order to avoid the possibility of the train 'springing back'. Similarly, it can be helpful to have the van brake partially on when setting back into some sidings.
So far as setting back to start is concerned, that would usually indicate that the train is stretched because of a rising gradient, so setting back means relying on the van brake to stop the whole train moving back, so is generally avoided if possible.
Loose coupled trains are an art with so many variables as to make absolute rules impossible to state - factors include variations in loading through the train (most of the weight at the back isn't good news); fitted head, if any (often ignored, and just kept in reserve); state of the rail; etc.
Descending inclines with the train controlled by wagon brakes pinned down is another important aspect. The train should be dragged onto the incline as brakes are pinned down, and be controlled during the descent solely by the wagon brakes, with loco and van brakes in reserve. (It also provided a standard rules examination -Q: "When is the only time that the driver of a goods train is given a green flag by the guard?"
A: "When sufficient wagon brakes are pinned down to control the descent of an incline".)
Use and positioning of specialised stock
There were some basic operational rules regarding the order in which particular cargo and wagon types were placed in a rake.
Stock fitted with automatic brakes would be marshalled next to the loco so that the brake pipes could be connected.
Where cattle wagons formed part of the train they were usually connected to the locomotive so they could be quickly detached and moved to the cattle pens on arrival at their destination.
Banana vans (when loaded) would be marshalled next to the loco so the steam heating pipes could be connected (these vans were the only goods wagons I know of to be heated in transit).
If you have a mix of open wagons and vans the rules were that an open wagon should be marshalled in front the brake van to improve the guard's visibility.
Where vehicles carrying all oil or inflammable traffic were included in a rake the wagons to either side had to be carrying non flammable materials, a 'barrier wagon' being inserted where this was not otherwise possible. Barrier wagons were just spare (empty) wagons or vans, they were called 'barrier wagons' regardless of the type of vehicle employed. In a mixed pick-up goods train a loaded wagon could be used (I have seen a photo of a rake of Conflats and coal wagons with two Class A petrol tanks on the rear, a single coal wagon being positioned between these and the brake van). Barrier wagons are more fully discussed in the section on Freight Operation - Explosives, corrosives and compressed gasses
Some regulations varied between companies; vehicles carrying 'dangerous goods' (inflammable materials, poisonous gasses and explosives) were placed toward the centre of the rake by most companies but the GWR specified they should be as far from the locomotive as possible. They usually appear at the end of the rake with a barrier wagon separating them from the brake van in GWR trains and this practice was continued by British Railways. Also on the GWR heavy or awkward loads were placed next to the brake van where the guard could keep an eye on them, in other companies they were run behind the loco under the supervision of the locomotive's fireman.