Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Riding the Brake

These are the notes I made at the time of a brake van ride from Tipton Curve to Wednesbury and back. There's more about Tipton Curve here and a description of Princes End here.

Saturday 12th December 1964

It's usually a fairly quiet day for the 'Porter Bobby' at Tipton Curve Junction, but today I am lucky enough to arrange a trip to see '23' shunt Austin's. '61' used to come down as a '2-2-3' ('Train requiring to Work in Section') and spend an hour working at the siding but the work is now done by '23'. The Second Man for the diesel shunter arrives at Tipton after 10.0 a.m. and, waiting at Tipton Station, I watch '23' grind away up the bank to Bloomfield with Bolsters and Open Wagons. This is the cue for Tom and I to get round 'The Curve' and wait for '23'.

After 1G05 and 1G06 have passed on the Up Main, '23' heads round the sharp curve from Bloomfield with the 350 h.p. diesel electric, cab leading, two All-Steel Open Wagons and a S.R. 20-ton Brake. The train is brought almost to a stand and then allowed forward, so that the writer can make a rather undignified leap onto the footboard of the brake van, as the train accelerates away for Princes End.

The brake van is provided with two padded seats and duckets, diagonally opposite one another. I am soom installed in one of them, facing the friendly Guard, Des Jones ('Jonah'). The permanent furniture is completed by the brakewheel and the diminuitive stove. There is also a metal locker which doubles as a footrest and a shunting pole is propped in one corner.

We are soon approaching Princes End: the crossing gates open as we near and the 'pegs' come off. The train passes the L.& N. W. lower quadrant Starter and we commence the descent to Wednesbury.

The Guard comments favourably on his brake, S56240 - "It's nice and snug, rides well, brakes evenly and got lamp brackets on the wall" (the last feature prevents accidents to spare lamps when the van is jerked). He decides to keep it as the 'Residential Brake'.

We are coming down the bank past Wednesbury Number 1's fixed distant. The Guard comments on what a "wicked bank" it is to descend with a load on. He recalls seeing a 'Class 8' and a train of coke run out of control, right through Wednesbury station, whistle 'popping', finally stopping halfway up the bank to Mestycroft with the coupled wheels locked. The engine ended up with half inch flats on the tyres and a frightening 'rattle-thump-rattle-thump" as he moved!

We pass through the so-called Princes End Tunnel, an elongated road bridge, and emerge in the shadow of a cooling tower at Ocker Hill Power Station. Our train draws up to Wednesbury's Outer Home (or is it Home 1?) which remains stubbornly 'on'. Des points out the sidings.

On the left, protected by the signal at which we're standing, are Bagnall's Sidings. This is a steel stockyard, with three curving sidings (2 loaded, 1 empty) populated by BBCs. The freight is steel bars.

On the right are the sidings to Ocker Hill Power Station. The facing lead from near the junction fans, after a short neck, into six roads. At the other end of the yard these lines, plus a short Cripple Siding, converge into a single line which splits up into the Power Station. Number 1 siding (nearest to us) in the Empty Road, the remainder are Inwards Sidings, crammed with loads of slack. As we watch, a 'Class 8', facing the Power Station, backs from the bottleneck onto a train of Empties and subsequently sets back onto his Brake Van waiting in the Neck. Des confirms from Chris, the Bushbury Guard with the empties, that it's a train of 'Pools' for Littleton's and he admires the neatness of the move, which he has not seen before. He also correctly surmises that the train will set back onto the Down Line, in front of us, since the signal to leave the Neck only reads to the Down. Setting back onto the Up, although sometimes done, requires a hand signal.

We patiently wait while the train of empties backs clear of the connection to the Power Station and sets off bravely up the bank to Princes End. In a few minutes, the engine blasts past, working hard, slipping momentarily just as he draws level. While I watch the wagons rumble by, there is an awesome jerk and we are on the move.

'23' stops just short of the 'Western' bridge (where the Wolverhampton Low Level to Birmingham Snow Hill main line crosses over the South Stafford line). The handbrake is partially screwed down, to hold the Brake Van as the engine and two wagons are uncoupled and draw away, clear of the connections to the Down Sidings. The Wednesbury Shunters crowd round and uncouple the two wagons from the diesel. The diesel gives the wagons a 'shove' and then stands by the signal box as the wagons roll sedately into the sidings, rumble like thunder passing under the bridge and contact sharply with the wagons we have come to pick up which are standing on the 'Front' road. Throughout these operations, the Wednesbury shunt engine (a 'Class 8') stands obediently clear on another siding. Our diesel returns and, without much ceremony, buffers up to the Brake (and its passenger). Once attached, the engine and brake are drawn forward, clear of the points, and propelled over the rough trackwork onto our train. Our train is now twelve wagons strong: the original two wagons loaded with spoil and lumps of iron now augmented by ten 16-ton mineral wagons. The diesel draws the whole collection into the Down platform and the Guard calls for "Full Brake". The engine is unhitched and draws away to Wednesbury Number 2 box, where he is turned onto the Middle Road. The diesel creeps past his train as a long freight rolls through the station on the Up and out on the Great Bridge Line. Our engine is soon coupled onto the train and draws out of the station, holding up the road traffic waiting at the level crossing a minute longer.

We head back up the bank to Princes End. On emerging from the tunnel, I am amazed to see an express approaching from the other direction! It turns out to be the S.L.S. Special 1Z65, touring the Midlands with the last two 'Super Ds' in service. 49340 and 49361 are impeccably turned out and both cabs sport the yellow cab diagonals (not to work under overhead lines south of Crewe). Even the coaching stock, which sprouts heads and arms along its length, is clean. The passenger train slows as it enters the tunnel and the engines whistle in chorus to signal their approach. Nostalgia apart, the train was not shown in the 'W1' Weekly Notices or the Supplement so it had earlier been brought to a stand at Watery Lane because nobody knew what it was! We proceed about our mundane busines and are soon drawing up to Princes End crossing, with assistance from the van brake. The Secondman goes to 'Sign the Book' and the Guard goes to explain what he's about. This gives me about ten minutes of quiet in the van to contemplate the lonely life of a freight guard then the train draws over the crossing and stops with the Brake opposite the box. The van brake goes on hard and the engine and wagons draw away with the Annett's Key required to get into Austin's. Within a quarter of an hour, the engine is back and coupled up, the Annett's Key is returned to the box and we are whining back to Tipton Curve.

There's time to complete the Guard's Journal:

Wednesbury arr. 11.15 (that is, commence shunting)
det. 2 att. 12 (note that the two all-steel count twice)
Wednesbury dep. 11.25
P. End arr. 11.50 det. 12
P. End dep. 12.5

When we get back to Tipton Curve, Tom keeps the home signal 'on', to allow me to drop off and then the engine, now facing Tipton, rumbles back to Owen Street with his Southern Region Brake. Incidentally, the '4-armer' home signal was recently moved further away from the junction as, in its original position, it was starting to slip down the embankment, presumably due to the underground fire in the embankment.

The 'Express & Star' carried this report of the S.L.S. Special.