When I was a boy I saw a BBC program featuring railwaymen called Engines Must Not Enter The Potato Sidings. It was broadcast in November 1969. As far as I know it is never been broadcast since or been available as a DVD from the BBC. This is possibly because it was shot in black and white. However it is possible to view by clicking on the link to the BBC at the end of this article.
It features two main lines:- the old Great Central between Manchester and Sheffield via Woodhead Tunnel and the line from Birmingham New Street up through Derby, Chesterfield and on to Sheffield.
The program makes for interesting viewing. Especially interesting are the comments of railwaymen about the transition from steam to diesel traction. For me though it is the actual true railwaymen I find most interesting and with whom I can relate.
The program starts in a Railwaymen’s Club in Sheffield on a Saturday night featuring a live band. I suspect this was probably the British Rail Staff Association Eastern Region Club. There is a daring comment by the singer of the group who refers to BR’s punctuality in a room full of railwaymen and their wives. I still find it fascinating that the railwaymen talk amongst themselves, as I know is the case today, in a form of banter. This makes this programme a ‘must watch’ for lovers of the railway.
Over the years I have enjoyed the company of wonderful characters such as these who show passion and interest in the job. Thus I felt that for this blog I had to draw your attention to this program. It totally captures the the spirit of the railwaymen and their thoughts about the period immediately following the end of steam traction on BR.
The two lines shown in the programme have very different futures. Near the start there is Brush type four Class47 D1540, (destroyed in a collision at Conington near Peterbourough in 1987), about to depart from Birmingham New Street. The crew change-over depicts the group in the BR uniform that to me still seems so familiar. However, I never did like the type of hats they were wearing! The title of the program is the warning directed at engine crews on a sign on a warehouse at Bridgehouses near Sheffield adjacent to the Great Central electrified route. Engines Must Not Enter The Potato Sidings. The floor of the warehouse building was too weak to support the weight of a locomotive as it was suspended thirty feet above a road.
To begin with the program features the Woodhead route and the conditions suffered by navvies. The navvies were building the three mile long original single bore Woodhead tunnels. The footage of the EM1 or Class 76 locomotives designed by Sir Nigel Gresley operating passenger and freight over the line are very evocative and makes one feel very sorry at the loss of this route. The Class 76 locomotives were a feat of engineering in themselves and were extremely reliable.
It is interesting to note that the Class 76s were fitted with five different types of braking. Initially they had vacuum brakes, regenerative brakes and of course a hand brake. In later years they were fitted with rheostatic brakes as well and then finally air brakes were added. They were well built. I remember during my time in Crewe works when these locomotives went in for overhaul, the guys told me that it was simply a case of stripping them down cleaning the equipment and putting them back together. The commutator bars on the traction motors were almost as wide as a finger. Had the line remained, they would have carried on for years. Indeed this proved the case with the EM2 or Class 77’s which were the Co-Co version of the 76 which were exported to the Dutch railways in the late 1960’s and continued in service until the early 1980’s.
Class 47 crew
A key message put out by driver Arthur Lindsay on the Class 47 featured in the programme is “That every locoman’s objective is due time on their train”. That is to leave on time and arrive on time. There is no one who feels it more than the driver when their train is delayed by signals. A driver will try their best against the odds to get their train back on time. Today’s media often gives the impression that railway people simply don’t care about the job. Clearly this is very untrue both back then and today.
The second man on the Class 47, Ken Morgan, says that “The newspapers have run this job down terrible and there’s never been a true picture put across about what really this job actually involves.” How true this is both then and today. Even recent television programmes show just the delays and misfortune which are only a small part of the story.
Railwaymen’s dedication is also shown by the tales of the steam footplate men that operated locomotives through the old single bore Woodhead Tunnels. These didn’t have ventilation shafts. They explain how the railway company used to provide crews with white rags which they would dip in a bucket of water just prior to entering the Woodhead Tunnel. They would get down in the corner of the cab and put the wet rag over their mouths to prevent them from breathing in the intense concentration of smoke. Dedication indeed.
Other footplate men in the program talk about “Pride in the craft that was steam”. They argued that steam was more reliable and didn’t result in delays of two and three hours like those that occurred in the post-steam era. One little anecdote I particularly liked was when one of the footplate men talked about cooking bacon and eggs on the shovel. The company decided they didn’t like this and drilled holes in the shovel so that this couldn’t be done. So petty! Having cooked my own breakfast on the shovel, there is nothing quite like it.
The signalman at Woodhead, Michael Gattoby is also featured. The professional way in which he undertakes the operation of the box is a joy to behold. It demonstrates the high standard which railwaymen go about their duties all the time. The program refers to the area on the Woodhead route beyond Peniston heading towards Manchester where there were more sheep than people. I suspect this was used as an argument for closure because of the sparse population . This argument doesn’t settle with me very well. If you think about it there is sparse population in the many miles between junctions of a motorway such as the M6 in the wilds of the Lune Gorge.
The thoughts in the programme of Keith Foster, a guard who left BR in 1965 because he felt unsure of his position on the railway primarily because of the Beeching cuts. He could only stand two years of separation from the railway as the calling was so strong to go back. On rejoining he became very satisfied because railways were in his blood. Interesting though he mentions that the dedication to a particular industry seemed to have gone from the railways by the youngsters in 1960’s. They looked on the railways as an oddity, a museum piece, something to be studied from a museum point of view.
In his generation of railwaymen, they wanted to make the railways progressive such that people would appreciate the railways and would want to travel on the railway. However the increased fares imposed on railways discouraging passengers in one way or another at the time in the 1960’s makes it difficult. He says the morale on British Rail in the late 1960’s was very low. He ventures “This was partly driven by the fact that a lot of people think all you have to do is make the railways pay and everyone’s happy they are disillusioned. They haven’t seen the majority of railwaymen.” Keith argues that “You will never get satisfaction until you get a railwayman in charge who enthuses that feeling that he understands railwaymen.”
I’ve always thought it was tragic that Gerrard Fiennes never became chariman of British Rail. Now there was a very senior railwayman who understood railway people and commanded great respect by them. His book ‘I Tried to Run a Railway‘ and indeed a subsequent book ‘Fiennes on Rails‘ completed by him only days before he died, are definitely worth a read.
Everyone knows that the economists were rife in the 1950’s and 60’s trying to make the railways pay. However they made some really big errors of judgment. For example, the transition should have been directly from steam to electric traction on passenger services and a more considered change on freight services retaining steam for a lot longer.
It is also well known that many diesel locomotives were simply not fit for purpose. They had to be scrapped not long after the steam locomotives they were meant to replace. Indeed the early classes of electric locomotives on the London Midland Region . were pretty shambolic. If there had been less haste and prototype 25Kv overhead powered AC electric locomotives tested then I’m sure there would have been many more of the successful Class 86 type of of 1966 built. This was streets ahead of the poorly designed previous versions. Indeed the Class 86 was such a success that only six years later the Class 87’s were built largely on the same traction package. Both types saw many years service on Britain’s railways and indeed still continue to see use in this country and on the continent.
Towards the end of the program, one of the successes of the Beeching era is featured. This is a freightliner train in this case hauled by a Class 47 but in my view could equally have been hauled by a class 9F.
One of the final words is given by the driver of a Woodhead Electric who correctly says that the Sheffield to Manchester line was one of the best inter-city services. Tragically the line closed to passengers in 1970 just after the programme was made. It would be some 11 years later that the line was closed completely.
The Class 76 hauled train is seeing entering Manchester Piccadilly. To the layman the overhead lines seem all the same but indeed on the left hand side as the train approaches was the AC side for the 25,000 volts electric hauled services from Euston. Whereas the right hand side, or the DC side, was for those trains from Sheffield and from the local services from Glossop and Hadfield. In my view the Woodhead route could have been mothballed and latterly converted to 25KV albeit that I still believe that the EM 1 Class 76 locomotives would just have kept going because they were so well designed.