Modern British Rail Freight - Allen Jackson



September 13th, 2022

Photos and words by Allen Jackson

The freight train was why the railways in Britain expanded from being a local facility used to transport mostly coal around mines and works to a network that would cover the entire country. Freight was where the money was seen to be and actually be. The Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 was seen as the first railway to carry both freight and passengers in County Durham, England. Hard on the heels though was the Baltimore and Ohio based in Maryland in the US in 1827.

The main driver was coal that had been mined since ancient times in Chinese and Roman civilisations. The coal was very near the surface in what would be described as ‘open cast’ where coal could be just dug as if it were earth. The next means of accessing the fuel was a drift mine where the coal seam ran parallel to the surface of the earth and would be accessed on a hill, horizontally. This would need locally cut timber to support the mine roof as the hillside was cut into. In the 18th and 19th century the smelting of iron and the production of steel were to make the mining of vertical seams of coal a practical proposition and a necessity.

Early coal wagons were known as cauldrons or tubs where the wagon could be tipped and, in the case of the Stockton and Darlington, into a ship’s hold on the River Tees. The North Eastern Railway in S&D territory quickly developed the ‘coal drop’ where wagons would be pushed up a ramp and wagons with bottom discharge doors use gravity to empty the wagon, initially into a bunker whereupon the contents might be bagged for domestic sale and loading onto a horse and cart.

The canals retained some coal traffic throughout all this and the Great Lakes in the US had massive canal infrastructure. If the coal supply process is continuous it doesn’t matter much how long the coal takes to get to the customer as long as it is always happening.

The railways quickly developed into common carriers for every type of freight imaginable in the 19th century. There was no other means of getting the loads to a place quickly so the railways enjoyed a near monopoly. The only competitor to a railway was probably another railway.

Passenger services developed rapidly for the speed reason but they were expensive in that people expected to go quicker than a load of coal and in greater safety and comfort and be looked after within the train and without at prestigious stations.

The freight train in Britain developed from the pick-up goods which was a local service either down a branch line or along a main line. Loaded wagons could be dropped off or picked up and similarly empties returned to their owner. This was a slow process and required staff and warehouse facilities at the smallest station. The goods yard at a station would also contain a ‘mileage siding’ where wagons could be dropped off and picked up but the loading and unloading carried out by non-railway company staff.

Express freights were introduced mainly in the 20th century where perishable products such as fruit, particularly bananas, and meat attracted services that were run often overnight at speeds approaching those of express trains. The main brake on speed in Britain was the short wheelbase four wheeled wagon which was frequently unstable at any speed over 40 mph. These were in use until well into the 1960s. Also a brake on services was the carrying of livestock which needed special attention and facilities. This was dis-continued in Britain in the 1960s but cattle pens can still be seen on the heritage Severn Valley Railway as well as places like Tetbury in Gloucestershire.

British Railways, under the 1955 Modernisation Plan, built a number of marshalling yards that were intended to speed up the sorting of wagon load freight trains into revised consists as they made their way across the country.

Unfortunately this coincided with the massive upswing in road building and road transport generally. Wagon load freight trains became massively uncompetitive and unused as a result. The marshalling yards had only a few years meaningful use if that.

The focus had shifted to trainload freight or block trains of the same type of wagon. This is a common type of concept in the US where I recall waiting to exit the Beltway in Washington DC in 2005 where alongside a long train load of Tropicana Orange Juice was sidling past on an adjacent railway line.

In Britain trainloads of orange juice are not seen as the consumption and country are much smaller. However the block train traffic can be summarised as follows:

  • Coal: now much reduced and still imported. Used in cement and steel industries.
  • Aggregates: sand, gravel, limestone, granite ballast. Foster Yeoman in Somerset and Tarmac in Derbyshire and other smaller concerns. Virtual quarries for railway ballast and construction projects such as HS2.
  • Oil: bulk oil from Immingham to Kingsbury near Birmingham, Leeds, Preston. Aviation fuel to Heathrow and Sinfin near Derby for the Rolls Royce works.
  • Steel: Margam in South Wales to Shotton in North Wales for coating purposes. Scrap from/to various places on Teeside, Cardiff, Newport Sims Metals, Sunderland and Liverpool.
  • Cars: Toyota at Derby for the Channel Tunnel and other services.
  • Nuclear: waste nuclear fuel for re-processing from nuclear power stations to Sellafield in Cumbria
  • Timber: West and Mid Wales and Scotland to Chirk near Wrexham in North Wales for chipboard manufacture.
  • Gypsum: Mountfield Sidings in East Sussex and Kirby Thore in Cumbria to Southampton Docks.
  • Condensate: product from natural gas production used in the petro-chemical industries.
  • Containers: from Felixstowe and Southampton and Liverpool Docks and the Channel Tunnel bringing mostly imports. Tesco supermarket and Stobart traffic.
  • China Clay: from workings around Parkandillack and Goonbarrow Junction in Cornwall to the ‘Potteries’ Stoke on Trent, Fowey Docks for export.

A late addition is the news that slate waste trains are to run from Llandudno Junction re-activated goods yard to Luton.

01-MBF Figure 1. Is a map I’ve borrowed from the book 'A Contemporary Perspective on LMS Signalling Volume 2' which shows the arrangement of main tracks around Crewe in Cheshire. As with Swindon, Crewe was built from being a village in the 19th century to a massive railway works building thousands of locomotives for the London and North Western Railway and employing thousands of people. As with Swindon it is also a junction but on steroids this time.

The main West Coast Main line runs through the station north to south and the main tracks off that are the line to Manchester Piccadilly and, further up the WCML a junction for Liverpool Lime Street. Other LNWR lines are to Stoke on Trent known as the ‘Potteries’ and Chester and Holyhead in North Wales which is the ferry terminal for Ireland. The upper green dot refers to Crewe Steel Works Signal Box.

The Great Western got into the act with running powers from Shrewsbury and they had a small engine shed at Gresty Lane which closed in 1963. The lower green dot is Crewe Gresty Lane Number 1 signal box.

The part that shows the freight locomotives at their depot is by Crewe Sorting Sidings North signal box and the yard there has been renamed Basford Hall after the signal box just south of there that controls movements in and out of the yard as well as part of the WCML. The US owned Freightliner UK Rail company has a depot at Basford Hall and other facilities at Crewe detailed in this link to their web site.

Basford Hall is not as busy as pre-World War II in the 1930s it was the busiest marshalling yard in Europe handling a maximum of 47,000 wagons per week. It is still busy with traffic as nearly all West Coast freight trains are routed through it to avoid congestion at the passenger station and elsewhere. It is the home of the 25kV electric class 86 and class 90 which are nearing the end of their working lives.

02-MBF Figure 2. This overview of Basford Hall Yard was taken from Shavington Bypass road.

Starting at the extreme right you should just be able to see the masts of 25kV electric tracks and that is the West Coast Main Line and we are looking north towards Crewe station. A little less extreme right is a row of eight class 86 locomotives parked between two rows of ballast hoppers, there are about four in the view. Further back on the right is a massive pile of ballast stones acting as a virtual quarry. By the pile is a pair of class 66 and in front of them a class 70 diesel locomotives. Almost in the centre at the same level as the ballast are sidings full of wagons and a further class 66, later identified as 66 508.

Coming to the forward and to the left is a derelict signal box, Crewe Sorting Sidings Middle Up now used as a store. Behind the signal box is another class 66 and to the left and behind is yet another pair with a class 70 nearby (Figure 7). By the white coloured building at the left rear is a row of class 90s and there is a further member of the class in the yard which we shall see in a later photograph. Also on the far left rear is another row of seven out of use class 86. The two WCML avoiding lines are on the far left. 21st August 2022.

03-MBF Figure 3. A row of eight class 86s at Basford Hall Depot. The internet lists the following engines here in total. 86 610, -627, -612, -614, -628, -622, -605, -604, -609, -639, -637, -638, -608, -607, -613, -632. The first engine nearest the camera is 86 605.

They were introduced in 1965 when there were still steam engines about so electric locomotives attracted an ‘E’ letter at the beginning of the number and diesels a D. The 100 class members were allocated the numbers E3101 to E3200. Some class members were exported to Hungary and Bulgaria and three are preserved in private ownership. 21st August 2022.

04-MBF Figure 4. The other tranche of class 86 at Crewe Basford Hall outside the main workshops of Freightliner. The lead locomotive is 86 610. These were the mainstay of express passenger workings on the West Coast Main Line for over forty years and gave excellent service. They were built at two places, English Electric at Vulcan Foundry at Newton le Willows near Manchester and British Railways Doncaster Works. They were rated at 5000 HP in final form. 21st August 2022.

05-MBF Figure 5. Network Rail established a number of ‘virtual quarries’ around the rail network, we saw one at Eastleigh near Southampton in a previous article on the London and South Western Railway signalling. They consist of an aggregated pile of ballast stones brought from real quarries and delivered to the mutual convenience of the quarry and Network Rail. Network Rail can then plan their track updates without worrying if the quarry has enough stones quarried to meet their immediate needs. It would appear that the ‘just in time’ method of working does not apply to quarries and railways. One of the class 66 remains unidentified but the other is 66 506. 21st August 2022.

06-MBF Figure 6. A little more of the detail of the virtual quarry and it can be seen that flat wagons conveying concrete sleepers are in addition to the ballast wagons. Further back at the rear behind the container wagon sidings is Crewe Sorting Sidings North signal box that controls tracks within the Basford Hall yards. The panel to control the points/turnouts and signals was built at Crewe. The class 70 diesel locomotive is 70 002. 21st August 2022.

07-MBF Figure 7. Moving across the yard to the left but still in the area of the virtual quarry and ballast wagons. A pair of class 66, 66 524, that appears to have converted coal hoppers at the head, and 66 953 as they are viewed on the photo keep company with another class 70, this time in Colas Rail livery, 70 809. The US built Class 66 is easily the most successful and numerous class of locomotives of the modern era. Before them was the class 47 and 57 a generation or so previously.

Behind these class 66 locomotives and by the white workshops building are a number of class 90s and a solitary class 70 and also what looks like a DVT (Driving Van Trailer). 21st August 2022.

08-MBF Figure 8. Parked nearer the Freightliner offices on its own is this class 90. 90 045 is one of a class of 50 locomotives that were designed to be a development of the class 87 but with additional features. Electronics in the shape of Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) form of control enabled the locos to have variable multiple unit working options including DVT configuration. 21st August 2022.

09-MBF Figure 9. Direct Rail Services occupy a depot on Gresty Road in Crewe and not far from the original GWR steam shed in Gresty Lane. Some heritage traction is on view with 37 716 and 57 303 with what looks like a class 68 behind. A snow plough fitted to the class 37 might indicate service in Scotland with nuclear flask trains.

Class 37s are now either approaching or have exceeded over 60 years in service and of the original number of 309 built, about 50 remain either in service or stored. A number have been preserved. 21st August 2022.

10-MBF Figure 10. Another class 37/57 combination was to be found at Gresty Road depot. 37 558 named Avro Vulcan XH558 to commemorate the last Cold War nuclear bomber flying, now preserved. The other loco is 57 312. Class 57s are a rebuild of some of the class 47 with newer reconditioned EMD engines. The class 47 was easily the most successful British Railways diesel locomotive design and some of these have been in service 55 years plus. 21st August 2022.

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