by John Clayson
Watching as a young lad from the platform at Grantham in the early 1960s there was something especially memorable about the express freights. Perhaps they were somehow symbolic of the main line railway earning its keep and doing the job it was built for – the speedy shipment of goods needed urgently in another part of the country.
So let’s go to the south end of Grantham station as the shadows lengthen on a still evening in the early 1960s. The Down Main signals clear, and a minute or so later there’s that first glimpse through the Spitalgate bridge, far away to the south. Compared with a non-stop passenger train the approach is slightly slower, giving an extended period of anticipation.
By the time the locomotive is close enough to identify its class you can see the line of wagons, rippling and weaving along behind. With a whistle and a flash of wheels and coupling rods the locomotive tears past, the platform trembling under the soles of your shoes. Then a deafening, crashing rhythm is hammered, machine-gun like, from the jointed rails by up to a hundred pairs of wheels. Tough steel impacting tough steel with blows faster than a forgehammer. The loose corner of a wagon sheet flaps in the smoky, dust-laden slipstream. As the crescendo dies down, your gaze follows a swaying brake van through the station and around the north curve as it hangs on to the trail of buffeting wagons snaking away into the distance.
With the senses still tingling from all that stimulation, and the smell of the smoke lingering in the air, it’s time to leave for the bus home.
Our first photograph shows an A4 locomotive on a fully fitted express freight. ‘Fully fitted’ means that every vehicle on this train was equipped, or ‘fitted’, with the automatic vacuum brake controlled by the driver and, in emergency, by the guard. Such trains, designated ‘Class C’, could travel at faster speeds than ordinary freight trains, which might have brakes only on the locomotive and the guard’s brake van. The Class of a train was indicated by the number and position of the front headlamps – in this case one in the central position, above the coupling hook, and another over the right buffer.
On the same day at around 5:30pm, as the shadows continue to lengthen, a southbound express fish train appeared.
Express freight was given a high priority on the main line, second only to passenger services. Given the perishable nature of much of the produce, the timetable reflected the need to get consignments to their destinations as speedily as possible. Fish from the east coast ports and meat from Scotland was packed into insulated vans and dispatched quickly to the south, often delivered to the London meat and fish markets for the next day. The LNER and the Eastern Region of British Railways took pride in their efforts to integrate these fast freight trains into a busy railway.
Until the early 1960s class V2 2-6-2 locomotives were the mainstay of the fastest Class C and Class D freight trains on the Great Northern and East Coast Main Lines. Our next photograph shows a V2 which was fitted, in 1961, with a ‘Kylchap’ double chimney for improved efficiency on express freights to York. Unusually, the train appears to be stopping at the main line platform. Perhaps the crew have a problem with the water scoop and they are having to make an unscheduled stop to fill the tender tank. For a routine stop at Grantham a freight train would normally take the Goods line to the west of the station.
The BR Standard class 9Fs, though intended for heavy freight and mineral traffic, were speedy enough to be used regularly on express freights.
As previously seen, the express passenger A4s were sometimes employed on the fastest freights. By 1962, displaced by diesels from the most prestigious passenger services, they took a greater share of the freight traffic.
The Brush Type 4 diesel-electric locomotives, or Class 47s as they became known, were introduced in 1962. They took over express freight turns from the V2 steam locomotives and the older English Electric Type 4 (Class 40) diesels. However it wasn’t just diesel locomotives that were being introduced, but also new wagons that would change the way freight would be carried by train in the future.
The express freight in our next photograph is a special test train working (‘special test train’ identified by the ‘Z’ character in the second position of the headcode) headed by a Brush Type 4.
This is a particularly interesting train, evidence of one of the railways’ attempts to develop an inter-modal freight system in the 1960s. Today it would probably be termed ‘an integrated logistics solution’. The idea, conceived on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad in the USA, sought to combine the advantages of rail for long-haul freight transport with the convenience of road for local collection and distribution.
The vehicles are experimental ‘Roadrailer’ vans. These were able to travel on both road and rail. Each van had a set of steel flanged wheels for travelling by rail, and another set, with pneumatic rubber tyres, for the road. Either set of wheels was lowered as required. When on the road each van was a 'semi-trailer', the front supported by the towing tractor unit. On the rails each van supported the front of the van behind it. The front of the first van was carried by a special four-wheeled truck coupled to the locomotive.
This system had an advantage over transferable containers, because the infrastructure required at interchange depots was minimal, whereas container traffic requires large gantry cranes. Depots could thus be more numerous and widely distributed, reducing further the proportion of road haulage.
A fleet of Roadrailer vans was built by the Pressed Steel Company at Linwood, near Paisley, and they were being operated on trials at this time. Apparently the trials were not a success and the vans were never brought into general use; alternative systems involving intermediate 4-wheeled bogies when on rail were more promising. With hindsight, it can be seen that the forthcoming motorway construction programme was to undermine many of the advantages of the rail element of such a system. Also, the system was not readily compatible with transport by ship. Before very long British Rail adopted the standard ISO (International Organization for Standardization) container system for inter-modal freight traffic.
Our final group of photographs shows the regular Blue Circle Cement traffic from the company’s Cliffe Cement Works in Kent to a distribution depot at Uddingston in Lanarkshire. The trains returned empty in the southbound direction. There was normally a locomotive change at York. The cement was carried in a fleet of specially built 4-wheeled light alloy ‘Cemflo’ wagons shown in the photographs. The traffic began in 1961 and finished in 1969.
I remember seeing the Cemflo wagons weave noticeably at speed on the straight track south of and through the station. This was an indication of instability. On 31st July 1967 a northbound loaded cement train derailed near Thirsk in Yorkshire. An overtaking express collided with the wreckage, and seven of its passengers were killed. The cause of the derailment was the poor riding of the wagons at speed. The days of the four-wheeled freight wagon on Britain’s main line railways were numbered.
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