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A Smooth Ride

In praise of excellent rolling stock and permanent way. . . . . . .

Kingswear station seen in 1961. Photo: John D’s railway and canal blog.

100 years ago in August 1922, the Great Western Railway was boasting in public about the high quality of its permanent way and rolling stock. Felix Pole had been appointed as General Manager the year before, and he was already a past master at marketing and publicity. The example used in this case – a true story - was that a porter on the platform at Kingswear in Devon had dropped a half crown coin (2/6d) just as an express to London was leaving his station. Perhaps the tips were good at Kingswear. The coin had rolled off the platform and had somehow found its way onto the top of an axle box of one of the coaches of the departing express.

A 1922 half crown coin.

The coach concerned made its way from Kingswear to Paddington and back to Kingswear, and then from Kingswear to Newton Abbot and back. It was only then after 446 miles of running that the coin was found still on the axle box where it had fallen.

GWR ganger George Seller “sighting” - checking the alignment of a length of track at Maidenhead, Berkshire near Brunel’s Maidenhead Bridge over the River Thames. Photo: National Railway Museum.

In 1923, the GWR had 8,287 miles of railway track to maintain to ensure smooth running. Gangers and their men walked the length, inspected, sighted, slewed, packed, shovelled, tightened and loosened. The task was eased in 1931 when a third-class brake coach was converted to become the celebrated “Whitewash Coach” for track testing purposes. The interior was stripped except for two compartments and a toilet, and observation windows were put in at the brake end. The whitewash equipment for marking track defects was placed in the former guard’s compartment connected directly to both bogies. When the coach was running, usually as the last coach in a train, any significant lurch would open a valve to allow two pints of whitewash to fall onto the track, and a horn in the coach sounded simultaneously.

The “Whitewash Coach” still at work at Gloucester in the 1980s working to ensure a smooth ride. Photo: Phil Trotter.

A Hallade track recorder was also put in the centre of the vehicle. With an operator and a “spotter” calling out landmarks such as mileposts, the Hallade recorder recorded the coach movement on a moving roll of paper so that its location on the track could be noted. The recorder had seven pens, some of which were finely balanced so they recorded the least movement. The whitewash on the track fell about 60 feet from the bad spot and the stream of whitewash in the four foot could be up to 100 feet long. The Hallade paper record was also examined and defects reported. It was then up to the local permanent way inspectors and gang to find and deal with any rough riding problems identified.

One of two Hallade Track Recorder instruments made in Paris in the early 1920s and used by London Transport for over 60 years. Photo: London Transport Museum.

Nowadays, Network Rail’s “New Measurement Train” (NMT), also known as the “Flying Banana” does the job. With 20,000 miles of track to look after, the NMT equipped with 14 different sensors is able to survey 4,800 miles of track every fortnight, and members of “Team Orange” put things right when problems are identified.

Mike Peart

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