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Feeling The Heat

Hot passengers, hot tracks and warm bananas. . . . . . . .

Track buckling caused by hot weather conditions. Photo courtesy of Network Rail.

Let’s look first at the well wrapped-up passengers of old. Engineer Archibald Sturrock is credited with introducing footwarmers to railways in Britain during 1852. The Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced footwarmers for first-class passengers in 1856, then to second-class passengers in 1870 and finally (and reluctantly) to third-class in the winter of 1873. This was despite the fact that the craze at the time for wearing boots made of gutta-percha resulted in passengers’ boots getting stuck to the footwarmers. The footwarmers were made of tin and were filled with very hot water. They became the subject of jokes and were criticised for being clumsy, getting cold too soon and leaking. Matters improved, and in 1893 new coaching stock for the prestigious “Cornishman” train was fitted with steam heating pipes with the steam provided by the locomotive. It was said that footwarmers would no longer be necessary.

In 1899, the (GWR) started to fit thermometers to all of its steam-heated trains. One thermometer in the front brake van was used by the guard to take the outside temperature to compare with the train interior. If the difference was over 5° Fahrenheit there was no need to heat the train. Other thermometers were fitted in the first and last compartments in the train. If these read over 55° Fahrenheit, the train wouldn’t be heated. Where trains were heated, the guards weren’t allowed to let the temperature go over 60° Fahrenheit (15.5° celsius). A black line on the thermometers marked this critical temperature!

The system and its equipment must have had its flaws. In December 1900 an aggrieved correspondent to “The Times” newspaper called attention to the “the objectionable overheating of the main line carriages on the GWR, which frequently reaches 90 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit”. The correspondent continued, “this heat is of a dry, prickly kind, accompanied by a disagreeable odour similar to that arising from an enamelling oven or stove. The passenger has no means whatever of correcting this, except by opening a window, and thus creating a draught, with the almost certainty of catching a severe cold. Far better a cold carriage than one overheated as the GWR carriages now are.” There’s no pleasing some people…

The GWR’s 1936 regulations had it that steam heating equipment must be ready for use by 1st September each year. It was started on the first Monday in September for sleeping car trains and boat trains. Morning, evening and night trains could then be heated from the third Monday in September. All other passenger trains followed from 1st October onwards, and this continued until 31st May after which the equipment was removed to be checked and repaired. Depending on the weather, the length and weight of a train, the footplate crew had to maintain steam heating pressure of between 60 and 80 psi on the gauge in the cab to ensure it reached the tail end! Those in the know travelled near the locomotive if they really wanted to “feel the heat”. Bananas in transit by rail also travelled in comfort in steam-heated vans.

The steam, followed by electric carriage heating and ventilation battle continued for decades. Passengers battled it out over furnace-like conditions or howling gales in compartments and open saloons. Passenger controls for carriage heating improved whilst air-conditioning started to become more widespread with far fewer opening windows in carriages and vestibules. Even then, there are those who still prefer windows that can be opened and, if that’s your preference, special excursions and heritage railways offer the best choice.

Now to the tracks. Network Rail say that rails exposed to direct sun can be as much as 20°C (Centigrade) hotter than the air temperature. Remember playing with those bi-metallic strips in school physics classes where you found that some metals expanded more than others? Steel rails certainly expand. Most of the British rail network can operate safely with tracks heated up to about 46°C – that’s roughly equivalent to an air temperature of 30°C. However, some rails have been found to be at 51°C in extreme heat, and speed restrictions on faster trains had to be imposed on vulnerable stretches. In serious cases, lines had to be temporarily closed pending a cooler temperature before the track could be repaired. Long-welded track design and installation, coupled with appropriate gaps in shorter sections of rail reduce the risks of buckling and adverse effects on safety and services. Physical checks also form part of the monitoring process.

Another measure taken to prevent rail problems in heat is to paint parts of rails and fittings white to deflect heat. It’s said that a white-painted rail can be between 5°C to 10°C cooler that an unpainted one. Weather forecasting and monitoring technology help to predict and measure rail temperatures. Whether it’s just the British summer or the creeping effects of climate change, the British weather will no doubt continue to surprise us and we must try not to buckle under.

Mike Peart

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