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Heat and light

For trains in the worst of weathers. . . . . . .

Next to the engine keeping warm on New Year’s Eve 1961. Not so warm outside at Reading General station though. Photo: Mike Peart.

With the costs of fuel, lighting, heating, weird weather and global warming very much in the news, we can see how one railway in history handled the situation. It got warmer for some when the Great Western Railway (GWR) introduced footwarmers for first-class passengers in 1856. Second-class passengers had to wait for warm feet, but eventually started to benefit from footwarmers in 1870. Finally (and reluctantly) third-class passengers were given theirs 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, made of tin, became the subject of jokes and were criticised for being clumsy, getting cold too soon and leaking.

Relief in several forms came in 1892. The first GWR corridor train with full lavatory facilities ran from Paddington to Birkenhead in March that year. It was the 1.30 p.m. express and it was Britain’s first train with a corridor from end to end. It was comprised of four vehicles, one first-class, one second, one third and a third brake. All except the brake van were clerestory coaches. Lighting was by oil-gas with duplex burners and there was steam heating. Electric bells were provided to summon the guard. The corridors provided access to the lavatories only as the concertina gangways between the coaches were kept locked with the guard having the key. Gangways were at the side which didn't make for an easy life if the coaches were reversed at any time. Central gangways started to be the standard shortly afterwards.

A first class coach in the 1893 consist for “The Cornishman” train. Photo: Mike Peart’s collection.

In 1893, the new corridor coaches for the “Cornishman” express were first seen at Plymouth North Road station. The stock had arrived for the following day’s up service for London, and it attracted a lot of attention. The train’s four passenger coaches and two guards’ vans were said to be “longer than the ordinary type of carriages”. It was explained that the corridor train had gangways. The front guard in the train would occasionally patrol it from one end to the other while keeping the doors between the compartments of different classes locked. The coaches were gas-lit, and pilot lights were lighted before leaving the starting point of the train’s journey, with the guard being responsible for turning the lights on full after dusk. Steam heating was provided by steam from the engine, and it was said that foot warmers would no longer be necessary. A button in each compartment rang an electric bell which was fitted in the guard’s compartment along with an indicator to show from which compartment the bell had been rung. Lavatories were provided in each coach. Most compartments seated four a side, while smoking compartments were arranged in a semi-saloon style. Mirrors were provided in the passages, and in all first class compartments which were also fitted with umbrella stands. Photographs of scenic locations around the Great Western system were fitted in each compartment.

A permanent way gangers’ hut in West London seen from a train on a winter’s day when not much moved. Photo: Mike Peart.

In January 1899, the GWR started to fit thermometers to all steam-heated trains. One thermometer in the front brake van was used by the guard to take the outside temperature. If this was over 40 degrees 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 degrees Fahrenheit, the train wouldn’t be heated. Where trains were heated, the guards weren’t allowed to let the temperature go over 60 degrees (15.5 degrees Celsius). A black line on the thermometers marked this critical temperature!

There’s no satisfying some people. A heated correspondent to “The Times” newspaper in December 1900 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.”

By 1907, the GWR was busy publicising its new sleeping cars for the West of England services. They were described as 70 feet long, nine feet wide and 12ft 7½ inches high with two six-wheeled bogies. Each car would accommodate 12 passengers in ten single and one double berth. Each compartment had a cabinet wash basin with a cover that served as a writing table. A fold-out table on each compartment wall could be pulled out to take the refreshment tray. The kitchen where hot drinks were prepared also provided hot water for the wash basins and lavatories. There was steam heating with a regulator, and electric light with “full”, “glow” or “off” settings.

The GWR 1936 instructions to carriage and wagon staff had it that steam heating pipes and valves had to be ready for use by 1st September. In the locomotive cabs, a pressure gauge guided drivers to maintain steam heating pressure to match the length of the train. Heat was to be applied to sleeping car and boat trains by the first Monday in September. Evening, night and early morning express trains and morning “business” trains were heated from the third Monday in September. For everything else it was 1st October, and continued on all trains until 31st May. Pipes and valves were then removed and checked from June onwards ready for the next time. The rules hadn’t changed much by 1960, although evening, night and early morning expresses were to be heated up to the 15th June. Trains running north of Inverness were also allowed to be heated up to this date! Regardless of the date, bananas in transit by rail in cold weather were kept at a comfortable steam-heated 56 degrees Fahrenheit!

Despite the weather, the railway kept on working. Shunting carried on during the blizzard! Photo: Mike Peart.

When much of the network was badly affected by snow on New Year’s Eve 1961, getting as near to the engine as possible made for my very comfortable journey from Paddington to Gloucester: steam heating from the steam engine “Drysllwyn Castle” was perfect. Despite heating progress, in the 1960s low temperatures sometime won and water cans were still being provided in some train lavatories because of frozen tanks. Even in the brave new world of diesel traction, I recall a express passenger trip in December 1968 from Paddington to Taunton hauled by a Class 52 diesel hydraulic, fitted with steam heating equipment, where in the leading coach frost remained resolutely on the inside of the compartment window for the entire journey!

Mike Peart

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