top of page

Riding a "toad"

Great Western Railway 16-ton “Toad” brake van with the guard reaching for the handbrake. Photo: NRM/Science & Society Picture Library.

The name “Toad” was the Great Western Railway (GWR) telegraphic code name for the goods train brake van. There was also the “Toadfit” which denoted a brake van fitted with the vacuum brake. In the mysterious world of the railway telegram code, “SPOON SWANSEA” meant that brake vans were in short supply at Swansea and that spares should be sent there as soon as possible. “JUNIPER TOAD” meant that a goods yard was in serious difficulty for want of a “Toad”!

Use of the “Toad” on the GWR started around 1852 when brake vans were placed at the end of a train with a guard riding in them. Sometimes a second brake van would be put into the middle of a train, again with a guard present. The early versions were little more than short wheelbase four-wheeled wooden underframed wagons with grease axleboxes, wooden brake blocks, a small central cabin and roofless open verandahs at both ends. During the 1870s and 1880s designs and construction improved, and brake vans started to resemble the types commonly seen in the 20th century. The earlier “shake, rattle and roll” versions which started at around 8½ tons weight, later became more stable and less bruising 16, 20 and 25-ton vehicles. Even then, they were hardly the height of comfort for goods guards who spent long hours alone in them. In the days before nationalisation, faster fully vacuum-braked trains might touch 75 mph and run at an average speed of 45 mph. In a four-wheeled brake van this might entail quite of a bit of lateral “hunting” or swaying. Even some partly vacuum-fitted fast freight trains averaged 40 mph. For the trains with no vacuum-braked wagons, speeds were slower but there was more risk of couplings opening and closing and buffering up along the train giving the brake van some unwelcome buffeting.

Railway control offices organised the distribution and balancing out of brake vans across the network. In later British Railways years, every midnight there was a physical count and reporting of the numbers of brake vans dotted around the goods yards. At the busier yards, train preparers made the vans ready for use. However, they couldn’t always meet the wishes of the goods guards who had strong preferences in the types of vans they were to travel in. The LNER “King Georges” and the Southern Railway 25-ton twin bogie “Queen Marys” were seen as superior to the despised LMS “BRO” brake vans. The Southern bogie vans which arrived in other regions were a rare treat, but efforts to keep them were usually frustrated. The train preparer ensured amongst other things that brake vans were clean, their stoves were lit, fuel was provided, and that a full complement of tail and side lamps, spare coupling and other vital equipment was present and working. Absence of any one of these could delay departures. On his journey, a goods guard might need a can of oil for the red/white side lamps and red tail lamps, dry sand for the onboard sanders, a handbrush and fire shovel, a shunting pole, brake stick and at least two wheel sprags. In his own kit (the “traps”) he would have such things as a watch, a whistle, a handlamp (lit at night and in tunnels), oil, at least a dozen detonators, a red and green flag, some spare washers and large safety pins for troublesome vacuum brake pipes. Weekly special notices (the “glossies”) had to be read to learn of works, diversions and restrictions along the route. Old newspapers were used to exclude the almost inevitable draughts, smoke in tunnels and smells wafting in from fishy and animal loads. He also carried plenty of “snap” for his meal, with extra in case he was delayed (leading to “big penny”, “the land of plenty”, “green pastures” or “fatty ham”: all railway slang for overtime and enhanced payments). The “night hawks” and “owls” earned extra money by working nights getting “dark money” in “dark time”.

In the larger yards, brake vans were kept together on a “kip”, a term originally from the mining industry for an underground storage area. This was a siding that was usually inclined so that brake vans could be run down to join their trains under their own weight controlled by the guard’s handbrake. Logically, high-sided vehicles had not to be marshalled next to brake vans as they could obscure the guard’s view of the train. Riding in a brake van was never the easiest of rides at whatever speed. In the mid-1960s, British Railways Board Research Department’s Engineering Division studied the behaviour of long trains of short wheelbase wagons equipped with vacuum brakes. As a result of their work, the “Instanter” forged middle link type of coupling with two claws was strengthened. The research also looked at different types of hydraulic buffer. The aim was for trains to achieve the required stopping distance, to avoid longitudinal shocks in the train and to prevent braking action from doing what train drivers didn’t intend. In the tests, a double-headed test train of 70 21-ton wagons was used at varying speeds with braking events which reportedly gave researchers riding in the brake van far more shocks than the longitudinal ones they were supposed to be studying!

There was a lot for the goods guard to do. Before and during a journey, brakes, couplings, loads (including livestock), numbers and class of wagons, sheets and wagon labels and doors had to be checked and notes made in a journal. The journal had to have accurate entries for the class of train, passing and calling points and times, time spent stopped, loads on and off the train, state of the weather, defects and other reportable matters. A freight train consist might have all, half, a third or a few or even no wagons at all fitted with the vacuum brake to add to the locomotive’s braking power. On certain falling gradients, the brake van handbrake had to be used to steady the train without skidding. Throughout the journey the handbrake was also used to prevent “snatching” the couplings which might risk a break and a divided train. Depending on the braking power of the train and its load, on trains not fitted with the vacuum brake some wagon handbrakes nearest the engine might need to be pinned down on the more severe falling gradients and released when back on the near level. Even partly-fitted trains might need brakes to be pinned down nearest to the fitted wagons. At the end of a run if the brake van wasn’t being taken over, the stove had to be extinguished and the door locked. Time sheets were put in with care being taken to avoid any falsification – known as “the wages of sin” which might lead to instant dismissal.

Great Western Railway 20-ton “Toad” brake van with an “Instanter” coupling in the collection at Didcot Railway Centre. Photo: Great Western Society.

The arrival of longer wheelbase air-braked freight wagons eventually put an end to Toads and those who travelled in them except for heritage lines and exceptional workings on the national rail system. Until the advent of single manning, for a while some freight guards travelled in the back cabs of diesel and electric locomotives looking back over their trains. Now, for the most part, all we see is a flashing red light in place of the Toad on the last vehicle of a freight train.

Mike Peart

Please use the box at the bottom of the page to provide a comment. Your e-mail will not be published and your comments will just be linked to this item and not used elsewhere.


385 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page