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The Humble Wagon

Summary: A brief history of mineral wagons and reminiscences of loose coupled shunting. . . . . . . .

Stanton Iron Works 12 Ton Mineral Wagon built 1931 Science Museum Group Collection. ON DISPLAY National Railway Museum: Station Hall

Some of us might remember standing in a station and watching as a line of steel wagons move slowly past on an unfitted train, with the locomotive far ahead in the distance. There would be that clanking sound as buffers bumped against each other, and the train then jerked forward again. Perhaps there would be some screeching sounds as metal collided with metal, wheel and rail. Then there was the brake lever. These were supposed to be pinned down to slow the wagon or, in transit, pinned back. Occasionally one would free itself and there would be that sight and sound of the lever bouncing up and down as the brake shoe came into contact with the wheel.

It all comes back to me now – except that I don’t think I ever gave much thought to the humble wagons. Typically, they would be 16 tonne mineral wagons finished in grey and rust, with a white diagonal stripe on one side (denoting which way the wagon could be tipped using an end door) and several dents and scratches.

We could go back to the earliest times when wagons were of wood (even the wheels) and before metal took over. Thinking about today’s shipping containers with their standard sizes and shapes, it’s not hard to see that, sooner or later, some sort of standardisation among the various railways had to happen. Quite apart from a standard gauge (Great Western excepted), there was also the question of weight. Victorian authorities are said to have decided, almost unilaterally, that 16 tonnes was about the limit a horse could pull and which would be acceptable on most track. So 16 tonnes became the norm. Many were wooden bodied on steel frames, the Railway Clearing House standard design. This was usually 5 or 7 planks high with two side doors and sometimes an end door. There would be a nine foot wheelbase, and four wheels over two axles, with a hand brake and spring buffers. There was more to it than that of course. The final specification went to over 30 pages!

By the time we get to BR, wagon bodies had become more typically all steel affairs. In its final form, all steel and 16 tonnes, BR built 220,000 either itself or through private builders and these would be the type trundling through stations while a youthful Polyphemus looked on. Rather like the final building programme for steam locomotives I can’t help wondering what BR thought should be the life of a mineral wagon and whether this was a waste? Did anyone foresee 50 tonne monsters from EWS and their ilk, gliding gently through stations behind a Class 66 or some such. How times have changed ……….

‘They are big, heavy things, and they can be hard to stop,’ recalled Ted for the oral history recordings, when I asked him about his shunting days in various yards around the East Midlands. ‘You look like a bloke who would remember,’ he went on, eyeing me slightly suspiciously as I adjusted the volume on my recorder. ‘Yes, but it’s not about me, Ted, it’s what you remember…’

‘Well, we had the loco, of course. Usually it was a Jinty or a small shunter but sometimes it was an 8F, something bigger, and they were harder for the driver to get right. They’d push the wagons into the right road (siding), then stop the loco while the wagons rolled on. It was up to us to stop them in good time – not too short of the stops so as not to waste space, and not too close. We had the long pole to unhook them from each other.’

Ted went into a lengthy explanation of the art of shunting, following wagons and using their momentum from the engine to unhook and split them, and then stop them. It was a story of skill in judging speed and distance, whatever the weather.

“You had to chase down the wagon and pin the brake down as hard and as fast as you could. Smaller blokes had to swing on the pole to put their weight through and push down the brake lever but I used to do it with just a good heave.’

‘So to sum up, Ted, you spent half your railway career chasing around after 16 tonne wagons moving up and down freight yards under their own momentum?’

‘Yes. I know what you’re thinking – it was dangerous. It was but none of us really thought about that – slipping over, not stopping a wagon in time, getting in the way of one coming up behind you. ‘Health and Safety’ would have a field day today. In fact, they wouldn’t allow it, even with those Hi-Viz jackets on.’

I asked him if he had a secret to successful shunting and he surprised me; ‘Good communication with the locomen, whistle codes, that was it. In the end they do it and you have to manage the consequences. You don’t want a heavy hand on the regulator.’

‘Want another biscuit?’ he added as Mrs Ted came into the room (me still recording). ‘He was daft doing it’ she said, ‘all those years and in all the weather. But it was that or the pit.’ I thought Mrs Ted had a way with words, summing up just what I was thinking ……..


The Great Central Heritage Railway has a collection of mineral wagons formed into a ‘Windcutter’ train. Find out more here

John Swanwick

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