It was the London & North Western Railway that started using troughs to enable moving locomotives to pick up water. Their first troughs appeared around 1860 between Chester and Holyhead at a time when a tender might only be carrying up to 2,000 gallons. By the end of the 19th century other railway companies had cottoned on to the potential for time-saving and by the beginning of the 20th century there were troughs at 38 British locations. In 1896 the Prince of Wales’ train was able to run non-stop from Cardiff to Paddington thanks to new troughs near Bristol. The same year, new troughs allowed the GWR to start running non-stop expresses from Paddington to Exeter. In 1899, Queen Victoria wanted to travel by train non-stop from Windsor to Folkestone. The companies that eventually formed the Southern Railway didn’t have any troughs so the GWR had to enlarge the tenders of two locomotives. One locomotive was the pilot that ran light engine ten minutes before the Royal Train itself, and the second was the Royal Train locomotive itself. Fortunately, both locomotives completed the non-stop trip with water to spare and without melting a boiler fusible plug or needing to drop the fire urgently.
Troughs were normally placed on the level and were between 500 and 600 yards long. Gravity feeding and pumps kept them topped up. Permanent way gangers had to break the ice in the winter months to keep them open, but hard frosts and deep snow often meant that the troughs had to close. As time went on, only the Southern Railway didn’t have any troughs on its system. This meant that its express locomotives had to run with tenders containing between 4,500 and 6,000 gallons of water. Other companies usually managed with between 4,000 and 5,000 gallon tenders on their later locomotives which could be replenished at speed, with 2,000 gallons considered to be a good pick-up.
There was an art to the good pick-up. The pick-up scoop had to be wound down at just the right point and wound back up again extremely quickly against the pressure of water before the end of the troughs was reached. Sometimes things went wrong. In March 1914, a strange incident occurred on the GWR near Twyford, Berkshire. An up express from Plymouth headed by a “Star” class tender locomotive had taken on water at speed over the Aldermaston troughs. The fireman had wound the pick-up scoop back after successfully taking on water. However, he failed to put the safety chain back on the scoop handle in the tender and as the train ran through Reading at speed, the well-lubricated handle mechanism moved of its own accord gradually dropping the scoop. By the time the train was approaching Twyford 13 miles on, the scoop had dropped enough to catch the Automatic Train Control ramp for the Twyford West signal box distant signal. Unnoticed by the footplate crew, the steel ramp in the middle of the track was torn from its mountings, rammed through the back of the tender creating a water leak and into the front of the leading brake van! A very surprised guard saw the ramp come into his compartment and then project out through its roof. He applied his emergency brake and the train came to a stand. The guard was awarded one guinea by the GWR Directors for his action: it’s not said what happened to the hapless fireman.
On one occasion in 1924 with the GWR’s only “Pacific” loco, "The Great Bear", the insecured tender tank filler flew open when the loco was passing over troughs with the scoop down. The resulting torrent of water broke the vestibule connection to the first coach and flooded it to a depth of one foot. Some passengers claimed for their soaking and had to be compensated. Guards and travelling ticket collectors were responsible for ensuring that the windows in leading coaches of trains were closed on the approach to troughs.
The use of troughs survived the steam era, albeit briefly. British Railways Type 4 diesels and the “Deltics”, both of which operated on long-distance non-stop services, had water pick-up scoops to replenish the tanks used to store water for steam heating the coaches. As electric carriage heating took over, the scoops were removed along with the troughs themselves.
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