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Going Loco - January 2021


Wonderful Winter Wagons Part 3: More Ribbit than Rivet?*


Well, after our look at the POLLEN Es last week, I felt we needed to have a look at a type of wagon that was central to the operation of freight workings on the GWR. The brake van - otherwise known to them as TOADs. We have no less that 4** of the beasts at Didcot ranging in build dates from 1900 to 1950. Why do we have so many of these vehicles and why were they so important?

We need to take a look at the operation of freight trains in the steam era. Amazingly, as late as the early 1970s, many of the freight vehicles on the U.K. rail network had no continuous brake. A continuous braked train has either vacuum or air operated brakes on every vehicle in the train and that brake is operated by the driver in the cab. Put the brakes on in the cab and the braking effect is the same all down the train. If the train separates, all the brakes come on and stops the train. A large proportion of U.K. freight vehicles of the era only had a hand brake for when it was parked. That means that if it was a fully unfitted train - and that could be well over 1,000 tons of train - the only brakes were in the locomotive. Yikes...

GW 16 ton Toad brakevan No 35856

The brake van was a response to this situation. On the earliest railways, train lengths were limited by the braking force of the locomotives but tramways had already found the solution. They added a vehicle at the end of the train that had a handbrake fitted to it. This solved a number of problems. Firstly, if the train broke - the coupling between two wagons came undone or snapped - each resultant portion of the train had a person on board and a brake to stop it. Particularly important if the train snapped going uphill. A runaway train of wagons going the wrong way down a hill with no way of stopping it would have some, let’s say, undesirable outcomes...

Secondly, having a set of eyes at the rear of the train meant that there was someone to keep watch. Any accidents or incidents had someone there to help deal with them. If something was wrong with the train the guard could send a signal with a red lamp to the crew of the locomotive, signallers or other railway staff and get the train stopped.

The GWS exhibition train returning from a visit to Wallingford Carnival in June 1970. 68684 at the rear doing its job

Thirdly, the action of a steam locomotive sometimes causes a backwards and forwards surging action - particularly when working hard. This surging action causes the loose couplings between the wagons to go repeatedly slack and then tight. This could cause the couplings to fail. In this situation, the guard would make the brakes on the TOAD drag very slightly. This kept the couplings taught and prevented the snatching action. Even with all these extra precautions, unfitted trains were still limited to 25mph.

The veranda of Toad 68684 showing the handbrake and sandboxes

Let's have a look at a typical TOAD. The first thing to note is the veranda. This is where the handbrake is. There is another control lever, duplicated on the front wall of the enclosed section, that operates the sanders. These drop sand onto the track in order to improve the grip of the wheels in greasy conditions. This veranda was originally fully open to the elements without even a roof in the earliest versions but later on, the GWR at least tried to keep the weather off the guard.

There are a number of lamp irons all round the TOAD. This is so that the all essential red tail lamp can be hung on them. This denotes to signallers that the whole train has gone through their section. If the train snaps, and part of it is left in the section, there will be no tail lamp and the signaller will know to prevent other trains using that section until the errant vehicles have been rescued. Somewhat perversely, the enclosed section carried the guard’s equipment, the log book and a stove to keep it warm. There must have been many the cold winter night when the poor guard was on the veranda with a roaring fire in the enclosed section of the TOAD and they had to stay at the brake handle... The bit you can’t see is that between the frames is a large box and this is filled with scrap metal or concrete. This is what provided the weight to give the TOAD its braking force.

Toad 68684 at Didcot Railway Centre's ‘Oxford Road’ platform - January 2021

All the TOADs had wagon diagram codes*** beginning with AA, there being more wagon codes than there are letters in the alphabet! Our earliest is No. 56400 which was built in 1900 to diagram AA.3. It was built with a ballast weight of 14 tons and was later upgraded to 16 tons to improve its stopping power. No. 68684 was built in 1924 as a 20 ton brake van to diagram AA.15. No. 17447 - the only unrestored vehicle in this list - was one of 100 built to diagram AA.21 in 1940 as part of the war effort. This one is actually a TOAD A which means that it is fitted with a vacuum brake system as well as the handbrake. This enabled it to run in fully fitted goods trains with a continuous brake that were allowed to run at much higher speeds than the unfitted variety. This would be really great to get restored one day as its vacuum brake would allow us to offer rides to visitors on a freight train. One for the future.

Our final TOAD is the most recent. No. 950592 and was built at Swindon in 1950 by British Railways (B.R.) as a 20 ton brake van to diagram AA23 - almost the last of the breed. GWR TOADs were not popular in B.R. as their exposed working conditions but despite this they hung on in many odd corners of the network for many decades. The increase in use of freight vehicles with continuous brakes eventually saw the end of all brake vans in the U.K. Now, there’s just the tail lamp there to remind us. You can see from our collection that the design was pretty much a constant throughout the GWR era. It became a classic design and is instantly recognisable. Although there were a few variants****, it was pretty much the same wine in different size bottles. Although, it has to be said, I’m not sure that I want to know what TOAD wine tastes like...

Toad 17447 awaits restoration - note the flexible pipe on the buffer beam for the vacuum brakes

*Nearly all frogs and toads don't go ribbit. The reason we all think frogs do? The only species that do go ribbit are the frogs that live around the area that includes a certain part of Los Angeles. It's called Hollywood...

**We technically have 5, but 1902 TOAD AA2 No. 56867 was rebuilt into Signal & Telegraph Department Mess Van No. 263 in 1952 and is preserved as such.

*** See Wonderful Winter Wagons Part 1 for an explanation.

**** Including some 6 wheeled versions, ballast plough versions and special ‘Road Vans’ that had goods carrying space on board.



Wonderful Winter Wagons Part 2: A Case of Hay Fever?

So, we had a snappy look at the GWR CROCODILEs* last time and we managed to get off the river bank without losing an appendage. This time however we are going to get horticultural. We are going to look at perhaps the strangest of the preserved wagon fleet at Didcot - the POLLENs. Whereas all the other freight vehicles at Didcot are wagons in the sense that you can clearly see that there is an obvious place for the load to go, there is just a big turntable on the top of the POLLENs. They aren't ‘wagons’ in the traditional sense.

The POLLENs were designed for moving outsize loads. Really long, awkward and occasionally quite heavy loads. The idea is that instead of putting the load in these wagons, you put them on top of them. It’s probably best to think of these a ‘temporary bogie coach’. Bogies are any wheeled truck that goes under a vehicle to carry weight. Some of our locomotives have them. For example, No. 2999 ‘Lady of Legend’ has a 4 wheeled truck up front to carry the cylinders & smokebox and to help guide the front of the loco into curves. This is a bogie. The majority of the passenger coaches in our collection are bogie coaches. They have a main body, suspended between two 4 or 6 wheeled bogies. This allows the body of the coach to be long and yet still be able to go around corners. If you just fixed the wheels at each end of the body, you would be lucky to get it to go up and down anything but dead straight track without falling off!

In the POLLENs, the load does the same job as the coach body. The load is strapped to the turntables at each end and this allows the POLLEN to turn underneath it like a bogie. Temporary bogie coach! When empty, there is a link bar that connects the two vehicles together in a similar way as how a large locomotive is connected to its tender. There were two basic designs. A two wagon set which are as described above and then there were 4 wagon sets that spread the load between two bridge sections connecting two of the wagon turntables together. This increases the load capacity but is more complicated to set up.

Coupling and buffers which splits the unit in two

The first of the POLLENs date way back into the earliest days of the GWR, being built before the 1870s although these were not known as POLLENs at this stage. They were built to the old GWR broad gauge and could even be used to transport standard gauge vehicles on broad gauge track. The first true POLLENs (the code name came later) were built in the mid 1880s. Due to their specialised nature, there were never more than about 30 individual wagons constructed. They all had Diagram codes** that started with the letter A. There were several rebuilds of these sets too. Typically these rebuilds meant taking the 4 wagon sets and converting them into 2 two wagon pairs. This involved pairing the two outer wagons that had the buffers and couplings on and then putting removable buffers and couplings on the inner pair so they can be used separately if needed.

Fixed links between two 6-wheel units

Our set are known as the POLLEN Es and they were built originally under diagram A6 in 1904. They were built as a result of the Royal Navy’s development of the Dreadnought type of warships. These vessels were huge beasts with steam turbine propulsion, thick armour and most importantly for us, an all ‘big gun’ armament policy. The main guns on the original HMS Dreadnought could fire a 12” (304.8mm) shell that weighed 850lbs (385.6kg) at a speed of 2,700 feet per second (823 meters per second) a distance of 25,000 yards (22,860 metres). That’s just over 14 miles. As you can imagine, these were fairly sizeable bits of equipment. Well over 50 tons. Guns only got bigger from here for a while as the technology developed. There are even a few pictures of the POLLEN Es carrying guns 62 feet long and weighing over 100 tons.

The POLLEN with a naval gun barrel on it

POLLEN E was a 4 wagon set that was made up of Nos. 84997, 84998, 84999 and 85000. They were provided with two bridge structures that linked the pairs at each end together with a cradle on top. Each cradle accepted either the barrel or the breach (loading end) of these enormous guns. Until the building of the CROCODILE L**, the POLLEN Es were the highest capacity wagons on the GWR’s books.

A frame from Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, filmed at Didcot in 2010. They show the POLLENs in the background while Holmes (right) and Watson (middle) shoot it out with Moriarty's soldiers

The POLLEN Es were rebuilt from a 4 wagon set to 2 twin wagon sets with removable buffers being fitted to Nos. 48998 and 48999 in 1930. This gave each wagon a maximum load of 30 tons meaning long loads of up to 60 tons per pair were possible. The inner pair were given the new diagram number of A9 and the outer wagons were the given diagram number A10.

And that's how they stayed.

For a LONG time...

They were so useful that they kept being used, seeing the end of the GWR in 1948 and continuing through nationalisation. So good at their job were they that they finally ended their careers as late as 1993 when their historical significance was recognised. That means that they were in service for nearly 90 years. A quite remarkable record.*** They were made part of the National Railway Museum's Collection but it was felt that their inclusion in the displays at Didcot gave them the most appropriate final resting place. They are fittingly displayed with the upper works of a footbridge on top of them, just outside the Railmotor shed. So, when you next visit, take 5 minutes to see these hidden gems of the collection.

One of the 6-wheel units

Or maybe that should be hidden blooms?

*I am SO sorry about the quality of this ‘joke’. I will go sit in the corner and have a long, hard think about what I've done...

**See Wonderful Winter Wagons Part 1 for an explanation.

***At this point they were certainly one of one of if not THE oldest serving freight vehicles on the network. We are working on breaking that record however. Our chaired sleeper wagon No. 100682, later renumbered to No. 91200, was built in 1939 and is still main line registered being used for bringing large items into the railway centre. 82 years and counting...


Wonderful Winter Wagons Part 1: Into the Swamp...

Welcome back and we hope that you all had the very best festive season given the current circumstances. As a bit of an aside, I thought I’d take a left turn at Albuquerque and shine a light on a few of the less glamorous but by no means less historically important wagon fleet that we have here at Didcot. The first thing to say is that we have to talk about the names as this gets a little bit weird.

Given the myriad of different GWR freight carrying vehicles, simply specifying a 12 ton wagon wouldn’t be precise enough and if you were trying to send what you wanted over a telegraph then asking for “one of those twelve ton wagons, you know - the ones that have the special holders for the things on them” is a bit long winded. Something had to be done.

One of Didcot's lesser-known Toads - the magnificent 7¼ inch model in the Great Western Trust museum

The GWR used telegraphic code names. The most famous of these is that all the brake vans they used were called TOADs. Indeed the GWR brake van in the Thomas stories was called ‘Toad’ for exactly that reason. There were MACAWs, MICAs, MINKs, HYDRAs, POLLENs and even MONSTERs! The one we will look at today will be a river dweller that has quite the presence. Take care as we go hunting for CROCODILEs...

While the type was locked down with the code names, there were individual versions within that group of wagons and these were differentiated by the addition of a letter. For example, there were CROCODILE Bs, CROCODILE Gs and so on. The final bit of identification used was the drawing used to build the wagon itself. They started with a code letter - all the CROCODILE diagrams started with a ‘C’- and then a number to tie it down to a batch.

Crocodile F 41934 at Didcot

The logical thing to assume was therefore that a C1 CROCODILE was older than a C4 but, as with much in life, it’s not that simple! Various reallocations of the codes as wagons were withdrawn and scrapped mean that a whole lot of shifting around took place. If trying to track the history of a specific wagon - you have been warned...*

The CROCODILEs evolved into a wide range of different designs. They were originally designated as boiler trucks but this was later updated to boiler trollies. Although this was their function on the books, their design with strong construction and a depressed centre section to get the load as far down as possible to clear the loading gauge meant that they were highly adaptable. They were known to carry anything from large sections of structures, enormous castings, machine parts, naval buoys and even statues.

A trainload of Admiralty buoys loaded onto Crocodile Gs. These had been manufactured in Chepstow and were taken as an out-of-gauge load to Newport Docks in the 1930s

Our CROCODILE is specifically a CROCODILE F built in 1909 to diagram No. C12. It was numbered No. 41934 as part of lot 549. There were 12 of this particular batch manufactured and it is well worth us taking a look at this strange vehicle. It weighed 18 tons 10 cwt. and although it is over 52 feet long, it has quite a small load carrying capacity of just 25 tons. Some of the CROCODILEs were real heavyweights with a single vehicle that was constructed to move enormous electrical Transformers and the like called the CROCODILE L being able to bench press up to 120 tons.

No. 41934 has some interesting constructional details. Not least of which is that a lot of the internal structure of the wagon is made from a whole heap of reused broad gauge era rail. When you think about it, the abolition of the broad gauge in the late 19th century must have left a huge amount of this good quality steel ripe for reuse for an ever cost conscious private enterprise. It makes sense. Who said recycling was a new thing?

This is all very well but at the end of the day, how interesting can a boiler trolley actually be? Well, this CROCODILE’s tale has a strange twist to it. The GWR Index of Wagon Diagrams has survived and has been published* so if we scroll down to the entry for the C12 CROCODILEs, we see this historical gem:

CROCODILE F 41933-42/50/1 [the numbers allocated to the vehicles] Delete 41934/51 in 1941 Lost in France; Reinstate 41934 in 1945 (12 then 10 then 11)

A Crocodile G converted at Swindon to carry a naval gun in 1940. Its role as a gun carrier was short-lived as the threat of invasion receded and the vehicle was returned to the GWR in 1942

What’s this all about? Well, as you are all aware, the Second World War didn’t start so well for the allies. The initial German Blitzkrieg or ‘lightning war’ conquered all before it. The British sent an expeditionary force to the continent with dozens of pieces of large military equipment. These needed to be transported to the battlefronts and a large number of rail vehicles were pressed into service to do this. Nos. 41934 and 41951 were just two of these conscripts to the cause. When France was overrun by the Germans in just 6 weeks in May 1940, the miracle of planning and determination that was Operation Dynamo extracted thousands of allied soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk to fight another day. The heavy equipment however was left behind. It is clear from the document that by 1941, the GWR has declared the two CROCODILEs as missing in action and didn’t expect to get them back.

Remarkably, No. 41934 had been pressed into service in occupied France by the German Army. Come the Operation Overlord / D-Day Invasion of the 6th of June 1944, the wagon soon changed hands again, this time being pressed into service with the invading American 5th Army as part of the allied effort to liberate Europe. Even more amazingly, someone in the GWR must have got wind of this and said something along the lines of “please sir, if you have finished with our wagon, we’d really rather like it back...” No. 41934 returned to the UK in 1945 and eventually found its way into traffic, through nationalisation and into the collection at Didcot. The fate of its compatriot, No. 41951, is unknown to this day. In the chaos that was WWII Europe, that our CROCODILE survived at all is frankly amazing in itself.

41934 is still used for the purpose for which it was designed - here the boiler of Pendennis Castle is steamed for the first time after overhaul while accommodated on the Crocodile boiler wagon

So, what do we at Didcot do with our ex prisoner of war? Well, we do exactly what the GWR did with it. We use it as a boiler trolley. It was very recently host to the boiler of No. 4079 Pendennis Castle during its test program and will no doubt go on to serve in this capacity for many years to come. It’s a very ‘Didcot’ kind of pure preservation. Preserved by the very act of continuing to do the thing that it was designed for. The best kind of preservation in our opinion frankly! Remember, as the as the Australian gentleman who was associated with crocodiles in that movie said: “That’s not a knife - THIS is a knife!”. Well, we at Didcot can confidently say “That’s not a historic CROCODILE - THIS is a historic CROCODILE!”

* THE book on GWR wagons was written and has been updated several times by A. G. Atkins, W. Beard and R. Tourret and is called simply “GWR Goods Wagons”. It is published as a mighty combined volume by O.P.C. (ISBN 978-0-86093-657-2). Your blogger’s copy is somewhat careworn being present at the construction of a growing fleet of 4mm scale replicas but is still going strong. Wholeheartedly recommended.


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