(with apologies to Maurice Dodd)
Probably the most lamented casualty of the Beeching years was the archetypal pick up goods, together with its small loco and mix of wagons meandering through picture postcard scenery. Away from this idyllic image though, things were changing on the trunk hauls also. Perishable traffics connected with the food chain disappeared in their droves (pun intended), being an obvious target for faster, versatile and more reliable road transport. By the end of the 1960s, BR’s fleets of semi-specialised vans and containers for meat, fruit, fish and frozen food had been decimated. The late survivors noted here tend however to be untypical; some are based on well known knowledge, others on chance finds of images in general books and magazines, and I’m always interested in ‘winding back’ a tad to discover information from those few years earlier.
Cattle traffic could be seen for a few years under early diesel haulage, but soon became generally unknown in most areas. Amongst late survivors are Alnwick in 1966, Kyle of Lochalsh (for Skye) until 1971 and the last survivor being Irish traffic from Holyhead until 1975.
Milk trains from the West Country survived the hydraulic era to run until 1980. Not so far away, some workings from West Wales dairies lasted until 1973 but prior to that, I only know of traffic until around 1965 from Appleby (often worked by class 40s, it seems).
Fish traffic from the length of the East Coast had led to provision of a large fleet of vans designed for fast running (the apocryphal Blue Spots, although not all had the roller bearing provision that the marking indicated). Hull and Grimsby traffic was annihilated in the mid-1960s, leaving the Aberdeen workings to survive around another decade. Again the last honours go to an untypical survivor, with fish from Wick being conveyed south until 1981. It was attached to the passenger trains on the Far North line and also continued south on the back of the Inverness – Aberdeen DMUs.
The most difficult category to pin down is that of fresh and frozen meat. By the late ’60s this was carried in containers, with meat vans having either been withdrawn or devolved into ale traffc or general use. I know of a working from Fishguard until around 1970, and I also seem to recall a late ’60s shot of Heysham with meat containers much in evidence.
Traditional containers for non-perishable use also steadily succumbed, albeit with a few sightings into the 1970s. I tend to think that the very last use would be for the MOD, as trains from known military destinations such as Wellington and Bicester can be seen to employ them as late as 1976/77.
Brakes and brakevans
The end of the unfitted wagon had been presaged by the 1955 Modernisation Plan, although for various reasons it would take almost another 40 years until the very eve of privatisation to rid the system entirely. That said, one of the biggest fleets, that of steel carrying vehicles, was largely fully fitted by the early years of full dieselisation. This left the coal carrying fleet, to survive in isolated pockets into the 1980s. Other smaller fleets lasting until around the turn of the ’80s were the hoppers for grain carrying, and that for UK-mined iron ore, an industry which was in decline anyway.
Again, as traditional freight working becomes something of a distant memory, even the question of how to correctly use brakevans exercises the mind of many a modeller. This is to a large extent tied in with the mix of unfitted, vacuum braked and air braked freight stock which came to be a characteristic of the BR period, and whilst this is a complicated subject beset with exceptions and qualifications, it is possible to cover the obvious visual aspects with a degree of generalisation.
From the earliest times, all freight trains regardless of braking capability had been provided with at least one brakevan on all workings on anything other than short distance workings on freight only lines. In some instances, a van would be provided front and rear, usually to ease operation when reversals were involved en route. Another example of multiple brakevan presence would be if a surplus of vans was being moved around from one yard to another.
From late 1968, just after the end of steam, an agreement with the trade unions was reached which allowed the guard to travel in the rear cab of a locomotive as long as the train was continuously braked with all vehicles on the same system (vacuum or air). This reduced the need for brakevan stock at a stroke, although they were still required on trains that were partly or completely unfitted. They would also be required where the train comprised elements with incompatible brake systems; this could be (for instance) if a vacuum only loco had to work a train of air braked wagons. Similarly, a train might potentially be of both vacuum and air braked wagons, but as the systems can’t normally be operated in tandem, then one system or the other is effectively an unfitted portion and would travel at the rear, next to the van. Some flexibility is provided by wagons which are ‘through piped’ (with either a vacuum or air pipe), but these are governed by various caveats and would still need a quantity of vehicles with operable brakes at the back of them.
Dunfermline, August 1976; 25228 heads east with a short freight consisting of two 16T minerals, two differing 13T Highfits and a standard brake . There’s a wealth of period detail in this shot (which is clickable for larger sizes), and it’s dated nicely by the ‘0000’ headcode of the loco. As for the train, note that the scrap loads in the minerals are higher than the wagon sides, and that the first Highfit is covered by a plastic version of the traditional wagon sheet.
Of relevance in the context of this feature, no attempt has been made to marshal the fitted vehicles at the front. On a low speed, short distance trip this wouldn’t have been unusual, as it would have made no difference to the running speed, and indeed it might have hindered any shunting at intermediate locations.
The principal exception to the ‘no brakevan’ rule was for trains conveying hazardous cargoes. Initially this included oil and petrol tanks, although this was soon relaxed and the main traffics affected came to be nuclear waste and certain chemicals. These would also require barrier wagons at front and rear. A further fairly common occurrence of brakevans was for operational reasons such as propelling for part of the journey, or where train crew were responsible for opening and closing minor level crossing gates.
Another problem was posed by locos with a single cab (shunters or Type 1s), as for obvious safety reasons the guard could not travel with the footplate crew. Thus brakevans continued to be provided for these situations (for clarity, even a train double headed by Type 1s didn’t circumvent this; the guard would still not have independent control of the train, until the 1980s when many class 20s were fitted with an additional valve to allow this. Not long after this though, the spread of Driver Only Operation changed the situation again).
As to what sort of brakevan to use, unfitted vans would normally only be used on unfitted or partly fitted trains; a piped or fully fitted van would be preferred for fitted trains. A small number of vans were converted to dual piping and could also work air braked freight trains. The safest option for the diffident modeller is to work pretty much any train with a bauxite liveried van such as one of the models featured in the ‘Spruce Caboose’ post.