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Freight Operations - Non Passenger Coaching Stock
Introduction, Fish & Newspapers

Non Passenger Coaching Stock traffic caters for high value perishable cargo requiring high speed transportation and often having specialised facilities for loading and unloading. Vehicles attached to passenger trains included horse boxes, cattle wagons, parcels vans, newspaper vans, fish vans and of course milk tanks and churn vans. Stock which was fitted with pipes for steam heating could be marshalled behind the loco in winter.

Non passenger coaching stock, or XP class wagons and vans, could be attached to the rear of a passenger train without a brake van on the tail. This was because it was fitted with a continuous automatic brake (see Goods Rolling Stock Design - Chassis - Brakes ) so if a coupling broke the brakes would automatically be applied to all vehicles in the train and the goods vehicles could not roll away down the gradient. The rules where continuous automatic brakes were not fitted to all stock required railway staff at each end of the train in case the couplings parted en route. Where such a brake was fitted to all stock the rules limited the number of axles behind the guard's compartment.

Some non passenger coaching stock could be formed into single purpose express freights, such as fish trains or a parcels train. Four and six wheeled coaching stock was banned from passenger trains in 1959, but continued in service on parcels trains well into the 1970's. Some stock, such as four and six wheeled brake vans and luggage vans, were then transferred to parcels train duties, where they were not running with passenger carrying stock. Non passenger coaching stock sometimes travelled in all-fitted express freight trains although parcels vans, which were mostly built to match the coaching stock, were seldom so used.


Fish traffic required special handling as it was vital that the fish reached the shops fresh and fish stock was regularly attached to main-line passenger trains as well as being run in block express goods trains. Originally open wagons were widely used for fish but by the early twentieth century everyone had switched to building covered vans for this work. The open wagons remained in use for fish traffic with several companies up to about the time of the First World War.

All fish carrying stock, both open wagons and vans, were usually equipped with vacuum brakes so they could be attached to passenger trains for rapid transit. To allow high speed running most fish stock used longer than normal wheelbase chassis, the GWR originally used a long wheelbase open wagon with a small hut like structure in the middle but these were phased out by about the 1920's. Later versions, built on six wheeled chassis from redundant passenger coaches, survived (I believe) into the late 1920's, possibly the early 1930's. Originally painted grey with white wagon type marking (including the G and W repeated on the ends) they changed to brown following the First World War.

GWR Fish Truck

GWR fish truck model

Most of the UK fishing fleets docked on the Eastern coasts served by the LNER, who claimed that 70% of all fish eaten was landed at ports served by their company. The principal fishing ports were Grimsby, Hull, Aberdeen and Fleetwood whilst Lowestoft, Milford Haven and Leith also saw regular train loads of fish. Herring was fished all year round but there was a 'season' from about June to about September when vast numbers were caught. Herring became a major industry in Peterhead and Fraserborough in Scotland and Yarmouth and Lowestoft in East Anglia. Most of the herring catch was processed locally and as much of the produce was exported there was less involvement with the railways but even so entire trains of herring were sent through the system.

The coming of the railway allowed Grimsby to become the worlds largest fishing port, besides which its docks handled a lot of imported timber (mainly from the Baltic) and exports of coal.

At the port the fish was landed into covered transfer sheds on the quay where the buying and selling took place. The goods lines used for fish were run down to the docks where the fish vans and wagons would be lined up, sometimes on as many as three sidings abreast. The fish in baskets, barrels or more usually light wooden boxes was carried directly from the transfer sheds to the waiting fish vans. As the vans were often on several sidings abreast light wooden bridges were provided to allow the men to load the fish quickly into the railway stock.

Fish cargo was slightly unusual as carriage was charged for on a weight basis, often as little as three tons being loaded into a four wheel van. Had the railways charged on a per van basis overloading could have resulted in claims for damaged goods at the receiving end. The fish trains were pulled by fast express loco's, the LNER regularly used their A4 Pacific's for the run down to London and double heading was quite common with a 4-6-0 and perhaps a 4-4-0 tender engines heading a rake of perhaps twenty assorted fish vans.

The LNER and its pre-grouping constituents had the largest numbers of purpose built rolling stock for fish traffic, including both four wheeled and bogie vehicles. Graham Farish offer a four wheeled ex-Great Northern Railway van in LNER livery (a few of these survived into early BR days) and the Peco fifteen foot wheelbase 'parcels van' is actually based on a 1940's LNER designed fish van (they were later converted for use as parcels stock by BR). The Peco model uses their standard long wheelbase chassis however a more accurate model of this van has now been introduced by Parkside Dundas. The GWR also handled a substantial quantity of fish traffic and this company had purpose built stock as well. The P D Marsh Mink C kit can be modified to represent the GWR 'Bloater' fish van. The photos show the Graham Farish N Gauge van and the Dapol OO scale long wheelbase van.

Fig ___ Fish Vans
Photo of models, long wheelbase van photo copyright Dapol

Compared to the LNER the LMS and the SR had only a limited amount of fish traffic, this was still enough to justify the use of purpose built stock however. They inherited purpose built fish vans from the pre-grouping companies, the LMS built some fish vans but I do not know of any SR fish vans being built after the 1923 grouping.

As mentioned in the section on Unit Loads - Early container types the Midland Railway and Great Central Railway both tried a container service for live fish. The GCR used standard wagons to carry these but the Midland Railway and Great Northern Railway (and possibly others) built special wagons for the tanks. The GN wagon lasted in use into the later 1920's (possibly the early 30's) and is an easy option using a Peco chassis kit with a floor of 10 thou card. If it is to run unloaded bore a hole in the chassis and fill with two crushed air gun pellets. The sides are 2mm wide strips of 20 thou sitting on short lengths of 20x20 thou strip, the strapping is from 10x40 thou strip at the ends and 10x20 thou in the centre. The end posts are 20x20 thou strip and the vacuum pipes are bent up from guitar wire. These remained in service into the late 1920's although I am not sure if the fish in the tanks were still live at that stage, they may have been packed in salt or crushed ice. These were dual braked, the W and star on the chassis marking the release chains for the Westinghouse (air) brake and the vacuum brake.

GNR Fish Tank Truck in GN and LNER livery

GNR fish tank truck

The GWR used what appear to be identical containers for frozen fish in the 1930's, by which time standard container flat wagons were available to carry these. The GWR boxes operated from Milford Haven and possibly other ports.

By the time of the second world war fish traffic was already suffering from road competition but most fish travelled in train-loads by rail and some of the hauls were very long (Aberdeen to London was a distance of some 540 miles). In the early 1950's there were some seven thousand wagon loads a week plus smaller consignment going to outlying stations on the network. In spite of this the Beeching Report declared fish traffic uneconomic and in 1964 BR stopped carrying fish entirely. Some of the more modern fish vans were then transferred to parcels duties.


The end of the 'stamp duty' tax on newspapers in the 1840's brought a surge of interest from the public and the railways became involved in newspaper distribution. A Mr. W. H. Smith was already a successful newspaper wholesaler and his son, who bore the same initials, concluded arrangements with each of the new lines to carry the papers to stations along the route. He also acquired the concession for setting up newspaper and book kiosks on the stations and the first W. H. Smith bookstall opened on LNWR's Euston station in November 1848. Mr. Smith then purchased the re-print rights to 'respectable' literature which he commissioned a publisher to print cheaply. Demand for reading material on long journeys proved greater than expected and, aided by the redoubtable Mr. Huish of the London & North Western Railway Mr. Smith had the competing vendors of 'penny dreadfuls' cleared from the great railway concourses. W.H.Smith's book stalls became a feature of British railway stations for over a hundred years, it is not recorded whether Mr. Smith employed in these the crippled railway workers or their widows who had hitherto sold reading material to travellers.

The ability of the railways to move newspapers in bulk saw the development of national titles with the main printing centres being London and Manchester. Obviously newspapers are a time sensitive cargo and the railways soon began using passenger trains to distribute them to stations along the line. By the 1860's specially run newspaper trains were operating, carrying bundled papers in coach type vans. Redundant milk churn vans of the type fitted with louvered openings were also pressed into this duty from the 1930's but stock used for this traffic did not (I believe) carry any special brandings until the BR Corporate Blue era (Lima offered their Siphon milk van in post 1960's rail blue 'newspapers' livery).

The bulk of the newspapers were loaded at the local parcels depot in the main line station nearest the printing works. At the receiving end smaller consignments would be loaded into the guards compartment on local passenger trains to be dropped on the platforms for collection by the local vendors or delivery vans.

The only real problem with rail distribution of newspapers was that when the print run was late, as would happen when news was still breaking at press time, the edition would be delayed. Delaying a lorry is not much of a problem but delays on the railway are more difficult to deal with and the costs of re-pathing the train on a busy network had to be passed back to the newspapers. In some cases, when major stories were breaking late the train had to go, leaving one or more newspapers to hire aircraft to chase the train with a late printing 'stop press' edition.

The rail transport of newspaper traffic finally ended in 1988 when the last of the distributors switched to road delivery.

In the early 1980's (possibly the late 1970's) some vehicles were dedicated to newspaper traffic and marked as such. Following the end of this traffic they continued in this livery for several years.

GUV van showing blue 'Newspapers' livery from the 1980's

GUV van showing 'Newspapers' livery

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