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Railway Freight Operations - Introduction

The goods side of the railway business is essentially simple, consisting of three types of installation and trains running between them. The installations were the railway goods yards and the privately owned sidings where wagons were loaded or unloaded and the railway marshalling yards where individual wagons were sorted into rakes to be delivered to their destination. This section provides an overview of the business. The associated sub sections deal with specific aspects of railway company goods operations such as specific traffics and the facilities used.

One point that must be mentioned is that where one company operated a line to a particular town another company might be granted 'running powers' allowing them to use the line, often to access a depot of their own. The London & North Western Railway reached the City of London and the docks via the North London Railway and lines owned by the Great Western. In Scotland the Midland Railway gained access to Edinburgh and Glasgow via lines owned by the North British Railway and Glasgow & South Western Railways, in Manchester the GWR had running powers allowing it to access the various industrial areas (and some private sidings) as well as warehouses owned by the GWR itself over rails owned by Great Central, Great Northern, Cheshire Lines Committee, the London and North Western and the Midland Railway. These arrangements continued into the Big Four era, the Southern Railway for example had running powers over the GWR line to Plymouth. These arrangements were sometimes amicable but in some cases relations became strained, in the context of a model railway the idea of 'running powers' allow you to operate locomotives and even passenger stock as well as goods stock from different companies. There are limits however, most such powers would have a limited radius of operation, a GWR engine arriving in Glasgow would raise a few eyebrows.

To further complicate matters some 'goods stations' had no rail access at all, the GWR goods depot in Liverpool being an example, goods were transferred to their rail head in Birkenhead by ferry and later by road and the Mersey tunnel. I cannot see much practical application of this in a model railway but thought it should be mentioned as you may find odd examples shown on old maps.

It is all too easy to forget that up until the 1950's just about everything moved by rail, that includes the supplies of fresh milk, butter and meat, livestock going to market, even entire farms were moved with all the machinery and household belongings. There were train loads of imported raw materials, finished products being shipped to the ports for export and, dominating everything in terms of volume, millions of tons of coal both for export and internal use. It was partly due to the railways ability to move large tonnage's economically that the inland coal fields were fully exploited. Every town and many villages had their own railway goods yard, usually with an associated coal merchants yard, and even in the depths of the country this was seldom more than a couple of miles distant.

Although they are energy and man-power efficient the railways in general have never been terribly profitable for their share holders, the return on investment has generally been around the four per cent mark even in good times. The freight side of the business has provided a better return on capital than passenger traffic, in fact up to the late 1960's (other than a short period in the very early days), freight has earned more actual money for the railways than passengers. Not all freight earns the same however, until comparatively recently the railways were constrained by law to charge for freight partly on the value of the cargo, so moving a wagon load of coal earned them less money than moving a van load of brandy (see Historical Background for further details).

The introduction of the common user scheme following the First World War improved the efficiency of the system dramatically. Under this scheme (see Historical Background section for full details) the railways pooled much of their goods rolling stock, allowing wagons and vans to be back-loaded for return to their parent company rather than being sent back empty. Under the scheme empty wagon mileage was reduced from about sixty percent to about ten percent, so for post 1918 layouts only about one in ten general goods wagons should be running empty.

The railway freight business developed in an era when the competing road alternative was highly inefficient. Following the First World War the glut of ex military lorries, and men trained to drive them, began to impact on the railways. The competition from road haulage increased steadily in the 1930's, prompting the railways to introduce containers offering door-to-door services for high value traffic. They also introduced generally more efficient freight services with faster timings and the stock was more often fitted with a vacuum brake to allow higher transit speeds, however there was still considerable inefficiency in wagon usage. The large numbers of privately owned wagons (mainly for coal) were part of the problem, they were seldom maintained to the same standard as the railway company stock. The railways tried to encourage the use of their own wagons wherever possible but even these were not efficiently utilised. The high capacity wagons built by the GWR for coal traffic remained in the minority however and in use were only expected to carry about one load a fortnight.

The early days of BR saw a considerable investment in rolling stock, mostly built to traditional designs but many were fitted with the automatic vacuum brake to allow their use in high speed services. Trains of wagons with only a hand brake would typically operate at speeds of about twenty five miles per hour but various studies have shown, up to the 1980's at least, that the optimum transit speed for a freight train is a steady 40 miles per hour. The vacuum braked traditional stock could operate at these speeds but the increasing speed of passenger trains made finding a path for daytime freight movements increasingly difficult. Also the relatively long life of a railway vehicle proved to be a disadvantage in the rapidly changing world in which they operated. There were many conversions to facilitate new traffic flows such as vans with new doors to allow the loading of pallets, but investment was limited and the political imperative was for improved passenger services.

BR decided to change over to an air braked fleet in the 1970's and soon introduced a new standard air braked chassis to replace the older ten foot wheelbase designs (largely based on the RCH specification dating from the 1920's). This was built with open wagon bodies, a selection of van type bodies and some specialised bodies such as the SAA steel carrying bolster wagon.

To cater for the train load traffic air braked stock was steadily introduced and vacuum braked stock that had proved its worth was converted to air brakes. To allow full use of the new air braked stock BR established a network of services, marketed as the Air Braked Network or ABN. This allowed goods trains to run in between the new high speed passenger services and the high capacity vehicles were better suited to the needs of the hauliers and warehousing companies.

Coal remained a major traffic and new air braked coal hoppers were built, the HAA type had automatic discharge and was used for merry-go-round services feeding power stations and the like whilst the smaller and manually discharged HBA was developed to feed depots supplying the domestic coal suppliers. Steel traffic was also important and a large number of wagons were built to cater for this trade.

The private owner wagon had also made something of a comeback by this time, there were several firms leasing wagons, tankers and vans to companies such as Ford. Many of the older privately owned wagons had been built with vacuum brakes and had to be converted to air brakes but as BR was not allowed to invest very much in freight the Private Owner stock catered for the specialised stock required by some traffic flows. The mining of ore in the UK was in decline, seeing a decline in the railway's fleet of ore hopper wagons, but imported ore was moved in purpose built 100 ton bogie tippler wagons paid for by British Steel.

The competition from road transport using the growing and heavily subsidised motorway network made life increasingly difficult for the railways. By the end of the 1980's the railways had decided to abandon all goods traffic other than entire train loads although to be fair this was the only profitable traffic available to them. In 1970 rail carried over forty percent of the total freight transported in the UK, by the mid 1990's this was down to around ten percent and apparently still falling. Against this background the railway freight business was sold into private ownership. This change saw the reintroduction of single wagon load traffic (discussed below) and increasing interest in utilising rail and road transport. By the turn of the twenty first century much of the development work was being focused on using rail to transport containers and road semi-trailers.

Freight Train Speeds

Prior to the 1950's the top speed of a goods train was determined by the type of brakes and axle boxes fitted to the rolling stock. Most goods stock had only a hand brake and a lot of the older stock, particularly the private owner vehicles, had only grease axle boxes. A train of these unfitted loose coupled wagons would be restricted to 20 or 25 mph (32 to 40 kph) to ensure the crew could maintain control over the rake and, in the case of the grease axleboxes, to prevent overheating and possibly even a fire. The SR and GWR managed the best average speeds for goods wagons travelling through the system but even in the later 1930's the individual wagons were still trundling along at an average speed below ten miles per hour (16 kph).

Express goods trains appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century as more goods vehicles were built with vacuum brakes and these could operate at speeds of up to 45 mph (72kph) but 40 mph (62 kph) was the more normal. Some commodities, notably fish and milk, required speedy delivery and these were moved in special `high speed' rolling stock. These wagons, vans and tanks could form an entire train running at speeds of up to 60mph, or they might be included in passenger trains (see Freight Operations - Train Formations - Mixed Trains).

The classic British goods engine was the 0-6-0, tank or tender engine. Express goods trains were aimed mainly at the long distance run and were hauled by larger loco's such as the GWR's 4-6-0 Halls and the LNER A4 Pacific classes.

Trains with a mixture of fitted and unfitted wagons travelled at speeds of up to a maximum of 45 mph, depending on the ratio of fitted to unfitted wagons. Rolling stock considered suitable for high speed running was usually marked in some way, from about 1938 the marking XP was adopted by all companies and this marking remained in use under British Railways.

The express goods speed of 45 mph (72 kph) was really the upper safe limit for the traditional ten foot wheelbase four wheeled stock even when fitted with vacuum brakes and oil ale boxes. At higher speeds the stock proved unstable and tended to derail itself. Under British Railways a blanket 40 mph (64 kph) speed restriction was applied to all the older pattern four wheeled vehicles in the early 1960's even when fitted with vacuum brakes.

More modern longer wheel based air-braked stock built since the early 1970's is designed to operate at 60 mph or even 75 mph when fully loaded, one curious exception being the HBA domestic coal hoppers which were designed to run at only 45 mph, in line with the then current coal train speeds. These wagons were later re-sprung to operate at 60 mph and reclassified HEA.

Banking and double heading

Where gradients of more than about 1:60 were encountered it was common practice to use two locomotives coupled together to haul the train, known as 'double-heading'. The lines serving the Cornish china clay works and granite quarries were often double headed with pairs of pannier tank locomotives for this reason. The line up the Gwendraeth valley in South Wales (part of the former Burry Port & Gwendraeth Valley Railway) had a very restricted loading gauge. This meant that small four wheel passenger coaches were in use until the end of passenger services in the 1950's. The line remained open for coal traffic and the tight clearances meant that standard locomotives could not be used. In the diesel era the coal trains were hauled by pairs of class 03 and later class 08/9 locomotives with specially reduced roof heights. The Gwendraeth valley line finally closed in March 1996 by which time the coal was carried exclusively in HBA hoppers.

The Midland Railway had a policy of building comparatively small locomotives, pairing these up where heavier trains were being pulled. There was some legitimacy in the idea as two small engines have more wheels than a single larger engine. In more recent times the British Railways Class 20 locomotives, although individually not very powerful, proved to be valuable traction when coupled together 'nose to nose' and operated as a single engine. One of the earliest designs of BR diesel these units have proved to be amongst the longest lived. Officially withdrawn in the late 1990's a number were purchased and refurbished by Direct Rail Services specifically to operate in this configuration.

Isolated gradients were sometimes provided with a 'banking' loco to push trains from behind. These would wait on a siding and join the train as it passed, buffering-up on the move the base of the gradient and, without coupling up, would push the train up the incline, falling back and returning to their depot as the rear of the train crested the rise. This kind of assistance is mainly associated with goods trains but in some locations it was also provided for passenger trains. The Midland Railway, in spite of its 'small engine' policy built the heaviest banking engines, a one-off 0-10-0 engine for the famous Lickey incline in Worcestershire (this is I believe the steepest main line gradient in the UK, at about 1:38). Fig___ The classic banking engine in LMS livery

LMS liveried Licky 0-10-0 banking engine

BR decided that DMU's needed banking on this incline if they stopped at Bromsgrove but not if they were able to take a run at it (the early DMU's sometimes caught fire when dealing with long steep gradients, especially if they had stopped immediately before the climb). The DMU's could make it, given a decent initial speed, but by the time they reached the top they were barely moving at walking speed. In the 1970's pairs of Class 25 engines served for this duty and regularly assisted the DMU's up the hill. More recently EWS has stationed a pair of refurbished Class 66 engines with some kind of modified coupler to assist on the Lickey.

On sections of line with several gradients a second loco was often added to the front of a passenger train, essentially 'double heading' although the added locomotive was usually referred to as a 'pilot engine' and the practice was often called 'piloting'.

Categories of freight traffic

Train speeds were determined by the nature of the wagons being hauled. This in turn affected the timing of trains and it was a help to signalmen to know what kind of train was passing his box. In the steam era different categories of train were indicated 'head codes' consisting of an arrangement of lamps or white disks on the front of the loco. These were replaced by BR with a four character alphanumeric code indicating the specific service the locomotive was hauling. These codes are more fully discussed in the section on Communications, Control and Signals.

There are three basic ways goods can be moved by rail, most efficient and profitable for the railway is a complete train carrying a large quantity of a single commodity from a single source to a single destination. This is called a 'block load', when on the move it is called a 'block train'. Examples of block workings would be coal wagons running from a mine to the docks or a train of iron ore wagons going to a steel works.

The next unit down from the block load is the single wagon carrying a single consignment passing through the system, this is usually referred to as 'single wagon load traffic'. Single wagon load consignments were of course not always only a single wagon. For example a goods train might include a short rake of four or five van loads of empty tins sent from a tin factory to a cannery for filling. Single wagon load traffic was generally profitable as the goods being carried did not need handling by railway personnel en route.

Finally there is 'less than wagon load' or 'sundries' traffic which is made up of many individual small items that the railways carried in a wagon with a lot of other small items. Railway staff usually called these goods 'smalls', short for small consignments, the nature of sundries traffic meant that no specialised rolling stock was required, standard open wagons and closed vans being used. The drawback was the amount of handling it required. Up to the 1940's these small consignments constituted about nine tenths of all goods sent by rail but sundries traffic was always a problem for the railway companies. Although they competed fiercely for the work only the Southern Railway ever managed to make a clear profit on the traffic. For sundries traffic the railway might collect and deliver the goods from the goods yard using it's own delivery wagons but more often than not the consignment would be collected by the addressee from the goods yard. Some companies sub-contracted their sundries traffic for example the Midland Railway sub-contracted the removals and cartage firms Pickfords and Chaplin & Horne to handle this traffic at their London depot.

Block Load Working

The most profitable cargo for a railway is a large quantity of bulk material carried in comparatively simple wagons and moving a relatively long distance. Before the 1960's block trains were rather rare, mainly confined to minerals, but these trades justified the building of specialised rolling stock. There were very large numbers of wagons built to carry coal and quite a few to carry iron ore. A pre-1970 block mineral train was typically made up of sixty or so wagons although some had as many as a hundred four-wheeled wagons in the rake.

Most people think of coal as the classic block train but although up to the 1970's long rakes of coal wagons ran from collieries to docks most actual consignments were single wagon loads (discussed below). Coal was moved primarily in Private Owner wagons until the Second World War and PO coal wagon operational practices are discussed separately. Iron ore is in fact a better example of a block load, no one would want a single wagon load of ore and although a lot of ore was imported there were regular trains of British ores moving from the quarries and mines to the iron and steel works. Most iron ore has always been carried in hopper type wagons, the N Gauge Society offer a nice model of a post war hopper that can be back-dated to represent a 1930's LMS type and the Graham Farish open hopper wagon can be used to make an LNER type as described in the section on Kit Bashing.

Fig ___ LMS ore and BR coal hoppers from N Gauge Society Ore Hopper

 Photo of kit bashed hopper kit as LMS ore and BR coal types

Following Beeching, from the mid 1960's to the mid 1970's, the railways concentrated investment almost entirely on block traffic working, using the term 'company trains' in their promotional literature. In practice few companies had train-loads going to a single destination and block loads were mainly bulk minerals from mines or quarries and inter-city Freightliners carrying containerised general merchandise between a small number of specialised terminals. Coal traffic to power stations constituted a viable block load and the 32 ton HAA hoppers were built specifically for this kind of working. Imported ore moved in block trains to the steel works, steel in various forms was moved between various works for processing in block trains and also moved between the works and the docks. Oil traffic was one area where the block train concept did well, oil companies began signing up for block train workings in the 1960's and have remained regular customers ever since. The boom in road building which began in the 1970's brought increasingly heavy trains of privately owned and leased wagons carrying crushed stone, running between quarries and rail-head distribution points.

Wagon load traffic

Much of the traffic carried by the railways constituted a single wagon load, although the wagon itself might only be part filled by a single consignment. This wagon-load traffic was made up into mixed goods trains which were sent to a marshalling yard where all the wagons for a particular area were formed into new rakes and sent on their way. When they arrived at the marshalling yard associated with the destination the rake was broken up and individual wagons were attached to goods trains going to railway owned goods yards or to private sidings along the line.

Single wagon loads operate in the main between private sidings but where the recipient had no rail connection goods might be held for collection at the local railway goods yard. Examples of single wagon loads might be a wagon load of bricks or some cast iron baths going to a builders merchant, a container for delivery by a railway company road vehicle, or a couple of wagon loads of coal being sent to a gas works as a sample from a from colliery.

There was some specialised stock for wagon load traffic, such as sand wagons and the tin can vans built by British Railways (see Fig ___). Some of this stock could be pressed in to service for other work, for example fruit vans were used as normal vans out of the fruit season and ventilated milk churn vans were pressed into service for vegetables when demand was high.

The classic example of wagon load traffic is coal, which has been the mainstay of the British railway freight trade from the earliest days up until the 1980's.

The bulk of the coal traffic was carried in privately owned wagons, often of elderly design and generally not terribly well maintained. The large number of low capacity elderly private owner coal wagons with only a hand brake and grease axle boxes were an on-going problem for the railways. They required a disproportionate amount of siding space and they could only operate at slow speeds which hindered the introduction of faster goods services on the system. The owners of these wagons were not overly keen to replace them and the world financial situation did not help. The retail price index fell during the inter-war period, providing no incentive for investment by private owners in more modern rolling stock. In the North East the railway companies had a tradition of providing high capacity hoppers for coal traffic but elsewhere the wooden bodied, small capacity private owner wagons was the norm. The GWR built large numbers of steel bodied twenty ton wagons for hire or lease to private owners at preferential rates, but even so the bulk of the traffic remained in private owner wagons. In the event the old wooden bodied private owner coal wagons remained a feature of the British railway scene until after the Nationalisation of the railways in 1948.

Private owner wagons dominated this trade prior to World War Two During the second world war all the PO coal wagons were requisitioned and pooled, after the war BR discouraged the use of PO wagons and in the 1940's and 50's British Railways phased out the inherited stock of the elderly types, replacing them with a huge fleet of steel bodied end-door mineral wagons and large numbers of purpose built hoppers. In the 1960's BR decided to end the services supplying individual coal wagons to traders private sidings, instead building 'coal concentration depots' served by the new high capacity hopper wagons. The traders were then supplied by road. The hoppers serving these depots would often run as part of general goods trains, the coal hoppers being dropped off as required.

British Railways preferred the hopper wagons for loads of bulk materials and although designed with a specific cargo in mind they were frequently pressed into service for alternate traffic, iron ore and coal hoppers were also used for sand and gravel for example. British Railways modified several of their standard hoppers for carrying chemicals, notably the iron ore type offered as a kit by the N Gauge Society. These would travel through the system in small groups as 'single wagon loads' (see also Kit Bashing - N Hopper wagons based on the N gauge Society ore hopper kit).

Fig ___ N Gauge Society Hopper for chemical traffic

 sketch showing 'chemical traffic' modifications to N Gauge Society Hopper

Although it made a steady if small profit the Beeching report in the early 1960's dismissed the single wagon load traffic as uneconomic. The railways began cutting back on their provision for this traffic but by the 1970's it was recognised that single wagon load services were still a viable proposition on a nationalised system as their contribution toward the infrastructure costs was worth having. The railways needed every bit of revenue they could get, competition from the increasingly deregulated road haulage services was increasing and it was becoming apparent that the Freightliner service was not attracting sufficient business. The new motorways were about to worsen that situation and it was realised that a system dealing only with train load services was not going to pay for the railway on which it ran. In spite of the speed restrictions imposed on the old ten foot wheelbase fitted stock the remaining single wagon load traffic was still earning a profit and it was realised that even if it only broke even on costs this would contribute toward the upkeep of the system as a whole. By the 1970's there were still quite a number of old style 'RCH' containers in service and the Speedfreight containers were still being used, all of which travelled as part of the remaining wagon load services. No new containers to these earlier designs were built however as it was recognised that the newer ISO type was set to become the accepted standard.

Experiments had been continuing with air brakes on British Railways and a limited number of prototype vans and open wagons had been built to try the system out. The air-braked HOP32AB hopper wagons (later coded HAA) introduced for the Merry Go Round coal supplies to power stations in 1964 proved successful and the air brake was adopted as standard for all new stock built after 1971.

British Railways was not in a very healthy financial position at this time but the decision was taken to invest in new, longer wheelbase, air-braked vans and a limited number of open wagons for new wagon load traffic services. The new wagons were designed to be capable of operating at speeds of up to seventy five miles per hour (121 kph). In the longer term, if traffic demand was there, similar rated wagons would be built for steel and coal, but for any specialised stock the plan called for private owner vehicles. The resulting air-braked network (ABN) and the subsequent Speedlink and Enterprise services are more fully discussed separately.

During the 1970's agreement was reached with the unions to move the guard from a brake van at the rear of the train to the rear cab of the locomotive. This was possible only on fully fitted trains, and where dangerous chemicals were being moved the brake was still required so the guard would not need to get past the rake in an emergency to place his warning detonators on the line and protect the train from a rear end collision.

The rules regarding this change are complicated, fully-fitted vacuum braked trains seem to have retained brake vans whereas the air braked stock was soon seen running with only a red light on the last vehicle. Some vacuum braked stock was fitted with through 'pipes' for air brakes but this was not common. In the early years the new air braked vehicles were however commonly fitted with a 'pipe' for running with vacuum braked vehicles. Where trains of mixed vacuum and air braked un-piped stock operated the brakes could only be used on one or other set of vehicles and a brake van was added to the rake to assist in controlling the train.

Originally the plan was to keep the older vacuum braked stock running for the residue of the vacuum braked wagon load services until it wore out. In 1984, following several difficult years for the railways, the last of the vacuum braked stock was officially withdrawn from wagon load working. This meant an end to mixed rakes of vacuum and air braked stock and hence saw the end of most of the remaining brake vans on commercial freight trains.

In 1985 the rail unions agreed to single man operation of some freight trains, the first time trains had not had a guard on board for over one hundred and fifty years. They remained a requirement on certain trains, any with unfitted stock in the rake for example, and on trains hauling dangerous chemicals the brake van was retained so no staff would need to walk back past the train in the event of an accident (the guard had to get back down the line to place detonators on the track to warn oncoming trains that there was an obstruction on the line). Chemical trains were still hauling BR standard brake vans well into the 1990's and may still do so today.

In the North East the old British Railways 21 ton coal hoppers coded HTV remained in regular use feeding the last remaining coal staithes at the docks until about 1989 and in Wales the old end door wagons remained in service feeding the coal hoists until 1987. The air-piped, end-door steel open coal wagon coded MDW even then remained in use carrying coal and scrap metal, mainly in Scotland, into the 1990's.

British Rail's small fleet of vacuum braked MSV (ex iron ore) tippler wagons were retained for new or short duration flows of crushed stone traffic, for example between Leicestershire and London in the mid 1980's. I believe their last regular work before withdrawal was for Peakstone on their Peak Forest-Leeds trains until the late 1980's. Peakstone is part of the Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC) Group of companies. The tippler wagons were not tipped at the receiving end but were unloaded by mobile cranes fitted with grabs.

Specialised vacuum braked stock such as the ICI bogie stone hoppers and the railway owned large steel carrying flat wagons, all of which operated in block trains only, continued in use into the mid 1990's. I believe the last of the vacuum braked stock was withdrawn from traffic work in 1998 however some departmental vacuum braked vehicles such as the fleet of Grampus wagons (as available from Parkside Dundas) look likely to continue into the twenty first century.

Air braked wagon load services were introduced in the later 1960's. This evolved into the Speedlink all air-braked service. Increasing competition from the subsidised road network meant that Speedlink was unable to break even on costs and the wagon load service ended in mid 1991. Things were not quite so simple however, not all wagon-load traffic was operated under the Speedlink system, scrap metal and coal shipments were still operated separately as wagon-load services at the time. These low value wagon-load duties still used some vacuum braked stock which was trunk hauled as a vacuum braked block working and tripped separately from the air-braked Speedlink services.

There was some valuable traffic lost as a result of the end of the Speedlink air braked wagon load services and in the run up to privatisation Transrail, one of the three 'train load freight' companies introduced a limited wagon load service under the Enterprise banner. Following privatisation the Enterprise network has been further developed by EWS and has seen a steady growth in tonnage.

Sundries Traffic

Sundries traffic, less-than-wagon load traffic, was the most labour intensive and complex elements of the railway freight business. Individual consignments, perhaps a bicycle in a crate, a set of tractor tyres or a couple of barrels of nails, would be loaded at the local goods yard. Each of these might well be going to an entirely different part of the country. The wagon or van would then travel through the system to a main goods depot where the items would be unloaded and then re-loaded onto vehicles heading for their eventual destination. A further change of vehicle might be required before they ended up in a vehicle heading for the nearest station to the address on the label.

Shifting goods from wagon to wagon in this way is called transhipment and had long been recognised as a source of trouble and expense. One reason the Broad Gauge of Brunel was phased out was to reduce the need for transhipment where the broad met the standard gauge.

The comparatively high charges for sending small items by rail reflected the amount of handling and administration required. Most people in the UK lived within five miles of a railway station and most of the sundries traffic was being handled by these smaller outposts of the system. The LMS and GWR both instituted so called 'Zone' systems in the 1940's to reduce the amount of handling. In the zone system road lorries were employed to collect goods from the surrounding area, usually covering about a 20 mile radius, and the railway business was concentrated at a smaller number of the larger stations. When the consignment reached the nearest large goods shed to its destination it might be held for collection by the addressee, forwarded by road in a railway company vehicle, or perhaps placed in the guards van of a train to be dropped off at the appropriate station on a branch line.

Because of the 'common carriers' legislation the Railways were not allowed to turn away the sundries traffic although by the 1940's it was highly uneconomic. The cuts in local station good yard facilities following the Beeching report in the early 1960's failed to remedy the situation. The general merchandise sundries traffic was transferred to the nationalalised road services by Barbara Castle's transport legislation in the mid 1960's. This meant the end of the local station goods yards and the end of the many thousands of goods road vehicles in British Railways livery.

Railway parcels traffic did continue until 1981, although the road delivery could be by BR vans or by vans operated by the the National Freight Corporation (NFC).

Fig ___ NFC parcels services in the 1970s

Photo of NFC parcels services in the 1970s

I remember British Road Services parcels vans operating from the Mayfield parcels depot in Manchester in the 1970s, although as far as I am aware there was no formal interworking of the railway parcels service and BRS. BR finally abandoned its own parcels service in 1981.

It was with some surprise that I learned of a plan to reintroduce a specialised sundries service between London and Glasgow. Apparently a firm called Advenza Freight has received the go ahead to operate freight trains carrying less-than-wagon load services in late 2003 or early 2004. The initial service will be between London (Barking) and Glasgow (Deanside) and will be marketed under the FreightBus name. This may prove viable as unlike BR they can provide a closely targeted service between a limited number of depots rather than a nation-wide blanket service.


Parcels are a special sub-class of high value sundries traffic. They were usually carried in non-passenger coaching stock either attached to passenger trains or run as a separate train with a standard passenger brake van attached to the rear. Suitable vehicles for parcells traffic include the Lima CCT four wheeler and Siphon G bogie van, the outside framed Siphon G and Siphon H from Dapol, the Graham Farish GUV van and full brake van. In the 1960s some of the Eastern region long wheelbase fish vans (of the type offered by Peco) were transferred to parcels duties, repainted i post 1964 rail blue and branded SPV.

Perishables such as milk and fish were classed as 'parcels' as was market garden produce and all of these often travelled attached to passenger trains in suitable vehicles. In this case 'suitable vehicles' means stock on a ten foot or longer wheel base, fitted with a vacuum brake and classified as 'XP'. British Railways banned all four and six wheeled stock from passenger trains in 1959 but some of these vehicles remained in use for separate parcels services.

Railway parcels traffic, Royal Mail Parcels and letters, as well as newspapers, fish and milk traffic, are considered separately later in the section on Non Passenger Coaching Stock Operations.

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