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Freight Operations - Private Owner Stock - Overview

Although they add a welcome splash of colour to the railway scene the Private Owner or PO wagon was for many years something of a problem for the railways. In many countries the PO wagons are not used and it is probably worth considering how British private owner wagons came into existence in the first place.

When the first railways were being built there was no real understanding of how they would operate in practice. Concern that the railway owners would hold traders to ransom by virtue of being a virtual monopoly on high speed land transport was a very real issue. The canals had dealt with this problem by banning the canal owning companies from operating their own boats, or legislating to allow private operators to use the canals for a fixed and reasonable fee. This had worked on the canals and a similar approach was taken with the railways. No one objected at the time and although it soon became clear that all the locomotives had to be railway company owned several lines were built with the intention that all goods would be moved in privately owned wagons. The railways then found that operating their own wagons was in many cases preferable, and more profitable. By the 1850's there was so much competition between the railway companies that concern over monopoly control receded, however the provision for the use of PO stock had been written into the legislation required to authorise the building of the lines and the PO wagon remained a feature of the business.

The railway companies found that people tended to hang on to a wagon or van, especially those taken onto a private siding, using it as temporary storage. To get round this they introduced charges, called 'demurrage' that fell due if a wagon was not loaded or emptied and made available for collection within 48 hours. In many cases this made little difference to the users but coal in particular had its own operational needs that often favoured retaining a wagon for some time (coal traffic is discussed separately in the section on Freight Operations - Private Owner Stock).

The charge levied for moving goods by rail was made up of a series of separate fees - There was the hire of the wagon and possibly the hire of a tarpaulin and ropes to cover it, there was a charge for loading and unloading, possibly collection and delivery using railway owned road vehicles and a charge for hauling the wagon through the system. The PO wagon avoided most of these charges, and demurrage, the railway could only charge for the hauling of the wagon from point to point. For some trades the use of PO stock was therefore preferable on financial grounds.

The railways were allowed to turn down any traffic would damage a standard wagon or taint it in such a way that it could not then be used in general traffic. Coal was such a widespread commodity that this rule did not apply however and PO coal wagons were in the majority

The main problem with the PO wagon, particularly the coal wagons, was that they were often built to the most basic permissible design (controlled by the Railway Clearing House, see Historical Background section) and furthermore they were often poorly maintained. Grease lubricated axle boxes remained common on PO stock long after most railway owned wagons had oil filled axle boxes, the grease type were cheaper but tended to overheat and cause problems. This meant that many (if not most) of the PO wagons could only be moved in the slowest of goods trains (typically 20 mph) and they were the most likely vehicles to break down. A severely overheating axlebox could melt the end of the axle right off, depositing the remains of the wagon (with its load) on the track. This would block the line in use until the remains had been cleared away and could even block adjacent tracks if following wagons were derailed. A train which included these older types of wagon had to be stopped every 60 miles or less so that a carriage and wagon inspector could to check every axle box.

As a result there was something of a tradition amongst railway companies to seek to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce the number of PO wagons they had to deal with. The Midland Railway had a serious go at buying all the private owners out, offering their own wagons for lease at favourable rates, but the task proved impossible. The GWR's Felix Pole twenty ton coal wagons were similarly aggressively marketed, these also required a lot less siding space than the old eight and ten ton PO stock, which contributed to the potential savings for the railway company. Tradition, aspects of the legislation appertaining to PO wagons and some operational advantages meant that the PO wagon resisted all these moves. Only in the North East did the provision of coal carrying stock favour the railway owned wagons, but this was by virtue of the railways (notably the NER) investing in high capacity hopper wagons and purpose built 'coal drops' to which these could be operated.

During the Second World War the government requisitioned all the PO coal wagons and any other not particularly specialised PO rolling stock. These were then pooled and their owners paid a set fee to offset their losses. After the war much of this stock was seriously worn out and with the formation of British Railways it was decided to eliminate the PO wagon from the railways (other than for specialised stock such as rail tanks). All the PO coal wagons were bought, including those built in the later war years and immediately after. In the 1950's all the older ex PO stock and any with grease axle boxes were hauled away and burned to get rid of them.

For a time after the war PO wagons then remained something of a rarity, other than for specialised traffic, one exception being the small number of privately owned wagons operating from the continent via the train ferry services.

Not all railway wagons in non private livery were owned by the company who's name appeared on the side. Before the second world war special block-loads were occasionally run usually for seasonal goods. For example blanket firms tended to build up a stock during the summer, these were then dispatched in a single train to the towns ready for the Autumn. On these trains it was not unknown for a tarpaulin or board, painted to advertise the product or its destination, to be fastened to the side of the vans.

In the 1940's and 50's a company called Fry's had a fleet of 150 or so British Railways wagons painted in their livery, unfortunately I am not sure if this was Fry's chocolate or Fry's tea (the tea firm definitely used rail transport).

More common, where a firm had railway company wagons reserved for their use, was a simple 'Return To . . . .' notice, usually above the standard markings in the lower left or right of the body side. On coaching stock a common practice on these reserved vehicles was to fit simple boards on the roof similar to the destination headboards fitted to some passenger stock. Some vehicles with these boards also had a notice painted on the side stating the stock was to work between the factory and a set destination. A pre-war example of this being the GWR Siphon F's and C's used for Harris's sausages from Colne in Lancashire to Newcastle.

BR owned all the former railway company wagon works and tried building stock for leasing to customers, their first effort was a fleet of chemical tank wagons, but by this time the railways were in financial trouble, the massive government investment had not paid off and by the later 1960's BR were actively discouraged from buying new rolling stock. The original legislation regarding PO stock remained on the books and private companies began to offer PO wagons for purchase or hire.

By the early 1970's the wagon builders were competing for this trade and the number of PO wagons types proliferated. These wagons were however being marketed as being in some way preferable to the BR stock, often featuring innovative designs and always built to the highest standards to allow high speed transit. BRT converted some redundant VDA vans in the early 1970's, fitting them with sides made up of four quarter length sliding doors (the central pair being set out to clear the end pair) and painting them in standard BRT blue. Campbell's Soups hired these vans and in 18981 some were rebuilt with canvass curtain sides which bore the colourful Campbell's soup livery. I believe the Campbell's soup vans were run in standard Speedlink services.

Fig___ Campbell's soup van

Sketch showing livery on campbells soup van

I believe Pedigree foods (the pet food people) also had at least one rather similar curtain sided van bearing their livery (this may have been a one-off promotional vehicle however). Unfortunately I only have one photograph of these (in an early 1980's BR advert) which I cannot find and so cannot attempt a sketch. Pedigree went on to hire a fleet of bogie container flats carrying thirty foot long swap bodies in the mid 1980's. The wagons (and possibly the swap bodies) were commissioned by Charter Rail, by the early twenty first century the wagons were in use on bin-liner (containerised rubbish) trains. I asked on the uk.railway newsgroup and David A. Pritichard was kind enough to reply as follows:

All I remember about the Pedigree petfoods train was that they were run as block trains. I believe they were originally run using long wheelbase vans in standard BR bauxite. I think the swap-body vehicles appeared in the early eighties. One odd thing to note is that this train received the highest priority (3-1-1) and was not to be delayed for any reason (hold back the passenger, run the petfood!).

A lot of companies invested heavily in PO wagons, notably the oil companies, only to be faced in the later 1970's with the costs of the change over from vacuum brake to air brakes. Some vacuum braked PO stock was never altered, a notable example being the ICI limestone hoppers built in the 1930's which soldiered on into the 1990's. These wagons operated as block trains and were well maintained so they were able to carry on as long as a loco with a vacuum brake was available to haul them. See Goods Rolling Stock Design - Chassis - Brakes for a photo of the ICI wagons.

By the early 1980's BR was competing with the wagon builders to provide rolling stock for customers. In the mid to late 1980's BR repainted a number of their OAA open wagons in Redland livery (to carry roofing tiles) and some OBA wagons in the livery of Plasmor (for carrying lightweight concrete blocks). Both wagon types were fitted with raised extensions to their ends to allow a double layer of pallets to be carried. Both these firms are still users of rail and employ modified stock to transport their products. For more information on these wagons see Goods Rolling Stock Design - Air Braked PO stock. By this time the brick, tile and concrete block traffic all fell under the Construction sector of train-load-freight so Redland and Plasmoor traffic would have operated as block loads.

By this time the genuine PO wagons tended to be amongst the most modern and sophisticated stock on the system. Companies were investing in mechanical handling equipment, particularly with regard to pallets and later containers, and needed railway stock designed with this in mind.

Fig___ Sliding wall van being loaded with pallets

Modern sliding wall van being loaded by fork lift truck

The end of wagonload services in 1991 put paid to most PO wagon movements, only stock operated by companies able to utilise train-load services (notably the oil companies and aggregates (broken stone) companies) remained in regular use. In 1993 Transrail (one of the immediately pre-privatisation train-load companies, see Historical Background) introduced a limited wagon load service under the Enterprise banner. This service was retained by EWS although I believe most traffic is carried in EWS stock.

Following privatisation there has again been a tendency for the train operating companies to provide rolling stock other than where specialised designs are required. Most of the wagon leasing companies and smaller private wagon builders have disappeared but existing PO stock has remained in use and the channel tunnel means that a proportion of colourful Continental stock is still operating in the UK.

The operation of Private Owner wagons could fill a book in its own right, the notes which follow are only a brief guide.

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