Over 70 Years Since War Was Declared But What Part Did Our Railways Play?
By far the largest part of the burden of war production fell on the railways.
The materials to build the new war factories, the raw materials to make the munitions of war, the men and women who fashion them as well as the finished products, had all to be carried on the railways.
Loads ranging from the heaviest naval guns and tanks to the lightest rifles and pieces of equipment rolled along the railways. Aircraft, petrol and fuels; ammunition, bombs, mines, shells and foodstuffs, the list is endless.
Heavy consignments were continually being carried to British shipyards, helping them to achieve new records in building and repairing merchantmen and warships.
Vast tonnages of high explosives were handled through the railways’ freight services, thousands upon thousands of tons of dangerous goods were safely conveyed.
In addition to railway equipment sent abroad at the beginning of the war, one hundred and forty-three powerful British railway freight locomotives, specially equipped for service overseas, with tenders and the necessary spare parts were despatched. 1,600 steel-framed 12-ton wagons were built and sent overseas in double-quick time. By working day and night shifts, the 1,800 parts required to complete each wagon were fitted together at the railway assembling works so that a new wagon was turned out every 37 minutes!
Railways assisted in the construction of the new factories. Bricks and building supplies were conveyed as fast as they could be absorbed. Sidings were laid into fields, signal boxes built, new factory stations erected and services arranged both inside and outside the factory areas. Some of the factories were served by main lines, others, some miles from the nearest towns, were linked by specially built spur lines. The breaking-up of industry into dispersed units for strategic reasons meant that instead of carrying materials, goods, and workers in bulk into large centres, the railways had to cater for smaller consignments to many additional destinations. Often the raw materials required by the factories were heavy while the products are light. This meant that the wagons which bring the raw materials to the factories were not suitable to distribute the finished product, so that the demand on transport was a double one.
Seven thousand additional trains were run every week to convey workers to and from Government factories. At one factory alone nearly a quarter of a million train journeys were made by workers in over 400 trains every week. At another factory 200,000 people travelled by over 350 trains.
Millions of people also worked at privately-owned factories on war work. These were carried by the railways’ ordinary train services, augmented as necessary. During 1942, 400 million passenger journeys were made by the holders of Workmen’s Tickets.
Amongst the heaviest freight trains were “block” coal trains worked by the L.M.S. from Midland collieries to the South. These were hauled by Garratt locomotives with 86 13-ton wagons which, together with the brake van, exceed 1,400 tons. Iron ore trains weighing as much as 1,700 tons were hauled by two L.N.E.R. locomotives of medium size. G.W.R. locomotives of the 2-8-0 type also hauled heavy loads such as 49 20-ton wagons of coal between Swindon and London, the gross weights including the brake van being 1,490 tons.
Locomotives of the British railways attained huge mileages, 100,000 miles being frequently run between general repairs. On the G.W.R. freight engines recorded 1,500 miles between Mondays and Fridays, and L.M.S. diesel locomotives work 144 hours continuously every week. Express passenger locomotives which prior to the war worked exclusively on passenger trains were being used for the haulage of war goods trains. The stock of locomotives became more of a standard design and engines were being used over much wider areas, resulting in a much smaller variety of spare parts, less time required for fitting them, and less manufacture. Strenuous efforts were made to speed up repairs to railway locomotives and to keep as many in traffic as long as possible without overhaul.
Spread throughout Britain there were 544,715 railwaymen and 105,703 railway women. They were without 102,984 of their colleagues released to join H.M. Forces; 90,000 trained as Home Guards and 170,000 fully trained in Civil Defence. The Railways were among the first to form their own L.D.V. (Home Guard) units; hundreds of thousands of railwaymen volunteered.
Amongst the units of the Army almost exclusively manned by trained personnel drawn from the railways were the Docks Groups, Movement Control units, and Railway Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers.
Before the war the railways employed 26,000 women, mainly in the clerical grades, as shorthand typists, machine telegraph and telephone operators, and in smaller numbers as carriage cleaners, waiting-room attendants, cooks and mess-room attendants, crossing keepers and office cleaners.
Since the outbreak of the war women were trained and employed in many other trades as men were released to the Forces. Their employment was under a national scheme, and, by agreement with the trade unions, women employed on manual work formerly done by a man were, after an agreed period, paid the standard rate of the man replaced.
At passenger and goods stations women handled parcels and merchandise. They checked and weighed goods and acted as porters, signalmen and lampmen and “man” the horses and delivery vans and acted as stablemen. Women also did the work of booing and enquiry clerks and announce, by loud speaker, the arrival and departure of trains and other notices to passengers. Women also acted as ticket collectors and cleaners on the London tubes.
In the engine sheds and docks the work is usually heavy. Women were employed as loaders and porters and on engines as oilers, greasers and firelighters. They assisted in the maintenance of the permanent way, and in the workshops they did useful work in most trades and were able to undertake skilled work as core-makers, coppersmiths, concrete mixers, turners, welders, etc.
The British railway woman adapted herself quickly to new surroundings and work which was very different from her pre-war occupation, and she took her share of night work. In many cases her husband was in the Forces, and she showed a marked devotion to duty, sometimes in difficult circumstances during and after enemy air activity. She did her turn of duty and went home to the cares of a house and children. She made a vitally important contribution to the war effort.
The zoning of supplies, district by district, to make each area of the country as self-supporting as possible, meant the re-arrangement of hundreds of freight services. The increase of home-grown foodstuffs, with millions of acres of land under cultivation, resulted in increasing demands for railway transport. Fertilisers, seed potatoes, sugar beet, tractors and farming equipment, as well as land workers, were catered for, frequently by special trains.
Meanwhile, owing to the shortage of cups and glasses for refreshments at stations, amounting to 5,000,000 cups, passengers were advised to carry their own drinking utensils!!!
Compiled By Chris Mills with extracts from ‘Facts About British Railways In Wartime’ : British Railways Press Office, 1943