61 Wagons Roll Terry McCarthy April 2018

At our meeting in April Terry McCarthy related the history of the humblest member of railway rolling stock, namely the coal wagon. These short two axled wagons, which initially could carry up to 10 tons of freight, were used right from the start of the railways to transport coal directly from the mines to the various towns and industrial centres served by the network at the time. They thus had a very important role in providing the energy necessary for the industrial revolution to blossom. In fact many of the early railway lines were primarily developed to transport coal and other freight, rather than to carry passengers. The vast majority of the early wagons belonged to the private mine owners who were responsible for their maintenance and ensuring they were safe to operate on the railways. This caused problems for the railway companies who had no control over the condition of the wagons and who had the uneconomic task of returning empty wagons to their respective owners. In 1918 there were over half a million coal wagons in use, of which 80% were in private ownership.

This state continued more or less unchanged for more than 100 years until 1939 when the entire pool of coal wagons were taken over by the then Railway Executive. The earliest wagons which were equipped with side or end doors were very rudimentary with the bodies being made of wood. The buffers were solid blocks of wood, the primitive brakes had wooden brake shoes and the wagons were coupled together by loose chains. From the late 1890’s to the early 1920’s a number of regulations were issued which required the provision of sprung metal buffers, cast iron brake blocks, improvements to the operation of the hand brakes and better couplings between wagons.

After WW2 British Rail produced a specification for a standard all metal welded mineral wagon with a capacity of 16 tons of which about a quarter of a million were built. In 1955 it was decided that all mineral wagons should be fitted with continuous vacuum brakes, but in 1962 after Beeching it was decided that air braking was the way forward. The desire for greater load capacity and efficiency led to BR introducing in 1960 a 24.5 ton welded steel wagon for use with so called ‘block trains’ which were devoted entirely to delivering coal to individual power stations. These so called ‘ hopper wagons’ could run at 60mph and used their bottom opening doors to discharge their loads through openings between the rails. In the 1990’s larger wagons carried on a pair of 2 axled bogies with a capacity of 100 tons were introduced for power station deliveries . These wagons could run at 75mph and would discharge their loads at the power station without stopping as the train moved slowly over the unloading pits. It is somewhat ironic that having taken well over a hundred years to develop a very efficient and economical way of delivering coal to power stations , the demand for this service is rapidly diminishing as coal fired power stations are being withdrawn from service.