Coal yards

Not being old enough to have seen the coal yard in action as a regular
feature on my local railways, and seeing them on just about steam-era
layout ever, exactly how would they generally be laid out?
I realise that there's probably a prototype for everything but in the
main, would the staithes have the opn eside to the track or not. Would
the scales etc be in the office?
TIA, Del.
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Reply to
Del The Obscure
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Coal yards should be in the next update to the goods website thingy - probably in about two weeks - If its urgent I could send you the text?
The site (still in rough) is at
formatting link
Next update (in a few days) just tidies the existing stuff up and adds bits on PO wagon operations. After that is uploaded I will make a start on the yards of all types.
If I get some time later I'll try and sumarise the coal yard scene
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Unedited and not updated text re coal yards
Coal Yards
Coal has always been the single most important traffic on the railways and a long siding solely for this was virtually a standard feature of any goods yard, often feeding a separate area owned or leased by the trader. These firms often also traded as builders merchants, in which case they would have a separate area to store their goods either in the railway company yard or in a private yard close by, possibly served by a separate siding. The coal merchant might be a sole local trader with a single horse drawn wagon of his own or he might operate a fleet of vehicles driven by two-man teams hired for the work. A small country coal yard would receive perhaps three or four wagon loads a week, a yard serving a built up area might get through ten wagon loads a day.
Coal was usually loaded directly from the rail wagons onto the carts or lorries of the coal merchant. If the merchant was a sole operator he would take his vehicle in to the yard to load, but where there were men employed to do the work the carts or lorries would first be weighed-in on a weigh-bridge, then after loading they would be weighed-out again to check the load tallied. One dodge was to wash down the lorry before turning up to load, so when it went over the weigh-bridge inwards it had some additional weight of water on board. The water dripped and dried during loading so when they went out they actually had more coal loaded than was indicated. Sometimes the lads would turn up with perhaps five sacks, which they claimed were 'left on board from the previous day', the trader had to check these sacks as they might be full of bricks and rubble. Once in the yard the cart would be pulled up close alongside the rail wagon and filled coal sacks were then placed to form a wall around the area where the drop-door of the railway wagon would fall, the trick was to avoid getting the coal on to the floor, where it was difficult to shovel up.
The main trade was domestic coal delivered in heavy sacks, small factories and the like with no rail connection of their own would take delivery of bulk coal in horse drawn wagons. These were usually small two-wheeler tipping types fitted with a drop-down tail-gate and they used the yard weigh-bridge to check the load. As with the domestic deliveries these carts would be pulled up close by the wagon.
The railway wagon side door was released and fell outwards, on the domestic delivery side the delivery man and his mate would use shovels to fill the coal sacks and stack these on the wagon. The standard hundredweight coal sack was a proper 'measure' and carried a small silver disk to indicate it's size. A simple scale was supplied on the delivery vehicle to get the weight right and a weights and measures inspector would typically allow a short-fall of a couple of pounds weight maximum per sack. In the days before mechanical coal cutting 'grading' of coal was not quite so stringent, slabs of up to a hundredweight might appear in a colliery wagon, coal hammers (small lump hammers), were carried by the lads to break up big lumps of coal in the wagons. After the war when drilling and trepanning machines came in the big lumps disappeared and a more even if smaller size of coal appeared. Each wagon carried a proportion of crushed coal, small lumps and dust, commonly called 'slack'. This stuff was useful for banking-up a fire so it would burn all night but it could not command a high price, so the lads would try and make sure each sack carried a proportion of the slack. In built-up areas a sixteen or twenty ton wagon could easily be emptied in a day, possibly by a single delivery vehicle. The lads would load up perhaps 100 sacks, take the loaded wagon out over the weigh-bridge, deliver the coal, return and repeat the exercise again. Up to the 1950's every hose on a street would receive a delivery so the turn-round could be quite quick and four or five loads would empty a wagon. In built-up areas the yard might get through between three and five hundred tons of coal a week. Coal rationing introduced during the Second World War gave each house five hundredweight of coal a month, which simplified deliveries.
By the 1950's there were very few of the older 8-ton capacity 5-plank private owner coal wagons left and these had all gone by the 1960's.
There would usually be a stockpile somewhere in the coal yard, in country locations and in areas outside the North East the storage facilities generally consisted of bunkers made from old sleepers, or more recently 45 gallon steel drums filled with rubble. These drums could be stacked three or four high in larger dumps. In larger yards the stockpiles would usually be set back from the track to allow delivery vehicles access to the railway wagons. In smaller yards the stockpile might be in a series of bunkers close by the track so the wagons could be emptied directly into them, the traders cart or lorry could be loaded from wagons further up the siding. Coal was stockpiled before Christmas as no coal would be supplied for a week or so afterwards due to the holidays. Coal is not a standard commodity, different mines and even different seams in a single mine, produced different qualities of coal. A typical coal merchant would therefore require a series of bunkers in which to store the different types he sold. Also unusual or expensive coals, such as the very hard anthracite, might be stockpiled as demand for these was not great.
Getting the coal to the stock pile was often a laborious exercise. It was not uncommon for planks to be laid across the top of the wagon and across to the coal pile and a wheelbarrow would then be used to transfer the coal. Man power in Victorian and Edwardian days was relatively cheap, and these methods continued in use up into the early 1960's in some yards.
It should be noted that coal is not piled deeper than about 10 feet as this might lead to spontaneous combustion in the pile, smokeless fuel is less prone to this however so a modern `coal' dump might have this fuel piled quite high.
Fig ___ Large coal yard behind a passenger station
Coal wagons sometimes had damaged side doors (these would be marked with a large white X), which meant they had to be unloaded through the end or bottom door, a rather dangerous practice by all accounts. The coal would then have to be dug-out fro m beneath the wagon and either loaded into sacks on the delivery vehicle or shifted to the piles in wheelbarrows. Shovelling from the floor a good man could fill a sack held open on the cart by his mate with four shovel full's, each of over 20 lbs. The coal was thrown up and fell into the sack, which required skill as well as strength.
After the war horse drawn delivery carts were increasingly replaced by ex war department lorries, typically flat-fronted Bedford's. These ex army lorries often had a circular hatch on the passenger side of the cab roof, perhaps thirty inches across, fitted with a simple flat cover, which can be represented by a disk of 20 thou card. The introduction of the MOT tests in the later 1960's further reduced the profit margins for smaller traders and contributed to closure of smaller coal yards.
Prior to nationalisation individual traders bought coal by the wagon load from individual collieries, when the coal industry was nationalised this ended and the National Coal Board arranged deliveries. In talking to coal merchants who operated at that time it is widely reported that the better coals, such as those from Barnsley Main Colliery, were directed to the South East. Another problem was that the nationalised railways were less willing to shunt coal yards following the Freight Train Plan of the later 1960's. A larger yard with perhaps three or four long sidings had been shunted twice a day, this went down to once a day and then the railway refused to shunt at all, only collecting any empty wagons that happened to be at the end of the rake. The traders still had to pay demurrage on any wagons retained more than 48 hours however.
Bottom discharge using hopper wagons or the bottom doors on standard wagons was a feature of railways in the North East, much less common elsewhere although sometimes seen in industrial areas. Bottom discharge requires either an excavated `drop' or a raised section of track run over a set of bunkers into which the wagon discharges. They are often found where the track was conveniently elevated, running along the side of a hill or leading out to cross a river valley. Where there was no suitable natural depression it the North Eastern Railway built ramps leading up to a raised section of track above a row of bunkers. The ramps were commonly earth banks and the clearance under the timbers supporting the track might be as little as six feet. Earth banks take up quite a lot of room so it might be better to make up a timber framed structure as shown in the drawing.
Fig ___ Coal drops
Hopper discharge is easy and economical but coal drops are expensive to build so under Beeching BR instituted a system based on a small number (only 292 nation wide) of specially built `House Coal Concentration Depots'. These were built from about 1965 and all were completed by about 1970.
These depots do not usually store much coal, they mainly serve as loading points for road lorries supplying the coal merchants. The concentration depot supplied local traders with coal either in bulk or ready-bagged for sale, the trader was expected to arrange his or her own transport from the depot to his yard. In the depots where coal is stored in some of the bays a mechanical shovel is provided to load the lorries. The older bunkers of the NER and other companies were usually brick-built (occasionally wood in old privately owned installations) but BR used concrete and steel for new installations. House coal was delivered mainly in 21 ton hopper wagons but also in a range of other hopper types such as the sand/iron ore hoppers available in simple kit form from the N Gauge Society. Hopper wagons used for this service were often marked `HOUSE COAL CONCENTRATION' on the side and a typical installation could handle eight or ten wagons at one time.
Fig ___ BR 21 ton coal hoppers
In Stockport the old coal depot had both open sidings for loading road carts and a set of coal drops (I believe these two sets of facilities were operated by different coal merchants but I am not certain on that point). The coal drop was finally demolished in the mid 1980's to make way for a leisure complex however there are a couple of photographs in the Stockport library collection. This structure was built on the side of a hill with concrete supporting walls for the coal cells roughly twenty to thirty foot high and spaced at about twenty foot intervals. Twin tracks were carried along the top supported on steel girders with wooden decking surrounding them. The working area was covered by a simple roof (with no sides) supported on metal posts, for a model the Ratio corrugated roof would do rather well for this.
The coal was shifted from the cells by mechanical shovel and dropped into lorries or bagged using a separate hopper on a metal framework with a measuring chute fitted to the base. In a few locations the coal cell itself held a hopper and measured bagging device but these seem to have been the exception rather than the rule.
It was usual to have a cast plate about two foot square above each bay marked with a number or letter, 1,2, or A, B etc. This number or letter was also often painted on the dividing bay walls in black paint about eighteen inches high. Those I remember were all single-sided, that is the lorries had to back-up into the bay to load, the rear wall extended right up to the track level. These were all located on a hillside however so open drops may have existed elsewhere.
Although the new coal depots offered coal ready-bagged as well as in bulk this system proved to be somewhat unpopular. The coal trader had to make his own arrangements for road delivery to his own depot, this meant many traders simply switched to road delivery. They did tend to continue to use their existing premises however, although mechanical handling was introduced in most yards during this time. In my youth I lived in a relatively rural area. The coal trader operated from my local station and made deliveries for about four or five miles maximum. In the 1950's and 60's, three or four 16 ton mineral wagons would normally be found on the single siding behind one of the platforms, which also served for any goods arriving at the station. There was a small stockpile set back from the track across the yard.
With the shift to road delivery for coal and the end of general goods handling by the railways the yard became the sole preserve of the coal merchant. Large tipper lorries emptied into the stockpile, by now entirely made up of rubble-filled oil drums. The coal was then loaded by a four wheeled mechanical shovel into a steel hopper arrangement underneath which was a platform set at the same height as the lorry floor. The bottom of the hopper had a bag-filling attachment fitted which simplified and speeded up the processes of loading a lorry.
The early mechanical shovels were basically agricultural tractors. Early hydraulic systems were unreliable and these tractors had a frame on the front end supporting a pulley, the shovel being lifted and lowered by a wire linked to a winch drum mounted on the lower right hand side of the engine.
Fig ___ Early mechanical shovel
As hydraulics became more reliable the more modern 'JCB' type shovels were introduced in the late 1960's and by the late 1970's much larger purpose built machines were in regular use.
With the decline of coal as a domestic heating these drops were often pressed into service for shipping other materials such as sand and gravel. In 1982 there was a major re-organisation of railway coal services with a dramatic reduction in the number domestic coal concentration depots, less than a hundred remaining in service. Some of the redundant coal drops were then used for unloading crushed road stone from PO 50 ton hopper wagons.
Speedlink Coal was the first Railfreight business to be sectorised, a process completed in early 1988, it deals with mined coal and processed `smokeless fuels' in hopper wagons or the newer container (e.g. Cobra) type wagons. The introduction of Speedlink Coal saw a return to deliveries to private yards and there is a machine called an 'over rails under loader' which allows hopper to be used without a 'drop'. This is a mobile unit, rather resembling a farm elevator, which is slipped under the wagon and feeds the coal up into road lorries or onto a stockpile. In the late 1980's occasional wagon loads of coal became less of a feature of the mainstream Speedlink trains with the introduction of a separate Speedlink Coal Network, specialising in coal deliveries to domestic distribution depots and smaller industrial users. This service was abandoned with the end of Speedlink in the early 1990's but services for larger customers who required viable train-load deliveries were maintained.
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Very useful article. Thanks.
The GWR didn't use hoppers for coal. Do you know what the drops at Bridgenorth were used for?
Reply to
Christopher A. Lee
'Twas Sun, 14 Dec 2003 21:54:12 +0000, when decided to declare:
Thanks Mike! That answers just about every question I had!
Reply to
Del The Obscure
Not sure - I'll look through what I have. If it was after the mid 1960's it could be a BR coal concentration depot - See revised section on Freiaght Ops - Coal, should be up by the end of this week (all being well, I post it all on CD to a friend with broadband for uploading, the whole site is currently 24mb and that about a quarter of the whole thing I think).
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