Real life breakdowns

Hello all Sorry, a bit of topic. As I was born in the late 50's, I have very little memories of live steam (although I do remember seeing a Q1 near Guildford on the way to school). However, my mum reminds me we used to go to Cornwall for our holidays as kids on a steam hauled train."Nasty, dirty things" see says!! "Always breaking down as well" Which brings me to the point of this E Mail. If a train broke down in the middle of nowhere in those days, how would the crew let anyone know?? A long walk to the nearest house to make a phone call, however I remember not all houses having phones when I was a kid.. Just curious Thanks Rob

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The first job of the crew (the guard technically) would be to lay down detonators to alert any trains following it on the line. The fireman would probably walk along the line to the nearest signalbox. They were often spaced at intervals of only a few miles. In any case if a train was late passing a box, a signalman would confer with his opposite number as to the status of the engine, etc (whether it was short on steam and so on).

Often, the signalman would get a member of the station staff, or the track gang to walk towards the train. Once they had met the fireman coming in the opposite direction, they would return to the station and get the signalman to arrange for a engine to procede wrong line to rescue the locomotive.

Very long winded, yes, but vital to maintain the safe running of the railway.

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John Ruddy

trains were passed from signal box to signal box by bell codes, thus the signalman would only accept a train if the line was free. if a train didn't arrive then he would not accept any traffic and send a 'line blocked' code to the previous signal box.

If you go on a preserved line you can hear the bell codes being rung as trains are approaching and often the signalman will talk to you about it (they do on severn valley anyway).

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old git

Although steam locos. did have problems, complete failures were fairly uncommon. Often, the failure was not total, and the train could limp forward to the next signal box or station, to request assistance or a replacement loco. Sometimes this might involve a stop within a section for several minutes whilst raising enough steam to continue.

But, if there was a total failure, someone - usually the fireman, would have to walk to the nearest signal box or station. The signalling system was designed not to allow another train to enter the section whilst the failed train was there, but the signalman could authorise an assisting loco. to proceed at low speed until it reached the failed train.


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Bevan Price



An unusual case of breaking down in the middle of nowhere occurred on the closed section of the Southern line across Dartmoor in early 1969. Snow had blocked the Western route and but a Loco and snow plough managed to make the closed line passable. A freight train was subsequently dispatched from Plymouth. Unfortunately the loco failed.The signalling and telephone systems had been removed fairly quickly after closure the previous Spring so help had to be sought from a house ,the second man having the task of finding one after a trudge through the snow. It is said that the householder was sceptical at first of this person claiming to have come from a train on a closed railway and thought he might be an escaped convict from HMP Dartmoor.

The train did eventually make it to Exeter after another loco was sent out. A subsequent fallout from this was a an item in the local press bemoaning British Railways for opening the line to suit themselves having deprived the community of its railway. The tracks were torn up fairly quickly after supposedly on orders from London to prevent any reoccurence of using the second string to Plymouth and Cornwall.


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the whole point is Railways ALWAYS had signal boxes every couple of miles (even in the middle of nowhere)

AND if a train entered but didn't leave a section no more would be allowed to pass

so the Fireman had to do the walk

whilst the Guard placed the detonators

-- Merry Christmas

From Gray The Madcaravanner from Chesterfield

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You don't have to be mad but it helps

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I was an operator on a weed-killing train in the sixties when our loco (Class 33) broke down on the four line stretch approaching Basingstoke. We could see following trains backing up on the straight line behind us. The problem was that our pump coach was only fitted with three-link couplings and vacuum braking, so Control had to find a suitably fitted replacement loco -a fairly rare beast by then. Within twenty minutes, another class 33 backed down the line and took us and our failed loco in tow, while the delayed trains behind us were shifted to the slow line.. Pretty impressive work don't you think? I shall never foreget the looks of sheer hate from the passengers that passed it though!

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Not true. There could be quite some distance of many miles between signalboxes particularly on rural lines where traffic was light

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