Life on the Tyne Dock to Consett railway

Steve Shields’s story

It’s hard to believe it’s nearly 40 years since closure but my memories of working on the railway at Consett are as clear now as they were then. I was fortunate enough to to have been a Train Guard and also a Relief Signalman on the [Tyne Dock to Consett] branch over a ten year period. 

Life as a young Guard at 18 year old was varied and challenging, especially when on the Consett line. We would bring coal from the Colliery of the Durham coalfield and Iron ore from Tyne Dock which had travelled by ship from remote parts of Europe, all to feed the beast which was Consett Steel Works. In turn, the steel the Works produced came out by railway on to the shipyards of the Tyne, Wear and Tees. 

The Tyne dock ore trains were always a turn I looked forward to doing, as you never knew how the shift would go. Steam locomotives had disappeared nearly 3 years earlier on the iron ore route so the locomotives we used were the Darlington-built class 24 or type 2s. They where underpowered for the task of the ore trains and had problems with high water temperature, and wet rails and many other [problems] led to breakdowns occurring. The gradients also where a challenge with 1-55 at Beamish and further on at West Stanley 1-35. It was they steepest locomotive worked railway on the British Railway network. 

Leaving Tyne Dock we took the route out towards Bolton Colliery then on the slow lines at Pelaw Junction. Passing Gateshead 52a locomotive shed an array of diesel locomotives could be seen, especially the mighty Deltics. Now on to the Team Valley, and passing the huge marshalling yard at Tyne yard we continued until taking the signal for South Pelaw Junction at the start of the 12 mile journey to Consett.  It was not unknown as we approached the 1-55 gradient at Beamish, especially in autumn with leaves on the line, that we would come nearly to a stand as the wheels slipped on the locomotives. The sanders on the locos were blasting sand on to the rail and we travelled at 2 m.p.h but at least we were still moving. The fire bell by now would be ringing in drivers cab indicating high water temperature.

We would stop to cool the engines down before having another go! Night shift was worse especially, with [the signal] boxes closed. Long signal sections meant that if you stopped completely and needed  assistance from another locomotive the guard would, after protecting his train, set of to a find a public call box to ring the railway control and report the incident. No mobile phones them days but we still survived!

Well, on with journey: onwards to Consett. The next part of the route after Beamish was at Stanley where for a short while the line was level. Then passing Annfield East signal box, further on [past] Ransome and Marles, the ballbearing factory, notable by the two high chimneys there. Coming round the corner at Greencroft summit on nights the glow of the works reflecting in the night sky was clear to see. Down now past the school at South Medomsley through Leadgate then final approach to Carr House West signal box, who routed you on to the Consett Fell signal box.  After bringing the train to a stand, the Consett Steel Works lads waved us on to the gantry where at a given signal the ore wagon doors where released to discharge to the waiting conveyor below.

Some iron ore didn’t always drop out of wagon, especially the powdered stuff. That’s when the steel men with poles would climb in wagon to give the stuck-on a clout to help it on its way. The health and safety boys now would have loved that, as the conveyor below went straight to the furnace I believe. So once we got the all clear after discharging the ore off we departed back to Tyne dock for another load to the mighty Consett steel works. 

Steve Shields, ex Tyne Yard Guard from 1970 to 1976.