Rivers of Steel that Transformed the World:

Steve Shields continues his story

My previous story told of a journey from Tyne Dock to Consett with the old iron ore trains. In this one I hope I give the readers some insight of what trip it was on the steel trains that we moved from the works.

On the evening of 11/03/1971 I was rostered along with my driver Fred (Gabby Cooper) and second man Gordon Allen to the 22.00 hours night shift  to Consett which involved doing two trips from Tyne Yard. These where empty bogie bolster type wagons that where designed for moving  steel traffic by rail. Our destination was the Low Yard at Consett – this was near the Grove area of Consett – returning to Tyne Yard with the loaded steel trains made up of shipyard plate for the Swan Hunter on the Tyne and Austin Pickersgill on the Wear. We also took steel for Smith’s Dock at Middlesborough, on the Tees.

Our locomotive for the turn was D6956 a English Electric built loco, a workhorse of an engine when working the heavily graded Consett line. Our train number was 9P32: all freight trains are given a designated headcode and this was ours. My guards’ log book records departing with 18 empty bogie wagons from Tyne up sidings at 23.06 hours. I’ve noted the weather as a dry, fine night.  This was a bonus as we climbed up into North West Durham, as a dry rail is better than a wet one.

As I say I was alone in the darkness of the guards’ van; the conditions were 19th Century to say the least, with no electricity only a headlamp and a coal fire, while the driver sat in his warm cab with lighting and a cooker to make tea! Little had changed in 100 years for us tail-end Charlies. 

After a good run to Consett we arrived at the Low Yard, where our return trip was waiting our arrival. The train had been shunted out by the Consett Iron Company staff and also our own B.R. staff, and after examining my train and carrying out the all important brake test we departed at 23.50 hours according to my log records. We did two trips that night but it was on the return part of the shift where the fun could start.

The maximum load we could lift from the Low Yard was 780 tonnes all together. These where heavy trains and the heavily graded 1-35 on the Consett branch meant we had to have a good brake prior to departure from Consett. The B.R staff at Consett where great railway lads. Driver Les Robson and his brother Wilson, Guard Stan Sharpe are only  few I could name here. They would also make sure the train brakes where in good order before departure. 

Consett Low Yard engine: the driver was Les Robson and the Guard was Alan Peart

We set of for Tyne Yard with our train of 12 loaded steel wagons and a total weight including the loco and brake van was just under 500 tonnes. Now, the line from Consett North to Consett station was on a rising gradient so the assistance of the little yard diesel loco was required to give us a push to the top of the bank. Once at Carr House West signal box the little banking engine was no longer required. We were now on the move, passing through Leadgate and the Jolly Drovers pub on the right, where I noticed the lights where still on in the bar: could there be a lock in I wonder, with a smile.

Consett North signal box

Now we were approaching South Medomsley and climbing towards Greencroft summit where we could put additional handbrakes on the train if needed. Pontop Pike TV transmitter over to the left of the railway was well light with its red lights,  then after Greencroft the Ransome and the Marles ball bearing factory was on the right. We make our way to Annfield Plain, where we could apply or readjust any wagon brakes that were needed before descending further. 

The type of brake we had on the train was the vacuum system; this had been in use since the 19th Century and it was a good system but it took longer to apply to the train when operated by the driver. In addition to the vacuum brake the Guard would apply the hand brake in the Guards’ van. Working on the railways is like no other job I can imagine, and as train crew you worked as a team. Guard, Driver and on occasion the Secondman – a name change from Fireman after steam locomotives went.

My driver Freddie Cooper had the nickname  Gabby Cooper after the American actor and the fact that Fred never shut up. The Secondman, Gordon Allen’s, nickname was Have Cup Will Travel.  This was after a TV programme in the 60s called Have Fun Will Travel, which starred actor Richard Boone. Gordon never brought any food, only his cup, but would always ask if you had a spare sandwich and, of course, a cup of tea. 

We had the utmost respect for the Consett branch, as too many railwaymen had lost their lives while working trains over it. Most incidents occurred on the return trips to South Pelaw, which is 12 miles of falling gradient so brakes that worked where essential, as your life and that of your colleagues would depend on it.

Driver Fred was steady away as we descended down the branch, and passing Annfield East signal box I looked back out of the window and noticed the Signalman peering through the window checking  the all important tail lamp was lit with a red light. Approaching West Stanley the 1-35 gradient is now the steepest on the line near Oageys Curve, a local name I believe. I’d already applied the guards van handbrake to keep the couplings from snatching.

View from the Guards’ Van

Now we were running along Stanley level at Shield Row, and after this we continued towards Beamish with a gradient of 1-55 here. As we travelled I looked out from my window along the train and what an incredible  sight there was. The brake blocks as they where coming on the wagons created a St. Elmo’s fire-type effect: these circles of flame appeared along the train. Now we were approaching Beamish tunnel, then passing the signal box on the left, a lonely out post if ever there was one, set in the woods. Then through Pelton and finally approaching South Pelaw and Ouston Junction. In the cold night air the smell of the brake blocks could be noticed drifting along the train. 

Beamish signal box with a class 46 diesel passing by

Passing South Pelaw, if the signal was green it indicated we had a clear run along the down slow to Tyne Yard our final destination. If the signal was a single yellow the next one would be red. If you could not stop because of a heavy load is steel you would pass the signal at danger as a runaway train, and go into the sand drag. This was a section of line which was there to protect the the main line if another train was coming over Ouston Junction. However, thankfully on this night we had a clear run all the way to Tyne Yard, down the reception lines. Here our shift had come to a end, another one over but we would return the next night and do it all again. 

For me, it is a great pleasure to revisit this early part of my railway career: so many good memories of a long gone industry. 

Stephen Shields, ex-BR Guard, Tyne Dock to Consett line, now Saltburn by the Sea.