“The Permanent Way”


Oliver Coles

On March 20th the Annual General Meeting of Orton & Tebay Local History Society, held at Orton, was followed by a talk by Len Clark. The speaker has described his life and varied career in Tebay in his autobiography On and Off the Rails: the Life of a Westmorland Railwayman  (Helm Press 2003). In this talk Len focussed up his experience of maintaining the local railway track, the permanent way.

  Over the period he worked in this role, 1960-2003, Len saw many changes in both rail technology and the organisation of its installation and maintenance. He brought along a fascinating collection of track components to illustrate this.

At the start of his career the railway was just beginning to come to the end of an era of steam trains, labour-intensive manual tasks and extremely detailed direction, exemplified by the lengthy standard issue rulebook. Tebay itself was still an important railway centre.  Reliable track maintenance relied heavily on local first-hand knowledge. Thus Len was one of a team of five men with exclusive responsibility for three and a half route miles. The tradition of such track gangs competing for the honour of “Prize Length” had only just ended when Len started work. The standard working week was five and half days. However low basic wages were supplemented by sometimes very lengthy bouts of Sunday overtime work, often at a distance from Tebay. Essential to the work were the many small huts or cabins offering shelter from the weather and a coal stove providing hot water for the essentials of tea and washing filth from hands.  

 Whilst much time and energy was given to keeping the track in good nick, by, for instance, ensuring that the gaps between the ends of the 60 foot long rails were of the approved size, there was also work that was a response to the unplanned:  shovelling snow, clearing ice from Dillicar water troughs so that steam trains could replenish their water supply there, and extinguishing lineside fires sparked by steam engines. Detonators were always carried so that should an obstacle to trains, such as a fallen tree be found, a warning could be given to drivers by clipping the detonators to the rails, resulting in a noisy explosion when the engine’s wheels crushed them. 

 Quite early in Len’s career the long tradition of these practices began to change. The rails themselves were installed in long lengths, and were positioned not with wooden sleepers but by concrete ones. The track layout was simplified as stations and goods yards were closed. Changes to signalling meant that there were no longer signal boxes every few miles. Len, who earlier had worked as an engineman based at Tebay, contrasted the smooth ride of modern trains with the ‘rock and roll’ of steam locomotives at speed. 

The mechanisation of track installation, maintenance and signalling went hand in hand with the ending of track workers being responsible for daily surveillance of short stretches of route. Besides the speed and quietness of modern trains meant that workers on the line were only really safe when none was scheduled and the track engineers had what is known as possession. In the days of steam, the engines’ noise usually provided adequate warning of their approach, often removing the need for a “sentry”. 

The daily walking of the route has been replaced by far less frequent inspections, and the prospect of these ending completely, with the condition of the track being assessed instead entirely by specially-equipped trains. However the old fashioned way would, Len pointed out, almost certainly have averted the major Pendolino derailment at Lambrigg, on Len’s own former ‘length’, in 2007.