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.
At the start of
his career the railway was just beginning to come to the end of an era
trains, labour-intensive manual tasks and extremely detailed direction,
exemplified by the lengthy standard issue rulebook. Tebay itself was
important railway centre. Reliable
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
miles. The tradition of such track gangs competing for the honour of
Length” had only just ended when Len started work. The standard working
was five and half days. However low basic wages were supplemented by
very lengthy bouts of Sunday overtime work, often at a distance from
Essential to the work were the many small huts or cabins offering
the weather and a coal stove providing hot water for the essentials of
washing filth from hands.
much time and energy was given to
keeping the track in good nick, by, for instance, ensuring that the
between the ends of the 60 foot long rails were of the approved size,
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
fires sparked by steam engines. Detonators were always carried so that
an obstacle to trains, such as a fallen tree be found, a warning could
to drivers by clipping the detonators to the rails, resulting in a
explosion when the engine’s wheels crushed them.
early in Len’s career the long tradition
of these practices began to change. The rails themselves were installed
lengths, and were positioned not with wooden sleepers but by concrete
track layout was simplified as stations and goods yards were closed.
signalling meant that there were no longer signal boxes every few
who earlier had worked as an engineman based at Tebay, contrasted the
ride of modern trains with the ‘rock and roll’ of steam locomotives at
of track installation, maintenance and signalling went hand in hand
ending of track workers being responsible for daily surveillance of
stretches of route. Besides the speed and quietness of modern trains
workers on the line were only really safe when none was scheduled and
engineers had what is known as possession. In the days of steam, the
noise usually provided adequate warning of their approach, often
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.