Apparent ‘complexity’ made logical sense for the steam era railway

The January Issue of the magazine examined how the Great Western Railway served such a wide range of destinations, and he complex through-coach workings then ensued. to today’s eyes, it might well seem that such provision of through coaches was needlessly largely fixed-formation railway we have, i would be a fair point.

It is always important to view historical events through the lens of how hey appeared at the time rather than rushing to judge them by later standards. The railway is no different, and in the 1930s, the apparent palaver of shunting through coaches on to other trains at various points across the rail network made a huge range of destination to be served with comparatively few trains. This made sense from a capacity point of view, freeing paths for other trains, not least the colossal amount of goods carried by rail at the time.

There were advantages for passengers too. There may have been just a few services from Paddington to Penzance at the time, but on those trains, you could still reach a huge number of places without necessarily having to change trains- Falmouth and St Ives being obvious examples. Coaching stock was plentiful and relatively cheap, and so was labour. At the time, it was considered the best way of serving those places.

It wasn’t, we must emphasise, that Great Western were alone in this practice. All of the ‘Big Four’ and later British Railways used through coaches for the same reasons. Only changing commercial and operational pressures later on shifted the emphasis to trains running in fixed formations between specific points frequently if they wished to travel elsewhere.

It does seem somewhat remarkable in retrospect that with so many trains requiring so much shuffling of formations en route the system worked at all. It is a fair question posed by Robin to ask what happened in the event of severe delays. The fact is though, that the system did work to the requirements of the railway at the time, and broadly speaking it worked well.

Just think of how many people were involved in getting that Penzance to Aberdeen coach all the way from the South West to the Highlands of Scotland. Obviously, there were the locomotive and train crews. There were the signalmen and shunters, the station staff, train planners, controllers- somewhere considerations of locomotive and carriage availability and maintenance had to enter the picture too- and many others. The sheer range of functions and responsibilities needed to ensure safe and punctual arrival of that one coach is almost fractal in its diversity- and on a vast geographical spread too. Imagine how much more complicated it was for parcels and good vehicles!

Comments are closed