On the British railway network there is one place that I love more than any other. It is a place I have been in contact with throughout most of my life, it is a place that has fired my interest in railways and it is the place that inspired me to start my PhD. Most people’s favourite railways spots are usually stations, places where they journey to and from daily, where they interact with the staff or have memories of sitting excitedly as a child waiting for the train to whisk them off on holiday, to school or the fair. My favourite railway location is somewhere that I have never seen, touched or heard operate in the flesh because it was scrubbed from the railway map in 1969, 13 years before I was born. (There is a video at the end of the post though) It is lost from railway history and in the minds of many is forgotten. I am talking about the Marshalling Yards at Feltham which is now a wasteland occupied by joggers, dirt-bikers and adventurers. The site of the yard isn’t strictly speaking open public, it being owned by Network Rail. But if you know where the rather large hole in the fence is, you can get in.
But why do I love this place? Well firstly, I used to live very near to the site and went jogging there myself. On a good day I reckon that I could do a circuit of the site in about 40 minutes. Further, I have to be honest that my interest in passenger traffic is close to none. I don’t know why this is really. I suppose I see it as mundane. Contrastingly, freight traffic has always struck me as far more dynamic, complex and industrial, and that has always appealed to me. Therefore, to have the overgrown site of the Feltham yard 15 minutes walk from my house was always fascinating and exciting (the overgrown state is shown). It was my fascination with the site that spurred my interest in doing a PhD on the London and South Western Railway (LSWR). I had never been interested in the LSWR before 2006 as I perceived the company as being a strictly passenger line. Indeed before that point, what had encapsulated me were the northern lines, particularly the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). The discovery that the Feltham was built by the LSWR and was one of the most modern marshalling yards in the country meant that it became central in my mind when thinking about what PhD I might do.
As many of you now realise, my PhD has evolved to become a history of the quality of management on the LSWR between 1864 and 1914. While interesting to many business historians, it isn’t really the stuff that will fire the soul of many. The original plan that I proposed to my supervisor in 2006 was much more engaging. I was going to do a history of Feltham Marshalling yard from 1910, when the LSWR started thinking about it, up until 1969, when British Rail closed it down. After a bit of investigation it was clear that the material available would not be enough to satisfy even a quarter of the 90,000 words required for the PhD. As such my work evolved into a PhD on the LSWR’s freight services, something that again I struggled to find enough material on. Lastly, it evolved into what it is today. But the fires of interest never die and I do hope at some point to conduct a study on the Feltham Marshalling Yard’s history. However, for the rest of the blog entry I will detail some of its history and why it is important to understand its position within British railway history more generally.
The LSWR in the late 19th century had freight traffic coming onto their network in the London area from four places. Traffic arriving from the London and North Western Railway came from Willesden Junction, trains coming from the Midland Railway originated at Brent, the Great Central Railway sent trains from Neasden and the Great Northern Railway’s trains arrived via the Widened Lines. There were also the the LSWR’s own goods flows origination from the Nine Elms Goods Depot. There were some facilities and arrangements to manage and marshal these trains before their onward journeys onto the LSWR’s network. There was a small yard at Brentford which received GNR trains and trip workings were undertaken between there and Willesden, Brent and Neasden. The company also maintained staff at Brent to marshal there wagons. However, all were ultimately unsatisfactory and what was needed was a facility that could efficiently sort wagons for LSWR destinations into complete trains more efficiently.
It was, therefore, in the early 1900s that the LSWR directors started to look for a site for such a yard. After considering a number of sites at Byfleet and at Feltham Junction, in 1910 the company’s directors settled on a site that was between the Feltham Junction and Feltham Station. (the new flows of traffic are shown above) The sale of 41.5 acres of land was confirmed in 1911, with additional land being purchased in 1915. The plans were confirmed on the 30th March 1916:-
The National Archives - RAIL 411/271 – Traffic Committee – ‘30/03/1916 – 507) Feltham Marshalling Sidings – The General Manager submitted a plan shewing how marshalling sidings (15 down + 16 up) can be provided on the land near Feltham which has been specially purchased for the purpose + recommended that in the first place the levelling of the ground including the work of diverting and bridging over the river crane and covering in the mill-stream be taken in hand. – Approved’
Work, which included the diversion of three watercourses (including the River Crane) as well as the excavation of 120,000cu yd of material, started soon after with the help of around 200 German POWs. The first nine ‘down’ sidings, designed to relieve congestion at the Brent yard, were opened on the 9th December 1917 and the LSWR’s staff were transferred from Brent. Between then and 2nd October 1921, the yard gradually opened. In addition, plans for an engine shed were approved in December 1921, with it opening in March 1923. Within the yard there were 32 miles of track, with the longest siding being 1,662ft in length and the shortest being 1,331 ft. Once the yard was completed it was handling 2500 wagons a day. These were brought in by 50 down and 26 up trains, and being removed by 18 down and 46 up services. This was, probably, the busiest marshalling yard in the country at that time and it was said that after arrival a train could be sorted in 12 minutes. The reason for this quick turnaround will be explained below. (Faulkner & Williams, p.127-131)
So why was Feltham so important to British railway history? There are two reasons. The first relates to something that I have banged on about to the point of exhaustion. As has been discussed, in the late Victorian period the British railway industry’s profitability and performance dropped significantly. What the building of the Feltham Marshalling yard represents was the move that the LSWR, like other railway companies, made towards making their services more efficient. So, by reorganising the marshalling of freight trains, operations that in their previous form had been built up of many years without significant reassessment, the company was
effectively attempting to reduce their costs by improving smoothness of their operations. Therefore, if you go back to my article of last week in which I talked about the LSWR’s rebuilding of Waterloo and their Electrification project, it is clear that the building of the Feltham Marshalling yard was part of a wider corporate movement of effecting large changes within the company’s operations to improve its efficiency.
However, the second reason for the yard’s importance is a technological one. As can be seen on the plan above, the yard had ‘reception’ sidings, as well as a ‘marshalling’ sidings. This was because in-between these sets of sidings there were ‘humps.’ (shown below) Hump shunting had not been seen in Britain to a great extent beyond coal yard facilities. Yet, in America they were a regular feature of railway operations. When considering the organisation of yard the LSWR management was heavily influenced by American practice. Thus, they introduced this feature to Feltham. A train would arrive at the reception sidings and the locomotive would go to the Engine Shed. Then, a specially designed locomotive, the Urie Class E6, would arrive behind the train. It would then begin to push the train over the hump. At the top each wagon would be uncoupled and then would roll down the other side into a siding.
It was at this point that the yard’s second innovation would come into play. On the other side of the hump were the different sidings in which trains for various destinations would be assembled. This of course meant that the points would have to be changed automatically as each of the wagons was pushed over the hump. The innovation was that the points were electrically thrown by a central control tower so that the wagons could be marshalled automatically. In addition, there was the use of track circuits, whereby the controllers of the yard could monitor the journey of wagons once they had passed the hump. Further, there was extensive use of telephone communication across the yard. As such, the Feltham Marshalling Yard had an impressive array of recent technological devices to ensure smooth operation.
Therefore, on a technological level the Feltham Marshalling Yard signalled a new era in goods management as it was a departure from the previous ad hoc arrangements of the railway industry. It showed how after the turn of the century railway companies innovated for reasons of efficiency. It was a major step forward in British railway operations at the time and that is why I love it. I will, therefore, leave the last word to the Railway Gazette of 1919.
‘Thus, not only in its conception and design, but also in the possibilities which it opens up in the matter of future development of and changes in railway operation, we consider that the new Feltham Concentration Yard of the London & South Western Railway is considerably more than local interest.’(October 17, 1919, pp. 476)
UPDATE - 28/08/2015 - Colin Chivers, Hon Editor of the South Western Circle" is currently at an advanced stage of producing a Monograph about Feltham Yard for members of the Circle early next year, with surplus copies from the print run to be available for sale to non-members. He would be delighted to hear from former BR staff who worked there who may be able to contribute some memories of life there in its later years. He can be contacted via email@example.com
Faulkner, J.N. & Williams, R.N., The LSWR in the Twentieth Century, (Newton Abbot, 1988) p.127-131
Harris, Michael, ‘Marshalling Yards,’ The Oxford Companion to British Railway History, (Oxford, 1997) p. 315
Klapper, C.F. Sir Herbert Walker’s Southern Railway, (Shepperton, 1973) p.66-67