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Saturday, 26 March 2011

"Tailing in" - Perilous Early Railway Practice

I am always constantly astounded by some of the operating procedures that occurred in the early railways. Indeed, on many occasions I worry that the railway managers, rather than serving the public, were in fact trying to secretly get them injured, maimed and killed through instituting procedures that were highly dangerous. The most baffling of these was the practice of ‘tailing-in’ passenger carriages or, as we would know it today, ‘fly shunting’. This practice, which would probably scare the majority of us, was very common at terminal stations the London and South Western Railway (L&SWR), as well as on other railways.

My first encounter with the practice came on reading a Board of Trade report on an accident that occurred at Hampton Court station in 1855. This gave a good description of ‘tailing in.’ A train would stop at a ticket platform outside the station where the passengers would have their tickets checked. At the same time the locomotive would be detached and driven on a little way. A rope, of about 16 yards in length, would then be hitched to the front carriage and the rear of locomotive, while a porter stood on the front of the first carriage. The train would then begin to pull away and as the rope became tight the carriages would pick up speed. The train would proceed down one road and a set of points would then be changed. Just before the critical moment, the porter on the carriage would unhook them and the carriages and, driven by their own inertia, they would glide into the station.

Or that was the theory. In the case in question the porter had not acted in time, or perhaps had some trouble in detaching the rope. Either way, the train dragged the one carriage it was hauling from the rails. The Board of Trade official criticised the practice. He could not see why carriages could not be detached just outside the station and pushed into it. Furthermore, he stated that if this method of shunting was to be continued it was desirable that some better way of detaching the rope be found, rather than relying on a porter. Lastly, he stated that there was no written procedure laid down by the management or the station agent. [1]

For all the failings of the practice, it did continue on until the 1868 at most L&SWR terminal stations. On the 9th of June 1868 at Windsor station, a train was being roped in, and as the procedure was about to finish, the carriages violently hit the buffers.[2] In this case the driver had pulled the train, consisting of eight carriages, at too fast a speed. The result was that three passengers were hurt, two of whom were travelling in the rear carriage. Overall, the accident report called tailing-in ‘dangerous and objectionable.’ Furthermore, it must be remembered that in this period, trains did not have the sprung buffers that ours have today, and as such 3 individuals were injured. [3]Thus, on the 19th June the L&SWR forbade the activity across its network.[4]

‘Tailing in’ was a product of a railway industry that was developing. Almost alien to our eyes, it represented the very ad hoc origins of some early railway practices, in that early railway managers were groping forward, unsure and constantly learning the best ways to manage services, technology and operations. Yet, as the industry developed, the L&SWR’s management did not feel it necessary to change what had been proven to be an evidently a poor and dangerous procedure, and this was presumably for cost reasons. Therefore, it was only after the accident at Windsor that the practice was halted, the L&SWR’s hand being forced by the Board of Trade.


[1] TNA, RAIL 1053/53, Railway Department report on accidents for 1855. (Described at item level), report on accident at Hampton Court Station, 14th December 1855

[2] Williams, R.A., The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2: Growth and Consolidation, (Newton Abbott, 1973), p.47

[3] House of Commons Parliamentary Papers [HCPP], 1867-68 [3959-V] Reports of the inspecting officers of the Railway Department to the Board of Trade, upon certain accidents which have occurred on railways during the months of April, May, June, and July 1868. (Part third.)

[4] Williams, The London and South Western Railway, Volume 2, p.47

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