I was born in 1929 so over the years have witnessed great technical, social, and cultural change. Railway operation and management styles have kept pace with these changes. With my lifelong interest in railway practice, in particular the construction and operation of steam locomotives, it is interesting in times of reflection to ponder on these memories to recall the major changes that have taken place.

The modern railway operates with significant technical assistance, with things like automatic signals and traffic control, and instant communication between control hubs and drivers. Whilst this brings safer working it also has its limitations for “on the job” management solutions.

The railways in the steam age were a major contrast to modern times. They were labour intensive with an abundance of hard and sometimes dirty work. Traffic flow was not controlled by today’s automatic systems with sophisticated communication. Instead, it was largely about decisions being taken on the job at local level. In the steam-era traffic flow was the domain of individual signalmen, often in lonely and deserted signal boxes. Communication was by bell codes and occasional use of the telephone when available. Individuals working alone all over the system were making important traffic flow decisions, usually drawing on years of experience.

Class J15 No. 65467 arriving at Felixstowe Town station with a through service from Felixstowe Beach to London Liverpool Street. The J15 will run-round her train for the onward journey, taking the train as far as Ipswich. (East Anglia and the East Coast Railways, Amberley Publishing)

Without the aid of mobile communication systems, in the case of emergency, train staff initially had to cope themselves as often help only arrived after somebody had made a long trek to the nearest signal box, which could be several miles away.

In all this the railway, as it does today, placed great importance on the Rule Book, a volume that tried to cover all kinds of eventualities with considerable emphasis on safety. When staff were being examined for promotion, great store was placed on the knowledge of the rule book.

Over the years I witnessed the rule book being put to good use but on rare occasions it could be used to bluff and gain individual advantage. One such somewhat humorous occasion concerns one of the many footplate trips I made, and it also demonstrates that with any large organisation real characters were in evidence.

I was travelling on a LNER class J15, an elderly 0-6-0 freight locomotive on a pick-up freight bound for what is known locally as the Waverley Valley line. Originating early in the morning from Norwich we travelled down the main line towards Ipswich as far as Tivetshall then branched off on a rambling branch line which eventually joined the East Suffolk line at Beccles.

Class J15 No. 65469 during her last days at Norwich. The shed master, Bill Harvey, had the chimney top cut-down and coupling rods painted red to resemble its former Great Eastern style. (East Anglia and the East Coast Railways, Amberley Publishing)

From the outset, I noticed that there was a fair amount of haste applied to our shunting operations at the various stations to pick up and drop off wagons, a feature of the railway in those days that is no longer in evidence. The reason for the haste soon became obvious. Our driver was a keen football supporter and it was cup final day. He had the objective of getting back to Norwich in time to book off and get home for the match which in those days, for the majority, would have been to listen to the wireless.

After a quick turnround and a hasty packed lunch (or late breakfast) and after our J15 had her tender replenished with water we set back for home at a pace that I expect this working had not seen for years.

Arriving at Tivetshall, to re-join the main line, our driver was somewhat disappointed that we were not signalled for the main line but instead into the up platform loop. The explanation was forthcoming almost as soon as we came to a halt. We were treated to the spectacle of a Liverpool Street to Norwich express being hurried along by a Class B1.

We were all watching the signals so we could be away as soon as the road was cleared. The J15’s safety valves were noisily responding to a very good fire that had been built for the dash to Norwich. Above the roar, our fireman shouted across the footplate that the Station Master was coming up the platform to speak to us. This imposing local official gave instructions to our driver that he would be held for a while as a locomotive had failed to the south of our location and it was on its way at reduced speed and would be put on the front of our train in case it required assistance on the way to Norwich. You can imagine the effect this had on our driver who was now beginning to see all chance of listening to the cup final fast disappearing.

His response was quick-witted and to the point: “you cannot do that, we are a loose coupled freight train and rule XXX prohibits this!”. The Station Master’s reply, rather embarrassingly, was that he had overlooked that rule and he would tell the signalman to pull off for us as soon as possible.

East Anglia
4 June 1967, Class J15 No. 65462 and Class B12/3 No. 61572, hauled by Brush Type 2 No. D5533, head to Sheringham. Pictured waiting for a signal at Whitlingham, the train included the London area suburban quad set and two four-wheel lightweight railbuses. (East Anglia and the East Coast Railways, Amberley Publishing)

As soon as we got away, the J15 was opened up and our little Victorian lady really picked up her skirts and went for it! Things soon got quite lively on the footplate with well-worn bearings being accustomed to a more sedate pace. I remember looking back at the spectacle of our short train of timber bodied wagons bucking and swaying behind us.

At this point I mentioned to the driver that it was lucky that he remembered the rule. With a wry smile he said, “what rule!”.

Over the years I have taken hundreds of black and white and colour photographs of steam locomotives at work, at rest on sheds and under repair and these are being put together in a series of books by Amberley Publishing.

The first book entitled “East Anglia and the East Coast Railways: The Late 1940s to Late 1960s” by Brian Reading and Ian Reading has been published and is available from the publisher and usual sources. The second book in the series, “Wales and Western Region Railways: The Late 1940s to late 1960s” has just been published. Other volumes of previously unpublished photographs will follow in due course covering different parts of the country.

Ian Reading and Brian Reading's book East Anglia and the East Coast Railways is available for purchase now.