Traction Trainee

British Railways Traction Trainee Application © David Forward

British Railways Traction Trainee Application © David Forward

Traction Trainee

In 1973 I joined British Rail, as before me had my Brother a Guard and my Grandfather a Signalman and my two Gt.Gt.Grandfathers as Engine Drivers before them too, and I became a Traction Trainee, training to become a Second Man which is the equivalent of a fireman in the steam days. Classes were held in a room located in the old Temple Mead’s Station and then further training on the foot plate, er sorry in the cab. After training, I took an exam which I passed becoming a qualified Second Man. There were I think, eight trainees but not enough vacancies for all of us at Swindon, so I had the choice of applying for a position at another depot or working as a covering Second Man at my own depot and filling in for second men not turning up for shift due to illness etc.

Stones on the line

The track from Swindon to Cardiff via Wootton Bassett Junction, is steeply banked on a tight curve near the village of Brinkworth to cope with the high speed trains, then it goes on to pass through Hullavington and Alderton then a straight run down towards the Badminton Tunnel. Whilst travelling down this straight one day, we found that vandals had placed ballast on the line for about two miles. Luckily one hundred tons of loco turns the ballast stones to dust but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a chance of being derailed. You can see the stones ahead but by then it’s too late anyway.


At the entrance to the south west bound ‘split level tunnels’ north of Bristol we had stopped at a signal prior to the tunnel, where the signal man passed us a warning from a previous crew, that kids were above the entrance pushing off piles of earth and stones. On this occasion I was with a Driver and Second Man and we had brought along a folding wooden chair for me to sit on, so the Second Man folded the chair and held it against the screen in front of the Driver whilst I stood in the doorway to the engine compartment as we proceeded with caution. The kids miss timed their next pile of debris which fell onto the rear cab, in which sat the guard who was awoken with a very loud shock.

Iron bar off the bridge

Ninety miles an hour towards Swindon under a foot bridge some where near the Greenbridge area and two youths dropped an iron bar aimed at the windscreen only missing by a fraction of a second, the bar struck just below the windscreen leaving a large dent in the steel plate of the loco.

Fire Bell

After leaving Gloucester Station the fire bell went off in the cab. I had to check the engine compartment which has a narrow gangway running past the engine from cab to cab. There was no fire and we had been told about the bell being faulty but it kept going off even when reset by the Driver. So the Driver wrapped his jumper around it to dampen the unbearable noise.

Second Man Crossing

Between Parkway Junction and Tytherington quarries there is a level crossing where the road traffic doesn’t stop for the trains passing but the train driver stops instead at a line side box. Here the second man gets out of the cab with a key opens the box and pushes a button to lower the barriers across the road. Then when the traffic lights have been set to red, you hop onto the loco’s steps and proceed over the crossing to another box where you again push buttons to raise the barrier and set the lights to green. Then it’s off to the quarry. At the quarry there is set of signals controlled by a man in cabin next to a huge hopper with conveyor belts, which load a hundred tons of stone into each wagon. The man in the control box then sets a signal to green and when he’s satisfied the next wagon is in position he sets a red signal. So there is a lot of stopping and starting after which the loco is transferred to the other end of the wagons where another crew takes over the train.

Brew Up

In the cab of a diesel loco is a hot plate for brewing up and heating pies on. One morning at Swindon the Driver a Mr. Ken Stoneham and I took over the Bristol parcel train from a Reading crew and while at the platform waiting for the signal to come off, the driver asked for a brew. I got my Billy can and tipped tea leaves in from my small glass bottle, then in went the sugar followed by the milk also from a small bottle and all carried to work in an old gas mask bag. Then I waited for the driver to ask for his tea and waited and waited while the hot plate was still on, then he finally said, “where is it then”. So I poured the tea into his mug and passed it to him while he watched the signal, which was taking longer than expected to turn to green. As he looked out sipping his tea, he suddenly slid back the window on his side and spat out what was a very over brewed black liquid, closely followed by the contents of his mug whilst saying, “lucky that didn’t land on the line or it would have dissolved the steel”. He then instructed me on how he preferred his tea, finally pulling away as the signal turned to green.

Stolen Cup

While waiting in Gloucester Station for the signal to pull out, we had a brew up and I accidentally dropped my mug, it shattering all over the steel floor. So the driver pointed out of the window to the platform staffs’ rest room and said, “nip in there smartish and grab one of their mugs while they’re not about”. So a lovely mug of tea was drank as we left Gloucester, in best BR green china.

Bamboo Canes

On a return trip, light loco from Westbury to Swindon via Tytherington Junction near Chippenham. We were waiting at a red signal to join the main Bristol to London line, when our Driver notice a large pile of bamboo canes to our right in an allotment. After a quick dash across the track and through a wire fence he returned to the loco and off loaded a shoulder full of canes into the open door at the top of the steps, climbing aboard just as the signal turned green, and so his runner beans were held up with hot sticks that year.

Dropped Token

On approaching Thingley Junction the Driver gave me the ‘single line working’ Token he had collected from the Station Master at Chippenham. I was then instructed to hang out of the door and reach down towards the Signal man, who had come across the tracks from his Box. He would hold out his arm, and I was to drop the Token( a weighted steel ring about 12 inches in diameter with a giant key on the end, used for setting the signals )it falling through the air to arrive on his outstretched arm. But alas not being very good at this sort of thing, and it being my first time, I miscalculated and the token struck the ground a good yard from where he stood. As I pulled myself back into the cab I could see the Signal Man storming back to his Box uttering expletives and the Driver roaring with laughter and congratulating me on upsetting the miserable #@*!

Safety Boots

When working in the sidings at Chippenham, I decided to go into my previous employers, Westinghouse Brake & Signal Co. Ltd, adjacent to the track, and buy some discount safety boots, leaving the Driver to do some shunting while I chatted to old work colleagues.

Box Tunnel

If you travel through Box Tunnel in a Western Class 1000 loco, the side cab windows slope inward towards the roof enabling you to see the sky up through the ventilation shafts, built to clear the smoke in steam days, as you pass through.

Severn Tunnel

The Severn Tunnel was quite fascinating as you could see the inside, due to lighting at the bottom in the pump rooms, giving one a good sense of direction and angle of slope. We would go down in a straight line from the Bristol side and level off at the bottom, where you could see into rooms either side of the tunnel. Here all the pumping equipment is housed, as the tunnel leaks very large quantities of the River Severn into it, and has to be continuously pumped out. Then after turning to the left you start to climb up the other side, where there are large sidings stretching down hill in a straight line for miles.


Temple Mead’s is built on a large curve in the track, and here we changed crews before catching a mini bus to Parkway, where we caught a passenger train back to Swindon. All very strange. Nearby are the carriage cleaning sidings and the Bath Road engine maintenance workshops, where we did our fire training. Learning all about different types of fires and extinguishers, how and when, or when not to use them. We were also shown in and around D.M.U.’s , which are like carriages with bus engines slung under the middle at a funny angle. These are used mainly on slow short journeys along branch lines where there are not many passengers.


When I went to Oxford we had to leave the train in a siding. Then the driver took us on a long walk back through time across the water meadows, where he checked all his rabbit snares that he had set the day before, and he lived in Swindon !


At Swindon we took over a stone train from a crew who had brought it from the Tytherington quarries north of Bristol. We took it from Swindon station to some sidings just outside of the town, where we had to wait for a fast passenger train to pass us before we could go on to Didcot. It was a hot sunny day and we snoozed whilst waiting. After a while, just as I was dozing off, my head resting on the side window of the cab. I was suddenly launched into reality with a blow to the head, caused by a large blast from the bow wave of a passing fast passenger train, shaking the 100 ton locomotive a few inches in either direction as it passed by at ninety miles per hour just feet away. The driver laughed very much as I was thrown to my feet by the shock of it all. Rubbing my head we waited a few minutes for the signal to change, then we slowly pulled away on the first notch of the throttle, able to feel each wagon as the train took up the strain on all the couplings one by one. Then a notch at a time we slowly accelerated the 1000 tons of stone up to about fifty miles an hour, from which speed, it takes about two miles to slow down again to the next stop signal, applying the breaks carefully, as each wagon catches up the one in front. The last fifty yards is very accurately judged with finely controlled use of the brake handle, bringing the train to an exact position in its siding just before the signal to ensure the rear wagon is clear of the main line.


There are three types of steam boilers (Stones, Clayton, Spanner) to be found inside a loco for generating steam to heat the carriages in winter. These are quite complicated things with many valves to turn, using diesel oil from the loco, having to be lit and controlled by the second man. Different loco’s had different makes of boiler, and Inspector Francombe taught us the ins and outs using loco’s parked at the Bath Road depot, while we made sketches and notes in our BR 201 pocket books.

Split Level Tunnels

The famous twin-bore two level tunnels are somewhere north of Bristol, and are like two seesaws side by side, the down line enters its tunnel with the track being at a higher level than the up line and further south it exits at a lower level than the up line, very strange. Apparently it is a result of the doubling of the old B & SWU line where a second tunnel was constructed to suit a new shallower track gradient suitable for the increased coal traffic from South Wales. In theory all lines towards London are called up lines and all lines away from London are called down lines.


We were told in the training school that every signal had an electro magnetic device in the centre of the track, so many yards preceding it, and when passed over by a loco would set of either a bell or a horn in the cab, depending upon what the signal was set at, and if the bells and then the horn were not cancelled by the driver, the brakes would automatically come on in an emergency mode bringing the train to a halt as rapidly as possible. This was known as A.W.S. or automatic warning system. Only after the Paddington rail disaster of 1999 did I learn that this was not completely true.


It was a great surprise to find, after travelling from ‘Rushy Platt’ to Stroud via Minety and Oaksey along the most beautiful railway cutting I’ve ever seen, you entered a short tunnel and when exiting, there immediately on either side was Kemble station, as until then I never even knew there was a tunnel at Kemble even though I only live seven miles away.

Dead Bodies

During the time at training school I was taught what to do if you find a dead body on the track. The main course of action was to use your note book to sketch all the details, after protecting the train and walking to a signal to phone the signal man who would call the police. The state of the corpse’s underwear would determine whether they had fallen or jumped but I imagine someone else had the pleasure of looking.

Point Fires at Acton

Whilst travelling through the carriage sidings at Acton or somewhere near Slough, we had to cross many sets of points. The points are set from the signal box and are actuated by electric motors housed in a cast iron box on the ground. It was mid winter and the points had frozen. This meant that when the signal man switched a point motor on, it would have to fight against the ice and if it didn’t budge the motor would burn out. What’s worse was all the grease in the box and varnish on the motor wires would over heat and catch alight. So as we passed over all the points they were all on fire with flames licking at our wheels.

Section K

We were each issued with a red plastic covered rule book, with sections on all items to do with the safety and the running of trains. Section K dealt with accidents and safety, and as far as I remember, it was about what to do if the train unexpectedly became stationary and therefore in danger. You have to walk back and place detonators on the track in certain number combinations and distances. Then if an approaching train runs over them, there is a series of very large bangs warning the driver of the danger and how far ahead it is. This is also done ahead of the train on the approaching track for the same reason.


When on a loco pulling a passenger train into Paddington, one of your duties is to walk through the whole train after the passengers have all left. This is to see that all is OK with the carriages, no people still inside for any reason and also to check for any thing accidentally left behind such as umbrellas or valuables. Also it is required that you collect a selection of the news papers and magazines, that were purchased by passengers at the beginning of their journey and then discarded, as these are a free read during the time spent waiting around whilst carriages are cleaned, loco’s refuelled and during siding and signal waiting times.

Carriage Cleaners

On a regular basis all carriages are sent to special sidings, where a team of cleaners have a well tested system of restoring them to useably condition, after the passengers have done their best to mess them up in a variety of ways.


There are many different classes of locomotive and much time is spent learning where everything is as there are many gauges and items to check before every journey. There is also a faults book that has to be filled out so as the maintenance crews can rectify all faults as soon as possible.


The clothes we wore in the seventies were absolutely awful. The material was very rough and nothing fitted. The hats most ridiculous, drivers had gold coloured badges and buttons whilst second men had silver.


The average age of the drivers was about 55-60, and being only 19 at the time, they were not the most exciting company, and playing cards was not something I knew any thing about.

Cardiff Market

On journeys to Cardiff we would have to wait a long time to collect our return train to Swindon, so there was plenty of time for the Driver to do all his weekly shopping in and around Cardiff market.

Steel Works

A really good view of the Llannwern steel works is gained from the Drivers cab whilst travelling down towards Newport from the Severn Tunnel, as it is a panoramic one, giving more of an impression on how big the works are, rather than the limited view from one side of a carriage window.

Light Loco

Travelling light loco means taking a diesel locomotive to where it is required without any wagons or carriages. One effect you experience from this is called ‘hunting’. This is where at a certain speed the loco on its own is able to in effect, bounce on the flexing rails in an oscillation effect, instead of its usual smooth ride interrupted only by joints in the track and crossing points. You get an effect like riding waves on water.


Being sent to Bristol to ride the specialist shunting loco in and around the station and sidings of the Bath Road Depot, was an entirely different experience to main line diesels. A bit like arranging your furniture and reversing a car into a parking space, compared to racing down the motorway on a quiet day. A whole new system of track level signals had to be learnt and the sensation of being on the shunter is completely different to a loco.

Bath Road

The maintenance depot is like a huge garage, with pits to inspect underneath the trains and a giant version of a car wash outside, only this one is stationary and the train has to pass through it. The depot is where all the fault books are examined an the various problems with loco’s are fixed. The log book is signed off and dated next to the reporting drivers signature, so there is a complete history of the loco’s maintenance.

Stop on Crossing

I had the experience of bringing the Bristol Parcel Train to a halt in Chippenham station, which is a difficult thing to do as when travelling towards Bristol you are on a curve and the rear of the train cannot be seen without looking back with your head out of the cab window. This is done to see that the rear most wagon is clear of the crossing from one platform to the next. The crossing is where the Post office sacks in their blue cages on wheels known as “Brutes” are pulled by an electric truck, after being unloaded from trains on the London bound platform, over to the Post Office side . The Driver has just enough room to get the last carriage clear without going past the stop signal, and I of course got it wrong. An irate platform worker came rushing up towards us to complain he couldn’t cross the track, so the poor old Driver had to pull forward about 25 feet, I wasn’t far out for my first attempt !

David Forward – Depot No. 82C. – Pay No. 372 Swindon.


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>