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PETER GRAY: Railways at lowest point following war

By Herald Express  |  Posted: October 11, 2012

EXPRESS: 4-6-0 No 5028 Llantilio Castle comes swinging through the reverse curves at Powderham with train number 146, down Torbay Express on August 13, 1955

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THE end of the war in Europe in May 1945, shortly to be followed (though we didn't know it at the time) by the end of the Far East conflict in August, saw the railways of this country at their lowest point.

Starved of proper maintenance through the latter war years, with new construction limited to locomotives that would help the war effort, by the summer of 1945, it was all beginning to show.

Some depots had long since given up on trying to keep their engines clean, while others had the will, but not the man or woman-power to clean other than the basic moving parts.

With a few exceptions, external polish was a thing of the past, and would remain so for several years, as the word 'austerity' came into everyday use — and seems to have stayed with us into the 21st century.

In all this gloom, one welcome sight on the August Bank Holiday Saturday of 1945, was the reintroduction of the GWR train numbering system.

This enabled signalmen, at busy times, to easily identify each train.

Said to have been originally introduced in 1934, because in the previous season, a signalman on the approach to Exeter, wrongly identified the non-stop Cornish Riviera Limited, and directed it into the platform.

In order to stop this happening again, it was decided to provide the signalmen with a means of telling one express from another, as most of the GWR passenger trains looked pretty much alike.

Technically, each train was handed from one signal box to the next by means of a bell code, which described the type of train, and consequently the priority it should be given.

But on busy Saturdays in the summer, almost all the trains were express trains.

So a three-figure numbering system was devised, based upon the railway division from which each train had started.

This number was displayed on the engine smoke box, in large white figures, readable from a quarter-mile away.

Saturday, August 4, 1945, the Bank Holiday weekend, seems to have been the first occasion when train reporting numbers were again used on many of the express trains to the coasts of Devon and Cornwall.

A train often described in my wartime notes as just 'the Bath', now became train number 410, '4' representing the Bristol Division.

This train started from Bath at 10.05am, running fast to Exeter, where it became a 'stopper' to Plymouth.

Due into Newton Abbot at 1.20pm, I recorded its arrival behind Star class 4-6-0 No 4019 Knight Templar, at 1.58pm, leaving for Plymouth with eight coaches.

This was followed at 2.02pm by train number 130 ('1' being the London Division) double-headed by 4-6-0s No 5019 Treago Castle and No 5973 Rolleston Hall. As Rolleston Hall was a Reading engine, it had probably assisted the ailing Castle from Reading, as the Castle had 13 coaches for Paignton.

The great post-war holiday rush to the coast had started.

Most of that day's activities next week.

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