The thirsty days of steam trains

feature for march 21 2012
feature for march 21 2012

Railway steam locomotives could usually carry all the coal they needed for a day’s work, but only enough water to travel around 50 to 100 miles.

The need for water led to a network of supplies all over the railway system, with water cranes provided at stations and goods yards, so that tanks could be replenished when engines stopped there.

However, filling up in this way was time consuming and led to the development of the water troughs system, whereby locomotives could pick up water on the move.

Water troughs were sited on main lines at various locations all over the UK, except in the south of England where shorter journeys meant they were not required.

The troughs were usually between 400 and 700 yards long and locally there was a well known set sited on the main line at Brock, just under Badger Bridge on New Lane.

In the early 1960s my father sometimes took me to the bridge to watch the trains.

The sight and sound of the locomotives picking up water at speed has stayed with me ever since and when the sun was shining there could be a stunning rainbow effect in the spray that was thrown up.

The system worked by laying out a trough of water between the rails, but obviously this could only be done on a completely level stretch of track.

Steam locomotives were fitted with a scoop that could be lowered by the fireman into the trough and the water was forced up into the tank. Great skill was required as the scoop could not be lowered until actually over the water and had to be raised before the end of the trough was reached.

The fireman also had to watch the tank gauge closely because if it was overfilled the water would be sprayed all over the front coaches – and if any windows were open it went over the passengers too!

Once a train had collected water the trough would slowly refill from a nearby tank, like a toilet cistern, until it reached the required level and a valve shut off the supply until the next train came along.

With the demise of steam locomotives there was no longer a need for water supplies.

Although the troughs at Brock lasted longer than most on the network they were dismantled in the late 1960s when the M6 was being constructed.

There is nothing now to show they were ever there. Thankfully a number of photographers captured some fine images of steam trains at Brock and two by Peter Fitton are reproduced here with his kind permission.

In the first picture a LMS Black 5, 45227, is picking up water as it takes a passenger train north over the troughs, photographed from Badger Bridge.

In the second picture LMS Patriot 45549 is heading south. It has just come over the north end of the troughs and the fireman is probably still lowering the scoop so there is no spray.

The fields in the background are now occupied by the M6.

l The author of this article is Mark Bartlett of Garstang, a former senior police officer now working for Lancaster City Council.