Historical Background

The Impact of the Modernisation Plan

The early years following nationalisation in 1948 saw Britain’s railways suffering not only the legacy of a dilapidated system but also rapidly increasing competition from other modes of transport.  The wide-ranging Modernisation Plan was an attempt to relieve these and other problems and its consequences included a new design of breakdown crane and improvements in recovery support vehicles…

Having itself all but killed off the transport of goods by canal in earlier years, the railways were to suffer in turn from fast-growing competition as the Nationalisation era was entered.  Air and road transport was eating into the receipts of the railways in both passenger and goods traffic and not enough capital investment was being attracted to maintain the stock and infrastructure in good order.

In December 1954, the British Transport Commission completed a paper entitled Modernisation and Re-equipment of British Railways, more commonly known as the Modernisation Plan, within which it was stated:  “This plan aims to produce a thoroughly modern system, able fully to meet both current traffic requirements and those of the forseeable future.”

The Modernisation Plan was to impact on all aspects of the British railway system, including the breakdown cranes; however there was no specific mention of these cranes in the Plan nor in the Re-appraisal which followed in 1959.  Instead, an Ad Hoc Committee which had been set up in 1953 for the purpose of investigating ways to improve the breakdown system was allowed to progress in parallel with the development of the Modernisation Plan (hence the Ad Hoc Committee became a formal investigating committee).  The investigations and reports of the Committee were thus separate from the Modernisation Plan but their recommendations would, in the main, be implemented in conjunction with it.

The Ad Hoc Committee comprised experts in breakdown crane work representing all the regions and had been set up by BR’s Motive Power Committee following some passenger train accidents where, it was thought, better organisation of breakdown cranes and their support trains might have improved the efficiency of operation.  The Committee organised fact-finding visits to motive power depots and held consultations with leading equipment suppliers to the railways, including Ransomes & Rapier and Cowans Sheldon as the two main suppliers of breakdown cranes.

The Committee also made enquiries worldwide as to how the railways in other countries organised their breakdown crane systems.  Valuable information was gained in particular from countries which had been obliged to rebuild their railways following war damage.  These included Germany and Japan, however Denmark was judged as the most advanced in breakdown train operation.  Indeed, almost from the start the Committee’s report is fulsome in its praise of the purpose-built Danish tool vans.

The recommendations of the Committee were not accepted in total by the British Transport Commission which produced its “Memorandum on Breakdown Cranes for Development Programme” in July 1958, with follow-up in March 1959.  Suffice to say that (a) old four-wheeled box vans were agreed as being unsuitable as packing vans and new, or converted post-1926, bogie coaching stock should take their place, (b) it was decided that the breakdown vehicles should carry a standardised range of equipment and (c) it was ascertained that some new breakdown cranes were needed, this culminating in orders placed with Cowans Sheldon on 11th November 1959 for twelve 75-tonners and ten 30-tonners.

Tool van

A typical 'bogie' breakdown crane tool van, pictured at Stewart’s Lane in 1978

Two other points under consideration by the Investigating Committee were:
     1. The need to quickly identify, at the scene of an accident, the vehicles of a breakdown train in which would be found the standard range of equipment.
     2. The need to encourage more Motive Power fitters to join breakdown gangs, some depots finding these gangs difficult to crew.

On the first point, it was realised that valuable time could be lost at an accident scene if there was confusion as to ‘what equipment is carried where’.  Vital minutes could be saved by having standard equipment carried in standard breakdown crane support vehicles so long as those vehicles were identifiable without delay.  This would become particularly relevant where a breakdown crew from one depot might need to access the equipment carried in a breakdown train from another depot.

On the second point, it was becoming difficult to recruit crane gang members.  These gangs were normally made up of fitters from within the motive power depots, however the austere 1940s and early-1950s had given way to a relatively affluent period in which there was rather less need to earn premiums or bonuses in hard and often unsociable breakdown work.  (It was often necessary to recruit from the night shift for daytime breakdown work, and vice versa, in order to minimise the impact on their regular fitting duties.  The gang would also be obliged to turn out in all weathers and could be away from home for several days at a time when attending major incidents or ‘night operation only’ bridge work.)

The quite simple and successful answer to both of these scenarios was a new eye-catching livery, for breakdown cranes and their support trains, of bright red with black and straw lining, this being mandated via a General Instruction issued in July 1959.  The new 30-ton and 75-ton cranes were delivered in this livery and the existing breakdown cranes and their support vehicles, many of which were currently in the rather drab unlined-black livery dictated by BR in 1950, were to receive the new livery as they came into the shops for overhaul.

ADRC96709 at York

75-ton steam breakdown crane ADRC96709 in lined red, pictured at York in June 1965.
This crane transferred to Doncaster in 1968 and was converted to diesel hydraulic in 1978.

In the event, almost none of the earlier cranes received lining when painted into the new livery and the new 30-ton and 75-ton cranes lost theirs when they went in for overhaul and repaint.  The difficulty in applying lining, especially on the earlier cranes with their rivetted construction, no doubt decided the paintshop against this embellishment.  Perhaps characteristically, the Western Region appears to have decided to go its own way and continue with all-black for its earlier breakdown cranes.

Lined or not, the bright red tool vans and other support vehicles would henceforth stand out against everything else in the vicinity of an accident and no time would be lost in identification of such.  Further, the magnificent new livery helped achieve the hoped-for restoration of pride in belonging to a breakdown gang.