Heritage - 39: Line Blocked! the Real Story Behind the Stories*
At 8pm on Thursday, fifteen hours of solid graft by snow plough gangs from Middlesbrough and York saw trains running again
Peter Semmens, MA was assistant curator of the newly opened National Railway Museum on Leman Road, York 1974
The site is close to William Prosser's 1877 station on the western side of the city of York, handy for visitors who come by rail, bus or car - a large car park is sandwiched between station and museum on the site of the former York coal depot. He was employed by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) at Billingham on Teesside in 1963 when heavy snows started in the New Year. Touring the area with the Stephenson Locomotive Society on the coast at Skinningrove he had stopped to photograph the iconic Roseberry Topping near Great Ayton. Twelve hours later the dry road he had stopped by was buried beneath a three foot deep snowdrift.
Compared to the rest of the country, North Yorkshire had it easy the previous winter. Wednesday, 6th February changed all that, with total blockage of the Eskdale line - the former North Yorkshire & Cleveland Railway completed by the North Eastern Railway in 1865 - between Middlesbrough and Whitby. A deep, long drift in the shallow cutting extended from Great Ayton by way of Battersby to Kildale, 250 feet in length, 15 ft deep in places. Services on the branch ground to a stop, the Metro-Cammell diesel multiple units unable to make any headway at Castleton and Danby for example. This was - still is largely through much of the year - with the outside world for these communities deep in the dale along the River Esk. Milk and mail needed to be taken out, bread and other provisions in.
At 8 pm on Thursday, fifteen hours of solid graft by snow plough gangs from York and Middlesbrough allowed them to link up and trains pass. Snowfalls in this part of the Cleveland Hills and North Yorkshire Moors in the winter had been passable yet, often from mid-November. The problem lay where the snow had not fallen or was light, and what had fallen was blown around by heavy gusts to bring about the disruption to communications by road or rail. A fortnight or so later, after further snow in later January, with a partial thaw, the winds hit again.
From the point of view of the railway there were three major drifts within a few miles of Battersby.
One was on the sharp, graded curve that led down from Great Ayton around - under a narrow country road bridge - to the junction with the former NY&CR east of Battersby. After clearing the drift vertical banks of snow took the bridge profile onward on either side of the single track line, reducing in heright on the south side of the bridge abutments.
Eskdale saw no end of snow plough trains that passed up and down the branch to ensure continuous traffic for school children and employees to Whitby. Normally the snow plough trains consisted of two Riddles' Austerity ex-War Department (WD) 2-8-0 tender locomotives coupled tender-to-tender with ploughs at either end. In the harsh cold spell in January a hold-up was brought about by frozen injectors on one engine. The extra-curricular activity entailed station staff starting earlier than usual despite their own hardships and problems in reaching their places of work.
February 6th dawned with the branch blocked again. The Middlesbrough ploughs either side of WDs 90479 and 90593 laid into drifts on the Guisborough Branch from Nunthorpe Junction. By midday the service was in place again. The ploughs were next set to taking on the Great Ayton to Battersby line. Bad luck intervened, with the tender of 90479 derailing on the canted curve into Battersby. Snow had become packed into the pointwork, the tender wheels on the second engine lifting on ice where they should have followed through. The tool vans were sent from Middlesbrough but were unable to reach the two stranded engines as the snow had drifted in behind them in the cutting north of Ayton, even with a large gang of men working non-stop to 3 am and still unable to clear the rails. With water running low on the WDs the fires had to be thrown out. Crews spent a cold night under the stars close to the foot of Easby Moor.
Stuck in a drift, almost within sight of the two Thornaby engines was a York plough with a Thompson Class B1 ('Bongo') 4-6-0 tender engine behind it, part of a formation that had come from York by way of Malton and Grosmont. With one at front, another behind the two ploughs 'sandwiched' Class B1 61273 of Darlington and 61158 from outside the region (possibly Sheffield Darnall), both of which had found themselves at York and pressed into service on snow clearing. Engines and ploughs were jammed deep in the drift after charging it, yet still miraculously all on the rails, although not in direct contact with the metal. Hard graft with shovels freed the rear half of the formation with 61158, and the engine withdrew to replenish water and coal at York. By dark on Wednesday the situation had worsened. Several hundred tons of steel were still in the way near Battersby. The bulk of this dense, wet sort of snow - not the powdery sort met with in Scandinavia or Europe - seemed as strong as the engines and ploughs sent to punch through it. At 5 am Thursday efforts were renewed from both ends. By around 10 am a new diesel locomotive D5151 of Thornaby shed fitted with a buffer beam plough reached the WDs, drawing the near plough back to Nunthorpe. Another trip had 90593 freed - still on the metals, thus enabling the tender to be re-railed with the help of jacks carried in the tool van. Back on the rails, 90479 and its plough were hauled, dead, back to Middlesbrough, allowing the Darlington District Engineer's team to carry out repairs to the track.
Meanwhile two WDs were sent by York. 90091 a Thornaby allocation, and 'outsider' 90654. These, fitted with buffer beam ploughs, managed to rescue the by now 'dead' B1 61273 with its plough. After some preparation the three engines drew back towards Kildale. Just one short quarter of a mile of track remained to be cleared, the rails out of sight under between three and six feet of drifted snow. Nigh on dusk this new formation hurtled down the 1:87 bank in the Battersby direction. The thrust of 400 tons of moving WD locomotives and plough attached to their head at 40 mph was aimed at this final blockage. Picture four 19 inch by 28 inch cylinders with 225 lb thrust of steam behind them pushing an old North Eastern Railway snow plough, two columns of smoke and escaping steam rising to the darkening upland sky. The snow was thrown twenty feet into the air to either side as the plough 'bit'. Most sound was deadened by the thick snow, only the slowing beat of the cylinders heard. Almost as it seemed this monumental effort were for nought, the drift thinned and the engines gained speed. All there were relieved that this one charge cleared the line and the three vehicles showed, snow laden and imposing in their black livery at the Battersby end of the drift.
The 'bark' of the two WDs' exhausts gave way to the typical tinkling of the reguators being shut, two sets of steam brakes engaged to bring the formation to a groaning and then sudden shuddering stop. By 8 pm the gangs were away again after their fifteen hour day and the line was clear again. On Friday morning a precautionary run through with the ploughs arrived in Middlesbrough without hindrance, a mere three minutes behind time.
Battersby Station, North Yorkshire
Battersby Station in the shadow of the Cleveland Hills was the centre of activity early in 1963 when extensive snowfall blocked the Eskdale line
Forgotten Railways of the North East, Ken Hoole, David & Charles
One of Ken Hoole's most notable titles on the North Eastern Railway region, "Forgotten Railways..." takes you down Memory Lane with monochrome images of no longer extant branch lines between the Humber and the Tweed. Publisher David & Charles brought out several of his books, so keep your eyes peeled.
"Snow will blow in again from the north-east..."
To see the conditions, on the Saturday Peter Semmens took a train from Middlesbrough to Commondale.
From the leading windows behind the cab of a Metro Cammell diesel multiple unit he saw how the snow would have been like two days earlier. The 12.50 pm from Middlesbrough was made up of two motor coaches, E50252 and E50262. Both were full of passengers - with the oil heaters belting out warmth - snug as if in a cocoon. As the train climbed the 1:44 bank at 30 mph between Ormesby and Nunthorpe it became obvious the the line clearance had been hard-won. Fields on either side past Nunthorpe were well covered. The train swung onto the line to the right at the junction toward the slopes of Roseberry Topping. Its upper slopes were covered in low cloud as they passed on the straight stretch, drifts becoming deeper on either side reaching above the carriage windows [this was as I saw it on the Monday on my way to Scarborough, a day late to start back at Art School].
Worse would be in store beyond Great Ayton after the train guard took outward ticket halves from alighting passengers, some with sledges out for an afternoon's snow-sports. As the train got u nder way the guard strode through the train to warn against looking out through the windows [on pre-1980s train stock door windows in the slam-doors could be opened by pressing the metal strip at the top and pushing down to release the door catch on the outside, a precautionary measure to stop accidental or mischievous opening by younger passengers]. The train averaged 30 mph over the 2.6 miles around the curve past Little Ayton and into the platform at Battersby for the outward journey.
Compared with the warmth of the carriage, the chill on the platform at Battersby had been almost a shock. The erstwhile 'Up' platform was still snowed under, with a number of standing wagons buried under the drift surface. The driver changed ends and before long the train was underway again between deepening walls of snow. The keeper's cottage at the un-gated crossing on the narrow Easby-Battersby road was almost invisible under accumulated coverings of snow. As they pulled away eastward for Kildale the sun burst through the clouds, giving the landscape a glistening wedding cake effect, lighting the almost vertical cliff-like drift walls on the curve by Easby. The train put on speed on the bank, to just over 48 mph, winding between canyon-like drifts in the deeper cuttings, snow cornices on the southern slopes. The 1.8 miles to Kildale was taken in just under four minutes, where more passengers left the train. For almost the four miles to Commondale the only traces of track were two narrow steel lengths ahead. The watershed was passed, between the broader dale of Stokesley and Great Ayton and upper Eskdale. The gradient eased as the train drew alongside the sparse Commondale platform. Only the postman was here, who had brought his single bag of mail collected from the scattered boxes he could reach along this part of the dale.
Mr Semmens left the train here, to photograph it and the returning one - which would cross at the next passing point, Castleton - and take that one back to town. His timetabled wait of ten minutes would prove longer, owing to the late running of the Middlesbrough-bound train. He passed the time in conversation with the postman, who let him know the snow in the dale was nothing compared to where a farmer's wife told of drifts that topped five foot high walls on her property that could take her weight. With local roads still closed it became clear how vital the railway was to this area in these conditions. Round, deep impressions in the snow on the platform showed farms were at least able to get their milk delivered - either to Whitby or Middlesbrough - and use of the line was still regular despite the threat of closure the Beeching Report posed. The stations in the dale were handy for the communities they served.
The Middlesbrough train when it came was a two-car formation like the one that he left earlier. The Whitby driver Larry Jonas had brought his wife with him to show her the extent of the moorland drifts. Through the glass partition he pointed out the worst parts to her. The humidity of the carriage tended to mist up the windscreen as well as Peter Semmen.s' camera lens. The driver kept the windscreen clear as much as possible for photographers aboard the train. Even leaving almost eight minutes late the train ran freely down the gradient at 50 mph and arrived in the bay platform at Battersby in good time.
A cloud of dark smoke behind the station buildings at the west end heralded the approach of Q6 63371 of Thornaby returning with the pick-up goods from Stokesley, then the terminus of the line for goods traffic only, but only until 1965. With a heavy load the 0-8-0 ground to a halt at the opposite side of the 'Down' platform from the dmu. A shaft of sunlight heightened the effect of the tower of cloud over Urra Moor to give the impression it was much higher.
"Dig this!" Not exactly Swinging Sixties, more like skidding or sliding
From the late 1950s Metro-Cammell diesel multiple units replaced steam-hauled passenger workings between Middlesbrough, Whitby and Scarborough
Snow hit Battersby again the following Thursday night.
The Middlesbrough-Whitby line found itself blocked by drifts again. Derailment brought fresh problems. All the same the line was cleared again, smaller falls being easily dealt with. However, with the walls of snow either side of the track a normal plough would prove useless, unable to throw the snow outwards. So a drag-line would have to be brought into use. On caterpillar tracks this functioned from the snow-covered fields either side of the cuttings and sheared back the snow slopes at a 45 degree angle. Only a low vertical wall of snow at foot-and-a-half in height was left. Mounds of snow in the fields came up to the level of the upper floor windows of one house, showing the amount of work done in clearing away the snow.
A broken rail was responsible for the imposition of a rigid speed limit of 5 mph over the worst sections either side of Battersby. On Saturday, 23rd February blinding sunshine lent the Cleveland Hills an Alpine appearance as Mr Semmens watched the 12.50 pm Middlesbrough-Scarborough train pass through the drifts. The two-car set ran so silently he was unaware of it until the leading leading motor unit broke out of the shadows from beneath the road overbridge. Having reversed in the platform it climbed the 1:87 past the crossing on its way to Kildale.
The children of the woman crossing keeper cleared snow from the path and steps. Following one of the blizzards she could not leave the cottage until the ganger (lineman) dug the snow from outside to clear the outward opening door. This crossing boasted one of the original rotating board signals installed by the North Eastern Railway when the branch was opened in 1861. The operating handle, set three feet off the ground was hidden beneath the drift.
North Eastern Railway veterans...
Peter William Brett Semmens, 13th September, 1927 - 4th March, 2007
Peter William Brett Semmens, who died 4th March, 2007 aged 79 was born at Saltash, Cornwall on 13th September, 1927. The son of a bank manager, he was educated at St Edward's School, Oxford and studied chemistry at Exeter College in Oxford. Railways were his passion, having been an avid train-spotter as a lad, never going without his camera. From the 1940s he took a large number of photographs of railway themes, numbered and catalogued.
Graduated, Semmens joined ICI at Billingham on the north bank of the Tees where he worked for the next two and a half decades and became involved in promoting science for youngsters. He served on the council of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAfAS). In 1974 he joined the then new York Railway Museum - which became the National Railway Museum after the one in Clapham - closed as deputy curator, and served on the Yorkshire Tourist Board.
In 1981 Semmens was invited to take over the 'Practice and Performance' column of Railway Magazine. A series of books on railway themes across the world followed, including a guide to the Stockton & Darlington Railway for the 150th anniversary of the opening of the first public railway.in 1975. Biographies of famous engine builders followed, a study of high-speed railways in Japan, a celebration of the completion of the Channel Tunnel and Railway Disasters of the World in 1994. .
He was survived by his wife and family of five.
There are two titles relating to railways in the area by Peter Semmens from when he worked for ICI Billingham, available from Amazon if you Google: "Books by P W B Semmens" ,
- Exploring the Stockton & Darlington Railway and
- Stockton & Darlington: One Hundred & Fifty Years Of British Railways
Both are inexpensive paperbacks, second-hand but in fair condition. Enjoy
*Oh, er... Nearly forgot. Remember the asterisk at the end of the title?
Well it was meant to draw your attention to a few Hub Pages directly linked by theme to this one
- In the Storyline series: 7: DRIFT BESET, and 11: STUCK SOLID
- In the Rites of Passage For A Model Railway series, 23: SNOW PLOUGHS
© 2016 Alan R Lancaster