Applying the brakes

Yesterday our project Twitter feed (@RWLDproject) tweeted a case in which a worker attempted to apply a vacuum brake with a coupling pole. This caused a few raised eyebrows, some heated discussion, and some initial thoughts that we’d got our wires crossed: after all, these are two technologies which don’t work in the same way, so this was a perfectly reasonable assumption. More usually – and there are plenty of example of this in our database – workers attempted to apply a wagon’s handbrake with a shunting stick/ coupling pole, which wasn’t designed for the task and so not strong enough, and it broke, sending the worker to the ground (& if unlucky, under the wheels of the wagon). We might debate why workers used/ mis-used (as the companies saw it) the coupling pole in this way – to save time, to make up for not having been supplied with the proper equipment, or whatever. But here we’d like to return to our case with the vacuum brake.

To explain a little about the two braking systems, with a handbrake, much like that of a car, a lever would, via mechanical linkage, either apply or release the brakes in relation to the wheels of a wagon. In a vacuum brake, air is pumped out of a system of pipes, pulling the brakes off the wheels; when air is allowed back into the system – either deliberately or as a failsafe if the system is somehow compromised – the brakes are re-applied to the wheel. In usual circumstances, therefore, we might expect that a worker could apply the handbrake with a brake stick – operating the lever that put the brakes on. Unless they ruptured a vacuum pipe, the system wasn’t set up in such a way that a brake stick or coupling pole could be used to force vacuum brakes to work.

However, this was an odd case. On 13 May 1913, J McColl, a goods guard on the North British Railway, was involved in shunting stock at Alexandria station. A North British horsebox was uncoupled and run by gravity towards a rake of wagons; crucially the report notes that the horsebox didn’t have a handbrake. Presumably no-one spotted this before the shunt was made, as otherwise the question of how the vehicle would be stopped would have been raised. The solution? ‘McColl … put one end of his shunting pole under the lever attached to the piston of the vacuum brake and then, using the tie rod as a fulcrum, contrived to apply the brake by forcing the other end of the pole downwards.’

Perhaps predictably, the pole slipped, pitching McColl onto the ballast, where he bruised his left leg – though it could have been a lot worse. Inspector Campbell who investigated the case found that it was primarily due to the Company’s failure to fit a handbrake to the wagon – something it was by then addressing, as it was fitting handbrakes to all horseboxes: ‘it is to be hoped the work will be completed as expeditiously as possible.’ At the same time, McColl’s use of the shunting pole for applying brakes was also picked out as a breach of the rules, albeit one found in the Appendix to the Rule Book. McColl had been employed for just over three weeks at the time of the accident and hadn’t yet been given a copy of this Appendix, so Campbell noted he wasn’t aware of the instruction. He concluded by stating that goods guards ‘should receive a copy of the Appendix, and it is also desirable that the regulations affecting their duties should be pointed out and explained to them’ (1913 Quarter 2, Appendix C).

So, we have elements of both the typical (the shunting pole being used for braking) and the unusual (the attempt to apply the vacuum brake). It raises some quite technical questions (e.g. about loose shunting vacuum braked stock) as well as some economic matters (e.g. why handbrakes weren’t initially fitted – and to both sides of the wagon, an issue we’ll return to in the future). It also demonstrates some of the limits of staff training at this time, questioning how far workers were able to understand the risks to which they were exposed, a major factor in discussions about risk-taking actions and responsibility for accidents. Once again a myriad of big issues are found in a relatively small case which warranted barely 2 paragraphs in the original report.

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