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Memoirs of a Railway Volunteer: Part 14

Discussion in 'Bullhead Memories' started by sleepermonster, Sep 22, 2015.

  1. sleepermonster

    sleepermonster Member

    Jun 19, 2007
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    “The Old Trade’s Plying”.

    When I signed on with the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway at Wirksworth in 2010 my intention was to concentrate on the overhaul of “The Duke”, but the steam locomotives need a dedicated shed, the shed needs a siding and it soon became clear that a stock of track material would be very useful. Organising track salvage operations used to be a speciality of mine, but times have changed, as I sometimes try to explain to the optimists who would like to copy the strategies we pursued over twenty years ago on brand new schemes in the present day.

    The plain fact is that there are not nearly as many disused private sidings as there used to be, and safe working requirements are much stricter than they were. It is not so easy to just turn up with a band of volunteers, rip up the rails and make for the hills as we once did.

    I still had a record of potential projects and set out to make the necessary contacts in various directions, but progress was slow. Despite my best efforts it simply was not possible to arrange a track salvage project. (Tries out best Jeremy Clarkson expression; fails completely)

    Until now.

    There was one particular possibility on the list, the Celanese sidings at Spondon near Derby; I paid a flying visit at a weekend and from a nearby footbridge it was possible to make out disconnected and overgrown tracks which vanished under a gate. I set out to find a channel of communication into the organisation concerned, but before I could do so they contacted us – the family of a senior executive had a splendid day on the railway and left contact details. After that not a lot happened for quite some time, their operations had to come to a suitable stage at which they would be ready to dispose of their track.

    I had been involved in dealings with the same organisation with Brian Oliver twenty years before and I knew that the safety regime would be particularly strict, so when the time came I took care to stress this in our presentation as well as our acute need for specific items which I hoped were present. The upshot was that I was invited to meet the management on site. It turned out that they had a file of begging letters from railway groups; they were well aware that the material was valuable, but wished to ensure that it was put to good use. Above all, they wished to be certain that the work would be carried out in a safe and competent manner. As I expected, the safety requirements were be strict and detailed: all workers would have to show they were properly trained and insured, pass a site induction course and wear safety boots, glasses, hard hats gloves and hi viz vests at all times. Lunch would be eaten in a designated canteen. The work would have to be done by appropriate qualified people and strictly in accordance with a written method statement to be approved by Celanese.

    By now Mr Disgusted of Crumblebuffer is possibly saying that thirty years ago he did all his platelaying in open toed sandals without any of this and it never did him any harm. Welcome to the modern world. The company is engaged upon a comprehensive demolition and closure programme on an enormous site, with a zero allowance for reportable accidents. Demolition work is inherently dangerous, and if you want to eliminate all accidents you must eliminate all potential causes of accidents. In fact intensive clearance work was taking place near the sidings, with buildings disappearing week by week. They are two years into the job with not so much as a squashed finger. We are very grateful that they were prepared to let a bunch of unknown amateurs work on their site.

    We took a look at what was left of their layout and there was one small area, the Acid Delivery Siding, which would provide most of our requirements: plain rail, a bufferstop, a sharp radius A6. Nearby was a very useful B7 ½. This left a lot of material remaining, and I was asked if railway groups could work together to clear the sidings completely and efficiently. I went away to think about that. The Wirksworth track gang had been working hard through the winter, re timbering several turnouts; in fact they had got the process for rebuilding a turnout down to three days flat. The gang included a few of my colleagues from the old days who were well used to salvage operations. I had no doubts about their ability, but who else should we invite?
    I had worked with the Mountsorrel project at the Great Central Railway, and I knew they had a large and well drilled team, fresh from laying over a mile of track. I also knew that Steve Cramp, the project leader, was searching for two A switch turnouts for their depot at Nunckley Hill, and there were two more of these available. I mentioned the project to Martyn Ashworth who recommended The Lincolnshire Wolds Railway. Their volunteers had given much skilled help to the restoration of “Vulcan” at Barrow Hill, and we owed them a favour. Martyn confirmed that they were a very well qualified organisation – many of their volunteers work in the North Sea oil industry. They were also very keen to obtain around half a mile of track for their next extension. He put me in touch with James Wilson; it turned out we had already met as he had driven a visiting locomotive at Wirksworth – our world is small and well connected.

    I briefed Steve and James on the possibilites and requirements. It looked as if we would fit very well together – one of Steve’s team wrote method statements as part of his job, the LWR had qualified machinery drivers.
    The other two railways made their presentations and we were invited to a joint meeting to discuss safe working and the division of the spoils. This was extremely positive; there was a triple loop of exchange sidings with turnouts at each end, which we christened “Site A”; this was a short distance from the Acid Siding. There was just enough material on site to give each railway exactly what they wanted: Two turnouts, one bufferstop, 350 yards of track for the EVR, two turnouts, 200 yards of track for Mountsorrel, somewhere over 800 yards of track for the LWR extension, plus two more turnouts to make the run round loop at the end. There were quite a lot of rotten sleepers but it looked as if over half would be useable. We each reckoned we could bring up to a dozen volunteers. The time to dismantle the track was estimated at three to four days; it would all depend on just how easily the fishplates came off. Last time, twenty years ago, the salvage work on this site involved track which had been disused for a very many years. The fishplates had been so badly rust welded to the rails that they had been extremely difficult to get off, even with wedges and sledgehammers. However it looked as if these tracks had been used and maintained until relatively recently.
    Nevertheless I went looking for the cold set which had been lurking unused in my garage for some years and sharpened it up on the grindstone.

    Our lifting plan involved the use of lorries with hiab cranes rather than separate crane hire which would be much simpler to arrange from a safety point of view. These days you have to consider whether the ground will stand the point loading generated by a crane and whether there are services which might be disrupted beneath the surface.

    One distinct snag was the presence of a blue fibre optic cable, which had been threaded through the keys in the chair jaws on the Acid Siding, which also had the best sleepers. This controlled the main effluent discharge valve into the nearby river, and it was made explicitly clear that if it suffered any damage then the salvage operation would come to an immediate stop. We agreed that it should be possible provided we put protective sleeves over the cable and used hand hammers and punches to knock the keys out. This looked as if it would be a slow and tedious task, and I can’t say I was looking forward to it.

    Over the next few weeks the three railways organised their teams and sorted out their paperwork –method statement final draft, insurance schedules, certificates of competence, personal details of all persons taking part. I spent some time sawing up offcuts of plastic drainpipe and slitting them lengthways to make sleeves and hired a van to take our tools down.

    The first day on site was Saturday, 9th May. There were at least forty volunteers from the three railways at the induction training session, which took over an hour; the first question was whether we had first aid kits available and all three team leaders put their hands up. After the training we were shown a film acting out bad practices and invited to call out the hazards, then we were issued with gate passes and were escorted in convoy to our worksite. The company had a very welcome surprise for us: the blue cable had been re-routed away from the track and my plastic sleeves could go in the bin. We unloaded our tools and formally inspected our lifting equipment (Duff jacks) and recorded this. The volunteers then formally signed off their work permits, put on their safety gear, and work could begin.

    The classic picture of a permanent way gang shows one or two men working while the rest watch. Not here: they all drew their tools, fanned out in twos and threes and set about the sidings energetically and in sequence – fishplates off, keys out, rails jacked up and barred clear of the sleeper ends. By lunchtime there was serious progress and the company supervisors made it known that they were extremely impressed with our efforts and methods of working. Fortunately the track had been maintained and the fishplates had been properly greased, thank goodness.

    On Sunday morning I reflected that I had been thirty years younger when I started doing this sort of thing, and if my hand had not lost its cunning, my bones were creaking a little more than they used to do. Nevertheless we were soon plugging away; the supervisors said that they were more than happy with our work, and standing watching us was boring so they borrowed some fishplate spanners and joined in.
    All three railways were using Bance petrol wrenches to remove chair screws. We went through our share of the track taking the chairs off all the rotten sleepers which were hauled out of the way.

    Day Three, the following Saturday, saw more of the same. A few obstinate nuts were loosened with the cold set and sledgehammer: it may be old fashioned but it is easier to carry than a gas cutter or a disc cutter and does not need a hot work permit. There were a lot of check rails, and while fishplate bolts may get greased check block bolts generally don’t. Also we had a JCB (generously paid for by Celanese) and a telehandler (hired by the LWR) on site stacking rails and sleepers, which took a bit of juggling to keep out of each other’s way. For a while one of the LWR teams was stuck for work and helped us to stack our sleepers.
    We were loading all the “smalls” – keys, screws, fishplates, chairs, into 1 ton builders bags to minimise manual handling, and we were going to need a lot more of these, so I went off and bought another twenty ready for our next working day, 30th May.

    We filled nearly all the sacks with the spoils so far and dealt with the last few detail jobs on the track we had already lifted; finally we were able to deal with the last instalment round the corner, which so far only I had seen- there just had not been any spare time- and which we had christened “Site B”. This was a loading area under a gantry of pipes which had been disused for a very long time, and it had a definite flavour of old Spondon sidings about it. All that was left was two short lengths of siding; the scrap merchants had made a start here and the rails had been cut into short lengths; but even so, it was a useful source of material. For a start, there was a pair of wheel stops, which were just what we required for the end of tracks inside the shed. The bolts had been blown off and they were loaded into our van immediately. We made one serious attempt on a pair of fishplates but as I expected, they were thoroughly rusted to the rail and were not worth the effort. The short cut rails were soon rolled out and we went through the sleepers, which were better than we had expected. We concentrated on rolling out the best of the sleepers for further examination. At the end of the fourth day the dismantling was just about complete, as predicted, but there was still much to do to gather everything together for lifting onto transport.

    The following Saturday – day five – we consolidated the work so far. I had brought plenty of builders bags, which would take up to 800 kg each, and all the loose chairs and small items were loaded into these. All the remaining sleepers at Site A were put into stacks of about 45 chaired sleepers and all the plain rails were also dragged into stacks for ease of craning. The two turnouts needed dragging into stacks for craning, but the site was starting to get a bit cluttered.

    I managed to book a day off work during the week and went in with a HIAB lorry to do a little tidying; this took longer than I would have liked as the builders bags were scattered about the worksite; I would have preferred to concentrate them with the JCB, but we had simply run out of time. The problem is that, every time a lift takes place, The HIAB operator has to set up his vehicle and put down his rams, and then put it all away again before he can move to a new location. The lorry had a trailer and the capacity to move all the bagged items and ten tons of chaired sleepers as well. Perhaps I was wrong to modify our plan, but I decided to get these away. It turned out that this HIAB crane did not have the capacity to lift a full pack of chaired sleepers, and these had to be split; we had intended to deliver the sleepers to Shottle, but found that the access road had been so narrowed by vegetation that the haulier would not risk his paintwork and so he had to back out and revert to Wirksworth. It turned out to be a very long and tiring day – but at the end of it there were 90 chaired sleepers sitting on a lowmac wagon at Wirksworth, and over 30 bags of small components to be unloaded the following day.

    Back to demolition; we had worked the gang hard for a month and it was raining heavily; we were down to two, but this was enough for the work in hand. The other railways had been in during the week and very sensibly stayed at home, so we had the JCB to ourselves. There were a few rails to drag out of the Acid Siding, and then we concentrated on Site B and pulled out the decent sleepers, which we put into smaller stacks. We also had a useful conversation with the supervisors about a further turnout, a little away from the rest and buried in vegetation. So far no-one had tackled it and it looked to be worth one final effort. I bought a pair of hedge loppers and faithfully promised my wife I would be good and tackle the garden shrubbery as soon as possible.

    The team re-mustered on the following Saturday – day 7. By now Site A was beginning to look empty and once again we had the JCB, which we set to work to stack components from the first two turnouts while most of us tackled our third. The loppers came in very handy.

    Underneath the brambles, the ironwork was in very good order and the turnout was identified as a B6. The fishplates had been properly greased once upon a time and all came off quite reasonably; soon the Bance wrench was chattering away and by the time the JCB came back the first of the rails was ready for dragging. The ironwork was dismantled, dragged out and stacked for loading in six hours flat. The timbers were a little suspect after so long in soil beneath the damp undergrowth – looking good on the outside but mushy in the middle when bashed by the JCB forks - and so we let them lie. On the way home we took a further look at Shottle Yard. The EVR vegetation clearance team had been very busy and the access way was now clear.
    The final stage, the extraction is always the most stressful and expensive part of the job. All materials were to be delivered to the EVR yard at Shottle; access is through the yard of Peak Oil Ltd, only on weekdays and only up to 5pm; the daily loading and unloading would take place against the clock and I calculated we would need to be off site at Spondon by 2pm at the latest. A two day stint in July saw around 80 tons of material successfully delivered to Shottle. It was a close run thing – the last lorry left at 5.10 pm on the Friday night, and there were still many sleepers to collect.

    This was enough to send our construction chief, Mick Thomas into overdrive and he began energetically digging out the formation for new tracks in the depot area at Wirksworth; very soon the A7 had been brought up the line and reassembled in its new home.

    We returned for the last instalment in September – another 150 sleepers and around a ton of S1 chairs. For once we were not under any particular pressure of time and it all went very smoothly; by the end of the day all the sleepers had been re-loaded onto a train of lowmac wagons at Wirksworth and Mick was digging away to create space for the next new siding with spoil departing by the wagon load.

    This was a “just in time delivery” for the following weekend. Every year Professor Felix Schmid of Birmingham University brings his railway engineering students to the railway for a weekend of practical experience laying track at the start of the academic year. We get a working party of students from all over the world. It must be quite a cultural shock for some: arrive in England on Thursday, ship out to Derbyshire with forty strangers on Friday, introduction to bullhead track construction on Saturday, especially as many of them will never have wielded a sledgehammer or a crowbar in earnest before. The Prof says it shakes them down into a team very quickly.

    It is a one year course so we get a different lot each time and it is a great privilege to work with these bright and keen young people. We show them some of the basic techniques and it always reminds me of my early experiences on the Tanfield Railway when I was a student at Durham over thirty years ago.
    This time we had something a little more ambitious for them and set one half to work on the new siding and the other to connect the third track for the maintenance facility, which involves a complicated S-bend. While the work was in full swing we were very glad to welcome Chris Radlett from Celanese to be shown our work and formally hand over their gift.

    By the time they left the students were really getting the hang of the work, quite a lot of track was laid and with a bit of luck they will be back before the end of their course. At the end of the Sunday session I went over the work site with Mick Thomas; there were sixty yards of track laid on the loco site and another sixty half laid on the S-bend. He was scheming twice as fast as usual and I think it is going to be a busy year ahead.
    We have put up a small plaque at Wirksworth, as follows:

    The Ecclesbourne Valley Railway gratefully acknowledges the generous gift by Celanese Ltd of railway track material from Spondon Works.
    Recovered by EVR volunteers
    Formally handed over 19th September 2015.

    Last edited: Sep 22, 2015
  2. ragl

    ragl Well-Known Member

    Feb 3, 2010
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    Consultant Engineer
    Tim, many thanks for relating the trials and tribulations of recovering the sidings at Spondon, it really does make an illuminating and interesting read; however, such work is the usually unheralded graft that really is the core of Railway preservation. Many thanks for sharing and not ever mentioning a loco livery!


    Black Jim, Jack Enright and michaelh like this.
  3. Sheff

    Sheff Resident of Nat Pres

    Apr 21, 2006
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    Retired Engineer & Heritage Volunteer
    N Warks
    Heritage Railway Volunteer:
    Yes I am an active volunteer
    Great memories Tim. Was it really over 20 years ago that the first visit to Spondon took place? I instigated this as I both worked for Courtaulds who owned the Celanese plant and was active a Peak Rail. I had a quiet word with the site services engineer who thought the 'Management' might not be averse to letting some of the redundant siding go to a good cause, so longer a the group were 'responsible' and capable of working safely. I reassured him this was the case, as we'd recently taken track out of Hams Hall without killing any one! I forget why I ended up talking to Brian Oliver about this and not you, but I must have been busy elsewhere come the actual day of the mission.
  4. sleepermonster

    sleepermonster Member

    Jun 19, 2007
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    Hi Sheff,
    A quick check in the library reveals: Steam in the Peak, Summer 1995, "Messrs Courtaulds have generously donated a quantity of track material lying at their Spondon works".

    It just shows the old tales sometimes have a hidden back story. One of our volunteers was a young chap called Sam Cotton, and his father had the scrap contract at Celanese and took me round one Saturday before our first expedition, so it was on my target list. How Brian made contact there was a story I hadn't heard before, but he was very active in arranging salvage projects at the time. Sadly Spondon was his last one and lung cancer got him very quickly afterwards.

    Funny Alan should mention loco liveries; I happen to be a director of 48624 Locomotive Ltd, owners of the notorious red 8f. It was repainted black some months ago at a cost of around £5000 and none of the usual keyboard warriors seem to have noticed.

    michaelh likes this.
  5. Black Jim

    Black Jim Member

    Oct 21, 2009
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    Ive just read this &i must say its great reading , I read you're earlier posts & enjoyed them. As someone above said great railway stories without one mention of loco livery's! You are a natural story teller, you ought to write a book!

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