British Railways inherited a variety of brake vans from each of the Big Four: GWR, LNER, Southern Railway and LMS due to the nationalisation of the railways in 1948.
A brake van is a wagon at the rear of a goods train where a guard would sit with a handbrake. The job was to provide extra braking force for a train and as an emergency hand brake.
All brake vans served the same purpose: to add extra brake-force to a train. Brake vans are operated by the Guard who is in charge of making sure that the lights are in the correct place. This is because a signalman would need to see the tail-lamp to know that the train had not split so that he can clear the line.
Most vans had both normal brakes and vacuum brakes. They also contained a fire for the comfort of the Guard.
Many brake vans today are used on heritage railways as passenger vehicles, like on the Helston Railway and the National Railway Museum demonstration lines at York and Shildon.
In Great Britain, freight trains without a continuous train braking system in either the whole train or the rearmost section of the train (“unfitted” or “partly fitted”, respectively in UK railway parlance) were still prevalent in the 1970s, but mostly eliminated by the 1980s.
Early brake vans were heavily weighted, adapted open freight wagons, equipped with an externally mounted hand-operated brake acting on all four wheels. The term brake van began to be adopted from the 1870s onwards when bespoke designed vehicles had a specific hut added to house the guard away from the weather. In keeping with tradition, most brake vans had an open area, but from the 1870s onwards this “veranda” became in part enclosed through the addition of a roof. Some vans became fully enclosed but were equipped at each end with windows to allow the guard to view the entire train.
All of the operating equipment, specifically the brakes and sandboxes to improve traction, were located in the open area of the brake van. Brakes were normally controlled using a handwheel mounted within the veranda, although some early designs continued with an externally mounted shaft. To improve the guard’s visibility, many were fitted with look-outs on the roof, but side look-outs (termed “duckets”) were the more common. The North Eastern Railway, Great Central Railway, London Brighton and South Coast Railway and the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway all built brake vans with a raised look-out at one end of the roof.
Two factors increase the amount of friction between the brake van and the track; the number of wheels and the weight. In order to increase the weight brake vans often had a significant amount of ballast, in the form of concrete, cast iron or water tanks. Although most brake vans had two axles with four wheels, many railway brake vans had three axles and six wheels. The Great Northern Railway built a few eight-wheelers for very heavy coal trains which were the only rigid eight-wheeler brake vans built in the UK. In the 1930s, the London Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS) built three bespoke twin-bogied vans (four axles, eight wheels), for use on a particular branch line, where they replaced pairs of four-wheeled vans. The design covered the entire chassis length, with two extended verandas on either side of a cabin equipped with twin duckets.
To improve braking further, some LMS and LNER brake vans were fitted with vacuum brakes in addition to their normal brake, which could be operated by the guard. Almost all War Department brake vans were fitted with vacuum cylinders, as they were exclusively used on ammunition trains. The Southern Railway built some twin-bogie brake vans on redundant electric locomotive chassis, termed the “Queen Mary” brake vans. Designed for high speed operation on milk and parcels trains rather than stopping power, they had a lengthened cabin but did not cover the entire twin-bogie chassis.
Equipment carried aboard the brake van, which had to be checked by the guard before the train’s departure, consisted of a shunting pole (a wooden pole about 6 feet long with a twisted hook on the end which was used to couple and uncouple 3-link and instanter couplings without the guard having to position himself dangerously in between the vehicles), a brake stick (imagine a square ended baseball bat; it was used to lever down the handbrakes of wagons by placing it under the solebar and applying downward pressure), paraffin for the lamps, usually in an old milk bottle, and two pairs of track circuit clips (these are clips that fit over the rail and are connected by a length of wire more than 4 feet 8 and a half inches long; they are clipped over both rails of a track-circuited line so as to short circuit the track and indicate to the signalman that a train is occupying that section; they would be used in the event of an accident in which other running lines were fouled and trains on them had to be stopped as a matter of great urgency). He would also check that the tail and side lamps were carried, filled, trimmed, and lit at night, during fog or falling snow, or if the train is to run through any tunnel in which lamps are required. These checks were part of the guard’s train preparation duties, and his responsibility. The guard would, also at this time, ensure that the van carried coal and kindling to light the stove fire, even in summer if the train was to be relieved by another crew who might have to work into the cool of evening or night. It was common for guards to carry old newspapers with which to stop up any draughts that made their presence felt at speed; partly fitted freight trains might run up to 60 mph.
Other features of the van’s interior would be a coal stove for the guard’s heating and cooking needs, above which was a rail with hook on for the purpose of drying wet clothing. Furniture would consist of padded seating, with pads at shoulder height to protect the guard from the inevitable jolts and jerks (‘snatches’) of freight work, at the duckets; the guard would sit here for protection while the train was moving, unless absolutely necessary. He could reach the brake wheel from that position. This padded seat would be on top of a bench locker that stretched the entire side of one side of the van and half of the other (the side which the stove). A further padded seat was provided at the end of this bench locker where there was a small desk for the guard to perform whatever written work was necessary.