Vehicle Profile #7 – Brakevans

I though it best to give both Matt and Ross a break this weekend, so for the first time its me, Dave Bower, completing a weekly update, this week we focus on the van at the back of the train.

As early as the 1840s wagons or coaches were specifically adapted for a Guard, this was someone employed by the railway to protect the valuable stock carried by the train from theft or vandalism. As these ‘unfitted’ trains (vehicles not fitted with an automatic brake controlled by the locomotive) increased speed and weight the Guards took on more duties relating to the actual safe running of the train. By the 1870s what we now know as ‘brake vans’ were in use and in the case of goods trains meant the Guard was on hand to take action in the event of a breakdown, accident or the more common event of train separation. As the speed of goods trains still continued to increased the purpose of the brake van and the guard’s duties developed further with the Guard using the brake van’s handbrake to assist with keeping the train under control on downwards gradients or whenever he could see that the locomotive’s crew was attempting to slow the train. The Guard could also use the handbrake to keep the loose couplings taut between unfitted wagons  minimising the risk of broken couplings and if no locomotive was attached hold the train with the brake vans brake.

Different types of brake vans evolved, some with single verandas and others with a veranda at each end, normally with a safety bar or half height door to each side. In most cases a significant amount of ballast is installed in the form of steel, cast iron, water tanks or more commonly during and after the wars concrete, this was built into the underframe to increase the available braking effort applied by the van. Step boards are fitted, sometimes along the full length of the van along with multiple grab handrails for the use of the Guard or Shunter when required. Inside the van’s interior most are fitted with a coal stove for the guard’s heating and cooking needs, with a hanging rail above with hooks on for drying wet clothing. As well as a desk to complete the all important paperwork required by the company.

Most brake vans were not built with train brakes, only a wheel operated handbrake; because they were designed to be used at the rear of un-fitted trains. Some are however vacuum through-pipe fitted, in which case a brake application valve is installed inside the brake van but towards the end of brake van use between the late 60s and 80s vacuum and even air brakes were fitted.

Duckets on each side of the brake van provide the guard with safe viewing of the train , signals ahead and the lineside without the need for leaning out of the brake van. The seats by each ducket also have side and back pads which provide the guard with some useful support in the event of jerks or coupling snatches. The handbrake wheel is installed within easy reach of the guards ducket seats.

Lamp irons are fitted to carry a tail-lamp and also side lamps. It was the guard’s duty to check that the tail and side lamps were on-board, filled with paraffin, the wick trimmed.

Trains that are not fitted with the automatic brake throughout, i.e. unfitted, must in addition to the tail lamp carry side lamps. With one exception, it is not a requirement to display side lamps on freights when the automatic brake is connected and in use on all vehicles on the train. This was a LNER / BR Eastern rule and later adopted by all of BR in the 1980s

Side lamps are required to be lit at all times. They are designed to show a white aspect towards the locomotive to inform the crew that the train is still complete and following. if however the lamps were unlit, a red aspect could be shown via light shining through the rear red filter.  This could be misread by the crew as a stop signal. In a genuine emergency the Guard would rapidly apply and release the hand brake, jerking the train to grab the crews attention and display a separate red flag or light. If the train was fitted with a brake pipe the full length of the train, then all the Guard needed to do was release the vacuum or apply the air brake.

To the rear two red side lamps are displayed for trains operating on main or single lines.

or, one red light on the side furthest from the main line and one white light nearest for trains in loops adjoining main lines and running in the same direction. This also applies on double lines signalled for trains in both directions whilst travelling in the reverse direction.

Side lamps should be removed when in sidings.

There is a story of an express trains crew leaping from the foot plate of a loco when the Guard of a goods forgot to swap his mainline side lamp for a white.  Reputedly a down express came through Loughborough Central and saw in the distance beyond Empress Road bridge the 3 red tail lamps of a goods,  the driver applied the brakes and both he and the fireman leapt from the cab. The driver received cuts and bruises the fireman however hit the bridge and was killed. The Goods was in the Down Goods loop clear of the express waiting to pass.  How true the story is regards to location I cannot verify but I’m sure it is likely to have happened even if the outcome did not involve a fatality.

The Guards preparation duties include checking that all the necessary equipment was in the brake van.

  • A shunting pole which is a wooden pole about 6 feet long with a twisted hook on the end, this is used to couple couplings without the guard having to climb between the wagons,
  • A brake stick, used to lever down the handbrakes of wagons,
  • Two pairs of track circuit clips, for use in emergency situations to indicate to the signalman that a train is occupying that section. They are clipped over both rails of a track-circuited line so as to short circuit the track in the event of an incident or accident,
  • A spare vacuum hose,
  • Wheel scotches (minimum 2),
  • Fire extinguisher and fire bucket,
  • Side Lamps (x 2),
  • Tail Lamp,
  • Red and Green flags,
  • Paraffin for the lamps,
  • Coal and kindling to light the stove fire.

Other uses of brake vans includes those fitted with ballast ploughs under each end, that are used to assist with distribution of ballast and clearing the rails during ballast drop runs when at the rear of a train of bottom discharge ballast wagons such as Dogfish or Catfish type wagons.

As the running of unfitted trains dropped during the 1970s and finished in the early 1980s, many brake vans were withdrawn, shunted to the end of sidings and left to rot because they were filled with concrete so had to be dealt with differently when it came to scrapping. This probably helped provide more of a choice for the preservationists.  Nick has regaled us with stories of brake vans being worked from scrap yard to scrap yard as none were too keen to break up the vehicles as they were mostly concrete and wood.

In the Quorn Wagon & Wagon fleet we are lucky to have four brake vans, all of which have been restored for use at the GCR. In each case, in addition to the replacement of various sections of the bodywork, the restoration by the team has involved corrosion removal, applying rust prevention and wood preservatives, brake equipment overhaul, axle bearing maintenance, full internal refurbishment, stoves, new upholstery and painting, underframe scraping, full external repaint and sign writing.

Our oldest is S56010 a Southern 25T, 16ft wheelbase ‘Pilbox’ Brake built at the former London Brighton & South Coast Railway works at Lancing in 1930 to Lot No.3033, restored in 2018 including the complete replacement of one veranda and external timberwork, door planks and windows, stove re-built and stovepipe.

Next in order of age is M730562 an LMS 20T, 16ft wheelbase Brake built in Derby 1938, Lot No.1104, also restored in 2018, including the complete replacement of external timberwork.

Then we have B954268 a BR 20T, 16ft wheelbase Brake built in Darlington 1958, Lot No.3129, restored 2018 including replacement of a significant amount of external and veranda timberwork, however currently out of traffic due to wheelset damage.

Finally our youngest B954546 a BR 20T, 16ft wheelbase Brake built in Darlington 1959, Lot No. 3227, restored last year after 8 years out of use, work included timberwork replacement to the verandas although brake rigging work remains

Operationally at the GCR a brake van is marshalled at each end of goods trains, this is to assist with more timely changes of direction at each end of the line, which ensures that our brake vans are used regularly, but does mean that we have to keep on-top of the operational wear and tear.

Matt of course, and as some of our images show, did use to operate these vehicles during his tenure with the operations department, his biggest sense of helplessness was the dreaded sound of couplings rapidly tightening as the crew were a little exuberant with the regulator. With up to twenty vehicles and a foot of slack between each, whatever speed the loco has achieved in that 20ft is instantly applied to the brake van as the last coupling tightens, on a number of occasions he recalls bracing himself between duckets or grasping the brake standard as the inevitable approached, but as he confirms it is all part of the fun.

Next week we shall take a broad look at our departmental vehicles and the work they undertake on the modern day Great Central Railway, not all of our vehicles are used to demonstrate what they once did some still actually do the work they were built for and more.

Author: Dave Bower

Retired Rail Vehicle Testing Engineer and Railway Author

3 thoughts on “Vehicle Profile #7 – Brakevans”

  1. Can you answer the question why some brake vans have lamp irons for two tail lamps? The LMS one in the article does and so did some vac fitted LNER/early BR ones.


    1. Brake vans have two tail lamp irons for the same reason coaches do. When running on dual or quad lines the lamp should be placed on the side nearest the cess. It is to allow crews of parallel running trains to easily identify from a distance which line it’s on.


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