Do you ever wonder about the track the train runs on? We all know that it runs on a track which has to be capable of allowing trains to travel at very high speeds if required and also to carry very heavy loads, for example most locomotives are in the region of 100 tons so bridges and track have to be built to carry such weights and therefore they have to be strong and well maintained.
In the mid-fifties the track was walked and examined each morning (except Sundays) and for maintainence purposes the line was divided into P'way sections of around 3 to 3½ miles each allocated a Ganger and three or four men. In the morning two patrol men would set off in opposite directions to patrol the length walking approx 1¾ miles each. On the outward journey they walked on the working side of the track, that is the side the driver would be on coming up behind them and the opposite side on return. Now this was no casual walk, as they had to keep a sharp look out for their own safety, because on single lines trains could come from behind as well as coming to meet them. Unlike the present day there was no high visibility clothing worn, then the work clothes were navy blue jackets and bib and brace trousers and if it was wet, black oilskins were worn. Also, the visibility from a steam locomotive footplate was not of the best with the driver looking over the side or through a small porthole type of window in front of him through steam and smoke. Sadly a high price was paid in men's lives for this dangerous job.
The equipment they carried was a hammer with a shaft of about 4ft., a spanner for tightening bolts plus spare keys (the wooden blocks inserted between the chair and rail), flags and detonators. As they walked along, usually on the sleeper ends, the rail head was checked for defects and when they came to a joint, usually every 24 sleepers, the joint was checked for broken fish plates on either side of the joint. If one was found broken a temporary repair would be made by using half the broken plate, which still had two holes, to span the joint. This repair would stop all the strain going on the unbroken plate and preventing it from breaking. If both sides were broken it caused quite a jolt on the train and trains had to be cautioned to pass over at reduced speed until it was repaired.
Another thing that was checked for was keys that had come out as in long dry spells they could get quite loose. On very hot days the track was walked twice in case rails had buckled. A close eye was also kept on the fences to make sure the wires were not broken which would allow livestock onto the track. All gates at level crossings were checked for security. When they came to entrances at sidings or crossovers all the bolts were checked with the spanner to ensure they were tight. This was quite a labour intensive job and improved by the use of sprung steel keys gradually replacing the wooden ones.
The track was kept to high standards then with the men cutting the grass embankments with scythes and the lineside dutch-hoed. The track bed was usually cinders and the sides were all neatly trimmed. The tools were usually wheeled to the job in a barrow. When a part of the track had to be renewed a relaying squad of about 40 men was employed and all the work was done manually once the material was dropped off from the service train.
Today things are very different, at least the procedures are. First all staff wear high visibility clothes. No one is allowed to patrol if a train is in a signalling section and then when the section is clear the patrollers are protected by various means through the signal box for the section of track that they are on. The track is only foot patroled once a week with other patrols being done using a Land Rover which can travel on the track. A lot of other jobs also have gone over to machines, some spill red or yellow paint to display faults others do ultrasonic testing to detect cracks in rails, in particular at joints around the bolt holes. Other machines pack the stone ballast (which has replaced the cinders) as well as straightening any kinks and checking the camber on curves. Machines are also in extensive use on relays and bridge repairs or replacements. But for all the high-tech equipment we still need, and have to rely on, the patrolman (or patrol woman) as nothing beats the human eye at the end of the day.
Next time you are on a train, be it at 40mph or 100+mph, spare a thought for the partolman. He or she is as important for your safety as the driver, signalman and others.