Sleepering in the Lakes

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At various times reports have circulated around Southport Model Railway Society concerning activities carried out at a certain narrow-gauge railway in Western Cumbria. It would appear high time to describe in a little more detail what actually goes on.

It all begins in the pale dawn light at Ravenglass station, where everything seems to be shut up and asleep. All except a diesel locomotive ticking over at the head of a works train, which includes the essential heated carriages for the workforce. Most of these have arrived on time despite also still being asleep, They are accompanied by a trio of dogs who are most definitely wide-awake and well up for a full day's work experience.

When all are fully accounted for and seated in an orderly fashion we set off for the work site, which can be anything from one mile to seven miles up the line. On the way we practise waking up and counting the local wildlife, which can include deer, buzzards, assorted breeds of duck, rabbits and of course sheep, who make a point of playing chicken with the trains at every opportunity.

Now re-sleepering is a relatively straightforward exercise, but fraught with hidden traps for the unwary. Proper sequencing of actions is the key, as it can be difficult to recover from errors of timing. An obvious example is to remember to send a works train along the selected track, unloading new sleepers as it goes, before starting to dismantle any of the old trackwork. Otherwise a lot of unnecessary fetching and carrying of heavy timbers gets the the process off to a very disappointing start. The same applies to bags of new rail screws, which need to be dropped off at intervals of roughly every twelve-an-a-half sleepers.

The next stage is to remove the existing rail clips or screws, and associated clamping plates, carefully retaining any to be re-used. Clips can be levered up with an oversize tyre lever, whilst screws need a powered screwing machine, for want of a better name, complete with reversing attachment. The rails can then be lifted and laid to one side, making sure you know which is left and which is right for when they are re-installed. And which way you were facing when deciding which was left, etc. In practice the convention is to use neither handedness nor compass points. It is always 'Towards the fell' or 'Towards the field' or whatever the local geography might suggest at the time. Likewise adjusting rail gaps never employs the 'To me - to you' set of commands commonly employed on mere building sites. The correct phrases are 'To Dalegarth' or 'To Ravenglass', causing the novice to try frantically to remember the layout of the line, before getting shouted at for either inaction or, worse, the wrong action.

Ideally lifting is done with rail tongs, which look like oversize fireside implements and clamp the rail firmly by its own weight, leaving you with only the magnitude of said weight to worry about and not whether the rail will slip out of your grasp and head toe-wards. However for some reason this is frowned on when dealing with such lightweight narrow-gauge track, and gloved hands are the mechanism of choice. The old sleepers are now laid bare, but it is not simply a matter of lifting them out. Well-ballasted track can be remarkably coherent in both shape and form, and the stones have to be persuaded to give up their charges, with energetic use of shovels and occasionally, pick-axes and/or crowbars.

Once released, the old sleepers can be recovered for selling as firewood, as baseboards for garden railways or possibly even as fully-serviceable sleepers for other more impecunious (or less fussy) narrow-gauge railways. They are inevitably heavier than their new replacements, due not only to water absorption but also to the assimilation of whole eco-systems of local insect life. At least you hope it is just insects. And of course new sleepers can be loaded onto wagons in neat machine-made packs, and merely pushed off said wagons at the worksite, trying moderately hard not to propel them right off the ballast shoulder, down the bank and into either a barbed-wire fence or a water-filled ditch, or both. The old ones however have to be man-handled from ground level upwards, with the full force of classical Newtonian gravity acting against you. At some point, usually fairly early in the process, one learns to abandon any pretence towards macho manliness and seek out a nearby colleague to help lift t'other end.

At this stage what was fully-functioning, if slightly worn, permanent way has been reduced to piles of old stones. With luck these can be removed by a diminutive JCB, or else it's back to the anti-gravity shovels again. Eventually bare trackbed is revealed, and it must be time for a coffee break in a warm carriage, or better still a hot lunch delivered by a young lady who is put off neither by barbed wire fences nor by butch-looking, and possibly grumpy, sheep.

After an all-too-brief respite the really exciting work beckons. The first task is to re-capture the new sleepers from their scattered hiding places and lay them in their approximate positions. I say approximate because their nominal 2ft spacing will vary at rail ends, where there is a need to avoid fouling the sleeper fixings with the fishplates. There is also the potentially-conflicting need to provide additional support at the joints. And just to torment the innocent ganger further, each sleeper must be the right way up (look for the sign of the cross, chaps) and the right way round (narrow hole spacing to Dalegarth, if you don't mind). And didn't you know there are two types of sleeper, one drilled true to gauge for straights and one slightly wider for curves?

Lifting the rails back on invariably reveals just how approximate was the initial positioning, and Murphy's Law mandates that at least two-thirds of those sleepers requiring adjustment are now firmly held in the wrong place by the weight of the rail you have just laid on top of them. More work with shovel, pick and a size 12 mallet.

As each rail is relaid the wisdom of having a large track gang becomes clear, as a number of things need to be done simultaneously. And in the right order, if that is relativistically possible:

1) Locate new screws in their trackside bags and lay four on each sleeper,

2) Locate stockpile of clamping plates removed from old sleepers and lay two on each new sleeper, with the help of buckets and wheelbarrow,

3) Insert screws and clamping plates in predrilled holes and pre-tighten with a T-bar, size XXL.

4) Push, kick and/or drag the next pair of rails into position, using a pre-sprayed blob of yellow paint as a marker to keep them central on the trackbed,

5) Set the gap with that most versatile and accurate scientific instrument, the shovel blade,

6) Dip fishplates into a large tin of dark, sticky grease and bolt up,

7) Use screwing machine in forward mode to tighten up the screws for each sleeper on the panel, ensuring that the clamping plates are the right way up, the right way round and properly aligned on the rail.

Such is the intensity of work that for minutes at a time not one shovel could be seen being leant on, as all personnel were fully engaged in more-or-less productive work. Indeed on at least one occasion an SMRS member was seen absentmindedly trying to lean on a somewhat flexible track gauge. Old habits die hard. And to ensure the brain was fully stimulated as well as the muscles, a test question was posed concerning the relative efficiency of pushing, as opposed to pulling, a heavily-laden wheelbarrow over an uneven surface. Answers please to the foreman, Ratty permanent way gang, at your own risk.

Next comes the really exciting work. As the number of panels grows, the need for correct alignment becomes all-important. Kinks have to be ironed out, delicate transition curves introduced at either end of each straight, and superelevation applied, or not as the case may be. All done with that most versatile and fairly accurate scientific instrument, the human eye. And a group of sweating navvies with crow-bars, trying hard to remember if the cry of 'To the fell!' means towards the big lump of rock on your left or towards the almost-as-big lump of rock on your right.

The final act is applying the new ballast, still (some old hands maintain) slightly warm from the crushing plant and bearing the merest whiff of cordite from the quarry's big bang department. The aforementioned JCB-on-a-diet has ladled a couple of hundredweight of ex-countryside onto each of a half-dozen or so well-worn wooden wagons. These have been propelled up the line to the railhead and now stand waiting for the massed shovels of the PW team to get to work. And hard work it is to, as each shovel-load must contribute to a carefully-shaped cluster of stones designed to hold the track in place against the forces of both nature and train. It's not just slinging rocks, you know. The most vigorous part of the operation is shovel-packing, using the edge of the shovel to force ballast under each sleeper, so no voids remain and the rail is evenly supported throughout. Further tampering, sorry tamping, may be done at a later date using a tool not unlike a jack-hammer, to add that final gloss of perfection to a job well done.

Eventually, as the light starts to fade over a perfect winter's day in the Cumbrian countryside (there is one such day, almost every year) we shoulder shovels and march cheerfully back to our warm, comfortable carriage for the trip home, happy in the knowledge that another stretch of Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway track has been restored to its full glory. And if only Millsy and co. didn't keep running their toy trains all over it, it would stay that way too.

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