When the Maharajas’ ‘Ghost Trains’ ran through Walsall

June 26, 2017 in Features, Jack Haddock, Railways, Walsall by Stuart Williams

Aerial view showing the old Walsall Station (bottom right) and the railway running north towards Bloxwich under Park St, c1930

Aerial view showing the old Walsall Station (bottom right) and the railway running north towards Bloxwich under Park St, c1930

By Stuart Williams and Jack Haddock

Senior Archives/Conservation Assistant

Some years ago I wrote a series of local history newspaper articles about Walsall transport, based on the memories of the remarkable Jack Haddock.  Walsall’s finest and most prolific transport historian, Jack has sadly since passed away and become part of history himself, much like the subject of this piece, which I decided to revisit after a trip to the Tyseley Locomotive Works last Saturday.

Long before my own time, during the 1930s, ‘The Ghost Train’, so Jack told me, was the name given to a special goods train which worked through the old Walsall Railway Station, which was then far bigger than the present stop.  The train concerned was a special out of gauge load running from Washwood Heath sidings, near the centre of Birmingham, to Birkenhead Docks on Merseyside.

During the days of the Indian Empire, various Maharajas (Indian princes or kings) owned their own personal and luxurious railway coaches.  These private carriages were manufactured at the Metro-Cammel Coachworks, in Washwood Heath.  These coaches were the last word in design splendour, incorporating gold plated bathroom and toilet facilities.  However, being built to a larger size than the standard British Railway carriages, such large luxury coaches caused problems when moving on our more limited gauge railway system. For the conveyance of non-standard railway loads, the railway companies built special low-load bogie wagons with the centre bottom only just above rail level.  Also, side hand screw jacks enabled a load to be moved sideways to avoid bridge or tunnel obstructions.  Thus these special wagons were used on special working through Walsall Station.

The unusual out of gauge load left Washwood Heath on late Saturday evening after the last passenger trains had finished their run.  It was routed over the old Midland line via Walsall then onto the Grand Junction line to Bushbury junction and Stafford, then diverting to the Great Western Railway system at Shrewsbury, who then worked it to Birkenhead Docks, arriving in the early hours of Monday morning.

Walsall Station flooded, showing the tunnel entrances under the station concourse and Park Street, 1927 (W.B. Shaw)

Walsall Station flooded, showing the tunnel entrances under the station concourse and Park Street, 1927 (W.B. Shaw)

It appears that Walsall Station was a major problem on this route.  The main bottleneck was the Park Street Tunnel with its limited clearances.  Also, Walsall Station regulations applied permissive working within its station limits, controlled by Walsall signal boxes 2 and 3. The regulations permitted locomotives to work ‘wrong line’ for attaching and detaching coaches on vans to local passenger trains.  This wrong line movement procedure was always referred to by railwaymen as ‘Bang Road’, the meaning of which would be obvious if signalling rules were ignored!  Very strict rules were applied to this practice and accidents were unknown in Walsall Station, fortunately.

To assist in these movements, many small ‘call on’ or ‘dwarf’ signals were positioned trackside at ground level facing the up and down sides of Walsall Station, including a number beneath the confines of Park Street Tunnel.  To enable these special out of gauge loads to move under Park Street it was deemed necessary to remove some of these ‘call on’ signals from their bases to relieve any obstruction to the passing ‘Ghost Train’ and also to save time.  Accordingly, the Walsall permanent way engineers at their New Mills depot would receive orders to dismantle these signals at the appropriate times.  This meant much welcome overtime for the local permanent way men.

After the first out of gauge load movement was successfully undertaken, a finalised plan was established to enable the future movements of these special Maharajas’ personal coaches to work to a timetable.

A 'Tommy Dodd' ground level shunting signal (bottom right) in Walsall Station, 1961. British Rail Fowler 4-6-0 locomotive 'Blackpool' waits with the Pines Express. (Jack Haddock)

A ‘Tommy Dodd’ ground level shunting signal (bottom right) in Walsall Station, 1961. British Rail Fowler 4-6-0 locomotive ‘Blackpool’ waits with the Pines Express. (Jack Haddock)

Permanent way staff, now long retired or passed away themselves, so Jack Haddock told me, were of the opinion that Walsall Station was the biggest problem on the route to Birkenhead.  It is many decades later now, and this historical aspect of the long-gone British Empire is but a memory, preserved locally in Jack’s writings. In those writings, culled from the memories of  Walsall’s old railwaymen, permanent way staff, signalmen and drivers, one otherwise forgotten connection remains to that era of Walsall Station, preserved in the traditions concerning a certain permanent way worker said to have been involved in the dismantling and installing of the Walsall Station call on or ‘dwarf’ signals.

This man was one Mr. Thomas Dodd, a very loyal and efficient track worker, so Jack Haddock was told, who was unusual in that he was very small in stature, his height being several inches below five feet.  Inevitably, perhaps, his colleagues began to refer to all these small ‘call on’ signals as ‘Tommy Dodds’, in honour of this diminutive permanent way worker.  Over the following years and indeed to the present day when all these mechanical dwarf signals have been replaced by small coloured light ground signals for shunt movements, they are still sometimes referred to even in the modern diesel and electric railway age, within the vicinity of Walsall, as ‘Tommy Dodds’.

Today, whenever Tommy Dodd’s name is mentioned, perhaps we should all think of that bygone age when Walsall’s transport system was closely linked with a much bigger world, and the Maharajas’ ‘Ghost Trains’ ran through Walsall Station in the days of the Indian Raj.

45632  ‘Tonga’ on the Down Middle Loop plus 45662 ‘Kempenfelt’ (Pines Express) on Down Slow, Platform 1, Walsall Station, summer of 1959.  (Jack Haddock)

45632 ‘Tonga’ on the Down Middle Loop plus 45662 ‘Kempenfelt’ (Pines Express) on Down Slow, Platform 1, Walsall Station, summer of 1959. (Jack Haddock)

 Stuart Williams