Motormen

It came as a bit of a surprise to me when I first moved to Waterloo to take up my position as a driver. What I had not taken into account was the shock that had been felt by the old electric depots motormen caused by the transfer of the former steam staff to Waterloo. The first electric only depot at Waterloo was created by the opening of the Waterloo & City underground railway in 1898, I have read that some of the first drivers on the underground were those that had blotted their copybook on the mainline railway. At first A.S.L.E & F.* the footplate trade union looked down on the electric drivers positions, seeing them as less skilled than steam locomotive engineers. When they found that the position of motorman was being taken up by non-footplate staff, they realised they would lose members and negotiating power, so changed their stance and came to an agreement to include the grade of Motorman in the line of promotion.

This led to the creation of what was called duel links at steam depots, any steam driver could apply for a position as a motorman at an electric depot and would then carry on doing steam duties; unless required to cover an electric turn at one of the satellite depots. They stayed in the duel link until a vacancy occurred at their designated depot, they then would then transfer to that depot as a motorman. There was never any mixed steam and electric duties, because of the dirty nature of locomotive work, steam men were issued with overalls, and the grease oil and coal dust from their clothes would dirty the unit cabs and the Motormen’s uniform.

From 1915 when the first sections of the third rail electric system were energised, small signing on points for Motormen and guards were created where ever there were sidings for stabling units. These were at Waterloo, Wimbledon (where the railway power station was built to produce electricity for the trains) Hampton Court, Hounslow, and Strawberry Hill; once it closed as a steam depot. As electrification was extended across the former lines of the L&SWR by the Southern Railway between the wars, further electric depots were created at Effingham Junction**, Guildford, Leatherhead, Aldershot, Farnham, Woking, Chertsey, Windsor, Ascot, Reading and Portsmouth. None of these signing on points were very large in manpower terms compared to the steam depots whose passenger work they replaced.

There were 16 pairs of men in the duel link at Guildford steam depot that provided cover for around 40 motormen at Guildford, 22 at Farnham down to 16 at Effingham Junction**, 12 at Woking, 8 at Aldershot and only 4 at Leatherhead. While the dual link had no rostered electric duties, a driver on entering the dual link was allowed around six months on what was called “electric signals” to learn any roads that Guildford steam did not cover, plus learning where the gaps in the live rail were on steam routes, which was very useful if you had a large allotment!! The firemen in the dual link on the other hand were never sure of when they would be with their regular mate, because if he was taken off to cover a juice*** job, he would be lumbered with any other driver that was available.

There were many advantages to becoming a motorman, it could be a way of getting promotion to driver, more quickly than those who wanted to stay on the steam, and as those depots contracted with the loss of passenger work, it was a way of avoiding redundancy, the other advantages were not getting covered in oil and coal dust every time you did a turn, and you did not have to worry about a fireman. You could also plan your home life to a far greater extent as motormen had their own centrally based  list clerk who issued what was called weekly “buff sheet” that set the duties they were to do the following week, this compared to loco depot practice of issuing a daily alteration sheet only at 12 noon for the following day.

The weirdest thing I found was in coming from a 24hour depot at Guildford where you saw and worked with everyone at the depot, was finding that electric depots operated an early and late turn strict two shift system, so you hardly ever saw the other shift, it made sense as most passenger services finished by 01:00, and did not recommence till around 05:00. One result of this was that the “other shift” at your own depot was viewed with some suspicion; they were regarded as a funny lot, often referred to as a coco shift. What I could never understand about this was that these were drivers who were doing the same turn you were doing on the previous or following week.

Over the previous fifty years until 1967 motormen had got used to a different system, small depots, no link working, their own list clerks, different uniforms to the steam men, they even had at their own supervisors called Foremen Motormen based at Woking and Waterloo who would organise any cover of the train service by phone. The depot was run by what was referred to as the “blue Bag”. These were sent out each day by train from the list clerk based at Wimbledon to all electric depots detailing any work that needed covering. Each depot had a shift leader called a Leading Motorman who was paid around four hours extra a week to put up the notices, in practise anyone who brought the bag into the depot was expected to put the notices up in any case. The blue bag was returned to Wimbledon the following morning on the first service, containing all the driver’s tickets for the previous day, plus any other correspondence.

Electric mess rooms were little palaces compared to the dirty hovels that existed at most steam depots. Being owned by a small group of men, great pride was given to keeping it clean. Often any delay to a train at the start of service in the morning was caused by the cover man being too engrossed in polishing the mess room to realise that one of his colleagues was running late. Suddenly these mess rooms were swamped by the ex-steam men who did not treat the place in the same way, complaints were made about swinging tea cans in the room as any spilt tea stained the ceiling,

At Waterloo I remember there were three rows of tables that were laid out across the width of the room. What struck me was the form of apartheid that was practiced, the back row of tables under the television contained the ex Nine Elms men, leaning back on their chairs with their boots on the table. They were also known as the “cabin cats” as it always seemed to be same blokes. The next row of tables was used by the foreigners that were from the old steam depots such as Basingstoke, Eastleigh, Bournemouth, & Weymouth. The last set of tables, close by the sinks were used the motormen. This was not particular to Waterloo as, when being trained on electric stock in 1968, we had to go Victoria to look around motor luggage vans that were equipped with batteries so they could be used on the non electrified lines in Dover harbour, not that I ever drove one. The class went up to the depot mess room for a cup of tea, and I found three rows of tables stretching out in front of me. The Victoria signing on point was used by two separate depots one to cover the Central Division and the other the South Eastern Division, That is the old London Brighton & South Coast & the South Eastern. You could tell which table was by the two depots as the middle table had a selection of white enamel jugs for tea making used by Brighton men, with the other two tables being equipped with tea pots for the South Eastern men.

* A.S.L.E.&.F. Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers & Firemen

** Effingham Junction. Home station of Alan Williams who writes a brilliant monthly column in the magazine Modern Railways, he lived near this station for twenty five years until he recently decamped to the wilds of Yorkshire.

*** Juice. Slang term for electric current, live rail or electric trains.

Written by Bill
is our resident railway expert. Read more about Bill

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