I returned to the Railways in November 1978 as a freight shunter at Perth New Yard. The Yard was opened in 1961 and as it was new then it kept the name. The work at the Yard consisted of making up Freight trains for onward movement to places such as Niddrie, Mossend, Millerhill, Aberdeen and Inverness.
Trains would also arrive with coal, oil and timber for local distribution in Perth. To marshall the trains there was a Pilot engine (a small shunting diesel), Guard and Shunter. 'The Cobbler' was one of the Yard Foremen. Big, with a voice to match. Animals and humans alike cowered when he roared.
The Yard was illuminated at night by two large pylons which cast long shadows over the wagons and buildings. One night it was pouring with rain and we were working with the aid of our hand-lamps. Two trains had arrived while we were busy marshalling two outgoing trains. Mike the Guard was a keen amateur photographer who carried all the paraphernalia with him in a suitcase. As luck would have it, that night one of the trains we had to marshall had, along with the usual assortment of freight, a dead diesel which the train engine had to haul along with the wagons. Mike was nowhere to be seen, I was rushing about in the mud and mire coupling on here and pulling points there. The Cobbler was at his best roaring advice at the top of his voice. Suddenly there was an explosion of noise which immediately made me think of an Abattoir as I've heard Bulls roar in them. It was The Cobbler.
The sight of two engines together had been too much for Mike. He had downed tools, set up a tripod with camera and flash attached and was busy composing his photograph. The Cobbler was striding about, bellowing at no one in particular and had become entangled in the tripod causing him to fall full length into the mud. If verbal abuse could kill, Mike would be dead. He was a self-confessed Christian but that night he must have felt like a Martyr. I carried on making up the train while Mike tried to grab his equipment before The Cobbler could grab him.
If only I had a camera with me!
I missed going out on trains so in November 1979 I applied to be a Freight Guard. After a thirteen week course at the Haymarket Training School in Edinburgh I became a fully fledged Freight Guard at Perth New Yard.
Millerhill is a large Marshalling Yard. Some of the roads could hold at least a hundred wagons. You would arrive with a train, couple off the engine then go to the office where you would be given a printed list of the wagons in a particular road. Each wagon on the list was coded and you had to work out how many you were to take. The wagons were pushed together by the engine until they were buffered up. You would then walk back coupling on your wagons, perhaps the first twenty, and that was your train made up.
A young Perth Guard misread the printed instructions, pushed all the wagons together, coupled up his train and set off. The Driver had difficulty in pulling the train but he persevered. Eventually they got stopped at a signal to be told that they had lifted the wrong train. Instead of taking the first twenty vehicles, the Guard had coupled on the entire road of about 100 wagons.
If all the vehicles on a train didn't have an automatic brake then a Brake Van was required at the rear. This was an enclosed wooden van with a stove and supply of coal. It could be very cosy in the winter travelling in one of them. The most important piece of equipment was the hand-brake. A large circular wheel that when turned would apply the brakes on the van thus assisting the engine when travelling downhill. On each route that we worked there were designated places where the brake would be applied.
The route from Perth to Inverness is very beautiful with diverse scenery of mountains, moors and lochs. Between Blair Atholl and Drumochter Pass the line climbs steeply in a 1 in 70 gradient. The same young Perth Guard was in a brake van travelling downhill between Drumochter and Blair Atholl. The Driver seemed to lose control of his engine and the train travelled at speed towards disaster. Fortunately the signal at Blair Atholl was off and the train careered through the station on to a straight stretch of line before the Driver could bring it under control. He went back to see the Guard to ask him why he hadn't applied the brake from Drumochter. "Oh that's what I'm meant to do," he said, "I thought that if a signal was at Red I was to apply the brake and if it was at Green I didn't. As all the signals were Green I didn't bother!"
He just wasn't made to be a Railwayman and shortly after he left.
Travelling back from Inverness, I was relaxing in my brake van as we passed Dalnaspidal heading for Blair Atholl and home. It was a glorious summers morning as I sat in my van lost in thought. Suddenly there was an almighty WHOOSH and an indescribable noise which threatened to burst my ear-drums. I rushed to the door looking out to see the train being attacked by two Jet-Planes. We were ambling down Glen Garry which is a favourite area for the RAF and NATO to practise low-level flying. The two planes banked, turned and attacked once more. I could just picture the Pilot with the train in his sights, pressing the trigger, pretending to strafe us. I thought what if the safety catch was off and he accidentally demolished the train, would he apologise or would he do a victory roll?
I had an old pair of thick sheepskin mitts which protected my hands from the frost and ice in the winter. One day they saved my sanity if not my life. I was preparing a train in the Yard to take to Forfar. The engine pushed the wagons until they were buffered up close together. The coupling in use was called an 'Instanter'. It had three steel links which due to the shape of the middle one could be placed in two positions, namely 'Long' and 'Short'. In the 'Long' position with the aid of a shunting pole you could catch the end of the link and swing it on to the hook of a wagon enabling you to couple train-loads of wagons without going in between. This was ideal for shunting purposes. However if the train was bound for the main line the couplings had to be in the 'Short' position which meant that each wagon was closely buffered to its neighbour making the train more secure. The middle link was triangular in shape with two indents. When the outer two links were placed in the indents the wagons were held rigid. I was in between two wagons near the Locomotive. I had grasped the two outer links and had just placed them in the indents when suddenly the wagons eased off a fraction trapping both my hands between the metals of the outer and middle links. I couldn't move, the pressure on my hands was unbearable and I weakly cried to the Driver, "Tam, move in a wee bit." The danger was that if he took the engine brake off first the wagons would automatically spring apart separating my fingers from my hands. Thankfully, and to my great relief Tam pushed with the engine before releasing the brake. I collapsed to the ground intact but with my gloves still hanging from the coupling.