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by John Lumley

In days gone by the Working Instructions dictated that the joining and dividing of Southern electric passenger trains was only permitted at certain stations, and it was even decreed that this operation was not permitted at specific locations "during fog or falling snow". This was covered in a special notice printed on yellow paper (to denote that it was a permanent instruction) labelled "Non Breaking Down of Electric Trains" (which, when I first came across it as a schoolboy, I thought had something to do with failures not being allowed to happen in bad weather!) Later experience of "on the road" failures which had to be attended to at track level always seemed to occur in pouring rain or some other inclement form of weather.

The joining and dividing of passenger trains is an everyday occurrence at places all over the electrified network, in times gone by very often with an audience of curious travellers watching a grimy individual at track level between the carriages wrestling with heavy screw couplings and some very dirty flexible pipework. So what was happening?

When joining passenger trains there would be at least three people involved, two motormen and a shunter. The train to form the front portion would arrive at the platform and stop at the prescribed point for the combined train (i.e. at the 8-car board when two fours were to be coupled) and the motorman would leave the brakes hard on. The shunter would position himself at least six-feet to the rear of the last car and exhibit a red flag (or light after dark) to the motorman of the arriving rear portion to stop at. This train would already have been stopped by signals immediately approaching the station and allowed forward by a calling on signal. Admission to the platform being achieved, the tail lamp would be removed from the rear of the front portion and, on the shunter's instruction the rear unit would buffer up and have its brakes applied. At this point the shunter would don a huge pair of rubber gloves, disappear to track level beneath the two and place the coupling on to its hook, tightening the screw sufficiently so that the buffers of the adjacent cars would just touch each other when the brakes were released and the buffer springs were extended. Next the brake pipes would be connected and the appropriate cocks opened balancing the pressures in the train and brake pipes. Back at platform level the power jumper cable would be plugged in to its relevant socket, followed by the control and lighting jumpers, then, where applicable, the gangway connections secured and the internal doors fastened open to permit through passage (+). During this process the motorman of the rear portion would remove the headcode stencil and switch off the route indicator lamp before checking that the coupling operation had been correctly completed. The keys would be removed from the rear unit and before leaving his cab the motorman would give three short blasts on the whistle to let the chap at the front know all was done. The motorman of the combined train would acknowledge the whistle signal by repeating it, then make the statutory brake test and all being well the combined train was now ready to proceed on its way. The whole operation was carried out in about two minutes.

It was also clearly indicated in the working instructions that when two trains of unequal length were to be joined, the shorter train was always to be drawn up to the longer one, so when 2-Bil arrived at Redhill from Reigate to have attached to it 4-Lav from Brighton the motorman of the 2-Bil would leave the front end and position himself in the rear cab. The 4-Lav would be stopped by the shunter's red flag and left with its brakes hard on for the 2-Bil to be drawn on to it by the motorman of the front portion now driving from the rear cab. Coupling then took place as described above but this time observed by the motorman of the 2-Bil who then went back to the front cab and set the train up for the continuation of its journey.

When a train was to be divided the coupling-up procedure was carried out in reverse, the lighting, control and power jumper cables would be unplugged, then the brake cocks closed and the pipes divided, and finally the screw coupling taken off. The rear unit would then, after a brake test, be backed off a short distance and the motorman would give five short blasts on his whistle to let the man at the head of the front train know that all was well.

With the advent of epb stock and buckeye couplings there was no longer any need for the shunter to go between the units at track level or even between the cars as there were now only two jumpers to connect, both at waist level and duplicated on each side of the train. The same rules applied regarding the rear portion stopping on the red flag, then the drawing up took place until the automatic couplers engaged. The motorman of the unit being drawn up would then select "reverse" and briefly apply power in an attempt to pull the units apart. If this was satisfactorily completed (i.e. if both units stayed together!) the jumpers would be connected and the train made ready to depart. Confirmation of successful coupling could now be advised by Loudaphone between the two motormen, alleviating the need for much sounding of whistles! When dividing a train the jumper cables would be disconnected, a handle beneath the buffer pulled to disengage the buckeye couplings and the rear unit backed off.

And what happens today? The driver of a train requiring to couple up simply presses a button on the driver's desk then drives his train very slowly on to the one to be coupled to and when the couplings engage and the appropriate connections are proved he receives a cab indication that all is well.