Long lost freight: Cattle trains
Rail Express|November 2020
November 30 marks the 45th anniversary of the last cattle train to run in the UK. Steve Morris takes a look back at these interesting workings, with a focus on the trains operating out of Holyhead, the last part of Britain to be involved in such traffic.

THE movement of livestock by rail had started as far back as the Liverpool and ManchesterRailway in 1831, transporting cattle from Ireland that had been landed at Liverpool. Other early workings included imports from the continent to the East coast ports, and internal movements of lean cattle or sheep from hill farms to low lying areas for fattening.

In the early 1900s, the principal flow was cattle for slaughter after being shipped from Ireland. By 1913, the ports with lairage for handling imported cattle were at Holyhead and Birkenhead from Dublin; Heysham, Fleetwood, Glasgow and Ayr from Greenore; and Bristol and Cardiff from Rosslare – the main objective being to keep the sea crossing as short as possible.

The main parts of this cattle traffic required the use of block trains from Holyhead and Birkenhead to London and other major cities, although livestock facilities existed at many stations throughout the countryside for handling smaller numbers of cattle, horses, pigs and sheep from markets on behalf of local farmers.

DEDICATED WAGONS

By the late 1920s there were more than 18,000 cattle wagons operating in the UK, with almost 12,000 inherited by British Railways at Nationalisation in 1948. BR then continued to build them for several years; an example of a later build being the 12-ton capacity two-axle BR ‘Oxfit’ Van, of which a batch of 1100 were built at Derby and Shildon during 1949/50.

The ‘Oxfit’ was something of a hybrid, with the body built to an LMS design but mounted on LNER running gear. Interestingly, it was equipped with steam heat through-pipes for use with rural branch line passenger trains, to which these vans were often attached. An eight-ton version was also produced, early designs having partitions to enable different animals to be carried in the same wagon.

As far as animal welfare goes it was necessary to ensure that the cattle, horses, pigs and goats were watered every 24 hours, although it was permitted to leave cattle and pigs unwatered if they reached their destination within 27 hours and sheep within 36 hours. Feed had to be provided at the time of watering. Imagine that being allowed today!

START OF THE DECLINE

Livestock transport in the UK reached its peak in the 1920s before losing out to road transport. The decline continued until the early 1960s, when BR had cut its livestock facilities from 2493 stations down to 232, with the focus being on the high volume import cattle traffic from Ireland.

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