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A Brief History of Containerisation on Britain's Railways

The Early Days

The origins of containerisation on Britain's Railways can be traced right back to their very beginning - although the idea took more than 100 years to catch on!

In the 1830s the Liverpool & Manchester Railway used "simple rectangular boxes, four to a waggon, ...to convey coal from the Lancashire collieries to Liverpool, where they were transferred to horse-drawn carts by crane" But although there were some advantages, in particular the reduced handling of the cargo, the idea does not appear to have caught on. Even so, by the early 1900s the London & North Western, Lancashire & Yorkshire, and Midland Railway companies were carrying 'box coal' on flat wagons, the coal being destined for use by steamboats.

The original Great Central Railway also played a part in the story of containerisation, being one of only three companies which provided special wagons for the conveyance of 'fish tanks'. The GCR carried considerable fish traffic and the 'fish tanks' were designed to ensure that the fish reached its destination as fresh as possible. As such, the wagons were classified as passenger stock. The other two companies were the Midland and the Great Northern; the latter referred to its containers as 'cod boxes' and some of them lasted into the 1930s.

By the late 19th Century the closed container was with us. Resembling a wooden box van body, but with end doors, these were initially known as 'lift vans' and were privately owned by several furniture removal firms. They were carried both on railway wagons and on flat road trailers drawn by horses or steam tractors.

The 1920s and the Rise of Road Transport

During the 1920s the railways faced a new threat to their traditional monopoly: the rise of the motor lorry. The railway managements were obviously concerned by the ability of the road hauliers to under-cut their rates, but the real worry was the 'door to door' message - and containerisation was seen as the ideal response.

The LMS launched its first container in 1926, and over the next few years all four of the pre-Nationalisation railway companies developed significant container traffic. Containers were soon to be found carrying all manner of goods, including bicycles, confectionery, castings, cookers, baths, machinery, boots, cloth, carpet, pianos, gramophones, sugar, shrubs, and of course furniture. Special insulated containers were soon developed for the conveyance of meat, dry ice bunkers being provided to maintain the temperature.

The common factor with all of these products is their relatively high value, and many of them required careful packing to avoid breakages. This meant that a premium could be charged for a fast 'door to door' service, which justified the use of containers.

The relative lateness of the boom in containerisation meant that all four railway companies developed very similar traffic patterns, and the influence of the Railway Clearing House meant that all four built containers to the same basic designs. Indeed, many later containers built by British Railways were little changed from the RCH examples.

The early LNER containers were painted in red oxide, but this soon gave way to an attractive Oxford blue livery. The other three companies closely followed their express passenger livery: crimson lake for the LMS, chocolate brown with yelow markings and grey roof for the GWR, and sea green with yellow writing for the Southern. The insulated containers were an exception to this rule as they were always painted in light colours, typically white.

In the early days, any convenient wagon was used, but by the 1930s specialised container flat wagons or 'conflats' were built. In many cases these were converted from other wagons, for example the LNER converted a number of cattle trucks following a downturn in livestock traffic.

The British Railways Era

At the time of Nationalisation in 1948, British Railways inherited some 20,000 containers, and the growth was set to continue. In February the Railway Executive appointed the 'Ideal Stocks Committee' who were asked to "consider and report, having regard to probable traffics in 1950, on the approximate 'ideal' stocks and types of locomotives, carriages and wagons... to cater efficiently for anticipated traffics and to yield the maximum reduction in costs...".

Given their remit, it seems surprising that the Ideal Stocks Committee did not actually recommend the building of any container wagons. This doesn't seem to have deterred Swindon and Wolverton works though, as both began building 'Conflat A' wagons to the first British Railways design in 1950. Over the next 10 years over 20,000 such wagons were built, to 6 different diagrams.

Container construction continued apace, and by the end of the 1950s over 50,000 were in stock. Most of these were variations of the covered type, but there were also a few thousand open containers and a handful of specialised types. In addition, the 1-ton wheeled container proved popular with small-scale manufacturers who could not fill a full-sized container.

These superb photographs taken from the February 2005 edition of 'British Railways Illustrated' show (left) three AF containers loaded on a train of Conflat A wagons, and (right) a Rapier mobile yard crane transferring one of the containers onto a road trailer drawn by a Scammell 'Mechanical Horse'. Wouldn't it be fabulous to re-create this scene on the GCR?

The Suez Crisis

In 1955 the railways were crippled by a 17-day strike, at a time when the country was heading for a financial crisis. In October 1956, the government announced a mini-budget which introduced a range of spending cuts, including the postponement of long-term investment in the railways. The parliamentary 'road lobby' was strengthening, and the future for the railways looked bleak.

In November 1956, however, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt triggered the blocking of the Suez Canal and the destruction of several pumping stations in the Gulf region. The direct effect of this was a fuel crisis in Britain. By mid-December petrol rationing had been introduced, and prices were increased.

This presented British Railways with a golden opportunity, helped by the Minister of Transport who threatened to introduce legislation to force the carriage of goods by rail, and ordered a 25% cut in road haulage. The biggest haulier, British Road Services, responded by transferring the bulk of their long-distance traffic to the railways, commencing in January 1957, and Pickfords followed shortly afterwards.

Although the railways coped admirably with this upturn in traffic, freight handling methods remained inefficient and the management did not really rise to the challenge. For example, they were caught out by the demand for the small wheeled containers and despite ordering an extra 4,800 of them, were often unable to provide the customers with what they needed. By the end of May 1957, petrol rationing was abolished and this, in conjunction with a relaxation of lorry speed limits, effectively spelt the end for the 'wagonload' freight operation.

The Condor Train

In 1959 - arguably two years too late - British Railways launched the 'Condor' container train, which ran overnight between London and Scotland and included the longest non-stop locomotive diagram in the country, the 301 miles from Hendon to Carlisle Citadel. The total distance was just over 400 miles and the train ran at an average speed of 40mph.

The train used the Midland route via Leicester, Sheffield, Settle and Carlisle, and was initially operated by pairs of brand new Metropolitan-Vickers Co-Bo diesel electric locomotives. By late 1959, it became apparent that the amount of traffic was not as great as had been hoped, and the train was reduced in length and worked by a single locomotive.

The Co-Bos suffered from serious engine problems and by early 1960 17 of the class of 20 locomotives were out of traffic awaiting attention. They were eventually returned to the manufacturer for overhaul, but meanwhile steam locomotives took over the 'Condor' train and its reliability improved. In 1961 the 'Condor' reverted to diesel haulage, but this time using new Sulzer type 2 locomotives which proved much more reliable.

The train's name was derived from its purpose: "Container Door to Door. A next-day delivery was guaranteed, and special wagons were provided. These were known as 'Conflat P' and were converted from Plate wagons; each typically carried one 'A' and one 'BD' type container.

In 1964 a new series of 'Condor Conflat' wagons was constructed. These were long bogie vehicles; little is known of how they were used but they may have been designed for carrying containers using the 'Speedfreight' system. This system had started with the light alloy 'BA' container in 1961 and was in effect an abandonment of the traditional chain and shackle fixing, with the containers instead being located on pins and loaded by fork-lift truck. As well as new containers built to operate on this system, a number of traditional wooden containers and 'Conflat A' wagons were modified.


Meanwhile, the railways were looking at ways to carry more modern shipping containers. In 1967 converted 'Lowmac' wagons were used to carry 20-foot containers; subsequently special 'Freightliner' wagons were built which could carry any combination of 10, 20, 30 or 40-foot containers up to a maximum total length of 60 feet. These wagons were air braked, ran in sets of four or five connected by 'bar' couplers, and could operate at up to 75mph.

These developments effectively spelt the end for the traditional container, and although over 30,000 were still in stock in 1967, BR ceased carrying them in 1977 and by the end of the 1970s just 311 remained in stock. The only exception were the specialist 'L' type containers for bulk powders, a few of which remained in use until 1983.

Since then, Freightliner has gone from strength to strength, but whilst it is the logical successor to the container trains of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, it should be noted that its concept is really quite different. Freightliner concentrates on bulk shipping between dedicated terminals, whereas the traditional container could be handled at virtually every local station goods yard and anybody could hire one, if they so wished, for such ordinary activities as moving house. Thus, whilst the method has evolved into a modern and efficient service, the traditional traffic has effectively disappeared.

The Survivors

Fortunately this was not quite the end of the story. A number of 'Conflat A' wagons survived as 'runners', semi-permanently coupled to short wheelbase diesel shunting locomotives such as the class 03 and 04. This was to prevent these locomotives from 'disappearing' from the track circuits on signal box diagrams when operating through pointwork. Other wagons found their way into the 'internal user' fleets: Wolverton carriage works for example had several, which they used to move bogies around the works.

Meanwhile, many of the redundant containers were sold off to farms and industrial concerns as useful storage sheds, and although they are generally now in poor condition, a few can still be found in this use today.


This 'brief' history draws heavily on the following sources, and I recommend all of them to those who wish to delve further. I would also welcome any comments, particularly if there are any glaring errors in my understanding of the story.

Phil Hetherington
Last Modified: 04.03.08