I’d like to share a few more memories of the railway during my career as a gas fitter although as far as the railways go, my memories are very limited unlike the numerous gas stories that I could tell you about all night. If you have read a few of my other ramblings on this site then you will know that I spent my whole life and career working in the Gas Industry from the 1960’s (then called East Midlands Gas Board, then EMGAS to now British Gas).
Since I retired in 2011, the old brain cells appear to be retiring slowly too and sadly the memories of those great times tend to fade with age. These days I can only seem to remember those which had the biggest impact on me and this story is in the premier league as memories go.
Many years “down the line” (excuse the pun) into my career, I had accumulated vast experience and professional knowledge in the job. For 15 years or so I was given the (enviable)? role of emergency priority one engineer and had to deal with inside and outside gas escapes including much more serious jobs if they arose. It was a very demanding and responsible position which required great technical skill and knowledge and sometimes required making decisions in the interests of individual and public safety.
As with most emergency services it was a 24/7, 365-day service but on much of occasions was a daytime and early evening operation. Most gas engineers today would not remember the time when we had 3 fitters on a night shift. This was later scrapped and ‘re-named’ Night Call. I remember doing the Night Call for a very long time and it was commonplace to work a day and early evening shift and then go onto Night Call from 10:00pm.
If you were lucky you may even have time for your dinner before getting called out again and at best I eventually hit the sack by 2:00am. The only exception that got you out of bed was the unusual, the genuine or unbelievably the fake call out. Some of these could be; the dog walker – “I can smell gas under this hedge when I picked up Scamp’s poop”; the student coming home from town well oiled – “It smells disgusting down there…arh! I need the loo again; the police; the fire service……. you name it! Oh, and then there were the ‘regulars’. If you had worked Night Call, then you probably knew the script and the area you worked in so previous experience was a bonus. A common report to come in at about 3:00 am in the morning was at Toton Traction.
The details were always obscure and any reference or name was not usually much help. It was always a report of a smell of gas and if it was outside you did not have much hope in the goods yards or around the sheds in the dark. Following the single-track road from the access gate adjacent to the old demolished Stapleford and Sandiacre station you would wind your way down the lane to the engine sheds crossing the tracks many times and keeping your eyes on the signals half expecting to get wiped out by a rake of wagons or a lone 08 or 20 class doing a bit of organising in the sidings. If the report was inside (in the sheds) you’d have a bit more of a chance of finding something. Finding someone was more of a challenge. It was probably a guy called Stan who smelt it when he had finished welding the chassis of a diesel loco and had then gone for a lid of tea with his mates. If you found anyone, or anyone in authority it was your lucky night. In those days, there was little security and if you looked official enough you could just wander around just where you wanted.
Gas in these types of locations was mainly used for industrial heating units and furnaces so the pipework was made of steel and 2/3 and 4 inches in diameter and ran like spaghetti around floors, walls and even in inspection pits where diesel locomotives were being worked on. At this point, all you were doing was walking around with gas detection equipment trying to find something for it to sniff. The fact was it was that you had already done a day and evening shift, it was the middle of the night and your brain was telling you should be in bed. But this was a situation you had probably dreamed of as a small boy wanting to become an engine driver. It was a dream come true to wander around a shed full of classics such as Deltics, 25s, 40s the odd 08, not that I was an expert or keen train fanatic to name all the locos in there, but to be able to climb up the service steps and see inside some of the cabs was awe inspiring. I was tempted to touch and play but envisaged starting a sequence of events that would create a disaster far surpassing a gas leak and quickly supressed the temptation. In the inspection pits, it was mind blowing with such huge leviathans of mechanical engineering just above my head and me (with my probe) just trying to follow a gas pipe. The experience was unbelievable and I distinctly remember feeling like an excited school kid who had played truant and was in a sweet shop
To find leaks on this type of pipework was common and it was usually from threaded joints on fittings and pipe. Repairing this type of leak was not easy as rigid steel fixed pipework was impossible to disassemble. In 99% of cases it had to be repaired ‘live’ for several reasons; - Usually there was nowhere to turn off the supply and no one knew how big the network was or where it went. It obviously had a source and a meter somewhere but the only people who tended to know this information was a lone gas fitter who had to go around these industrial meters to maintain them. They were old mechanical rotary devices that had to be topped up with gas-oil on a regular basis.
An old method of sealing a leak like this was to tap soft lead into the threaded joint with a very small hammer and chisel. This usually worked but occasionally you might see it appropriate to have to isolate a section of pipework in a building. On this occasion, I remember unsuccessfully going in search of an isolation valve and I recall going back during the following day trying to trace the pipework back to its source. It was as useless as the previous night in the dark. Usually the supply pipe would exit the diesel shed then dive underground to get to the other side of the tracks. It would then re-surface on the other side but you could follow it for what seemed miles before giving up as it headed off into the endless matrix of sidings that was Toton in those days. Following several conversations with a colleague who had been on the same call out before, said he had found the main supply pipe at a point in Toton sidings but could not seem to trace it further. I was curious as to its origin and I decided to follow it one day myself to a point trackside down the service road to Long Eaton where it abruptly dived into the ground, presumably under the mainline. I could not go any further with the trace.
I recall what seemed many moons later I met up with the fitter who serviced the commercial industrial meters. He was a short stocky guy, immensely experienced and considered irreplaceable by the Board. (That’s because his endless exposure to the gas oil he used in his job meant he perspired the stuff and his Gas van smelt the same. No one else wanted his job.)
I was investigating a leak on Stanton Ironworks complex at Stanton gate. I happened to put the question to him regarding the elusive meter for Toton Traction.
“Ok so, where is it?” I exclaimed
“Oh yes”, he said “It lives in a little brick house track-side under Long Eaton railway bridge in the gasometer compound”
“Long Eaton!” I was flabbergasted to learn that the meter for the engine sheds nearly in Stapleford was under Nottingham Road bridge at Long Eaton.
Of course, one day I had to go and have a look and sure enough there it was and is still there to this day. You would probably need an army of engineers to be on site if there ever was a loss of supply to Toton traction and I don’t think it would ever get turned back on again following such an event. Maybe they will finally have to seal the supply for good when HS2 comes along?