The London, Brighton,
and South Coast Railway

Locomotive and Train Working

(by Ernest Leopold Ahrons)


Ernest Leopold Ahrons (1866-1926) had trained as a railway engineer at Swindon with the Great Western Railway (1885-1890). Later in life he wrote a definitive history of British steam locomotives for the first 100 years of public railways. Earlier, he wrote a series of magazine articles for the Railway Magazine between 1915 and 1926, based on his extensive knowledge of railways and travel thereon, from 1875 onwards. He didn’t pull any punches, and his section on the train running on the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway is both telling, and funny. It provides an excellent background against which to set Kipling’s diatribe against ‘the Brighton’ in 1901.


From its inception the Brighton Railway has been a popular line, chiefly, it would seem, for two reasons, one of which is that it passes through some charming scenery and serves some very nice watering places on the south coast, and the other that, during the period of which I am writing, its locomotives were painted a striking yellow colour, and nearly all rejoiced in the possession of names; moreover, the engines were then kept beautifully clean and well groomed. But truth compels me to say that I do not think that the denizens of the London Bridge offices contributed very greatly to it popularity; they were a cheerful band of railway sinners, more especially those connected with the traffic department [responsible for the running of the trains], and between them they could produce more chronic unpunctuality than could be found anywhere, except perhaps on the South Eastern [another railway whose acquaintance Kipling was about to make: the heading of the Batemans’ notepaper showed that the nearest railway station was Etchingham, on the South-Eastern Railway: given the unpunctuality of these two lines, it is hardly surprising that he became a motoring pioneer!]. Luckily the geographical position of the Brighton line limited the length of the journeys. Had the company had to deal with a longer main line, it is just conceivable that some of their nineteenth century trains might just be arriving at their destinations today. Moreover, the best trains were for first-class, or first and second-class passengers only, and the poor third-class traveller generally had a benighted time…

This brings me to remark upon one of the predominating features of Brighton practice. The management naturally considered their railway to be a first-class line, and they backed up their opinion by making their best trains first class only at super-first-class fares. A certain number were first and second class only, but the poor third-class passengers had generally to put up with a very inferior article. And I can understand with what pious horror the Brighton management must have regarded as a heretic a certain well-known bishop of that period, who remarked that he always travelled third-class because there wasn’t a fourth!
An old friend of mine wrote a letter many years ago to one of the technical journals to the following effect:

  • London and North Western Railway, Tebay dep. 9.48, Preston arr. 10.55, 53 miles, speed 47.4 mph
  • London Brighton and South Coast Railway, London dep. 5.0, Brighton arr. 6.05, 50.5 miles, speed 46.6 mph.

The first is a fish and meat train from Carlisle to London, and the other is the fastest and most wonderful of the Brighton expresses, first class only at rather dear fares. Moral: it is better to be a dead mackerel on the North-Western than a first-class passenger on the London Brighton and South Coast…

And this brings me to the Traffic Department of this railway, which was such as ought really to have had a special chapter to itself.

According to the average Locomotive department, the Traffic Department of a railway consists of a body of well-meaning individuals, a great many of whom lack a due sense of proportion, and who are possessed of a constitutional aversion to the effects of the force of gravity. Thus they will frequently persist in timing a 300-ton train uphill at a greater speed than they allow for a 100-ton train, or than they chronicle in their carefully-prepared timetables for the same train running an equal distance down hill. And as for their methods of timing a fast stopping train between stations a few miles apart, only the drivers and locomotive inspectors could do justice to the sad mess that they sometimes make of it. It is true that they sometimes condescend to meet the locomotive inspectors in solemn conclave, from which function they go back home and continue I the same old way…

Anybody who desired to see the funny side of the Brighton line of the last century would not have found it in the businesslike methods of the Locomotive Department at Brighton Works. It is but rarely that a Traffic department has a funny side, but the Brighton one at London Bridge was a perfect scream. It was the quaintest collection of genial railway Friar Tucks that ever extorted first-class fares in return for third-class facilities, except, of course, those of the South-Eastern. Readers will please understand that the fearsome lot to which I refer belonged to the nineteenth century, and that naturally my remarks have no present application whatever.

And this is how they managed things down to A.D. 1895.

Near Fratton [Portsmouth] there existed a junction with the London and South-Western Railway (Fratton is on the joint line, the actual junction being at Cosham), at which passengers from Southampton and stations west had to change into the Brighton company’s trains for Worthing, Brighton and stations on the coast line. It would, perhaps, naturally be concluded that there would have been some arrangement as to suitable connecting trains. One train from Southampton was due to reach Fratton two minutes before the departure of the Brighton train, but the latter never waited for it in the case that it was two or three minutes late. Fratton was the one station on the line where the Brighton Traffic Department appeared to make every endeavour to get the trains away on time. On the other hand, the South-Western train for Southampton left Fratton six minutes before the Brighton train was due. I believe the London and South-Western authorities did their level best to get London Bridge to agree to suitable times for connecting trains, but were met with a stolid non possumus. The Brighton traffic people conducted their extensive non possumus proceedings with other companies, and with the general public with great politeness and courtesy – everybody admitted that – and it is but a duty to record that whatever their administrative sins, which were many, they were most affable sinners to deal with so long as the long-suffering public did not expect to get any tangible results out of them. Which nobody ever did!

In The Times of September, 1895, there was a long correspondence under the heading of “The Crawl to the South”, in which the Brighton and South-Eastern lines occupied the leading roles. A few samples of things as they then were may be of interest.

One night the down evening mail train set out gaily, and when it had reached somewhere in the wilds on the Surrey border of Sussex, some one discovered that a mail-bag was missing. It was not alleged that the missing bag was the fault of the Brighton people, but knowing their own little failings , their uneasy consciences made them stop while somebody was sent to look for it on the Tunbridge Wells line. There were nearly 400 passengers in the train, who were presumably desirous of getting home that night. But this was not all. The missing mail-bag caused such a commotion on the Tunbridge Wells line that the train from East Grinstead via Lewes did not reach Brighton until many ages after it was due. This train made a connection with the 10.50 p.m. for London, and so the officials kept the latter train with all its passengers waiting at Brighton until 12.20 a.m., when they reluctantly despatched it, the Tunbridge Wells connection having not yet arrived. What happened to this last-mentioned train was never stated, but presumably a relief expedition was fitted out, and rescued it later in the year…

Another sufferer, who called himself a “Traveller by the Long time Blighted and Slow Coach Railway”, seems to have had a justifiable and long-standing grievance anent the last train which was supposed to leave Sutton at 10.31 p.m. for London Bridge, where it was due at 11.15 p.m. The trouble with this train was that it had a rooted objection to making a start on the same day on which the time-tables gave out that it should start. On one occasion it left at 12.5 a.m., i.e., 93 minutes late, but a few days later it made honourable amends by getting away only 61 minutes behind time. Without intermission it varied from a minimum of 15 minutes to the maximum f 93 minutes late, until so many nasty remarks were made that an account of its doings eventually reached London Bridge. The Traffic department woke up and made a special effort, and actually got it away one night to time. (This is a fact!) Never had the Sutton line been so hustled.

The above occurrences were contemporaneous with the 1895 race to Scotland of the East and West Coast lines to the north, and on 14th September, 1895, an editorial appeared in The Times, parts of which are, perhaps, worth quoting:

The Southern managers have no doubt been aware that it would be of very little use for them to attempt to rival the magnificent performances of the Great Northern and North-Western companies. Their rolling stock and the well-established traditions of their companies put it out of the question that they should try this with success. They have hit accordingly upon another method of distinguishing themselves more suited to their capacities. They have chosen frankly a very different form of distinction, and the struggle between them now is which of them can claim to have established the slowest, the most unpunctual, and the most inconvenient service of trains. The real rivals are the South Eastern and the London, Brighton and South Coast lines. And the performances of both are so singular, and their claims to the honour which they are seeking are so nearly balanced that there are good grounds for a difference of opinion as to their respective merits. Very bad as they both are, this at least the most severe critic must admit, difficult as he might find it, on a review of the evidence, to say with certainty which of the two has the right to call itself absolutely the worst line in the country. The Brighton had run an express from Banstead in Surrey to Victoria, a distance of 14 miles, I just 1 hr. 52 min., that is at the rate of exactly one mile in eight minutes. But this was explained away as a special performance for which the company could claim no praise, since their train had been delayed by a block on the line. Then it succeeded in running a train from Hastings to Victoria, 74 miles, in 200 minutes, and the train arrived nearly an hour behind time, giving proof of a good performance, but hardly good enough to stand against the fierce competition of the South-Eastern Railway.

The Chairman of the South Eastern railway in 1893 stated that delays on the Joint Line were nearly always caused by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railways, which had many more trains over this portion of the line. This statement, coming from the South eastern Chairman, gives the impression thatqui s’excuse, s’accuse, and that the South Eastern was far from blameless.

I have already made mention of this joint London Bridge to Redhill section when dealing with the South Eastern Railway, and of the friction which its working caused between the two companies. Nominally the working was extremely complicated, but in actual reality it was delightfully simple, and consisted chiefly in a method whereby, if a South Eastern signalman controlled a signal-box, he generally allowed a slow train belonging to his company to precede and get into the way of an express belonging to the Brighton line. Vice versa, when a Brighton signalman in a joint box received the announcement of the impending approach of a South Eastern train, he managed to find some Brighton procession of coaches of no particular importance which could be utilised to occupy the metals. Unfortunately the honours of this game of “Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander”, could not be evenly divided, since the Redhill-London section was used by the Brighton main-line expresses, whereas the trains of the South Eastern were mostly less important locals and slow trains for the Reigate and Reading line, etc. The result was that the Brighton necessarily had the worst of the deal, and the passengers in some of their express trains found much scope and opportunity for the production of divers brands of explosive profanity.

Nevertheless the South Eastern signalman who controlled the junction box at Redhill must have been a real godsend to the Brighton authorities, who looked after the punctuality or otherwise of that company’s trains. Frequently it was the fault of the South Eastern, but I am rather afraid that whenever the Brighton trains were late, and they showed no great regard for punctuality, the genial sinners of London Bridge hid themselves in a sort of bomb-proof shelter behind that signalman, and what the company would have done without him, heaven only knows! The man must have worked very hard to get the wrong train first, and possibly might have got into very sad trouble if though inadvertence he had made the opposite move…

Of course shoals of letters of complaint from irate passengers poured into London Bridge, and the Traffic department handed them to the Superintendent of Fiction, whose clerical staff worked very hard in drafting polite but stereotyped replies to the effect that the company was really extremely sorry, but they could not (by which they mean that they would not) be held responsible for damages due to delays that were not their fault. In that last sentence that South Eastern signalman may have been inferentially implied in the abstract, though not directly expressed in the concrete. If he did not get a handsome bonus at the end of the year from the Brighton company it was a grave injustice, for he must have saved them hundreds of pounds in unpaid damages…

When not engaged in transferring part of the responsibility for this unpunctuality to their South Eastern neighbour, the London Bridge authorities placed the remainder of it on the shoulders of the travelling public, who they said, would not turn up at the stations in sufficiently early time. The facts are that the Brighton company, like their Sout