Historical Background

Historical Background

A résumé of the articles in this section:

The First Breakdown Cranes on the British Railway System

In the very earliest days of the British railway system, locomotives and other items of rolling stock were light enough that any derailment or other accident could normally be attended to without assistance from a crane. The time was soon to come, however, for purpose-built railway breakdown cranes to be essential for keeping the railways running. The story of the breakdown crane, spanning more than 150 years, starts here...

The Breakdown Crane in the Early 20th Century

A rapid increase in the size and weight of locomotives was the trigger for larger breakdown cranes to be introduced early in the 20th century, locomotives in general having almost doubled in dimensions and weight compared with their counterparts of just two decades earlier. We follow the rapid increase in breakdown crane capacities in the new century and come across an invention that would enable even the heaviest of them to run on weight-restricted track from which they would otherwise have been prohibited...

The Breakdown Crane in the Second World War

Anticipating a major conflict in Europe, UK Government bodies and the railways were working together long before the outbreak of the Second World War, investigating ways to reduce the impact of bombing raids on the running of our vital railways. The heavy breakdown crane was a crucial element of the strategies that they developed to keep the country mobile during the conflict...

The Impact of the Modernisation Plan

The early years following nationalisation in 1948 saw Britain’s railways suffering not only the legacy of a dilapidated system but also rapidly increasing competition from other modes of transport. The wide-ranging Modernisation Plan was an attempt to relieve these and other problems and its consequences included a new design of breakdown crane and improvements in recovery support vehicles...

The Twilight Years of the Steam Crane

The number of steam breakdown cranes on our railways reduced quite drastically in the 1960s but they far outnumbered diesel-engined cranes right up to the end of the 1970s. However the writing was on the wall...

Steam Power replaced by Diesel

Given the difficulties in the provision of coal and water on what had become a predominently diesel and, to an extent, electric railway system, the steam breakdown cranes did well to hold their own for so long. Paradoxically, the conversion to diesel-hydraulic of the steam powered ‘Modernisation Plan’ 75-ton cranes in the late 1970s aided the preservation of some of the older and smaller steam powered cranes...

Strut Jib superseded by Telescopic Jib

Mobile crane technology was to mix with railway crane technology in six new, telescopic jib, 75-tonne breakdown cranes, the last breakdown cranes to be built for Britain’s railways. For decades breakdown cranes had simply evolved, however for these new cranes British Railways took a completely fresh approach and came up with some pioneering features...

The Demise of the Railway Breakdown Crane

It is tempting to criticise the UK's mainline railways for having disposed of all but seven breakdown cranes as we entered the 21st century, and further reducing the number to just four within a further decade, but the reasons behind the reduction were indisputably sound...

The Preservation Era

A surprisingly high proportion of all the breakdown cranes made for Britain’s railways have entered preservation, and roughly half are in serviceable order. How many of them are steam powered, what makes them so appealing to heritage railways, and what are the advantages of operating them?