“Seven Donkey Tails” by Dave Henwood

Dave Henwood is our local expert on the railways both past & present. We are actually very lucky to be reading these tails, as Dave had been saving them for his forthcoming book but has agreed to having them published on here, so thank you Dave.


Donkey Tales:  1-4

We start in the October of 2012 when this particular Donkey left Marlow at 1:06 p.m. At this time of day there were just a handful of passengers for stations to Maidenhead, its journey involving a swift run alongside the River to arrive at Bourne End where trains must reverse to continue their journey. Here, the Guard must initiate the process of changing the points, a time honoured sequence of events that still requires human intervention despite being partially automated during 2010.

Two keys are required for this purpose. A metal key called the Token is extracted from the Token Instrument at Maidenhead, this allows the Driver sole occupancy of the single line to Bourne End. Once here, you can either return to Maidenhead or head towards Marlow and if choosing the latter, the Token must be exchanged for ‘The Staff’. We’re not talking human staff here, but rather a wood and metal key that takes the form of something akin to a rolling pin; it is cylindrical in nature with a metal loop handle and a metal key at the opposite end. The Staff allows sole occupancy of the Marlow Branch in the same way that the Token does for Maidenhead.

Arriving at Bourne End, the Staff from Marlow was exchanged for the Maidenhead Token, an act that in years gone by would have seen the Station Staff changing the points between the two actions. Earlier still and the Signalman at Bourne End South Box would have been in charge of such an operation. In 2012 it was the Signalman is at Slough that pushed a button to activate the Token release, also enabling a change in the direction of the points. Easter 2014 saw Slough Signal Box closed after some 40 years of service, its operations passing to the new Thames Valley Signalling Centre at Didcot, Oxfordshire and with it, the start of another chapter in the history of this most interesting of Thames Valley routes.

Today, as before, the Guard will push a plunger attached to the post of ‘BE1’ Signal, located on the platform at Bourne End and in so doing, request ‘the road’, or to put it another way, ask the signalling system for permission to proceed. If all is working correctly and the points are set, BE1 Signal will change from red to yellow and the train can thus depart.

All of that happens up to twice an hour, 19 hours a day, six days a week, all year through with a few less services on a Sunday; making use, it has to be said, of a method of working dating back to the Victorian age. All was not well on October 2nd when the red aspect refused to change to yellow! ‘Well Driver, we can’t just sit here, best contact the bobby’. The bobby is a very old name for the signalman and dates right back to the earliest days of railways; to the late 19th Century when Victorian scepticism at this new fangled form of transport led to the provision of a Policeman whose job it was to walk in front of the train with a red flag, to act as a warning – the title has been used colloquially to define the role of the Signaller ever since.

Various options exist for dealing with such a scenario; on the mainline, it might be possible to ‘talk’ the train past a red signal, this is where the signalman (or bobby if you prefer) verbally instructs the driver by phone to pass the signal at Danger. On our branch line, the rule book is specific, no train must leave Bourne End, passing over the points, unless the signal can be cleared to show a proceed aspect or a pilotman can be provided. This is to prevent the risk of the points changing beneath the train and thereby causing a derailment. That was that then, it looked like the train was staying put. An immediate call was made to the signaller who in turn informed the S&T, (Signal & Telegraph Department), another old school British Railways term that’s just never been changed – that old cliché ‘Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken’, illustrating the point well enough.

The thing was, it was broken and it needed fixing, PDQ, otherwise the evening rush hour would be in tatters and the fine reputation of Gods Wonderful Railway would be tarnished! Heaven forbid!

By now, the Train Service Controller, located 53 miles away in Swindon would have been informed of events, news that I have no doubt would have sent a cold shiver down their spine. ‘Bourne End….train stuck…evening rush hour…..and perhaps various other metaphors which I will leave entirely to your imagination! A plan of action was required, first and foremost, to establish a likely estimate for a fix and for this, Network Rail would be consulted. Today, First Great Western and Network Rail share the same office, the Integrated Control Centre, an operating floor that shares some resemblance to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise! Alterations to the train plan are inevitable in these circumstances; the key is to limit their impact on the passenger, perhaps by substituting road transport. Behind the scenes, it becomes complex as a Driver stranded in one location might go over his hours and require relief – the train itself must get back to Reading at some point or its fuel will run low. Such are the considerations to be taken into account. Over the next four hours, service on the Branch Line was amended with the end result being crucial, that the evening clientele from London were completely unaware that a problem had ever existed.


Donkey Tales 2 – We have more trains going one way than the other!

 ‘We have more trains going one way than the other’, so the technician was told with a puzzled look on his face. ‘What? More trains going one way than the other? But, how’?

This was one of many stories concocted over the years to cover up certain aspects of Branch Line operation that really should never have happened. Furthermore, they never would today, for it is a very different railway now than it was then. Then – was the mid 1980s when the much maligned and often misunderstood concepts of a nationalised rail industry led to certain ways of getting the job done with individuality and flair, following instructions that wouldn’t be found in any edition of the Rule Book!

Now you should understand that efficiency on the railway today is a closely monitored affair, with all manner of bodies intent on doing their bit to ensure that performance is what it should be, living up to public expectation, keeping the stakeholders happy etc. Efficiency back in the 80s was a very different thing, it often meant cutting a whole host of corners to get the job done and in my experience, it all worked rather well.

If any of you reading this are commuters on the Bourne End line today, you might know that the early morning trains to Maidenhead and in a couple of cases, through to Paddington are made up of more than one train, attached to each other, or in railway parlance, coupled up. Today this coupling is all done with relative ease and has been that way ever since the Turbo diesel trains were introduced from 1992 onwards. Prior to that, it was a little more involved, the coupling had to be done manually, with a person actually climbing down between the two trains to hook up – to connect the brake pipe and attach the electrical jumper cables to ensure than one train, metaphorically speaking, talked to the other.

This is called ‘Multiple Working’ and the trains themselves were known as Diesel Multiple Units. They still are actually, it’s just that today, things are a little more automated than they were then. It’s a forgone conclusion then that this coupling was normally carried out either at a depot or perhaps at London Paddington or Reading but rarely in the case of our Branch Line was it carried out anywhere else. The exception occurred on certain summer Sundays when the local rail users group, the MMPA, used to run Rail Excursions to a wide variety of destinations – South Devon featuring regularly amongst some interesting alternatives.

The method of operation was this – two three-coach trains would be attached at the depot and run up to Maidenhead during the early hours of a Sunday morning, with some unfortunate Driver having to haul themselves out of bed, perhaps as early as 4 a.m. On arrival at Maidenhead, the two trains would run as one down to Bourne End and as we have learnt, the Driver had to be in possession of the Single Line Token, a metal key that provides both sole occupancy of the single line to Bourne End, and the means to change the points on arrival.

Well, no one really thought about it, at least, I suppose they didn’t? When the train reached Bourne End, with no other train at that end of the line, the points would have been set for it to run into the shorter Down Platform. All well and good but only one half of it was required to go to Marlow. The other half needed to be shunted into former Up Platform. A problem had arisen. One train, one token, two destinations!

The Rule Book would have contained advice about such situations, most probably that the two trains should have been split at Maidenhead and run to Bourne End separately. Two tokens, two trains. That worked, that’s why it was in the Rule Book except that’s not the way it was done. The two trains were split – on the River Bridge at Bourne End!

The front one ran into the shorter Down Platform, and the rear one, now operating without a Token had to gain entry to the longer Up Platform. For this to work, the Guard of the first train had to walk to the token hut at the end of the platform Down Platform, place the token in the instrument, withdraw the wooden staff, and change the points providing access to the Marlow Branch. This would now allow the second train to run into the longer Up Platform.

On the return of the Marlow Unit, the procedure was reversed except that most often, the token for the trip back to Maidenhead was extracted from the machine on the Up platform, creating an in-balance in the number of tokens held at Bourne End. You couldn’t do it today as the operation of BE1 Signal would prevent such a move but back in the 80s, there was no signal and an element of make it up as you go along existed.

Now it didn’t happen often but it did happen several times during the summer and eventually, if you add in a couple of token machine failures, when they had to borrow one from one side when it should have come from the other etc, you can sort of imagine the two macines getting themselves into a bit of a pickle.

The culmination of all this exchanging of tokens, swapping of machines and generally operating to an improvised method of working meant that the in-balance eventually had to be corrected and the only way of doing that was to call out the Techs. They duly arrived in their van and set about examining the machines. Their notes told them exactly how many tokens should have been in each one, and that of course wasn’t what they found.

Faced with this perplexing situation, there was only one reasonable course of action. Yes, you’ve guessed it, pop in and see Bernie, Mr Bourne End Station as I knew him, where the most productive course of action would have been to have a brew. No problem small or large on the railway has ever been sorted better than over a cuppa. Bernie was glad to oblige and took great delight in explaining to the techs how this situation had occurred.

Only, you see, Bernie didn’t explain it to the techs the way I’ve just explained it to you, no, Bernie’s explanation was – ‘well, we have more trains going one way than the other!’

You can almost picture the puzzled expressions. I don’t suppose they ever did work it out and probably just as well, for those that set the whole thing up might well have been shot.


Donkey Tales 3:  The relationship between main line and branch.

The morning of May 25th 2013 saw a not uncommon event on the railways of the Thames Valley, a swan on the line, except that this time it wasn’t on the Marlow Branch. So why then am I writing about it here? The location was Kennet Bridge, just on the Maidenhead side of Reading – the time, a little after 2:30 p.m. and this swan was on the mainline which should give you an immediate idea of the problem. It transpired that there was more than one swan and their location was such that the Driver who reported the event was confident that so long as they stayed put, that the fast lines could remain open without two members of Her Majesty’s flock having the potential to cause utter mayhem. As it was, the relief lines used by the slower, stopping services between Didcot and London and many other services conveying high volume freight had a speed restriction applied until such time as the birds could be persuaded to move. Of the three trains initially delayed by this incident, one was the 2:24 p.m. Reading to London Paddington, a train which conveyed the Guard to work the 2:38 p.m. Maidenhead to Marlow! Since the late 1980s, Marlow services have been staffed from Reading, each team of Driver and Guard normally working three or four return trips before being relieved by a colleague. Prior to this, crews came from Slough and a great many of those ‘old boys’ had worked the branch since steam days. It was the late 1980s when the Reading crews took over the Marlow work and it was said then that they always prefered working the neighbouring Henley Branch; simply because it was easier, being nothing more than a long siding.

The Marlow always required that bit of effort, changing the points twice an hour and all that. Anyway, back to the problem in hand, these swans, could they be persuaded to move before the entire Thames Valley local service was affected and worse still, the evening peak from Paddington was decimated? Thankfully they saw sense and decided to move with only a small delay to three trains; the Guard on the 2:24 p.m. arrived at Maidenhead in time for the Donkey to depart 12 minutes late and the knock on effect was made up within a couple of runs. Any further delay would have necessitated the cancellation of the branch line until such time as the crew reached Maidenhead.

Two days later on the 27th, the crew of the 9:17 a.m. Bourne End – Maidenhead found themselves having difficulty releasing the single line token. With the assistance of the signaller, the situation was rectified with a 14 minute delay. Sometimes, days can go by, weeks even, without anything of note happening on the branch, then you get two incidents in two days or even two incidents on the same day; such are the issues that can arise when operating a railway.

There really is no pattern to it. One of the more interesting situations that can affect branch line operation involves the provision of trains when evening or overnight engineering work is scheduled. Interestingly where the branch to Bourne End and Marlow is concerned, this is more of a problem when the work is on the mainline. If the work directly involves the branch then it will usually be a simple matter of closing the line and replacing the advertised service with busses but if the work is at Maidenhead and preventing the branch train from accessing the mainline, then this might prevent the last train of the day from Marlow being able to reach the depot at Reading.

To better explain the problematic nature of this, we need to do a bit of time travelling to help us understand why this could be a problem. Many years ago, back in the steam era, the Marlow Donkey was serviced overnight at Marlow; it had its own engine shed with coal, oil and water, everything that was required for the next days service was all there on tap so to speak. The route through to High Wycombe was still open therefore trains operating between Maidenhead and Wycombe had a couple of options available to them when it came to the end of the working day. If you could not gain access to the mainline at Maidenhead, you could send an extra train towards Wycombe, or even down to Marlow where oil, coal and water were available. All you would need to do is alter the Driver and Guards working notices to show them where the train was, and in some cases provide them with road transport to reach it.

If we travel into the future, we might find the Marlow Branch electrified which immediately eradicates the need for a train to require refuelling – indeed, we might well find the same train on the branch for days at a time, perhaps being cleaned at Maidenhead. Right now though, and it has been this way since 1962 when the line was dieselised, the train does require to be refuelled, and with no facilities for doing this locally, the train must return to the depot in Reading. If the line is blocked at Maidenhead and the branch train is on its last run up from Marlow, just after midnight, we might find ourselves unable to access the mainline! Operationally it is quite possible for the same train to have enough fuel to do two days work on the branch but by the end of day two, the fuel tanks will be getting fairly empty and the idea of diesel donkey conking out half way up Winter Hill incline is not one that we’re comfortable with therefore something needs to be done.

The answer to this little problem lies in some careful planning and most importantly, the swapping of one train for another, part way through the day. The Train planning department at Swindon will arrange this, creating a ‘diagram’ that will effectively source a fresh train from the depot (they called them sheds years ago), ensuring that it is fuelled and most importantly, ensuring a Driver is available to take the replacement train from Reading to Maidenhead.

This same Driver would then bring back the original set, having carried out a ‘Set Swap’ which will normally be scheduled well before the line closure takes place, usually mid evening, just after the evening peak. It’s a simple arrangement that must continue whilst diesel trains are in use and continue to be based at a location remote from the branch line.


Donkey Tales 4:  The Marlow Donkey, a couple of Stink Bombs and a long walk home

Having just returned from a great weeks holiday in North Wales, I am faced with many chores, the bulk of which is to manage the washing, drying and sorting of the laundry created by a family of four; a task that I set about with vigour and one that lasted late into the Saturday evening of our return. Actually, Saturday evening had become Sunday morning by the time I finally headed upstairs where I found my wife snoring contentedly, and also noted that my share of the duvet had mysteriously disappeared in the direction of her ladyship.

Our week in Wales was accompanied by indifferent weather, partly due to the unexpected break in summer that we all experienced during August and partly due to the fact that North Wales in mountainous, and mountains attract rain clouds like nothing else can. That said, the sun did shine and the idea of not spending a fortune on diesel led us all to make the most of the local rail services.

We stayed in Aberdovey, a small village on the Dovey Estuary where it runs out into Cardigan Bay, a nice area where seaside and moored boats can be enjoyed with the backdrop of the Cambrian hills stretching away into the distance.

In railway terms, Aberdovey is situated on what appears to be a branch line not unlike the Marlow – it is single track with jointed rails, it has rusting signs and weeds that seem to manifest themselves better along railway lines than anywhere else. Its trains are also similar although more comfortable by far; two carriages, each of 23 meters in length as are our own Thames Valley diesels, but fitted with armchair-style seats, some in groups of four around a table, all in all, providing a very pleasant environment. This was not the southeast with its high passenger volumes and the need for what in railway terms is described as a high density layout to the seating. This was Cross-Country spec, low density and spacious, a great way of travelling the scenic Cambrian Coast Line.

All of this got me round to thinking about writing the next Donkey Tale and the connection being an old friend who has been mentioned before, a former Marlow Branch Guard, a dark-haired intensely spoken Welshman by the name of Percy Webb. Some of you may remember him or his wife who used to run the knitting shop along Hedsor Road, just passed Camden Place in years gone by.

This story is one that requires me to take you back in time, all the best ones do I think, to the mid 1980s when British Rail was still the national rail provider and local rail services were not given quite the same level of attention as they are today. There were no profits to be made in BR days, no mandate to live up to, no targets to be met, just the provision of a reliable public service which I believe in spite of much media slander, was achieved on a regular basis in the 40+ years that our railways were in national ownership.

During this time the Marlow Donkey was usually made up of a single carriage diesel unit sometimes supplemented by a non-powered trailer vehicle, which itself had a driving cab at one end. The Trailer was not supplied to increase the seating capacity despite it having some 92 seats available but simply to provide additional weight which in turn somehow managed to improve the braking efficiency of the train on the downgrade from Winter Hill summit to both Cookham and Bourne End.

As such, the trailer was almost always locked, much to the frustration of the many passengers who found themselves squeezed into the 63-seat confines of the ‘Bubble Car’.

Of course there was another reason why the trailer was kept locked, there was no way of the Guard accessing it from the Bubble Car which of course had a Driving Cab at both ends, one cab therefore always facing the blank end of the trailer. Today, with Health and Safety being what it is, such a formation would never be permitted as modern legislation governing the accessibility and perhaps more importantly, the ability to escape from a vehicle with no connection to the rest of the train would never be permitted. Back in the 80s, such considerations were not important, we had after all arrived at the present situation through years of operating what is called non-corridor stock on the Wycombe Branch, with six separate coaches often being provided for most trains on the Maidenhead – High Wycombe – Aylesbury run.

One day, something odd happened on the Marlow and I can’t quite remember how it came about but if I suggested to you that Marlow Regatta may have played a part, you will probably believe me. This oddity was noticed as I joined the train at Bourne End, accompanied by mum for a journey into Marlow. We noted that the trailer was unlocked, its doors open and as it appeared, available for use. I had never travelled in one, never had the chance so I persuaded mum that we should ride in the trailer. There were four apparent differences from riding in the Bubble – the first was that the coach appeared to be much longer – it wasn’t of course, it was just that with no Guards Van and no additional Driving Cab, you had so much extra space. The second was that it was quiet, there being no noise and no vibration from an under-floor engine.

The third was that at the inner end, you had a full width bench-style seat which could seat six passengers as long as one of them didn’t decide to read a broadsheet. The fourth difference was it was cold, well, cool to be honest and it wasn’t a bad thing on this lovely summer afternoon. I learnt later that the heat generated by the under floor engines was never very good at finding its way through to the trailer, especially in the winter. Perhaps just as well then that it was normally locked?

A fifth difference was apparent today, two Guards had been provided, both well known to mum and myself, one was an Indian chap whom I think was known as Jack the Mack for his preference at wearing his BR raincoat even on warm sunny days, and the other was Percy who had decided that checking tickets in the trailer was his job for the afternoon. ‘Hello’, Percy said to which we both responded with a cheery hello. There was some noise coming from the platform as a group of teenagers joined the front of the coach. I noted Percy’s expression change from one of pleasant contentment to suspicious interest, probably thinking, I bet that lot haven’t got a ticket. Percy sold us our tickets, one and a half returns to Marlow and headed immediately for the group now sat towards the front.

A couple of minutes later, tickets issued, Percy left the trailer to join Jack the Mack in the Bubble Car. The journey to Marlow was largely uneventful until that is, we arrived into Marlow Station when this terrible stench of rotten eggs permeated the coach. I looked at mum and she looked at me as if to say ‘I hope that wasn’t you’! Mum then spoilt my intrigue by confirming her suspicion that a stink bomb had been discharged in the vicinity of the seats where moments earlier, these four herberts had been sitting.

We saw Percy on the platform, called him over and explained the situation which I think he had worked out before we had finished. The four lads, now under the apparent misapprehension that there deed would not be attributed to them, were seen giggling and chuckling on the platform but not for long…… ‘Hey, you four, I need a word with you, are you responsible for that?’


‘You know very well what, I know it was you because you were the only group sat there! Well, it’s unfortunate for you that you bought returns today, you can forget about coming back on the next train as I’ll be on that one and whilst you’re there, don’t think about waiting for the one after either, as I’ve just agreed to work overtime’!




Bourne End 1972


















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