The amount of traffic carried by Britain’s railways rapidly increased during the First World War as additional military traffic was added to the network. As well as troop trains, special goods trains were run to supply the armies on the continent with materiel, coal trains ran to the north of Scotland to refuel the Grand Fleet harboured there and other goods were taken too and from munitions factories to feed the insatiable war demand. The railways quickly found themselves short of goods wagons to transport these items with.
Legally when a wagon was dropped off in the sidings of a private company, that company had 48 hours to unload the wagon before incurring fines of 1s 6d a day for a standard wagon, up to 10s a day for a wagon of 30 tons capacity or more. This was usually incentive in peacetime to empty the wagons and get them back into service. During wartime however companies explained that they had such a manpower shortage that they could not empty the wagons in time and in the autumn of 1914 one company reported a 160% increase in companies holding onto wagons beyond the allotted time- one company owed £6000 in these charges and was threatened with legal action by one railway.
The Ministry of Munitions in Scotland alone had 560 wagons waiting to be unloaded and could only unload seventy a day and over 800 wagons were waiting at Carlisle to be moved onto their final destination for unloading, stuck until capacity could be found at the final destination.
The Railway Companies issued a circular to traders and industries in February 1916 to encourage them to unload wagons and release them and their tarpaulins as quickly as possible:
This seems to have been at least partially effective as the log jam had largely cleared by 1917 and the railways were running far more smoothly in the final two years of the war.
My thanks to Michael Whittaker for kindly giving me this document for my collection.