Extract from Iron Roads by F Williams 1884

The traveller who, on a wintry or foggy night, flashes along in an express train through the railway sidings at Toton on the Erewash Valley line may well regard the scene as one of bewildering confusion. As he sees the clouds of fire-lit steam, the glancing lights, the white, green and red signals, the moving forms of engines, trains and men; and as he overhears, perchance, the bumpings of trucks, the shouts of men, and the squeals of whistles from locomotives and from shunters, he may well consider it a spot from which he ought to be thankful to be quickly and safely extricated. Happily, cosmos reigns amidst this seeming chaos; and the multifarious and apparently bewildering transactions are carried on with order, precision and security.
“Yours are the model sidings!” we playfully remarked to the administrator of this little province of the Midland Railway Company’s widespread dominions.  Well”, he replied, “they do say we manage pretty well. We had a gentleman here from a great southern railway company for a week, who made drawings of everything. We have had an engineer from the United States, another from Russia, several others from various parts of the world; and it is certain that we get safely through a deal of business. “Yes” he continued, “the place has developed wonderfully; twenty years ago, it was nearly all fields. There was just the up and down passenger line, one siding, and a weighing machine, over which a mineral train could be passed, and the wagons could one by one be weighed, so that we might check the ‘declaration’ of weight handed in by the colliery people. As the mineral business increased, fresh sidings were added, and a night as well as a day staff of men was provided.
The characteristic excellence of these sidings is that safety is secured for the main line traffic by keeping all the business of the reception, sorting, and marshalling of the empty coal trains and trucks on one side (for these are coal sidings), and the reception, sorting and marshalling of the loaded trains and trucks on the other side. “We never,” said the superintendent, “’foul’ the main line. An empty train arrives from the south by the down goods line. The train is broken up and deposited into one or all of five ‘reception’ lines, two of which are for wagons going to collieries on the Erewash Valley district; the third is for wagons belonging to the collieries between Masborough and Normanton; the fourth for collieries between Clay Cross and Masborough; and the fifth for those on the South Yorkshire system. The wagons put into the Erewash reception lines are drawn by a shunting engine out at the opposite end from that at which they were put in, and after being ‘chalked’ with the number of the line to which the horsemen are now to take them, they are drawn to the sorting sidings, of which there are seventeen according to the particular collieries for which the trucks are destined. They are then marshalled in what is called ‘station order’. The guard of the train will have only to unhook the trucks at the particular station, to give them a ‘kick’ back into the siding, and then to resume his journey.”
We now go over and see the working of the loaded trucks and trains on the other side of the line. These arrive on the “up” goods line entirely clear of the passenger. In fact they left the passenger line at Ilkeston junction, 4.5 miles north of Toton sidings. They run on the up goods line to Toton, and are delivered on to one of nine “reception,” or, as they are called, “bank” lines. “Why we call them ‘bank’ lines,” said the superintendent, “I can’t say. It is a common name for such sidings at Chaddesden and elsewhere, as well as here.  Thes ‘bank’ sidings are the source from whence we draw the traffic with which to make up our trains; so, perhaps, that is the reason for the name.” When the engine has brought its loaded train so far, it is detached, it picks up its break, crosses the main line (the only time it touches the main line at Toton) on to the down goods line, then goes with a load of empties back to the place from which it has brought its loaded train, or to some other point to fetch another train of coal. Meanwhile the full train it left at the bank is composed of wagons for three or more different destinations, some for the Midland, others for the Great Eastern, Great Northern, Great Western, and South Western. A “chalker” met the train as it came slowly in, read the “destination label” on each wagon, and chalked upon the truck the particular shunting line to which it should go; a shunting engine, guided by a signal from the foreman at the centre of the sidings, now pushed the train forwards, and then horses draw the wagons into their various sorting sidings. Of these there are sixteen, and they hold in all something like seven hundred wagons, each siding containing wagons intended for a separate district.
At night the same work is carried on by a duplicate staff. The whole place is lit up with gas. The amount of business done at Toton day and night is enormous, but it varies with the season. In a summer month 18,000 wagons will be received and despatched; in winter as many as six and twenty thousand. The staff required also depends on the season and the work. In summer perhaps thirty or forty shunting horses would suffice, but in a severer winter the grease in the axle box will freeze hard, the wheels instead of turning round will skid along the rails, and two or three horses will be required to move a wagon.

“But how,” we inquire, “with such a fluctuating traffic and amid such a multitude of trains arriving from all sorts of collieries, do you manage to get them away in so orderly and rapid a manner?”  “Well, the traffic comes in here from all the collieries on the Midland lying between Stanton Gate and as far north as Normanton in Yorkshire. It comes at stated times, but in constantly varying quantities. We cannot tell how much we shall receive on any one day from any one colliery. But in order to ensure its prompt dispatch we arrange, on ‘spec,’ for a proper supply of engine power, being guided, however, by long experience.  When we have not a loaded wagon in the sidings, we order perhaps ten or a dozen engines several hours ahead to be ready at certain times; and, meanwhile, the wagons they are to take accumulate. Our busiest time is between four o’clock and nine in the evening; and, in winter, until midnight. At the sorting sidings at the south end six or seven engines may be seen at a time attached to, or waiting to be attached to, six or seven loaded trains; and these, when ready, will be following one another out and away. In an hour five or six loaded trains will thus go, perhaps thirty in five hours. We have sorted and sent away north and south one hundred and twenty trains in a day.”
“But how,” we ask, “do you manage all this intricate work in foggy weather?” “We have for our sidings,” he replied, a system of our own. Instead of shouting, we whistle. Thus: when we want a driver to push his train back, a long whistle is given by the man at the tail of the train; the second man, at about the middle of the train, repeats the whistle; and the third man, who is generally in sight of the driver, again repeats it, and also gives a hand signal. If the driver is wanted to stop his train, the first man – who stands in sight of the shunting signal – gives three short sharp whistles; the next man repeats them; and the third man repeats them, and gives the hand signal to the driver. Usually all this is done by shouting; we do it by whistling.”
“You said just now that you did your business here with dispatch and safety. It used to be said that you had a great many accidents. Sir Beckett Denison, in one of his kind speeches, called Toton Sidings the Midland Company’s ‘slaughterhouse’ – didn’t he?”  “Yes, I believe he did,” was the reply; “but it isn’t correct. The safety of the shunting here has been increased by the men using a long pole of iron or wood for uncoupling the wagons instead of getting between them. We have not had a fatal accident for a considerable time, not a man even seriously injured in shunting for two or three years.”  “How long are the sidings ,”  we inquired. “From the south to north a distance of about two miles. Where they are thickest it is for about a mile and a quarter.”