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Track pan

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Track pan

New York Central Railroad's Empire State Express takes on water from the track pan at Palatine, New York, in 1905

A track pan (American terminology) or water trough (British terminology) is a device to enable a steam railway locomotive to replenish its water supply while in motion. It consists of a long trough filled with water, lying along a flat stretch of railroad/railway track between the rails.

When a steam locomotive passes at speed over the trough, its water scoop can be lowered, and the speed of forward motion forces water into the scoop, up the scoop pipe and into the tanks or locomotive tender.


  • Track equipment 1
  • Locomotive equipment 2
  • Operational considerations 3
  • Use by diesel locomotives 4
  • Locations 5
  • Alternative techniques 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Track equipment

Ramsbottom water troughs on a four-line stretch of the LNWRs West Coast main line in 1904

Main line steam locomotives consume considerable volumes of water, and the tender or side tanks need to be replenished at intervals. To travel long distances non-stop, water must be replenished without stopping.

In 1860 John Ramsbottom, a Victorian locomotive engineer, devised the water trough/track pan to meet this need.[1] It is a very long (several hundred yards) open-ended shallow trough laid between the rails. A nearby water source is needed to recharge the trough as passing trains take water. The entire length of the installation must be on level track, with a short section of rising track at each end to ensure that the water is retained. As trains needed to be moving at some speed to pick up enough water, a suitable separation between trough locations and commercial stopping points is essential.

The first installation was brought into use on 23 June 1860 at Mochdre, Conwy, on the North Wales main line of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) about mid way between Chester and Holyhead.[2][3]

The siting of the troughs requires a long enough length of straight and level track (although very large radius curves could be accommodated). There must be a good water supply nearby. In hard water areas, water softening plant may have been considered necessary.[2]

Locomotive equipment

A scoop is fitted to the underside of the locomotive's tender (or the locomotive itself in the case of tank locomotives) in such a way that it can be raised or lowered, by a hand operated screw or a power mechanism. The scoop feeds into a vertical pipe that discharges into the water tank.

The scoop needs to be lowered at speed at the correct location - shortly after the start of the trough - and raised again when either the tank is full, or at the end of the trough. Lineside indicators are provided to assist engine crews in determining the location; in the UK it was a large white rectangular board with a black horizontal zigzag marking. On American railroads, illuminated trackside signals were employed for night-time usage, to indicate the start and approaching end of the track pan.

A 1934 report said that the LMS had carried out tests recently and introduced a deflector 1ft. 4in. ahead of the scoop to pile water in the centre of the trough, thus reducing spillage out of the troughs by about 400 gallons (about 20%) for each use.[4]

Venting on the tender needed to be free to allow a high rate of release of expelled air from the tank. Tank locomotives were generally fitted for picking up in either direction, but tender locomotives generally picked up in the forward direction only.[2]

An illustration of the 1862 tender design is in the article on LNWR Lady of the Lake Class.

Operational considerations

The LNWR quickly installed water troughs at other locations, but other companies were slow to adopt the new apparatus. The Great Western Railway did so from 1895, and subsequently all the major railways in Great Britain, with the exception of the lines south of the River Thames, installed the equipment. Taking water at speed results in considerable spray behind the scoop; this risks drenching passengers in the leading vehicles, and in Great Britain it was customary for the guard or other traincrew to warn passengers in the first coach to keep the windows closed. In one incident on the LMS railway in Britain, two streamlined trains with "Coronation" class locomotives happened to pass each other at a water trough when one of the trains was taking on water. The other train suffered broken windows due to lumps of tender coal scattered by the spray and the complaints from drenched passengers caused the management to retimetable the trains to ensure this could not happen again. Vaughan says that the Royal Train when conveying royalty was not permitted to be passed by another train in a section where there was a water trough.[2]

Vaughan states that the GWR investigated the effectiveness of varying train speed, and found that 45 mph was the optimum speed; but water could be picked up successfully as low as 15 mph. At that speed 944 gallons could be picked up in 440 yards, but Vaughan suggests that this is a low theoretical figure, and that it overlooks the bow wave effect which enables a greater take-up rate. There was a significant resistance to the forward motion of the engine during the process, enough to require special care by the driver to avoid problems on unfitted freight trains.[2]

The considerable water spray made track maintenance difficult, and the physical trough equipment limited access for packing sleepers, exacerbating the problem. In very cold weather the water would freeze, preventing water pick-up, unless a heating apparatus was installed.

Track pans normally took a while to fill up after being used, so they could not be used immediately by a close-following train. They were also expensive to maintain, generally requiring a pumping station, a lot of plumbing, and an employee or two to maintain. They were thus only justified on a railroad with a high traffic volume. In the United States, several big eastern railroads used them, primarily the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroad.

In Britain, they could be found on all main lines, except on the Southern Railway.[5][6][2][7][8] They were removed as use of steam trains decreased. When the Aber troughs were removed in 1967, the only remaining troughs were in north-west England and Scotland.[9]

Use by diesel locomotives

Diesel locomotives were introduced in the United Kingdom by British Railways in the 1950s, working alongside steam traction until 1968. Passenger vehicles were heated by steam from the locomotive boiler at that time, and the early diesel locomotives were provided with auxiliary boilers to provide the steam. Locomotives intended for long non-stop runs (such as the Class 40 and Class 55) were fitted with water scoops to allow them to replenish the steam generator's water supply from troughs/pans. The withdrawal of steam traction and the introduction of rolling stock with electric rather than steam heating removed the need for such equipment on later types and scoop-equipped locomotives had their scoops removed.


A map showing the location of GWR troughs in the 1930s is reproduced in the book 'The Great Western Railway'.[10] They are typically at spacings of 40 to 50 miles, but with some wide variations. There are a few instances of trough locations very close to major stopping points; for example Fox's Wood, near St Annes Park, two miles from Bristol Temple Meads; however this was installed when trains to South Wales travelled via Bath and Filton, using these troughs; after the opening of the South Wales direct route via Badminton, numerous passenger and goods trains continued to use the route and required the troughs. The lengths are also given: they vary from 524 to 620 yards (480 to 570 metres).

The locations were (in 1936):

Location Mileage In use from Length (yards)
Pangbourne - Goring 43½ 1 October 1895 620
Aldermaston - Midgham 45½ by 1904 620
Fairwood Junction (up) 111½ - 553
Fairwood Junction (down) 111¾ - 495
Cogload Jn - Creech Jn 159¼ March 1902 560
Exminster - Starcross 200 July 1904 560
Keynsham - Fox's Wood 114¾ 1 October 1895 620
Chipping Sodbury 104 1 January 1903 524
Undy - Magor 150¼ - 560
Ferryside 240¾ - 620
Denham - Ruislip 20 November 1905 560
Kings Sutton 81½ - 560
Rowington Jn 114½ by July 1902 440 (560 from 1908)
Charlbury 78 - 560
Bromfield - Ludlow 22½ - 613
Lostwithiel ? - ?


Similar 1934 maps[12] showed troughs on the main East, Midland and West Coast routes from London to Scotland -

Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley
Location Mileage apart Length (yards)
Langley - Stevenage 27 694
Peterborough - Werrington Jt 52 638
Muskham 42 704
Scrooby - Bawtry 24 704
Northallerton - Danby Wiske 76 613
Lucker - Berwick 98 613
Edinburgh 73
London Euston to Edinburgh and Glasgow
Location Mileage apart Length (yards)
Hatch End - Bushey 15 505
Wolverton - Castlethorpe 38 559
Rugby - Brinklow 32 554
Tamworth - Lichfield 28 642
Whitmore - Madeley 36 563
Preston Brook - Moore 29 579
Brock - Garstang 40 561
Hest Bank - Bolton-le-sands 18 562
Low Gill - Tebay 26 553
Floriston - Gretna 45 560
Thankerton - Carstairs 64 557
Glasgow 32
Edinburgh 31
London St Pancras to Glasgow
Location Mileage apart Length (yards)
Oakley - Sharnbrook 55 557
Loughborough - Hathern (via Leicester) 58 557
Melton Mowbray (via Nottingham) 45 557
Dent - Hawes (see also Garsdale railway station) 144 554
Floriston - Gretna 45 560
Kirkconnel - New Cumnock 58 564
Glasgow 49

Other British troughs are mentioned in articles on Ipswich and Tivetshall railway stations (Norfolk)

Alternative techniques

LSWR K10 class locomotive with "water cart" tender

Railway companies were well aware of the cost of installing and maintaining this equipment, and the provision of tenders with a large water capacity was an alternative employed in some cases. The London and South Western Railway in England used large 8-wheel tenders nicknamed "water carts".

See also


  1. ^ Acworth, J M, The Railways of England, 1889, John Murray, London
  2. ^ a b c d e f Vaughan, Adrian (1990). "Water troughs on the GWR". Railway World 51: 278–80, 370–4. 
  3. ^ Robbins, Michael (1967). Points and Signals. London: George Allen & Unwin. 
  4. ^ Railway Magazine January 1934 p. 5
  5. ^ Foster, Richard (1989). "L&NWR water troughs". British Railway Journal (London & Birmingham Railway edition): 84–91. 
  6. ^ Twells, H. N. (1982). LMS Miscellany: a pictorial record. Oxford: Oxford Publishing Co.  
  7. ^ "Water pick-up troughs". Railway Magazine 74: 4–7. 1934. 
  8. ^ Webb, David (1984-8). "Water troughs". Cumbrian Railways Circular 3: 223, 263–4. 
  9. ^ Modern Railways July 1967 p. 397
  10. ^ The Great Western Railway - 150 Glorious Years, Whitehouse P and Thomas St John (editors), David & Charles, Newton Abbot, ISBN 0-7153-8763-4
  11. ^ Great Western Railway, Generla Appendix to the Rule Book, 1936, quoted by Vaughan; the Lostwithiel entry comes from H Holcroft, An Outline of Great Western Locomotive Practice, quoted by Vaughan
  12. ^ Railway Magazine January 1934 p. 7

External links

  • [2] Vintage cine of British steam engines in the 1950s using water troughs/track pans
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