Freight in the BR Blue TOPS Era

By Andy Joel

This is an article about British Rail from about 1972 to about 1985, often referred to by modellers as era 7. It lists N gauge wagons because that is what I model in. If you model in another scale, I would be delighted to know what is available in it from that era.

It is very much a work in progress. If you see any errors or have suggestions or further information, do please let my know (do please say if you are happy for me to use your text; be aware I may edit it to fit the writing style).

The TOPS Code

In the early 70’s, British Rail (BR) introduced TOPS (Total Operations Processing System), a computerised system for tracking stock on the rail system. This required everything on the network to be readily identified, and this required a classification system. As I am sure you know, locos were given a class from 01 upwards, DMUs from 101, etc.

All rolling stock was also classified, and given a TOPS code. This was made up of three letters, the first letter being the general type, the last denoting the brakes on the unit, whilst the second character was a somewhat arbitrary assignment of the subclass.

This was all rolling stock, so, for example, coaches were type A and N (N if not passenger carrying). The codes very much reflect the time, hence one letter for brakes, which was very complicated back then. I find it remarkable that the APT got its own class, L!

There are a few codes of interest under this topic.

B Bogie Steel-Carrying Wagons
C Brake vans and covered hoppers
F Flat wagons
H Hopper wagons
J Bogie steel coil carrying (until 10/83)
K 2 axle steel coil carrying (until 10/83)
M Mineral wagons (not hoppers)
O Open wagons
P Private own, not tanks
S 2 axle steel carrying (not coil until 10/83)
T Private owner, tanks
U Uncovered open bulk-carrying wagons (until 10/83)
V Vans
W Containers (until 1984)

The classifications reflect what was important to railway operations, so many different wagon diagrams might be lumped under one code as long as they are for the same material in the same form and with the same capacity and handling requirements at start and destination (and brakes).



Ensuring a rake of goods wagons had the proper brakes – and was marshalled to allow them to be used effectively – was something of a nightmare back then, and it is possible this was one reason BR looked to a computerised system.


Air Brakes and Vacuum Brakes

With vacuum braking, air is sucked out of a pipe that runs the length of the train (giving a vacuum, or at least a much reduced pressure) to release the brakes; to apply brakes, air is allowed back into the pipe. With air brakes, air is pumped into the pipe, giving a high pressure, to release the brakes; the air is allowed to escape to apply the brakes. I fact in practice both systems are rather more complicated than that, but that explanation will suit our purposes here. In either system, if the pipe breaks open – say the back of the train breaks away – the pipe returns to atmospheric pressure, and the brakes are applied, so they are “fail safe”.

In the early days there was no train braking. It became standard for passenger trains in the pre-grouping era (I think it was a legal requirement from 1889), mostly – but not exclusively – vacuum braking. On grouping, the “big four” all standardised on vacuum braking; I would guess for the simple reason that a vacuum is readily created by a steam engine using an ejector, while high pressure is not.

However, air braking is technically superior, as greater braking force can be applied. For vacuum brakes, the best possible difference between on and off states is 1 bar, i.e., between vacuum and atmospheric pressure (in practice probably rather less). Air braked freight trains typically work at 5 or 6 bar so have a lot more force behind them applying brakes (passenger trains are higher still).

While unfitted trains (no continuous brakes) might be limited to 25 mph, fully air-braked trains might run at up to 75 mph. From the earlier seventies, BR started to introduce air-braked freight stock.

Speedlink was a wagon-load service BR offered from 1977 to 1991. It used exclusively air-braked wagons, so the trains were fast, and avoided some marshalling issues. Trains ran to a specific timetable between a limited number of destinations. Speedlink (and Freightliner) became part of Railfreight Distribution on sectorisation in 1988.


Braking Types and Marshalling

We can start to get a feel for the complexities of marshalling a train when we look at the number of codes in use.

A Air brakes
B Air brakes with through vacuum pipe
F Vacuum brakes with Accelerated Freight Inshot (AFI)
G Vacuum brakes with AFI and through air pipe
H Dual (air and vacuum) brakes with vacuum AFI
O No continuous brake (unfitted)
P No continuous brake, through vacuum pipe
Q No continuous brake, through air pipe
R No continuous brake, through air and vacuum pipes
V Vacuum brakes
W Vacuum brakes with through air pipe
X Dual (air and vacuum) brakes
Y No continuous brake (for track machines)

A quick note about terminology. A wagon is considered “fitted” if it has either air- or vacuum-brakes, and unfitted otherwise. A wagon is considered “piped” if it has a pipe allowing the vacuum or air to be continued through it, but not the brakes.

AFI was a system that enhanced the vacuum brakes, but can be safely considered ordinary vacuum brakes for our purpose. They could be mixed with other vacuum-braked wagons.

If your rake is of identical wagons (or rather, the TOPS code of all the wagons ends with the same letter), there is no problem. just put a brake van on the end if the wagon TOPS code ends O, P, Q or R.

For mixed trains, it gets complicated…

Trains can have a “fitted” section and an “unfitted” section, the former being continuously braked. Either section is optional, but if there is an unfitted section, you need a brake van on the end.

The fitted section must be next to the loco. It will be either vacuum braked or air braked (you cannot have both), and your loco needs the equipment for that. Class 56 and 87 had only air brakes. All earlier locos had vacuum brakes; some also had air brakes:

Dual braked from build: 33, 50, 71, 73, 81-86
Some dual braked from build: 20, 25, 47
All converted to dual braked: 37, 45-47, 55
Mostly converted to dual braked: 20, 26, 27, 31, 52
Many converted to dual braked: 25, 40, 76

Later some classes were converted to air braked only (I think after this era): 20, 31, 33, 37, 47, 73, 86. More on locos here.

Brakes on a wagon can be turned off, so a fitted wagon can be treated as an unfitted wagon. In the seventies, air-braked wagons were rare, so the single air-braked wagon might have the brakes turned off and treated as unfitted, and the vacuum-braked wagons used in the fitted section. If you had several air-braked wagons, however, you would be more likely to turn off the brakes on the vacuum-braked wagons as they are less effective.

Your fitted section could have up to five piped wagons in a row, followed by two braked up to around 1980, thereafter the rules was only three piped and you needed three braked following.

BR-owned wagons were generally painted grey if unfitted and bauxite if fitted.


Leasing Companies

There were a number of companies that offered wagons for hire, and therefore had their logo on the wagon as well as the company who owned the cargo. Information about these companies is sparse, so this represents my best guesses. If anyone can confirm or correct this information, I would be grateful.

British Railway Traffic and Electric Company (BRT) was (possibly) founded in 1907, and bought by Procor in 1974, but the logo was still present on wagons for much later.

Railease (RLS) apparently was a division of the Standard Railway Wagon Co. (a UK company that built wagons), and was renamed Standard Railfreight in about 1983 and bought by Procor in supposedly 1971 (but that last date feels wrong to me, and I am guessing 1986 or 1991). Not to be confused with GL Railease, which I think was only set up in late 90s, or indeed with the Belgium scheme covering the leasing of company cars together with rail transport.

Tiger Railcar Leasing (TRL) is most notable for the “clay tigers“.

Nacco UK Ltd looks to have been part of CIT Rail Holdings (Europe), and became part of VTG in 2018. According to Companies House, Nacco was established in 1989, but I have seen the name on wagons in photos dated slightly earlier. They had some connection to Tiger, and some wagons had both names on them.

Procor was a Canadian company, founded in 1952, but only named Procor from 1962. Railease became part of Procor in 1971. Charles Roberts & Company’s wagon works became part of Procor in the 1974 (and later part of bombardier in 1990).

VTG is a German company, best known for their fleet of tank wagons. I think they are still going.

Storage & Transport Systems (STS) was part of the Belgian CAIB group.


Further Information

I think this web site was a book; very informative:

Another excellent site:

An amazing collection of photos of wagons; if you are building or painting models, you need to see this:


Different Wagons, as Classified by TOPS

This is a bit patchy, reflecting those areas that interest me! It may get updated in the future, as I do more research.

Note that a lowercase ‘x’ is used to indicate any or multiple braking types.


B: Bogie Steel-Carrying Wagons

To do

Graham Farish do BDA and BAA wagons.


C Brake vans and covered hoppers

This is a weird grouping! Brake vans were all CAx (they perhaps were all CAO, though some may have been piped; they had a man inside to apply the brakes).

CBx were limestone hoppers, CCx were sand hoppers, CGx were grain hoppers, CZx sugar hoppers and CHx general covered hoppers (COVHOP).

CXx were gunpowder van – so why were they in the hoppers section? I think these were all inherited unfitted (which I find a bit scary), but some later had vacuum brakes. These were replaced by VEAs in the early 80’s.

Presflo cement were CPV/W, while prestwin were CQV. Other cent wagons were privately owned, so in the P group.

Dapol do a grain hopper.

Peco do a grain wagon, china clay hopper (CDA)


F Flat wagons

To do

There were many different types. FFA were Freightliner inner wagons, FGA/B were outer wagons, FJA/B were single wagons.


H Hopper wagons

Hopper wagons are designed for transporting loose bulk material, including coal, aggregates, gravel and powdered chemicals. The shape of the wagon directs the material to one or more discharge points between the wheels. This requires a bigger investment at the destination, but makes emptying much simpler.

Hopper wagons can be divided into open and closed. Salt will dissolve in rainwater and sand stops being free flowing, so these and main other substance need to be transported in closed hoppers. Coal and aggregates are fine in open hoppers.

It looks like hoppers were much more common for coal trains in the NE of England. This was because the NE Railway liked them and encouraged their use. Sites in that area were set up for it, so even decades after grouping the effects were still apparent.

The original BR design that was inherited from LNER can be seen here (HTO and HTV). Many were later re-bodied with larger sections, and so less ribbing, see here. It is not that difficult to remove the extraneous ribbing from an N-gauge Dapol hopper.

An air-braked design was built from 1964, HAA, and was still being built in the 80’s. HCA (from 91), HDA (from 82) and HFA (from 92) were all similar. These were used on merry-go-round trains, and required specialist equipment at the destination to unload them; they were generally kept together in a single rake.

Merry-go-round trains were designed to be loaded and unloaded without stopping, and in theory would continue round a loop and back on to the railway system a the end of each operation. In practice most collieries lacked the facilities to do this. It was reckoned that one merry-go-round hopper could replace nearly twenty conventional wagons.

Some were fitted with a top canopy, increasing the capacity somewhat, but few collieries could handle the extra height. Seems to have been more common in Scotland.

Iron ore seems to be the other main commodity transported in hopper wagons (HKV, HJV, HJO). Coke and domestic coal were sometimes carried in specialised hoppers too.

Dapol do a 21t hopper. As far as I can see, only in PO liveries, and the original design, but see the note above.

Graham Farish do a 24 t iron ore hopper, and HAA/HEA/HFA/HSA hoppers.

Peco do MGR hopper.


M Mineral wagons

Like hoppers, mineral wagons are designed for transporting loose bulk material, but are designed to be emptied from the side or end, rather than the bottom.

The 16t version was very common on BR for carrying coal. These were originally fitted with vacuum brakes (MCV), so painted brown, but the brakes often fouled in the mechanisms at the colliery or (more likely I guess) the destination, so the vast majority were unfitted (MCO).

A diagonal white strip indicated the end with a door. This was used at coal hoists; a wagon would be detached from the train, pushed onto the hoist, raised up, then tilted to about 45 degrees to discharge its contents into a waiting ship. The wagon would then be lowered, and pushed out onto a second line for the empties. All this was done by manual labour and capstans, I would guess (the hoist was usually hydraulic).

There is a preserved coal hoist in Goole.

Coal Wagon Hoist, Railway Dock

This is a 16t wagon being tipped at Preston dock:

Hi-Res S0007

And a plan of the dock here, showing the track arrangement on the north side:

Preston Dock Plan 1936

The maximum size of a wagon was therefore determined by what the coal hoists could fit, which is why the vast majority of these wagons had such a short wheelbase.

In coal yards, the side doors would be used, together with a man and shovel.

A 21t version was also quite common (MDV, MDO, MDW).

Some wagon types were designed to be emptied by tipping the wagon to one side. These so-called tipplers seem to have been more common for PO wagons, so discussed later.

Air braked versions seem not to exist.

Graham Farish do a variety of 16 t wagons and 27 t tipplers

Peco do Butterly steel type wagon (Butterley being the manufacturer), 27 t tippler, 16 t

Revolution do MMA


O Open wagons

This not an area I have looked at much, but will note that open wagons here refers to wagons designed to carry discrete units, such as a pallet of bricks or steels tubes.

Air braked versions, OAA and OBA date from 1971. The OBA appears to have had raised ends. Steel-sided OCA date from early 80’s. Some OBAs were later re-built, for example as OTAs in 1985 for carrying timber.


Graham Farish do OBA and OCA wagons.

Peco do Ferry Open Wagon BR ‘Hybar’, tube wagon, open wagon, ferry tube wagon


P Private owner, not tanks

This covers a lot of diverse wagons – including tank wagons! It would be better to say it excludes tank wagons for liquids and gases, but includes powder wagons.

Powder tank wagons

PCA and PCV were powder tank wagons of various designs, some centre-depressed, some parallel. PDV is a CemFlo wagon (as opposed to PresFlo and PresTwin, which are in the C group, being owned by BR).

Pallet vans

PWA were PALVANs (pallet vans). Shellstar Fertilisers (part of Shell) had a set of these from the late sixties, owned by Lloyds and Scottish, for distribution from their plant in Ince, Cheshire, pictures here. Originally curtain-sided, in blue, they were quickly rebuilt with solid sides, and a new brown and cream (or white?) livery. In the first half of the eighties, Shellstar became UKF Fertilisers, and the logo changed, but the livery remained the same. Some wagons appeared with the RBS logo, I  think in the later eighties, possibly in connection to the ownership by Lloyds and Scottish. Later still UKF was purchased by Kemira Oy, a Finnish company, and the vans became blue again (but a darker shade), with a logo similar to – but not the same – the RBS logo.

Iron ore tipplers

PTA were bogie iron ore tipplers, built between 1972 and 1977. They had a rotating coupling at one end, allowing the wagon to be turned along its length to facilitate unloading. This was signified by painting the entire end of the wagon orange, and marshalling each wagon with the orange at the same end. Outer wagons were of a modified design with conventional couplings fitted, one having rotating couples, the other not (and so no organge end).

The first batch ran from Immingham to Scunthorpe. Later batches were a little different, having three horizontal struts on the ends, rather than two vertical, among other details. The second batch ran from Redcar and Consett, until Consett closed in 1981; they were then sold to Procor and used by ARC and Yeoman for aggregates (the rotating couples were fixed at this point, and no orange ends requires). A third batch ran from Port Talbot to Llanwern, and I believe was notable for being the heaviest trains on BR, the 27 wagons requiring three class 37 locos to pull, and later two class 56. The last batch was built to run from Hunterston to Ravenscraig.

Iron ore is very dense, and apparently wagons were only two thirds filled (so why build the wagons so big?). The only photo I have found where you can see the ore in a wagon is here, I have not been able to establish what it actually is (proably hematite or magnetite).

In 1990 the TOPS code was changed to JTA (outers) or JUA (inners).

More to do

Graham Farish do POA wagons.

Revolution do PFA wagons (container wagons dating from 87), PDV

The N gauge society does the later version of the PTA.


T Private owner, tanks

These actually have some kind of system. TBx to TEx are bogie wagons, with the letter indicating the gross laden weight (GLW) in a 10 t band, from 70-79 for TBx to over 100 t for TEx. Two axle are similar, going from TRx (20-29 t) to TUx (over 50 t).

TMV are 3 axle milk tanks (TRV was used for two axle). The last two proper milk trains were from Fishguard and Penzance, both to Express Dairies at Kensington Olympia, and they both ended in 1981. Nevertheless, some were rebuilt in 1981 by the Milk Marketing Board for use was on a service from Chard Junction to Stowmarket; it lasted less than a year. They were retained for some years for emergence use if there was problems with road transport.

TIx are RIV tank wagons (RIV seems to stand for Regolamento Internazionale Veicoli; these would be tank wagons rated for European railways).

Dapol do a three wheel milk tanker, it is unlike the rebuilt version, but may be suitable for pre-1981 milk trains.

Graham Farish do a TEA tank wagon and TTA.

Revolution do a TEA


V Vans

Earlier Designs

BR built hundreds of vans to earlier designs by GWR (Swindon), LMS (Wolverton) and SR (Ashford) around 1949; I suspect all that survived by the TOPS era were in engineering use. The SR vans were notable as they had no diagonal struts, while the LMS had single leaf doors (sliding I think). The GWR and SR had two vents at each end, the LMS just the one. No sign of an LNER design?

Standard Van

The standard van appeared in the early 50s. It had diagonal struts from the top corners to the bottom of the central doors, and a single divider on each side panel. The ends were ribbed metal, with single vents. They had a short wheel-base, were vacuum braked and painted bauxite. Well over 20 000 were built so they were a common sight! They were TOPS code VVV (and several different codes when used by engineers, perhaps reflecting later modifications).

In the early fifies over 13 000 were built with planked walls and doors. In the late 50s, plywood sides and doors were used in a further 5000 or so and planked sides with plywood doors in over 4000 more.

By the earlier eighties they were disappearing from revenue-earning traffic.

A few were converted to be air braked, as VBB.


About 2000 vanwides were built in 62, the final development of the 10′ wheel-base, 12 t wagon. They were built with sliding doors that have an opening 9′ wide, which gave them their name. They had the TOPS codes VWV and VMV (the later for military use).

From 1977 onwards, 550 were converted to air-brakes, for customers who could not handle longer wheel-base wagons, especially the military, and given the designation VEA (in 1984, some were fitted with alarms, and became VFA). Originally in freight maroon, with the Railfreight logo, some (I think those re-built in 1981 or later) appeared in red and grey.

Long wheel-base vans

From 1969, long wheel-base vans were produced with air brakes. They were TOPS VAA, VAB, VBA and VBB. VCA was a later, and less successful version with central doors, rather than full length sliding doors. VDAs were a similar design built from 1975.

VGA and VKA were built from 1982, and look quite different with two doors on each side, each half the length of the wagon, and part of the roof.


These are pallet vans, i.e., they were designed to take a pallet. Early PALVANs had short wheel-bases, and the doors offset to the left. Not sure if they would be loaded from both sides or there were rollers in the floor so a pallet could be loaded, then rolled to the right to allow a second pallet; I guess the former. A few were vacuum braked, but rode poorly and most were soon withdrawn. Most were air braked, TOPS code VPB.

VPV was an alternative style of PALVAN, originally built for Izal traffic (manufacturers of disinfectant and nasty toilet roll). It had a slightly longer wheel-base at 11′, and sliding doors that gave access to the entire wagon on both sides (very much resembling a squashed VQB PALVAN). Withdrawn by 1976.

The rather longer VQB PALVAN was built for Ford in the mid-60s for use between Dagenham and Halewood and later to Swansea. Looks like this stopped around 1980, and some were later used as barrier wagons (ZRW or RBV?) for a few years. A model is available from Peco.

Ferry Van

Even before the channel tunnel, BR wagons might run on continent rails, transported by ship. Such wagons had special requirements, and so were dedicated to that use. They were known as ferry vans, and had “Through to the Continent by British Rail” on the side in big letters.

VIX were built in 1962; two-axled but with a long wheel-base. Vacuum-braked, they lasted to around 1980, though a few appeared in RailFreight red and grey (did they get converted to air brakes?). Many were converted to various engineering uses. Some were downgraded, with “Through to the Continent by British Rail” painted over.


GF do VGA and VVV vans (they also do a 1o t insulated van; doubtful they were still around be TOPS)

The Peco box van resembles the GWR design van; they also do the Ford PALVAN. The two railfreight box vans look dubious.

Sonic Models (Revolution) do a VEA



Appendix 1: More on vacuum and air brakes

Vacuum brakes

Air brakes

Appendix 2: A note about the units used for pressure

Sure you can buy milk in pints or litres, and you might describe your height in feet and inches, or in metres, but when it comes to the number of units, pressure wins by a mile. Or 1.61 km.

I would guess it stems from different approaches to the issue.

Relative to atmospheric pressure

An easy way to think about pressure is to compare it to atmospheric pressure, and take that as 1. Even there, we have two units, that are almost – but not quite – the same, that is atmosphere (atm) or bar.

1 atm = 1.01 bar.

The reason there are not quite the same is that 1 atm is defined as 760 mmHg, while 1 bar is defined as 100 kPa, both of which are discussed later.

It is common to measure high pressure (say greater than three or four atmospheres) in atm. Tank wagons designed for carrying gases will usually have a maximum pressure stated in atmospheres.

We also have mbar, with a thousand mbar in 1 bar. This is also one hectopascal (hPa), by the way, which will be discussed later.

1 atm = 1010 mbar.

Meterologists usually use mbar, for example, see here.

Measured with mercury

An easy way to measure pressure is with a U tube containing mercury, and note the difference in height. That difference can then be measured in millimetres or inches. You have the system you want to measure connected to one side of the U. The other side could be under vacuum to give an absolute measure, or to the atmosphere for the relative pressure.

The chemical symbol for mercury in Hg, so the units are mmHg and in Hg or just Hg. One millimeter of mercury is also called 1 Torr.

1 atm = 760 mmHg (by definition)
1 atm = 29.9 in Hg
1 atm = 760 Torr (by definition)
Measured with water

You might also measure pressure using water instead of mercury. Mercury is 13.6 times denser than water, so the height of the water will be 13.6 times greater. To measure a vacuum you need a device over 33 foot high!

1 atm = 407 in H2O

The only time I have heard about using water gauge is BNFL measuring the pressure of fluorine produced from a cell, which I would guess was because it dated from decades ago and the pressure difference was very small, so using water would be rather more accurate than mercury (I cannot remember if they used inches or millimeters).

Force per area

Pressure is, in a technical sense, the force being applied to an area, so this is another approach to pressure. In the imperial system, this is the force in pounds on a square inch, or PSI. In the metric system, it is the force in newtons per square meter, N/m2, which is also called a pascal, Pa. One pascal is pretty small, and it is often more convenient to use kPa, which is a thousand pascals.

1 atm = 14.7 psi
1 atm = 101000 N/m2
1 atm = 101000 Pa
1 atm = 101 kPa
1 bar = 100 kPa (by definition)

One hundred pascal, also called one hectopascal (hPa), is almost one millibar, and I suspect modern weather maps use hectopascals rather than millibars, but they are so close it makes little odds.

Steam pressure in a loco is usually quoted in psi.

Relative or absolute

A further complication is that sometimes it is convenient to describe pressure relative to atmospheric pressure and sometimes relative to a perfect vacuum. When looking at figures for pressure, you need to check carefully which it is. Sometimes “bar” is written as “bara” for the absolute value or “barg” for the relative pressure (bar gauge), but generally it is left to the read to guess for himself!

You may also find with relative pressure, a vacuum is described as a positive or negative number.