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Fully Fitted Freight (1957)


Main image of Fully Fitted Freight (1957)
35mm, black and white, 21 mins
DirectorRalph Keene
Production CompanyBritish Transport Films
ProducerIan Ferguson
Commentary WriterPaul Le Saux
PhotographyRonald Craigen
NarratorJames McKechnie

An express freight train links manufacturers with their customers at the other end of Britain.

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In the Reverend W. Awdry's popular children's books, being assigned to a goods train was the most humiliating thing that could befall a proud steam locomotive like Gordon, Edward or Thomas the Tank Engine. If a passenger journey was romantic and evocative, a freight service was seen as strictly utilitarian - but also, as this British Transport Films production demonstrates, vital to the successful running of the British economy.

After a general introduction to various activities ranging from heavy industry to chocolate manufacture, the film devotes most of its running time to the 4.48 express freight train from Bristol to Leeds. Its progress is shown both in terms of railway logistics (preparation and departure, monitoring en route by signalmen phoning the control room, changeover of crew and selected wagons en route) and through what the train passes en route, from the rural cottage industries of southern England to the industrial Midlands, Sheffield steel country, and so on.

All this is conveyed in crisp black-and-white images by veteran cinematographer Ronald Craigen. It's not one of BTF's travelogues, but the film also includes a whistle-stop tour of the UK from sunny Bristol to snowy Inverness. The soundtrack includes many vocal contributions, interspersed with a narrator explaining (in a patrician, somewhat patronising tone characteristic of BTF productions of the era) to a generic 'Mrs Smith' why all this activity matters.

Other voices include examples of the people responsible for sending, packaging, shipping and receiving the goods: for instance, a Scotswoman in search of fur-lined boots from Glastonbury, a wagon supervisor who uses sporting events as mnemonics to help remember destinations, train guard 'Sunny Jim' Tudor, and many others. There seems to have been a conscious effort to include a wide range of regional accents, to emphasise the truly national nature of the freight service.

At the time, the film would have been seen as a triumphant demonstration of the efficiency and efficacy of British Railways' freight services, and the commentary implies that the system was so vital to the running of the economy that it would probably need to expand indefinitely to keep up with consumer demand. However, hindsight reveals that the freight express's days were numbered even then. Many services were axed following the 1963 Beeching Report, and Bristol's huge Midland Road goods depot, where the early part of the film was shot, was closed in 1967.

Michael Brooke

*This film is included on the BFI British Transport Films DVD compilation 'Running a Railway'.

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Video Clips
Complete film (19:24)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
British Transport Films