Monday, 11 September 2017

Dinmore Manor to the Rescue

During my short lived hiatus from blog writing activities during the first half of the year, I occasionally found myself with a bit more holiday (or more accurately time off in lieu) than usual, so I put myself down as the fireman for a few footplate experience days which run midweek.  The most recent was a silver footplate experience on Friday.   The format of the day is that the assigned crew bring a loco into steam as usual, then take it light engine to Winchcombe, where there will be a dozen prospective fire & drive participants eagerly waiting.  We fetch the third rake out of one of the sidings into the station, and after a while the participants take it in turns to fire and drive the train down to Cheltenham Race Course and back.  The participants swap over at Gotherington, so they end up firing one of those sections and driving another.  The ordering is cunningly arranged so that everybody is on the footplate for a passage through the tunnel.  For more details on both the silver and gold footplate experience days, please click on this link.  They're fully booked up for this year, but more will be announced for next year in the relatively near future.

John was the driver for the day, amusingly a slight mishap as he was oiling up 2807 meant that the shovel got a generous helping of motion oil.  I wasn't sure whether he was trying to tell me to get shovelling quicker, or was it a hint that he wanted breakfast cooking?
A well oiled shovel
 As already mentioned, the participants were ready and waiting at Winchcombe, along with a number of supporters who would spend the day riding on the cushions.
Waiting at Winchcombe
 Frank does the organising of the day and makes sure that everything runs smoothly
Frank, and the signed course completion certificates
The day starts well, with a Danish pastry and a brew for everybody, even the crew.
A nice start to the day
 The twelve participants get split up into two groups of six, one group heads to Carriage and Wagon for a talk about what happens over there, the other group comes onto the footplate for a chat about the duties of the fireman & driver.  

I started my section off by pointing to the pressure gauge and saying that one of the fireman's jobs is to provide steam pressure in the boiler at the times when it's going to be needed, in general when on the road, you need to have at least 160 PSI on the clock, or the driver may not be able to keep the brakes from automatically kicking in and bringing the train to a halt. You would then have to wait until you had created enough pressure to be able to move again. This would be considered a bit embarrassing.  In the other direction, it's possible to over do it and end up with too much steam pressure, when you reach the red line, the safety valves on the top of the boiler will kick in and vent surplus steam to the atmosphere.  This, as is all too frequently pointed out by the steam loco dept manager, is a waste of coal and water. He often threatens to get one of those credit card reader machines installed by the coal dock and make us pay for whatever coal we use during the day.
Pressure gauge, nearing the red line
More importantly the fireman has maintain the water level in the boiler.  If the water level goes out of sight at the top of the water gauge, there is a danger that water will get carried over into the cylinders along with the steam.  Water doesn't compress, and the end result of having the energy of 300 tons of train, running at 25 MPH trying to compress water in the cylinder is that one or more of the cylinder end caps gets blown off.  The locomotive owners will typically take a dim view of this, and a "Please Explain" letter will arrive on your doormat, probably swiftly followed by a very large bill.  In the other direction, if the water in the boiler falls too low, and disappears out of sight, there is a danger that the crown of the copper (OK, a few locos like 35006 have steel ones) firebox will be exposed.   Copper melts at 1,085 degrees Centigrade, the fire in the firebox can get well beyond that.  The thing that stops the copper firebox melting is the fact that it is surrounded by a (relatively) cool jacket of water (water boils at 200 C at about 200 PSI).  Once the water level drops below that of the crown of the firebox will no longer have the heat conducted away by the water, and it will distort and ultimately collapse.  The sound of the fusible plugs going first should alert the crew to the problem and get them to put more water in the boiler, but if they don't, the firebox crown will collapse, steam at boiler pressure will discharge rapidly into the firebox and out onto the footplate.   Once again the locomotive owners will take a dim view of this state of affairs, though any "Please Explain" letters will need to be addressed to you care of St Peter (another after life destination does exist however the Tripadvisor rankings are not favourable).
Water gauge, water nicely three quarters of the way up the glass
 The whole water level business gets more complicated, because the level shown will be affected by the loco changing gradient.  Going smoke box first up a hill and then over a summit to go down hill will cause the water to drop from the top of the glass to the bottom.  On lines with such features, drivers will often pause before the summit and refuse to proceed until the water is out of sight at the top of the gauge.   If the loco was facing tender first, the same scenario would cause water to rise from the bottom of the gauge to the top.   Add to this, that braking will force the water to slosh up to the ends of the boiler too, before coming back, and that opening the regulator will cause the water level to rise an inch or so, and closing it will cause it to fall again. The upshot is that the fireman needs to be aware of the timetable and therefore, when the driver will be needing steam, and the gradient profile of the line, to ensure that the water level is always appropriate for the circumstances.

 So how does the fireman control the steam pressure and the water level?  Well steam pressure is fairly straight forward, you put a fire in the firebox, and apply the right amount of coal to bring the pressure up.... simples!   Well not quite so simple actually, for a starter, you need to make sure that the grate is covered, any burnt through patches on the grate, and cold air will rush in to the firebox, taking the path of least resistance and disappear off down through the tubes of the boiler.  You will know that this is happening, as the pressure gauge will start dropping alarmingly, you'll hear a distinctive sound of rushing air at the same time if you're tuned into it.  The cold air on the tube plate and the tubes will have a detrimental effect on their integrity and again, the locomotive owners will not be best pleased.   The grate of a Swindon number one boiler, such as is used on 2807 and Foremake Hall is about three paces long and about one pace wide.  If you were to look at the area you have to keep filled, chalked out on the ground, you'd think that it was easy.  Just like motor racing tracks occasionally have chicanes thrown in, to make what would otherwise be easy straights rather more difficult, so does a steam locomotive have a few obstacles to make firing more of a challenge.  The starter for ten is that you have a relatively small hole to shovel the coal through, and when that hole is bouncing around before your eyes when the train is in motion, that makes it surprisingly easy to catch the edge of the hole with the shovel and drop half the coal just inside the firebox door, the rest falling embarrassingly onto the footplate.  The woes don't stop there either, there is a baffle plate fitted to deflect incoming air through the fire hole door down onto the grate to be warmed by the fire, rather than let it go straight over the brick arch and onto the tube plate.  The problem is that a natural shovelling action has a bit of a back swing, and then a forward motion that describes an arc, with the coal departing from the shovel face on the upward part of the arc at the end.  This invariably launches the coal on the shovel up at the baffle plate, causing the coal to drop into the centre of the fire, just inside the fire hole door.  The result is a fire that is thick just inside the door and thin or possibly out altogether over the rest of the grate.  A fireman has to acquire the shovelling technique to get  the coal where it's needed.
Fire hole door, baffle plate visible at the top
The amount of water in the boiler can be controlled by using an injector. There are two injectors, each of which takes water from the tender and uses steam to force water past a clack valve and into the boiler.  The idea that you can use steam from the boiler to overcome boiler pressure and force water into the boiler is perhaps counter intuitive, but that's what they do.  It involves three cones in a sealed brass unit and some of the sort of maths that you hoped that you'd never see again once you had finished with formal education.

From an operational point of view, it's quite simple really, open the water cock from the tender, open the steam supply on the back head, then trim the water cock whilst watching the injector overflow (under the cab floor).  When there is neither water over flowing, nor steam blowing through, then it's working.  You will also hear a distinctive note as the injectors force water into the boiler, which is handy after dark when you can't see the overflow.
Injector water cock
Injector steam cock
 It's important to turn on the water first.  If you turn on the steam first, the steam will blow through the brass cones in the body of the injector and eventually score grooves in them which will make them less effective.  Correspondingly, you need to turn off the steam before turning off the water.   The effect of running the injector is twofold, the pressure comes down as cold water from the tender is introduced into the boiler, and obviously, the water level goes up.  

Firing therefore is a lot of a juggling act, where and when to put how much coal on the grate and where and when to put how much water into the boiler, in order to maintain pressure and water levels within the parameters described above.  Just to make it even more interesting, the Welsh coal that we use takes five or ten minutes on the grate before it starts burning properly (more if the loco isn't moving), so you need to think ahead with your firing. 

I tend to finish off my chat about the duties of the fireman by mentioning the blower. 
The blower valve, the fireman's friend!
When a steam loco is on the move, the exhaust steam from the cylinders enters the smoke box and on to the chimney, passing over the ends of the boiler tubes on the way, which has the effect of drawing the air from the firebox through the tubes.  The firebox doors are hollow, and there are dampers under the grate, both of which will admit air, so the end effect is that air gets positively drawn into the firebox, making the fire even hotter.  It's the equivalent of a blacksmith using bellows to force air into a furnace.  
There are three dampers on 2807, operated by these levers.
When not in motion, this effect doesn't take place, so the blower can be used to admit steam into the smoke box, causing a draw on the fire.  The effects here are threefold; more air is drawn through the fire, invigorating it and raising pressure, any dark smoke at the chimney will be lightened, as enough air will be present for proper combustion of the coal, and most importantly, the fire will be drawn away from the fire hole doors (and the footplate).  A lack of air in the firebox, along with unburnt volatile gasses from recent excessive firing, can cause serious blow backs of the fire onto the footplate if the fire hole doors are suddenly opened and more air rushes in.  The blower can compensate for the regulator being shut, or disturbances to the air flow over the chimney, such as when entering a tunnel.  As a fireman, just bear in mind as you reach across to the fire hole doors to open them, which part of your anatomy is in the firing line if you get it wrong!

That of course only really covered the rudiments of boiler control, the fireman has much more to do besides, especially in terms of looking out for signals, watching for people on crossings etc, but you can only cover so much before they all start nodding off to sleep.

After I'd finished my talk, John stepped up and dealt with the bits that they really wanted to know, which was how to drive the thing.  Basically how to make it go (easy), how to make it stop (easier still), and how to make it stop in the right place (fiendishly difficult).
John doing the driver's talk.
 There is no timetable for the footplate experience days, they are run on days when no other services are running, so we set off when the fire is ready (we tell the guard when he can set us off).

There may not have been any other trains running, but that didn't prevent other essential works from taking place.
Line side drainage gang, hard at work
Building up the fire at Cheltenham Race Course
One of the participants gets us underway
 OK, there were a few instances of wheel slips, a few stops rather short of where was required, coupled with a fair amount of blowing off due to numerous attempts to fill in holes in the fire bed before eventually succeeding, however all the participants left the footplate with smiles on their faces.  There was a fair amount of time spent at each end with happy people posing in the cab for photographs.

A feature of footplate experience days, that is lamentably not the case on normal running days is that tea is fetched out for the crew at Cheltenham Race Course station.
I wonder if this idea will catch on!
Lunchtime at Winchcombe
Contractors working on a small slip at Gretton.
The rain did nothing to dampen the participants spirits, but it did suppress the coal dust.
 There is nowhere to hide on the footplate of 2807 when running tender first in the rain, the storm sheet will keep your top half partially dry, the rest of you will just get wet.
Trying to dry off in front of the fire.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of the participants was keen to have a go at shovelling the coal forward in the tender before building up the fire... that saved me a job
 At the end of the day, with the carriages put back to bed in their siding, it was rather nice to find that Alex was still around and happy to help out with the disposal, she had also put in the warming fire the day before (her first since recently passing out to do so) and was pleased to discover that 2807 was nicely sat at 20 PSI when I had arrived in the morning.
Damping down and scraping out the ash
Alex empties the pit, ably assisted by Stu (AKA Toddington Ted)
Thanks to both of you for your assistance.

I had a turn on 35006 on Saturday, which wasn't entirely without incident.

It started well enough, with tea and chocolate biscuits at breakfast time:
Very civilised
The GWSR Steam Loco Dept's Olympic tea drinking team in action
 Jamie whipped out the starting handle and fired 35006 into life...
...or perhaps he was just priming the cylinder oil passages
 After cleaning the loco, Jeremy went back into the tender to pull down some coal:
It wore him out, but he did a good job
 The GWSR Steam Loco Dept's reserve Olympic tea drinking team were putting in some serious practice as we pulled out of Toddington:
They know what to do with a cuppa'!
Jeremy (l) and Jamie
 Unfortunately, rather like the day before, the weather was not all it could have been.  Although it is ostensibly rather better sheltered than 2807, you still get pretty wet in there when running tender first.
Nice weather for ducks
 For a while, there was a sealing strip between the cab roof and the tender roof, but that has gone AWOL.  To get any visibility of the line ahead when running tender first, and with the tender windows steamed up on one side, and covered in rain on the other, you really have to stand in that gap.  Once again, you get very wet.
Gone AWOL!
The line side clearance team wisely sheltered from the rain in their cars.
 The day passed largely without incident, other than there were two young lads who thought that playing chicken on Bishops Cleeve crossing would be a good idea.  Should you be a parent of school aged children and living in the Bishops Cleeve area, please enlighten your offspring regarding the perils of playing on the railway.  240 tons of coaches, plus a further 100 or more tons of locomotive and tender won't notice at all if it hits you (we even paint the buffer beams red so that the blood doesn't show) however you will most certainly notice, albeit briefly. I'm not being entirely altruistic here, I really don't need the aggravation of all the form filling etc that will undoubtedly attend such an incident, though I will happily send off a Darwin award nomination on their behalf.

I let Jeremy have his first stab at firing on the second trip down to Cheltenham Race Course.  After a few early goes at getting coal around the grate (reminiscent of many of the attempts that I had witnessed the day before), he managed to pick up the technique and did a pretty good job.  I stressed to him the extreme importance, of if you get it wrong and over do it, that under no circumstances must you let the loco blow off at either Toddington as you pass the mess coach (JC will be out with that credit card reader) or at Winchcombe, where the crew of the other loco will see you.  Not everybody always pays heed to that advice though.
According to 2807's fireman, this was a "light feather" at the safety valves
Jeremy at work
Once again, a disposal crew was around to assist at the end of the day, Pete & Sam kindly emptying the pit after we had ashed out.  Thanks to both of you.
Pete empties the pit, Sam was up by the parlour road points to let us out.
 We even found somebody waiting at the South head shunt points to let us back into the yard, even though it was raining fairly hard by this point.
Thanks Stuart.
I promised you a selection of photos from Foremarke Hall's visit to Old Oak Common last week, so here they are, along with a few words from John, the locomotive manager of Foremarke Hall:

"You may not be aware but our very own 7903 Foremarke Hall spent almost all of her BR working life based at 81A old Oak Common. This fact made her an obvious choice for attending the very last open day as in 2018 the depot will be closed as part of HS2 development.

Our desire for her to attend was also fuelled by this Black and White picture taken by Dick Blenkinsop on 3rd July 1960, as it was an opportunity to reunite 7903 with shed mate 6023. Whilst the roundhouse and turntable are both long gone we did manage to take this picture. 57 years since they were last photographed together at Old Oak Common depot.

(l-r), 6023, 7903 & 48431 at Old Oak Common, photo courtesy of Dick Blenkinsop
The event was dominated by Diesels as you can imagine but there was a 8 road line up which started with the Rail motor and ended with one of the new Hitachi GWR sets. 7903 was 3rd in line. Also in attendance, besides the Railmotor, 6023 King Edward 11 and ourselves, were a GWR Pannier, 1501 Hawksworth Pannier, Oliver Cromwell and Tornado. The connection behind Tornado’s invite is she was the last steam engine to visit the roundhouse and use the turn table.

It was a good event and we actual moved 10 yards under steam to position ourselves in the line up. So yes 7903 has been in steam and moved at Old Oak Common.
I have to say we got lots of positive comments about 7903. We did ask if we could have a quick trip into Paddington but for some strange reason we were not allowed?"

6023 & 7903, photo courtesy of John Cruxon
Jack Boskett, the well known professional photographer was also in attendance as the event's official photographer.   If you need a professional photographer for your event, please click on this link to see the sort of things that he does.  I can personally recommend his services as a wedding photographer.  All the following photos from Old Oak Common remain the copyright of Jack Boskett:
Foremarke Hall lines positions in the line up
Old and not quite so old, railmotor & bubble car
1501, a gala visitor a few years ago
Foremarke Hall and support team
7903 & 6023 glinting in the evening sun
As close a recreation as possible of the Dick Blenkinsop photo
6023 & 7903 diesel hydraulics, D821 & D1015
Although Jack is more noted for taking photos at other people's weddings, he found himself on the other side of the camera a few weeks ago when he married Ellie.  Congratulations to them both, and best wishes for a long and happy life together.

And finally, as you may have heard, celebrity loco, Flying Scotsman has been running on the West Somerset Railway recently, taking passengers one way along the line, and another loco being used to take them back.  An event that has seen capacity crowds, and all seats sold.  Owing to a locomotive failure, our own Dinmore Manor was substituted in to run as the other loco during this event.  On one trip, Flying Scotsman slipped to a halt and couldn't get restarted again on the steeply graded approach to Crowcombe Heathfield.  Dinmore Manor was summoned to provide banking assistance at the rear of the train to get it restarted again.  
Dinmore Manor banks Flying Scotsman, photo courtesy of Jacob Fuller

This has even made its way onto the BBC news, their report can be found by clicking on this link.


  1. A very interesting report. It's nice to see how the fire and drive goes. Also, the photos from OOC are wonderful. Thanks. And Dinmore Manor assisting Flying Scotsman is a feather in her cap! Regards, Paul.

    1. Many thanks. The fire and drives are always excellent days out, you should sign yourself up for one when you're next in the vicinity.

  2. Shoveling that coal upwards out of the pit looks like a grim job (particularly in the wet). Have you considered getting one of those big canvas skip alternatives (or an open box made out of sheet metal with doors on one side) so that the loco can stop over the top, drop its load in and then the telehandler can hoik it out in one go?

    1. That is an interesting idea, which I don't believe has been considered before. An issue is that we can't always guarantee that there would be somebody around passed out on the telehandler at the end of the day, however it would also help prevent ash from getting washed into the pit pump and clogging it up.

  3. In one of your pics,you caption Pressure gauge.Water,nicely three quarters,up the glass!. that,in fact,is the boiler water level gauge!. Anthony.(Ex BR,Western Region,fireman!).

    1. You're right... I've docked my proof reader a week's pay!

  4. Wonderful 1960 pic at Old Oak Common. This is the first time I've seen a shot of 48431 whilst in service. Great memories of driving & firing the beauty on the Worth Valley as a 50th birthday present. Happy days. Thank you for a nostalgic look at a much missed scene.

    1. So I'm not the only one to notice the 8F in the picture then. Well, given all three engines are still around, perhaps for the next Festival of Steam, I wonder whether Didcot and the Worth Valley would be happy to lend both 6023 and 48431 for the gala, so the trio could be reunited. Sure, the 8F would only be a static exhibit, but still, it would be nice. Also, I agree that Dinmore assisting Scotsman at the WSR is a feather in the Manor's cap.

    2. We'd love to have 6023 for a gala, but now that it's mainline registered, the chances of us getting it are just about zero. As for the 8F, it's a lovely machine, but transport costs in the ball park of £10K for a static exhibit makes it unviable financially.