Thursday, 9 September 2021

Hanging Up My Shovel?

 Byrony's closing words on her last blog post were "Perhaps I can convince our former blogger to come out of retirement for a post.... Stay tuned!".  Bryony's method of choice to convince me to come out of retirement to write a blog article was to bribe me with a bacon roll when I was on a footplate and she was on a guard turn. Not a bad strategy at all, and it appears to have worked, because here I am.

Since retiring from writing the blog, I have been learning to drive steam locos on our line, with a few lengthy covid enforced interludes... I probably hold the dubious distinction of having taken the longest time to get through driver training from start to finish.  My driver training didn't get off to an auspicious start, my instructor, promptly threw up his hands in horror and retired from driving steam locos altogether in a desperate bid to get out of having to teach me again. That appears to have become a recurring theme, my first four lessons were all with different driving instructors, though the first was the only one who gave up driving as a result.

I learned a number of things along the way:

1) Oiling up a steam loco in the morning is a thankless task, after you have finished clambering around the waggly bits in between the frames to get at all the oiling points, you usually emerge wearing more oil than OPEC exports in an entire year.

2) What seems like a perfectly flat section of line to a fireman is in fact constituted of  myriad subtle gradients which can quickly slow you down or speed you up. Frequent micro-adjustments of the regulator are required to achieve a constant speed.

3) Braking... not as simple as it is on a car, getting a train to stop is easy, getting it to stop in the right place is not too difficult, getting it to stop smoothly in the right place, is nigh on impossible. My first driving report said "Stops were either smooth or accurate".  The report was accurate, if not too smooth!

4) The fireman doesn't necessarily do things that I would have done as the fireman, I have now learned to ask the fireman to take the hand brake off before departure. I also keep a close eye on the water level and pressure gauge at key points along the line.

5) The driver is the closest thing to a responsible adult on the footplate... the buck stops here.

 We have had a little difficulty getting availibility from inspectors recently, so the training manager speculatively had the 28th of August pencilled in as a training turn for me with inspector Meredith.  The plan, if the various driving trainers agreed was to convert it to an assessment nearer the time, otherwise it would have just become another training turn.  Somewhere along the way, without the training manager requesting it, it got changed to being an assessment.  I'm still a bit curious as to how that happened.

Eventually, the three surviving driving instructors seemed to agree that continuing on to assessment on the 28th was the right thing to do. I suspect that they were seeing that as the only possible way out of having to give me any more lessons.

How did the day of the assessment go?   It was an 06:30 book on time (better than the 05:30 I suppose), but even so, I decided to spend the night before in one of the GWSR's pods (volunteer accommodation) to spare me from the commute in the morning.  The day itself was going swimmingly, all the way up until about 05:45 when Tom, the rostered fireman rang me and said that he had had a bad reaction to his covid jab and could I find another fireman to stand in for him?  Normally this would be a bit of a showstopper, the only way to proceed would be for the inspector to drive, me to fire and my driving assessment would simply have had to be deferred until another day.  As luck would have it though, I had brought a spare fireman along with me. My wife Eleanor is also a fireman, and she had her blues, rule book etc with her (for a firing turn on the 30th, we were staying on site for the whole bank holiday weekend for various reasons). She kindly agreed to stand in, thereby saving the day.

Having overcome the missing fireman obstacle, yet more hurdles were strewn in my path... when I signed on, I discovered two more temporary speed restrictions (TSR's) had appeared.  I knew where the first one was from the description, the second one I thought I knew, but had to have a quick check of appendix B of the rule book to confirm that I was right. With the loco (35006) oiled up under the watchful gaze of inspector Meredith and steam raised by Eleanor, I was all set to depart from the pit when John appeared asking if I minded pulling Foremarke Hall out of the shed and dropping it off on the pit before heading off.  Just in case you are not familiar with 35006, it's not your average shunting loco.  Mercifully 35006 was facing away from the shed, so there was no need to run up and down the yard a few times to clear the cylinders of water before closing the drain cocks and entering the shed to fetch Foremark Hall out.  It all went OK of course, but it was an extra piece of work that I didn't really want to start the day with.

We ran up and down the line a couple of times, including on the last trip dragging a diesel to Broadway from Toddington and then being dragged back by it.  This brought a lot of extra factors into play, such as re-doing the brake test when the diesel had been attached and remembering to put up a red tail lamp when being dragged back (as well as putting the reverser into the drift position and not raising or destroying the vacuum brake).    Eventually, inspector Meredith decided to put me out of my misery and told me that I had passed. 

The obligatory congratulations handshake photo with inspector Meredith (photo courtesy of Eleanor)

Thank you to Steve O, Jamie C, Mark Y and Neil C for the driving lessons, thank you too to inspector Meredith for passing me out and thanks especially to Eleanor for providing the steam.

What of the future?  Well it seems a little churlish to say this (don't tell the training manager), but I decided quite a while back that I prefer firing steam locos to driving them.  I will carry on driving of course and for a little while at least will concentrate on honing the skills of a driver (you never stop learning), however I won't be hanging up my shovel completely. I'll be joining that happy little band of drivers who volunteer to take firing turns as well as driving ones. There is of course the added bonus that on occasions I may end up rostered as driver with Eleanor as my fireman, ideal if the covid restricted timetables ever have to return as we are already in a bubble of our own.



  1. Congratulations Ray. Your blog brought back many memories of the day that I faced the same ordeal many years ago. My instructor and fireman was Colin Jacks and assessor was Ray Tranter from the SVR.