VIDEO & GALLERY: Living the boyhood dream of driving a steam train
Schoolboy’s dream of it and Hollywood filmmakers make it look impossible – especially when a woman is tied to the tracks. So how difficult can it be to drive, find out how HYWEL BARRETT fares when he was given the chance to get drive a steam train. LIKE pretty much every other boy in the country of a certain age, I grew up with the Thomas the Tank Engine stories and spent an enormous amount of time playing with a Brio railway track.
And, like pretty much every other boy in the country, I wanted to drive a train.
But the closest I got to the controls of any train was on a school trip to Cambridge station where I got to sit in a cab of an electric train.
That was until Friday.
At the Nene Valley Railway, the home of my boyhood hero Thomas the Tank Engine, there was a chance for my dreams to come true ... the chance to operate a steam train or, for the enthusiasts, a London Midland and Scottish Railway Fowler Class 4F engine, one of three survivors of the nearly 600 built between 1923 and 1937.
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Standing on the footplate of the engine, I get a feel of the controls – and the whistle.
The regulator governs the amount of steam that gets into the cylinders, which controls the speed of the engine.
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The other controls are the brakes and the gear, which is simple in itself, forward or backward. It is striking that such an important piece of British history can be controlled so easily.
As we prepare to leave, I am given a key by the Wansford station guard. This will allow us to go down to Yarwell to turn the engine around.
I am ready to leave, I blow the whistle one more time – there’s no chance of my getting bored with that – and I turn the gear backwards.
I open the regulator and hear the mesmerising chuff-chuff as the cylinders begin to turn the wheels, throwing me back in time.
As quickly as I turn around to see where we are going, we are up to speed and about to enter a tunnel. Peter Greenwood, my tutor, takes control as he reassures me it is “just in case”. “I know where the controls are in the dark,” he adds.
Going through the pitch black tunnel is the most surreal feeling – travelling at around 20mph, backwards, and not being able to see where you are going or anything just in front of your eyes. Luckily, I am not claustrophobic.
As we near the end, there is a brilliant white light emanating through the darkness, illuminating the steam from the chimney. As the smoke rushes past the cab overhead, flashes of black and white films rush into my head.
Just as quickly as we darted into the tunnel, we’re out.
Our eyes didn’t have long to adjust before having to slow down to pull into Yarwell station to move the engine to the rear of the single carriage which, until that point, we’d been pulling (Peter, of course, is at the controls to carry out this precision job).
But I’m soon back in command, another toot of the whistle signals our departure and we’re back in the tunnel heading in the direction of Peterborough.
For years I have lived near a level crossing, spending countless minutes waiting for trains to pass. Finally, I get to feel the satisfaction of holding up traffic as the old railway gates at Wansford close the road into the station.
We slowly make our way over the crossing and I look into the distance and register the clear signals.
The scenery now takes my attention: tThe telegraph poles for the signals and a couple of ramblers strolling and waving, before we’re off again.
It really is so easy – like driving an automatic car – except in this case you don’t have to steer.
But as we relax and let the engine chuff along at 25mph towards Peterborough, I am told it takes about three years to learn how to drive a train and more time to earn the opportunity to take charge.
Peter, who has been at the Nene Valley Railway for 12 years, said: “As we are an educational site, we do exactly as they did all those years ago.
“You start off as a cleaner and then you make your way up to fireman, then to driver. It takes about five or six years to get to that status and that’s how you would have done it a century ago.”
We get to another level crossing and I’m told to slow down to 10mph ... but there’s no speedometer.
“It’s experience that lets us know what speed we are doing,” Peter says.
After 15 minutes in control – it felt like only two – I switch with the fireman and my new tutor, Bob Plant, who also has 12 years’ experience on the line, tells me: “You’ve finished the easy part – it’s time to start the hard work.”
It sounds ominous, but my new role is key – it’s the fireman who really controls the train.
“You need to keep a nice level fire to keep the steam going,” Bob says. “The temperature can reach about 130 degrees Celsius in this engine, but larger ones like the Tornado, the fire can be as hot at 1,300 degrees and it’s only because the train is moving that the fire doesn’t melt the metal.”
So, fire burning, I have to also keep an eye on the level of water in the boiler and the boiler pressure. As we accelerate, the water level is fine but, as the train starts to steady its pace, it all seems to disappear.
But there’s no need to panic. “The fireman needs to be aware of where the train is at every point, because the force of acceleration pushes the water backwards and gives a false reading,” Bob says. “It’s the same as when you go up or downhill, so you have to concentrate to make sure the train doesn’t run out of water.”
The boiler is fed with more water, but the fire needs building again – it’s relentless. The 44422 is a relatively small engine compared to the Flying Scotsman or the City of Peterborough, which is also on the Nene Valley Railway, so needs less work.
“We are only a small engine so we don’t have to keep putting coal on, but if you are on one of the passenger express trains from London to Edinburgh then you would be constantly putting coal in the fire, and adding water to the boiler.
“Because they didn’t want to stop the train to get water, those engines would have a scoop. That would be lowered into a trough at the side of the tracks and because of the speed, the water would be forced up into the water store.
“It would be impressive to see but there aren’t many stretches left in the UK that steam trains can go fast enough to pick up water that way.”
As the train pulls into Peterborough my hard work keeping the engine going, on one of the hottest days of the year standing next to a furnace – in overalls – is done.
As I step down from the engine my smile cuts through my blackened face by the soot.
It’s a smile that will last for weeks.
INFORMATION: To take a driving experience at the Nene Valley Railway or for details for the Santa Special trips visit www.nvr.org.uk