Dewi's Trains,
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Footplate Daze:
learning to drive a steam locomotive

Comments/corrections to: Dewi Williams


An account of participation in the “Footplate Days and Ways” course on Steam Locomotive Firing and Driving,
run by Clive Groome at the Bluebell Railway, East Sussex, England, September 28 through October 2, 1993

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Prelude: Monday, 27 September, 1993

I'd made arrangements to stay at a bed-and-breakfast establishment for the duration of the course, and my cousin was kind enough to give me a ride there on the day before the course actually started. He dropped me off mid-morning: there was nobody at home, but I left my suitcase and backpack in the front porch and set out for the Bluebell Line, the railway where the course was to take place.

The footpath wandered away from the road; I followed it but it lead to a windmill. However, after about a mile, there was a sign pointing to the railway, plus the “King’s Arms” pub. After another two miles, I came to Sheffield Park station, where I wandered around getting the geography of the place. By now I was getting pretty hungry, so I went into the pub: it’s built into the station, downstairs from the cafeteria. I made my usual mistake: ordering while hungry. The steak-and-kidney pie was huge! It had a great mound of puff pastry rising out of the dish. When I saw it, I gasped, and this attracted the attention of the couple at the next table, who had North American accents. It later turned out that these were Ray, another of the students on the course, and his wife Marilyn.

After lunch, I rode to the end of the line (Coombe Bridge) and back on the 2 o’clock train just to get the feel of the line, and then purchased my mandatory British Railways “grease-top” cap at the station store.

Walking back to the B-and-B, I was able to keep away from the road for most of the route and walk across the common keeping the windmill in sight.

At this point, there were three of us from the course (Jim, Dave and myself) staying at Lynn Hartley's “Wayside Cottage”. Jim had already arrived, and he, too, like Ray and myself, had been exploring the Bluebell Line before the course started. Dave was still trying to finish up work so he could join us, and in fact he didn’t arrive until early the next morning.

First and Second days: Tuesday and Wednesday

We were due to meet at Sheffield Park station at 08:45, so Lynn told us to be down for breakfast before 7:45. She provided an excellent breakfast, with orange juice, cereal, bacon, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, and toast and marmalade. Plus coffee, real coffee, as well as tea. Jim and I both made approving noises about the coffee, and got into a discussion of the quality of coffee at work. “Our cafeteria is a room filled with Sirius Cybernetics Corporation vending machines” said Jim, Automat-ically.

I scrounged a ride with the others to the station (in fact, they were very kind about transporting me all week). In the parking lot, we eventually identified Clive's van: dark green, it was originally a BBC-TV outside broadcast control van. He intends to have it repainted with his logo. As the others showed up, we squeezed along the benches in the van, and started on the many cups of tea we were to consume, as we introduced ourselves and described our footplate experience (in most cases, very little) and numbered ourselves in order, so that we could work in pairs. There were six students altogether, all male: one from California, one from Canada (me) and four British.

Then, in our overalls and shiny new caps, we were shown the “enginemen’s lobby”, where we were warned we should sign-in every day that we were to be on-site, and where we made our daily contribution to the enginemen’s tea fund.

This part of the course consisted of two days of theory: each morning and afternoon had a lecture session and a session of looking at locomotives (or parts of them) and crawling on, under and inside them.

The Bluebell Line's training room was in the throes of refurbishment, so we used the reading room for lectures, upstairs in the station building. Here, Clive started us on learning the mechanics of producing steam: the boiler, firebox, firetubes, superheater, smoke box, and so on; and fusible plugs - especially fusible plugs. From the simple square firebox he moved into the development of the sloping firebox as a true combustion chamber, with thermic siphons or water legs, and then into the techniques of firing: where to throw the coal, and how much, and when; and how to avoid the horrors of a “green fire” and a “hole in the fire”. (Some of us had reservations when he said that we’d easily recognize a hole in the fire by the distinctive sound it created. How, we thought, would we recognize one sound among all the other noises? But he was right: the “thrumming” sound differs from any other sound on the footplate).

This seemed plenty in itself, but we also covered control of the engine, which included valve-gear, timing, cut-off, use of the regulator, plus a few goodies like blowing the ends off the cylinders by not exhausting condensed steam; “going hydraulic” and not being able to close the regulator, “priming” through having too high a water level in the boiler, forgetting to use the feed-water injector and letting the water level get too low, and so on!

Then there were the brakes: vacuum brakes, air brakes, steam brakes, and “screw 'er down” (screw down the hand-brake).

And the lubrication: when and where to squirt in what type of oil, and how that oil gets to the bearing surfaces. At this point we had a bit of practical work: we each had to make “trimmings” consisting of strands of wool held in place by copper wire, which siphon oil from a container to where it’s needed.

At the end of the first day, three of us were ready to stagger back to Lynn Hartley's. Les had expected to bunk in a sleeping car or the crew car, and had come equipped with a sleeping bag etc. but found that he was not expected: in fact there was no room for him. So he too came to “Wayside Cottage” and prepared to put his bed in the sitting room.

Each evening Lynn provided us with tea and buns or cookies as soon as we came in the door. On each day after the first, we weren't really fit to sit on the furniture in our working clothes, even with the overalls stripped off; so we showered and changed in turn, and the last one waiting for the shower had to drink tea standing up. Later in the evening we all went to one of the pubs for food. We tried the “King’s Arms” and the “Five Bells”. The latter insisted that Christmas had come early this year, with carols and Christmas dinners.

Naturally, there was a practical side to this part of the course as well as the theory. It started with our being taken around the yard, the Bluebell Line’s workshops, and the public shed where various restored and partially restored locomotives were kept. This was for familiarization with different parts of locomotives, and how to identify the controls on different types of loco, and all the variations of the different types of linkage for the valve-gear.

The most spectacular part was climbing into the firebox of a Bulleid Pacific, two people at a time. The trick is to grasp a fairly high-up handle in each hand, swing both feet into the fire-door opening, transfer hand grip to lower handles, ease body further in, turn over and wriggle the remaining distance. Inside the firebox we could easily identify the components, including the enormous thermic siphons. Coming out of the firebox was a slight variation on the entry procedure: squeeze out, roll over and get two people to help you up. Clive did give us one warning: on these engines, there’s a stub lever sticking up beside the firebox: it’s used for rocking the grate. Make sure somebody is covering it because if you slip, you’ll be like the engine itself: you’ll have a tender behind!

Another thing we had to learn was the name of each track and which signal controlled which road: which switch was controlled from the box in the station, and which could be accessed by throwing the point lever in the yard, adjacent to the switch. There were the two platform roads in the station, the Pump-house siding, the Newick road (which used to be the running line to Newick when the Bluebell was a “real” railway), the headshunt, and the six yard tracks. There were the starter signals, the two signals controlling entrance to the two station roads and their shorter counterparts allowing cautious entry even when the track was occupied, and “dummy” signals at ground level.

During the second afternoon we were introduced to “our” locomotive, no. 263. It was an 0-4-4 tank engine built in about 1905 for the South-Eastern and Chatham Railway. From our point of view, it had two “interesting” characteristics: it used the regular train vacuum brake rather than steam brakes for the engine itself, and it had a steam-powered reverser. It was parked over the pit, so we could walk down the steps and look underneath at the points that would need lubrication and examine the reverser mechanism and dampers.

At the end of the second day Clive handed us our exam papers, to be handed in by Friday. The cover sheet was a list of safety rules and regulations which we were to sign as “read and understood”. Back at Wayside Cottage, I failed to obey the rule “Look out for metal obstructions above your head”. I bent over to unlace my safety shoes in the porch, straightened up, hit my head on a metal flower basket, staggered back, and banged into and cracked a window pane.

Third day: Thursday, 30 September

We knew we'd have to start at about 08:00, because it would take about two hours to get steam up. Lynn expected us down for breakfast soon after 7am. Somewhere about the second pot of coffee, Lynn asked “Where’s Dave?” He was still asleep! But he was up in time to eat breakfast and sign in more or less on time.

I was number two, so my first task was to oil the inside and underneath stuff: the axle journals, the big end cranks and the oiling points on the trailing 4-wheeled bogie. Clive tossed me a long once-white coat, with the comment “No need to get your overalls dirty!”. I put this on, filled up the lubricating can from the large oil-can, and went under. First the big ends: to do this I had to lay a plank across the pit and climb up on it. In this position I was bending right across the axle, but it was reasonably easy to grab each cork with a rag, twist it out, fill up with oil and replace the cork. One bearing took an incredible amount of oil, but none seemed to be leaking out. The other needed hardly any oil.

Then came the wheel bearings, and then off to the other end of the locomotive. The movement of the bogie (truck) is lubricated by four “onions”, open-topped onion-shaped steel capsules, which hold the oil that is siphoned onto the actual bearing surfaces by trimmings. The only problem was how to get oil to flow into the onions, since there was no room to hold the oiling can high enough for oil to flow. The solution was to work with a very full can of oil, and then there was just enough gradient for the liquid to flow.

Meanwhile, the rest of the crew was getting the fire going, attending to all the other oiling points and putting trimmings in the oil feed pipes, and polishing the brass within the cab and outside. Anybody who finished their assigned task had to grab a paraffin-soaked rag and wipe down the painted areas. When we were about finished, it started to rain, but the rain just beaded up and ran off the oily paintwork.

Eventually, the moment arrived: we had about 140 lb/in² pressure, and the engine could be moved, literally under its own steam. We backed up to the headshunt, picked up the smaller brake van, and we were ready for practical instruction. First, student no. 1 drove while no. 2 (that's me) fired; then no. 2 drove while no. 3 fired, and so on.

The student who was learning to fire was introduced to John, who had been with the Bluebell Line for 16 years. He showed us how to pick up the deceptively small amount of coal on the shovel, make a full swing, and turn the shovel’s handle to flip the coal to the desired place on the grate. It didn't need much effort for throwing, but that flip! Sometimes the coals would stay together in a clump and land in one spot, even if it was not quite the right spot, but sometimes they would spray right across the full width of the grate. I ran through my repertoire of curses.

John also showed us how to work the feed-water injector. I'm convinced that this is a black art. Turn on the water three-quarters full, turn on the steam, knock the water back a little, then on a little more, and the injector starts. Well, that's how John did it. For me, it was fiddle, fiddle, fiddle with the water control until John gave it one final gentle knock which started the injector every time.

Clive instructed the student driver. “Make a brake” was easy: move the little black handle to turn on steam to the brake ejector to create a vacuum. Then the reverser, tricky, but not a black art because you could see what was happening by looking at the brass pointer. The method is: put the reverser lever to forward or back, and “blip” the steam control. The brass pointer echoes, on a graduated scale, the position of the reversing gear, and if you overshoot you can put the lever the other way and “blip” the steam control again. Finally, put the lever in the middle.

After a few tries at the reverser, the student could check the signal (and get John to check all was clear on his side), toot the whistle, and push the regulator open.

The object of the lesson was to drive to a specific point just outside the station or to a specific point on the platform, and stop without a jerk: that is, at the final stop the brake should be off. We quickly found out about momentum: on the flat, an engine will coast a very long way with steam shut off! The little van we had was equipped with vacuum brakes which helped with stopping where we intended, but the van also held the four students who were awaiting their turns. They were able to comment among themselves on the success (or otherwise) of each attempt. The prime rule was: DO NOT LAUGH! for the next attempt may be yours.

Each run was only two or three hundred metres: but on each run, we travelled from the Eastern Hemisphere to the Western Hemisphere, since the line crosses the meridian of Greenwich close to the station.

The Fat Controller (actually, he's not fat, but he just seems to fit that character in TV’s “Shining Time Station”) told Clive that we had to shunt into the Pump-house siding while the service train came into the station and the engine ran around to the other end of the train. Once in the siding, we were stuck for half an hour or so, and some people left the brake van for tea or personal pit stop. “I'm going outside now chaps; I may be some time” said Jim, freezingly.

There’s another short siding off the Pump-house siding, and here we each practised hooking-up to other vehicles using the old three-link coupling that was fitted to unbraked vehicles. This needs a “shunter's pole”, a long pole made of baseball-bat wood with a hook on one end. To hook-up, one needs to catch a link on the hook at the end of the pole, make a long swing, and flip the link over the hook of the adjacent vehicle. To un-hook, slide the pole up the slope of the hook, pushing the link up until it falls off the hook. It's tricky because you have to manipulate the weight and momentum of the link from several feet away, but after a few tries we were all able to do it without much trouble, and earned our class the title of “The Master Coupler”.

At the end of the day we had to dispose the engine, but couldn't do a complete job as there was another engine with a “Do Not Move” sign on it parked over the pit. There was very little ash in the smoke-box, but we did attend to the fire, the lubrication, and got a load of firewood (broken-up old pallets) stacked in the cab to dry out for the next morning.

Fourth day: Friday, 1 October

Another 8 o'clock start. It was my turn for Brasso on the dome, safety valves and anything else outside the cab. That dome is enormous! I discovered that there is a strong incentive to get the dome polished as early as possible: as the boiler warms up, the dome starts to get hot - and more difficult to polish. From the dome, safety valves, boiler bands and cab window-frames, I worked my way downwards: brass numbers, oil reservoirs, brass trim on splashers, assorted copper pipes. Polishing the brass turns into a stand-off between the Brasso boys and paraffin-pushers: Brasso leaves marks on adjacent paintwork, paraffin oil dulls adjacent brasswork.

The first movements of the engine, once we had steam up, were to park the small brake van (caboose) and couple-up a larger one. The new one didn't have vacuum brakes but it did have a little stove, which we immediately fired up since the weather was distinctly cold and wet. The lack of vacuum brake didn’t matter since we towed the van into the station, uncoupled it, and screwed the hand-brake on, very thoroughly. The day's mission was to practice driving up to the van and stopping: stopping close enough to compress the buffers so that engine and van could be coupled, but to do it gently enough that we didn’t push the van from its parked position.

It turned into a lesson on parking by ear! It’s impossible to see exactly where the buffers are, or to see the closing distance between the engine and van, so the trick is to make the final approach with enough momentum to carry the engine the whole distance, but slowly enough for the buffers to absorb the impact.

As on the previous day, we had to move out of the way each time the service train approached the station.

During the day, too, we each learned how to fill up the tanks with water (to “put in the bag”). The bag, a very wide flexible hose, sprayed water from its connection with the hinged metal pipe. While we couldn’t get clear of the spray, we did learn the best position to stand, on the engine's side tank.

At the end of the day, there was still an engine (ex-Southern Railway Q-class) parked over the pit, so we still couldn’t dump the contents of the ash-pan.

Clive suggested that we have curry for dinner at an Indian restaurant in the next village. I mentioned my ignorance of Indian food, and I hoped that Clive, who’d fired locomotives in India, would be able to advise me. “Clive of India?” asked Jim, bravely. In fact it was an excellent meal: good food and good service.

Fifth day: Saturday, 2 October

Today we had to book in at 07:00, since our first run was scheduled for 09:30. As well as three runs of the regular service train, there were to be two “Golden Arrow” runs. Our training runs out on the main line had to be squeezed in between these public trains.

My job that morning was coaling: I followed Clive on to the tank and on to the roof of the cab. Coal is loaded from a skip attached to a fork-lift truck: I'd wondered how a skip could tip coal into the narrow coal-bunker behind the cab. The answer became clear: the engine was deliberately parked in an area that was paved between and around the tracks. The fork-lift came up behind the engine and drove forward until the skip hung over the bunker. Clive demonstrated the method of unloading the skip and I attempted to emulate: he pushed his shovel under the coal and withdrew it, bringing with it a huge load which he directed to the emptiest part of the bunker. I jerked my shovel into the coal and withdrew it, bearing one shovelful of coal, part of which I dropped overboard. Ah well, practice makes perfect.

Clive's daughter Elizabeth meanwhile got the stove going in the brake van. I was able to conceal the coal that had fallen overboard by shovelling it into a bucket for the stove.

The Q-class engine was still parked over the pit, but the “Do Not Move” sign had been taken down: we were allowed to tow it away so we could use the pit to clean out the ashpan. Clive treated us to an unplanned demonstration of driving skill as soon as our engine had enough steam pressure to move. At that point, we had 60 lb/in² pressure: but it would take 120 lb/in² to work the ejector for the vacuum brakes, so we had no brakes at all. In spite of this, Clive backed out, drove up to the parked engine, towed it up to the headshunt, drove it forward onto another yard track and parked it close to a stationary engine. We were of course closely watching his use of the reversing gear as a brake.

We were ready to leave before 09:30, but we were to be the first train out, so off we went. It had been raining heavily and continuously for hours, so as we drove along the track on an embankment, we could look down on submerged fields, flooded roads, and streams turned into rushing rivers. As we left Sheffield Park station there were pheasants in one of the drier fields; and shortly after, we ran into a flock of grouse (do grouse come in flocks?) apparently using the track as an overnight stop. The right-of-way was covered in birds: they were even perched on the rails. A toot on the whistle had no effect. Most flew away as we got close, but on our return past this point, I was looking out of the back and saw a bemused grouse appear from beneath the van, in the four-foot way.

At Horsted Keynes, the engine ran around the brake van and back we went, about 5 miles (8km) each way. After two trips, it was my turn to fire.

To start with, we had a thin even fire. But we’d need steam for the climb up the bank to H-K (Horsted Keynes, not Hong Kong). But we’d have a long lay-over at H-K so we didn’t want an enormous fire when we got there. It was just as well that John was there to give me instruction! Apart from one “hole in the fire” all was well. I managed to spray coal in all directions when I tried to cover the hole, but after a couple more attempts John said "Shut the doors" and very quickly the general vibration shook the coal over the hole and the thrumming noise ceased.

Meanwhile John again had me practicing the art of the injector. Once or twice I did manage to get it going at once. On the other hand, there were those times when . . .

As we approached H-K, John had me load up the back of the grate with coal; both corners, and just under the door. Then we were at the entry to the station, and I had to lean out with the staff: the token which had been our authority to enter the single track. Following instructions, I held it out so that the signalman could grab it from me as we passed. Then we entered platform 1 and ran the engine around the van. This gave practice in uncoupling and coupling the screw couplings. Safety first! I think everyone remembered to remove the brake hose as the first task, and replace it as the last task.

During our 90-minute lay-over, we parked just at the end of a normally unused platform, so we could have use of the station's facilities. While we were there, Ray and his wife showed up. Ray had fallen sick and had been in bed most of the previous day; even on Saturday he was very weak and couldn't even ride back with us in the brake van. Marilyn told us the story of washing his borrowed overalls before returning them: they had rented a cottage with a washer and dryer in the bathroom. The dryer exhaust pipe was not connected but had a note stuck on it to the effect that it should be connected before use. She hooked it up then opened the dryer - and a small animal popped out! She screamed, shot out of the room and closed the door. Unfortunately, she'd left the bath water running, and by the time she dared to crack the door open and look inside, the animal had gone - but the bath had overflowed.

After lunch, when the service train had left, we returned to Sheffield Park. John spread the piled-up coals across the grate, I started the injector, and off we went, downhill for most of the way, but pouring rain again. My cousins were bravely standing on the platform as we entered the station, rain dripping off them, cameras at the ready.

And then, it was my turn to drive. There was a train in the other platform road, so we could not run around the van. We uncoupled the van and moved off to the Newick road; the train engine moved onto the track we’d been on, pushed the van into the head- shunt, and returned to its train. We drove forward, backed up to the van, and coupled up. We knew we had to move away from there, because we’d be trapped when the “Golden Arrow” special arrived at platform 2; so we moved forward, right through the station, and backed up to the train in platform 1. I was to back up to a train loaded with passengers, with a van behind me! Gulp! But I did achieve it, stopping about a metre away, as I was told later.

After the Golden Arrow had arrived, we were given the staff (the single-line token) and a clear signal, and off we went. The start was similar to all the other starts we had made, but after that I was in unfamiliar territory: whistle for the bridle-path crossing, open the regulator more for the up-grade, slow for the speed-restriction area. Then stop on a slope, and do a hill-start. I learned that it’s a good idea to keep your hand on the regulator after you open it, so you can immediately close it if the wheels slip!

For the first time I got to push the regulator hard over, to open the second valve, and we roared up the slope. Somewhere in that sequence I noticed that Les, who was firing for me, was not wearing his hat. Apparently he’d lost it some way back.

At H-K we made the run-around, but then had to wait for the passenger train. We took the opportunity to look at the work going on in the carriage repair shed (passenger car shop).

On the return run, Les remembered approximately where he’d lost his hat, so I slowed down, and all hands kept a look-out. When his hat was spotted, I heard a shout of “Whoa!” so I put the handle down: full brake application. Even so, it took quite a distance to stop, so Les had to run back for his hat. Then a toot, and we resumed, going to the flag-stop (the halt) with its one-car-length platform. I managed to stop with only the front of the brake van at the platform: still, it fitted the definition of “at the platform”. Then another toot, back to Sheffield Park, and to dispose of the engine.

Again, my job was to be up on the roof for coaling, and surprise! I was getting the coal to go more or less where I wanted it to. Finally, we shovelled the hot coals from the grate into a wheelbarrow, taking turns so no one person got scorched but all had tanned arms, and stacked wood for the next crew. Clive removed his Ways and Days headboard, and we all said our good-byes.

Postlude: Sunday, 3 October

Homeward bound! Air Canada had overbooked the economy class, so poor me, I was forced into first class. I loved it.

Six days later, we attended a wedding as friends of the bride. To my surprise, one of the groom’s friends had attended the “Footplate Days and Ways” course: and what’s more he lives only a few houses away from me.

One further thought: before taking the course, I'd wondered whether I had the strength needed for shovelling the coal, and I'd practiced left-handed and right-handed snow-shovelling all winter. I found that great strength isn’t needed: it's quite small amounts of coal, but skill is needed to deliver these where they are needed. I'm sure though that endurance is needed for a long run.


You can write to the author: Dewi Williams
Find out more about the Bluebell Railway
Find out more about the Footplate Days and Ways course.

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This page last updated on 2007-12-04.