Saturday, 9 July 2011

Driving Lessons

So as you saw from the sneak peak I gave a few posts ago I spent an enjoyable afternoon, whilst on holiday, driving a steam train. Specifically I drove The Earl on the 19 mile round trip along the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway. This all came about because Bryony was looking for interesting tourist attractions we could visit while on holiday and found not only the railway but that you could have a driver experience course. Bryony had no real interest in driving a steam engine but she decided that it would make a brilliant early birthday present for me. As regular readers may remember I've been interested in steam trains since an early age and unsurprisingly I jumped at the chance to get behind the controls.

Now before I was allowed to pull the train (no paying passengers, just Bryony and the guard in three empty coaches) from Llanfair Caereinion to Welshpool and back I needed to have some driving lessons.

A year or so ago I read a really informative book entitled How Steam Locomotives Really Work so I had a rough idea of what driving a steam engine would entail and helpfully once I'd registered for the course I'd been sent some material to read which included a diagram showing the layout of the cab controls as well as instructions for both starting and stopping the locomotive. Of course instructions are useful but there is nothing like hands-on experience.

So having been introduced to the driver and fireman who were going to be teaching me (I'm embarrassed to say that I can't remember either of their names, but they were both brilliant and made the afternoon really enjoyable) I was given the simple task of starting the engine moving and then stopping it at a given point on the track. Interestingly they had me start by going backwards. This might sound strange but actually for the driver it is much easier to see where you are going when going backwards, as the body of the engine doesn't obscure your view.


Starting the engine moving is easy. You slowly open the regulator (the big red handle in most engines) allowing steam into the cylinders and the engine starts to move. Stopping, however, is much more difficult. Closing the regulator is never enough to stop the engine as once it has some momentum it just keeps on going (for quite a distance anyway). The Earl is fitted with two braking systems; a handbrake and a vacuum brake. To start with we worked with just the handbrake. This involves turning a handle to apply the brake, and I found that is was exceptionally difficult to apply it quickly or accurately as such I overshot the mark by quite a long way! So we went backwards and forwards a few times while I got a handle on starting and stopping the engine.

Once they were happy that I understood the basics, even if I didn't have much accuracy yet, it was time to couple up to the carriages. So I slowly moved the engine along the track but yet again my skills at stopping the engine left a lot to be desired as there was quite a bang when we touched up to the carriages. No damage but it was a lot louder than it should have been.

Once we were all coupled up then it was time to check over the engine before the trip to Welshpool and back. This meant lubricating many of the moving parts to ensure smooth running.


By this time I was already really enjoying myself and we hadn't even left the confines of the station area. Just imagine how much fun I was going to have on the open line!
9 July 2011 at 20:52 , Ian said...

Brilliant! You look totally at home in your overalls, do you think that you might have missed your true vocation?

10 July 2011 at 06:49 , ADRIAN said...

Looks a grand experience. Do they still have to pass steam through the cylinders to get them hot?

10 July 2011 at 10:12 , Mark said...

Ian, not sure about missing my true vocation, but I can now certainly understand those people who give up their spare time to volunteer regularly on preserved railways.

Adrian, I believe so although by the time I arrived the engine had already been fired and was ready to work. But I think from a cold start the steam is used to bring things up to the right temperature before you try and move so as not to damage the cylinders.

26 July 2011 at 08:02 , GB said...

I was wondering last night why you hadn't been blogging recently. Then I realised that I was not following you from Eagleton Notes. Strange. I was sure I'd remedied that last year. So this will be a big catch-up.

As for driving a steam loco. Envious is a word that comes to mind.

26 July 2011 at 08:18 , Mark said...

GB, that is strange, as I'm sure you've commented on a number of posts since you got back to the UK.

I can understand people being envious, it was a fantastic afternoon and I'd definitely recommend it to anyone. And you don't have to go as far as Wales, it seems that lots of the preserved railways now do similar things -- I guess it's an easy way to raise money, especially as they tend to do them on the days the railway is closed to the public.

26 July 2011 at 08:27 , GB said...

Yes. I have commented but that was because I specifically remembered to go and look at your blog or saw it in the sidebar of the blog. My problem is that when I'm not specifically hunting I just forget. If a post arrives in my dashboard then I'm more likely to see it.

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