A Day in the Life of an Engine Driver by Anthony Dawson
For over 130 years the steam locomotive dominated Britain’s mainline railways. It seemed that almost every little boy (and some little girls, too) wanted to be an engine driver. Thanks to the railway preservation movement (thanks to the efforts at Tal-Y-Llyn in Wales and Middleton in Yorkshire) the dream of being an engine driver can be fulfilled by anyone with an aptitude for the hard, mucky, work on the footplate of a steam locomotive.
My own fascination with railways stems from my mum: my parents were part of a locomotive owning-group (I think it was an 8F) which sat for years in the coal yard on Cross Lane in Wakefield. There is a family link to the railways too with one ancestor being Station Master at Snaith in East Yorkshire. Mum had an N-gauge layout and regular pilgrimages were made to the NRM in York; to the Worth Valley, and to the Yorkshire Moors. The dog came too, of course. I think the first steam hauled train I ever travelled on was headed by City of Wells at Keighley.
Fast-forward 30 years and I started at the Museum of Science & Industry as a Railway Volunteer in summer 2015. I’m fascinated by the early railways (and indeed, have lectured on them) so getting a chance to work with a replica of Planet – the world’s first express passenger locomotive – was the perfect opportunity. Learning how to clean, then fire and drive a steam locomotive. Talk about fulfilling a boy-hood ambition! The learning curve was almost vertical, but thanks to expert tuition, rapid. Firing a locomotive is something you either ‘get’ or don’t, and you discover that pretty quickly.
It is a cliché to suggest that the Steam Locomotive is the closest thing we have yet made which comes close to artificial life. But it is probably true – every locomotive is different, has different ‘moods’, will perform differently every day: one day she (and they are all ‘she’) can be an absolute dream, but another will be the most frustrating thing on earth, and get called a wide variety of rude names. It is physical, filthy work, with long hours. But it’s fun with a massive sense of pride and fulfilment. You’re continuing a tradition which stretches right back to George Stephenson, getting a glimpse of a now-vanished way of life but one which, thanks to Railway Preservation, can still be enjoyed by both visitors, and those who volunteer their time at drivers, firemen, cleaners, guards, or in the signal box. And, unlike in the days of steam when the railways were pretty much a boys’ only club, these careers are open to anyone with the aptitude for the job.
We do what we do on the footplate because we enjoy it: there is a strong sense of camaraderie, of being all Railwaymen together (even though there is the traditional ‘ribbing’ between the Locomotive Department and the Traffic Department); and we do it not just for ourselves but for the visitors to preserved lines. They get a glimpse into the life of the railway, a glimpse to their youth perhaps when all trains were steam trains, and hopefully to encourage the next generation onto the footplate or guards van to keep the skills of the steam railway alive. The excitement on the faces of young kids who can see and travel behind a ‘steam train’ is unbelievable. Steam trains make you smile. I don’t remember mainline steam and the number who do – and worked on steam – is in decline, but the skills and experiences gained nearly a lifetime ago are eagerly passed on to the new generation of steam crews. And as my friend and colleague Adrian Bailey remembers from his 40 year career on the railways, you really were part of a railway family and skills and experiences really do last a lifetime.
A Day in the Life of an Engine Driver is a peek into the world of coal and steam, of oily rags and paraffin. The basics of how the locomotive works; of making a fire and checking there’s enough water; the noise and excitement of the footplate. The one thing it can’t do is communicate the warmth of the cab, or indeed that extra special smell of a steam locomotive – of burning coal; steam; hot oil and hot metal.
Anthony Dawson's new book A Day in the Life of an Engine Driver is available for purchase now.