|An inspiring sight!
Since George Stephenson invented his Rocket locomotive in 1829, kids have gazed at trains and wished they could be the driver. After a 50 year wait, this (over-sized) kid finally achieved his ambition, with a rather spectacular birthday present of an Introductory Steam Train Driving Course on the Kent and East Sussex Railway.
Many years ago, the K&ESR was a fully working branch line, part of the national network, but the combined onslaught of cheaper road transport and Dr Beeching’s axe took their toll. It fell into disuse until an army of volunteers mobilised themselves restoring the track, rolling stock and stations and it now features as a heritage line, operating mainly as a tourist attraction.
And thus it was, that on a damp morning and together with seven other big kids, ages from 65 – 30, I arrived at Rolvenden station where the locomotive, already fired up and with smoke billowing, awaited. I have always found the sight of a steam train magnificent. To see, hear and smell such an engine and to know that shortly I would be on the footplate driving it, was to experience a sense of anticipation that is truly rare.
After squeezing into overalls and over a mug of tea (a railway runs on coal and tea we were to learn) a crucial health and safety briefing followed. It is remarkable as to quite how much ingenious safety design was built into railways even back into the 19th century, with vacuum brakes and interlocking points and signals being astonishing inventions. Whilst passenger safety has always been paramount, the crew’s jobs have been as dangerous. Knowing how to handle 50 tons of fast moving furnace, with fatally hot pipes and knobs all around takes years of experience whilst the heat on the footplate suggests that the copious cups of tea are essential to avoid dehydration!
Mick our driver, welcomed us in turn onto the footplate and much as a 17yo takes to the road in their first driving lesson, so the nervousness and excitement increased. He talked us through the basic controls and then to the first and most crucial of safety tasks, to sound the engine’s whistle (joy!) to alert those nearby of an impending departure. The concentration was intense as I applied the vacuum pressure to release the brakes and then edged the regulator lever (think car accelerator) forward. The noise rose, there was a gentle jolt and then, incredibly, the train was moving, pulling away from the platform, clunking over sets of points and the best part of it all, I was driving it! The Sussex countryside sped by at all of 25mph whilst Mick watched like a hawk, patiently instructing on acceleration, braking and finally in how to bring the train to a halt exactly where you want it to be (OK, eventually and only after 1 or 2 attempts!). By the end of the day I was buffering up the loco to a 20 ton brake wagon (almost) like an expert.
The train crews and railway staff are all unpaid volunteers and their dedication is inspiring. The day was not only about driving a train, it was a fascinating lesson in industrial history, heritage and a chance to marvel, with no small amount of national pride, at some outstanding British engineering. Now, where did I put that volunteer’s application form……
To find out more about the Kent and East Sussex Railway visit their website.