You Didn’t See a Thing, Did You?
In the summer vacation of 1962 I worked as an engine cleaner at the Reading Depot of the British Railways and because of my previous foot-plate experience I was soon made a 'passed cleaner', which allowed me to fire steam locos when the regular fireman was not available.
So it was that on a bright sunny day in July, I found myself booking on at 0530 hours to work the Coley Branch Goods. This was an easy job in which you ran up to Reading West Yard, picked up some wagons and then took them five miles to the Central Goods Depot passing Southcote Junction on the way. There, after a spot of shunting and a leisurely breakfast, you ambled back to the West Yard where a relief crew was always waiting to take over.
Today the sky is clear and I have no trouble in finding my loco., No.226l, in the depot yard, She is looking great, one of the 0-6-0 tender locos, painted green and what's more - she's quite well looked after, she should be, I only cleaned her the other day. The steam raiser has done a good job and it is a matter of moments to raise the pressure up to the red mark on the gauge. The tender is full so w are ready for the off.
My driver, who I will call Tim, is oiling around the motions. He is a morose type with a large bulbous nose and a permanent scowl who hardly bothers to say anything, so I can see it is going to be a quiet trip.
On our arrival at the West Yard it is obvious that they want to get rid of us in a hurry. Jock, our guard, is waiting for us by the train and having given us details of the load hurries back to his van. We soon get the road and No.226l quickly gets the train moving out over the four main line tracks and round the curve towards Southcote Jct. There, the signalman is waiting to hand us the tablet which will allow us to proceed on to the Coley Branch. Good job the weather is fine otherwise he would have made me go to the box to fetch it. However today he does decide to be awkward, instead of holding it out, he points it straight at me. Still I manage to catch it on the fly and we are soon rolling down the grade into the Central Goods Depot.
With no more signals to watch out for, I can now admire the scenery. It has been a glorious sun-rise and there is a heavy dew with a mist hanging over the meadows bordering the Kennett & Avon Canal. A water rat swimming in the stream dives for cover as we rumble past. What more could one ask for?
It seems ages before breakfast time arrives but eventually the shunting is finished and we adjourn to the guards van where Jock treats us to one of his usual philosophical monologues. Tim, the driver, just sits in the corner and says nothing apart from an occasional grunt. He soon finishes his sandwiches and with another grunt stalks out. After some more one sided conversation, Jock follows suit.
Shortly afterwards I hear the engine being moved and looking out discover that it is Jock who has decided to do some more shunting, I quickly join him.
“Where’s Tim”, I ask.
"That's alright,” he replies "Tim always goes to the pub at this time. Tell you what, you carry on here while I see to the wagons."
So it was that I first came to drive No.226l. I soon found that it was easy to spin the wheels while trying to move twenty wagons or so and the screw reverse is very cumbersome when compared with the old fashioned lever.
Tim does eventually put in an appearance just as we are ready to leave. Back we go to Southcote Jet, I'll get even with that signalman, instead of throwing the tablet into the net I'll throw it into the long grass and make him look for it. But it does not work out like that as he is out in the middle of the track waving us down. We stop on the rising gradient.
"See those-wagons in the Up siding", he says, "they want them back at the West Yard, Leave your train on the branch, pick up the wagons in the Up siding, back onto your train and then carry on to the West Yard, OK?"
Tim nods in disgust, its going to make us late off duty, Jock walks up and Tim explains what is required. Jock goes back and cuts off behind the last three cars. The next thing I notice is that the rest of the train is rolling back down the gradient out of control, with Jock running after them trying to pin down the brakes. Quickly Tim reverses No.2261 and steams after the runaways which by now are traveling at a brisk pace. As we give chase, all I can think of are those gas tanks at the bottom of the grade by the curve in the line. We manage to close up, however, and Jock throws a coupling. All is well and I get a look which clearly says:
“You didn’t see a thing did you?”
We pick up the wagons from the Up siding and after a sarcastic wave from the signalman make our way to the West Yard where we are due to leave our train in the reception siding. But there is more trouble ahead, although we have the road into the siding there is another train up ahead taking on water. This is a 2-8-0 tender loco, a WD type built for the government during the war.
Tim was not very pleased with the situation to say the least, This was going to make him even later going off duty. After several useless efforts to convince the other driver that he should move up a bit he backs No.226l about 50 yards down the track, puts her into full forward gear and then opens up the throttle. I wait for the bang, the guard leaps for his life and then, miraculously, the 2-8-0 moves forward, giving us room. The guard has a -hard time .chasing his train and I last see him leaning over the back of his van mouthing obscenities at us.
The last time I saw 'No, 2261 she was in the Reading condemned loco siding with her whole front- caved in from a head-on collision. I never did find out how it happened but it would never have surprised me if it was not caused by Tim having yet another, bad day on the Coley Branch. I wonder if he said to his fireman on. that occasion
“You didn’t see a. thing, did you?”
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, January 1971.