All in a Night's Work
My "day" started at midnight and having just booked on, I was stumbling in the dark along a row of steam engines looking for number 80101. There were very few lights in the Shoeburyness yard and the ground was full of traps for the unsuspecting. Walking gingerly around the piles of still warm coals and almost choking from the sulphurous fumes, I wondered how much different this, my first night job, would be from normal daytime work.
80101 at last and my mate is already in the cab mustn't let him know I'm a novice. 80lbs of steam, the water level is ok and after checking the smokebox I look at the fire. The grate had been cleaned and the coal was piled up in a black mass just under the doors. Everything in order so out with the pricker and it was at this point that I gave myself away! With my first thrust the "black" fire burst into life and singed my eyebrows. My mate grinned to himself and reminded me to turn on the blower next time.
Undaunted I began to prepare my fire. With my instructor's words still ringing in my ears I broke up each lump of coal to the regulation size (the size of two fists) and placed it just where it was needed on the grate, 120 lbs. on the clock and both injectors working well. This grimy 2-6-4 tank will be fit to work the Flying Scotsman. My mate speaks:
"Do you mind if we go now?"
"Yes but we've only got 120lbs."
"That will be plenty. Our train is cancelled and we're running light to London, you should read your notices closer."
Deflated, I tried to hide in my corner as we moved up to the shed signal. The board quickly came off, we moved on to the Up Main and quickly gathered speed. The only light in the cab is from a small oil lamp which hangs perilously from the water gauge fitting and theoretically enables the crew to see the water level in the boiler. It is more effective to leave doors open an inch or so to let the light reflect off the bunker.
Looking out it is pitch black, can’t see the rails except where they reflect the light from the signals. It is difficult to see the cab controls, even my mate is hard to pick out in the gloom. It is like being in my own world oblivious to everything else.
80101 steamed well and we soon reached London where we changed engines with another crew. The other fireman took a look at my full boiler, 200 lbs of steam and good fire and said:
"Thanks a lot, she’ll be blowing her head off all night. How do you expect me to sleep? Anyway you won’t be able to do that with twenty-two-twenty-three. Just watch the injector on your side.”
We climbed on to 42223 and it was obvious what he meant. The fire was burning with an unusual blue flame; signifying clinker. We have plenty of time but I can’t do anything about the fire because I can’t use the fire irons. We are under electrified wires and the irons are laid along the top of the tank -too close to 25,000 volts.
We back down on to our train at the station and wait until it is time to go back to Shoeburyness. Time passes slowly and I periodically doze off but not for long because it's too uncomfortable sitting on the hard wooden flap that passes for a seat. Around 04.30, I start to get the fire ready. It is very sluggish and the boiler takes a long time to come round. My injector works in a fashion although the only way I can keep it on is by holding the water control handle. Even so by departure time we are in fairly good shape.
A green light from the other end gives us the "Right A-way” precisely on time at 0510. My mate opens the throttle and we are off. He soon notches back a bit and I open the doors for my first round of firing. Two at the back, two at the front, two down each side and slam the doors shut to keep the cold air out. The flames are still an unhealthy blue but we have worse troubles. I look over my side to see water flowing out of the injector overflow signifying that it is not putting water in the boiler. I try to reset it but it refuses to work while the engine is in motion. I’ll have to use the driver's side injectors but every time it is put on he has to get off his seat (the water control is under his flap).
Water level is dropping and so is the steam pressure. I put in another quick firing and we run into Barking with the blower hard on and take advantage of the station stop to put a little in the boiler. We do the same at Hornchurch and so by Upminster, with its longer station stop, things are a little better. From here it’s downhill to East Horndon then there's a stiff five mile grade up to Laindon summit. The little and often technique is working. The fire is better and pressure stays steady until we hit the bottom of the grade when it drops back again. The reverser is wound forward and the stack begins to chatter. The blast on the fire is fierce enough to suck the coal off the shovel. The doors are closed after each shovel full to keep the cold air out, but still the pressure drops.
I begin to feel very tired and put my head out of the window to revive myself in the cool breeze. Outside everything is serene. The early morning dew reflects the beautiful sunrise over the Laindon Hills. For a moment the peace outside makes it all seem worthwhile until I look back into my own private hell and realise I am going to have to sacrifice my water level to get to Laindon at all. We struggle over the top and expire thankfully in Laindon platform. The water is out of sight in the bottom of the glass but soon reappears again with the one good injector on. It is now five miles of coasting downhill with the throttle closed and the pressure comes around. It comes round so fast that the safety valves are soon roaring!
We make our way noisily through Benfleet and past the beach at Leigh-on-Sea where the fishermen are preparing their boats for the day. Then on the short steep grade through Westcliff the drivers injector fails. I manage to get my injector on but as we run into Southend it won't shut off. The clack valve on top of the boiler will not close. Its probably just a small piece of scale that could be dislodged with a small tap but we can’t reach it: because of the overhead wires. Not only can we not put water in the boiler but we can't stop the steam escaping from it.
It is now a race against the boiler and luckily we only have another five miles to go. Approaching Shoeburyness the brakes start to drag, the steam pressure not being sufficient to keep the trainpipe fully charged.
I cant’t remember cleaning the fire after that trip. All I remember is my mate’s remark on his trip sheet:
"Jack up whistle, replace engine, lower whistle".
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, December 1974