On the Runners
It wasn't until I thought about it the other day that I realized that very few of our members have ever made a living as a fireman on a steam locomotive. The life was very different from that on the easy schedule we have experienced with the Museum of Science and Technology's trips with their ex-Canadian Pacific 4-6-2 No. 1201 where everybody is very happy to see you and waving to the crowds is almost as important as ensuring that the steam pressure is alright. Come back with me over twenty years ago to Paddington Station in London, England, where a fireman is just about to take on his turn of duty.
This is a heavy turn and as a fireman on "The Runners" we book on at the station. Another crew has prepared and brought the engine down. We watch the Castle Class 4-6-0 back slowly down to the train. It is number 5076, "Gladiator", but I don't care about the fancy name. It is just "fifty, seventy six" to me. It doesn't have a bad reputation and we will have to see what it will do.
On the footplate all is quiet. The junior fireman has done a good job with the fire although I wouldn't admit it to him. With a grimace I splash a few shovelsful of coal around the box just to do it my way. The other crew say farewell, they have another engine to get ready and couldn't care less whether or not we have a good trip. My mate has a look around, including checking whether the smokebox door is correctly tightened, while I get the footplate to my satisfaction. I check that the chain is over the hand brake handle - don't want it to come adrift while I am swinging a coal shovel as it could hit me in the middle of the back. I put the bucket, hand broom and coal picks in their allotted places and ensure that the fire irons are chained down. The watering pipe, known as the pep pipe, is hung out of the window where it will be ready for instant use.
I have brought my own shovel! It is a standard Great Western pattern but it has been ground down to give a finer point and improve the balance. A second shovel is also useful if you happen to let go of the first one into the firebox. The fire is in good shape. The back part has been made up with coal well burnt through and is well above the bottom of the firehole ring. To get the coal in I will have to throw it up and over the "Haycock". There is a black crust of unburnt coal at the back end. The fire is level at the back for the first four feet and then slopes down at the front. The front is much thinner than the back and must be kept properly covered although some coals will roll down the slope with the motion of the engine. I put a couple up front and see what this does to the smoke from the chimney.
My mate comes back and a grunt indicates that everything would seem to be alright. We don't talk much. Most of the time it is too noisy and in any case with a good mate you know each other well so that discussion is not necessary.
We are due out in five minutes and I put the chistle bar, an eight foot steel pole, almost two inches thick, through the fire to break up the back a bit. After that I can hose down the footplate and I observe that the deflector plate above the firehole is doing its job. Steam from the wet footboards curls lazily through the open firehole door.
Two minutes to train time and everything is quiet. There is no generator to disturb the peace. The steam pressure is just below the blowing off point, 225 pounds per square inch. The safety valves begin to sizzle. They do not go off with a big frightening bang as in North America. They start with a gentle sizzle that gets louder and louder. The aim of a good fireman is to have the safety valves just sizzling for the entire trip. This gives the driver the maximum steam pressure and proves to your mates that you know what you are doing. I went out with one driver who insisted on putting his greasetop cap over the steam gauge making me fire to the engine. It was easy as the safety valves are a sure indication.
Train time and I look for the box at the platform end which will light up "RA". This means "Right Away". We get the light but before telling my mate I check that we have the signal and that there are no last minute passengers.
"Right away, mate" and that is the last I shall say for many a mile.
To operate the controls the driver has to be standing. He grasps the regulator (throttle) in his left hand and hauls it towards the ceiling. At the same time his right hand is on the reversing lever while his right foot is ready to kick on the sand if we slip. I close the firehole door as this is the most critical part of the trip. With the engine cold and working hard I want to keep cold air from entering the firebox through the firehole. I adjust the dampers to control the air flow through the grates.
No. 5076 starts to glide forward. She makes as if to slip but my mate snaps the regulator closed and immediately reopens it thus preventing this from happening. A prolonged slip can create a heavy draft and draw my fire forward. The bark from the exhaust, which is somewhat muffled as it can only be heard through the firehole, is livening up my fire to white hot.
The reverser is brought back a couple of turns as we begin to get into our stride and the exhaust softens. I can now put on the exhaust steam injector which will supply water to the boiler to maintain three quarters of a glass of water (hopefully!).
A quick wave to a mate at Ladbrooke Grove and it is time to take a look at the damage the start has done to the fire. Opening the firehole door I am blinded by the flames. The only way to see in is to use the shovel to deflect cold air over the firebed. Things are not too bad and I can begin my task.
These engines are fitted with a firing flap to which is attached a chain. The flap is hinged across the bottom of the firehole and can be raised and lowered by the chain. The sequence is as follows: Put the shovel into the coalpile with the right hand. Left hand flips the flap down. Both hands get the coal into the fire. Left hand raises the flap to minimize the entry of cold air. Right hand guides the shovel for more coal. They say that in America they have foot operated doors. That's cissy. In any case one should only swivel on the balls of one's feet while swinging a heavy shovelful of coal. There is a curved fall plate fitted over the gap between the engine and the tender.
With 5076 beginning to fly the shovelling is going on in earnest. It is not frantic but it is continuous. There will not be the opportunity to sit down until I get to my destination. The back of the fire I keep blacked out. This means that the part that is closest to me is not so hot and this provides a good depth of coals if I get into trouble later on. It requires a heavy swing to get the coal to the front of the narrow firebox. This can be done by bouncing the shovel off the firehole ring which is effective but very noisy. With the reverser being wound back to about 15% the individual beats are lost in a continuous roar from the four cylinders.
It is impossible to see what is going on inside the firebox so I have to know intuitively. I remember where each shovelful of coal was placed and know when that part needs more. Make every shovelful count. The engine moves in one direction, the tender moves in another while the fall plate moves in a loose figure of eight between the motion of the two. When firing I have one foot on the engine and the other on the fall plate! Most people would have trouble even standing on this bucking, swaying, footplate, yet the shovelling is easy. There is a little trick called the three point suspension. If the movement catches you unawares just lean back and use the cab side to steady yourself.
The coal today is pretty good Welsh steam coal. Most is lumps about the size of two clenched fists with little dust. The dust is placed at the back where it can be easily broken up if necessary. The odd large lump has to be broken up with the coal pick. Some days a large lump will block the coal movement in the tender and it is then that one feels like a Welsh coal miner.
Every five minutes or so I sweep the footboards and hose them down. This is not just good housekeeping but it keeps the coal dust from flying around. Even though he doesn't take his eyes off the road ahead, my mate knows what I am doing but he won't move his feet so I have to work around him on my hands and knees. There'll be hell to pay if I get some hot water on his highly polished boots!
Glancing across at my mate I marvel at how easy those old codgers have it. He is sort of sitting down. Actually its not really sitting because all he has is a 9" by 12" wooden flap that hinges down. There is room for the right buttock but he can only stay on by keeping his left leg rigid. His right leg is resting on his lunch box while his left hand rests on the regulator. Although he has a watch there is very little use for one. The guard tells us when to leave and if we go like hell we will arrive at the next stop on time! He is grasping a piece of cotton waste. One don't use gloves unless one is courting and the lady doesn't like the feel of hard calloused hands over the more sensitive parts of her anatomy.
This is where, to the reader, it gets pretty boring. We are dashing along at over 70 mph along a straight length of main line. We have a train tied to the tender but one is not aware of it. The only time I look out except to catch signals or check that the injector is still on is over my right shoulder after a shovelful of coal. The smoke from the stack will momentarily darken with every shovelful of coal thus indicating that the fire is burning correctly. I forgot to mention that 5076 has a low tender and there is a fair amount of daylight visible. When it rains I get wet. There are no doors to the cab - just a gap! Plenty of fresh air.
Contented at my lot I notice the sounds changing. Looking out I can see we are in Sonning Cutting where the chimney noise echoes back from the sides of the cut. We are nearly at Reading which is our first stop. The regulator is closed about three miles out and we drift along at well over 70 mph. We have a clear road through the maze leading to number four platform and a hiss from the vacuum brakes indicates our approach. We are still doing 40 mph at the platform end but a final application brings us to a good stop.
There is a group of trainspotters at the end of the platform and I am greeted by assorted cheers and boos depending upon whether the individual has copped the engine or whether he has seen it before. Where do they get the pocket money for those trainspotting books? A couple in short pants approach as if they want to have a look up. Now is the time to put on the pep pipe. It is just a length of rubber hose yet if you kink the end it can direct a jet of hot steamy water all over the place and scare away the most resolute trainspotter.
No need to take water as we will use Goring Troughs (track pans). It's a good job as we are only allowed three minutes. Soon I give the "Right Away" and it starts all over again. Very soon we are roaring along by the River Thames. My mate has his head out of the window for most of the time. Anyone would think he was looking for signals! The Automatic Warning System with its bell at each signal does that for him. In actual fact he is looking for unsuspecting courting couples. He toots the whistle and mouths to me: "You should have seen those two!"
Fat chance I have for doing any sightseeing with my backside higher than my head for most of the time. At least he will take water at Goring Troughs. This gives him something to do and it's not my fault if anything goes wrong. We are going at the maximum 60 mph for the troughs and he winds the handle that lowers the scoop into the mile long trough of water that is set between the rails. We begin to pick up water as the gauge on the tender shows. All that can be seen from the outside is water being splashed about under the tender. However, if the tender is overfilled that is another matter. The water is being picked up at a great rate and it will overflow through a vent on the top of the tender. The vent is facing forwards so the footplate would suddenly be inundated with several hundred gallons of water. My mate is careful and we don't get wet today!
As we approach Didcot it is time for tea so out comes the battered enamel tea can fitted with a compartment for tea and sugar in the lid which serves as a cup. I fill the can with water and scoop out a hollow in the back of the fire. We diverge from the main line here and for a short period the regulator is closed. As soon as my mate shuts off in goes the tea can and a minute later we have boiling hot water. In goes the tea and sugar combined and the can is swung around the head a couple of times to mash. I have also boiled an egg in water balanced in the crook of the shovel. It is important to get the can out of the fire before the regulator is opened otherwise the blast will suck the can into the fire.
Suitably refreshed with the hot strong sticky nectar -I apply myself with gusto in that hot, swaying, noisy, dusty, drafty environment. Oxford is the next stop with its own allocation of trainspotters. From here it is an uphill slog the 40 miles to Moreton in Marsh. We take water at Charlbury Troughs. We now have enough water to get to our destination which is Worcester.
GWR 4-6-0 5076 Gladiator of Old Oak Common storms up the lower section of Campden Bank with the 11.10 am Worcester to Paddington on December 28, 1963.
At Moreton the uphill work is almost finished but my mate winds the reverser forward because now it is time to have some fun. I keep up the shovelling as we accelerate downhill. 5076 begins to bark as we take a run at the grade up to the mile-long Campden Tunnel. The reverser is wound forward and the blast on my fire sharpens. The same shovelling techniques apply - only more quickly. The water level is beginning to drop but I can afford to mortgage the water because the regulator will be closed going through the tunnel. There is a big hole in the coal pile and I can see the back of the tender. We crest the grade and then there's a mile of level track before we enter the tunnel. With the firehole doors closed for the first time since leaving London it is very dark although enough light escapes from the fire to illuminate the smoke that rolls back past the top of the cab and over the open tender. I am now standing behind my mate and we are both watching the speedometer. We entered the tunnel at 79 mph and it is always a challenge to see at what speed we will exit with the regulator closed. 89 mph - not bad although some have claimed the even ton.
There is still over twenty miles to go but the running is generally downhill. 5076 is going on shed at Worcester so I can get out the pricker bar and rake the coals over to run down the fire a little. Then all that has to be done is to draw off a bucket of hot water for us to wash our hands. My mate insists that he do his first because he doesn't like washing in dirty water! For a couple of miles I can even use my own wooden flap seat and enjoy the scenery.
Being on the runners we are relieved by a Worcester crew upon arrival. Stepping down, the solid platform feels strangely disconcerting to my locomotive legs. 5076 must have been a pretty good engine because it only takes ten minutes for me to get my normal hearing back. If it had taken half an hour or more, you knew you had had a rough trip.
The passengers see two figures clad in overalls walking along. Both have old gas mask bags to hold their food and there are battered enamel tea cans hung on the straps. People rapidly make way, not because they know who you are but because they don't want to get their clothes dirty.
Just think, in another hour or so we will be doing the whole 120 miles over in reverse - just to get home!
Bytown Railway Society, Branchline, November 1988.