Like Wotan driving the storm

What it’s like to fulfil a boyhood dream on the footplate of a classic steam locomotive

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It’s a grey morning in the East Midlands, and I’m sitting inside 76 tons of heavily engineered steel. Drizzle falls on the platform of Loughborough Central station, and clouds of steam billow and drift like we’re in a 1940s weepie. But that doesn’t concern me right now, because I’m at the controls of steam locomotive No. 73156, squinting through rain-spattered glass at the bright red signal a hundred yards ahead and faintly terrified at what I’m about to do. Riding atop a huge mobile furnace filled with high-pressure steam does seem to concentrate the mind.

The signal jerks upwards. “OK, just a bit” comes the voice behind me, and I tug at a lever. There’s a roar, the floor vibrates; a needle on a dial quivers. Gradually, deliberately, the world to each side starts to slide away. We’re moving, and it’s all my doing. I glance round at my supervisor for reassurance, and notice that he seems amused: possibly because — it now dawns on me — I’m grinning like an idiot.

Do children still dream of being train drivers when they grow up? I did, and I
sometimes wonder if I was one of the last. Steam locomotives vanished from the world — along with double-deck trams, palm court orchestras, devilled kidneys and all the other wonderful things that storybooks had promised would make adult life a treat — in the decade before I was born.

It took 40 years for me to get my hands on the controls of one but I’m here to tell you that it was worth the wait — and more importantly, that you can do it too. In fact, the people who rescue, restore and tend to these fabulous beasts are very keen that you should. Britain’s 200-odd preserved railways realised a few years back that there’s money in dreams: and few dreams, even now, are more potent than that of driving a steam locomotive. For a price, you can enlist on a “Footplate Experience” course: a chance — under extremely close expert supervision — to do it for real.

And it doesn’t get much more real than driving a locoike No. 73156. This wasn’t my first time. I had done a taster course, before the pandemic, on the Severn Valley Railway in Worcestershire. On that occasion the loco had been a small saddle-tank engine, essentially a compact but charming piece of Victorian industrial machinery. This is very different: 73156 is a BR Standard Class 5; built in 1956 as part of the last generation of steam locomotives designed for the national network.

She’s as close to state-of-the-art as a steam engine gets. She’s built for power, for practicality, and for speed: one glance at those towering six-foot driving wheels tells you that she’s a real high-stepping strutter.

Clinging on to the wet handrails, I heave myself up and into the cab, where the regular driver and fireman are waiting to introduce themselves. They’re a cheerful pair — well, they would be; they’ve only got the best job in the world. I’ve been issued with a blue frock-coat, and this time, mercifully, I’m not under-dressed. On the taster course, the driver and fireman wore shirts and ties under their overalls: impeccably turned out to shovel coal in sauna-like heat.

It was a reminder that qualified locomotive crew aren’t merely skilled technicians (although the theoretical and practical knowledge required to qualify as a fireman, let alone a driver, is encyclopedic). They’re master-craftsmen in a profession that, a century ago, conferred its own dignity and prestige.

Between the wars, when streamlined expresses competed to shatter speed records, elite loco drivers were minor celebrities, with stopwatch-carrying rail fans recording and comparing their achievements. The Great Western Railway issued a poster of a dapper City gent shaking hands with the driver of his morning train: “Splendid run! Thank you!”

The locomotive itself is enough to overwhelm the senses

We won’t be breaking any records today, but the locomotive itself is enough to overwhelm the senses. The shifting, bucking floor beneath your feet (the cab is
known as the footplate: like the coachmen they succeeded, early train drivers were not deemed to require protection from the weather), the smell of hot metal and burning coal (there’s 3 tons of the black stuff, and about 4000 gallons of water, in the tender coupled directly behind the engine); the blast of heat from the firebox (the fire, generating temperatures in excess of 1000C, is crucial to the locomotive’s
performance) — you don’t so much drive a steam engine, as harness the elemental forces that make it live.

The basic principle is simple enough: the fire converts water to steam (drivers of modern diesel and electric trains refer jokingly to steam locos as “kettles”) and the steam is channelled, via a series of valves and mechanical contrivances, to turn the wheels. In a digital world, it’s all magnificently analogue.

So the driver explains the controls, and there are only three real essentials. The regulator: the polished steel handle which unleashes the power of the steam and makes the engine go. The reverser — which determines which way it goes. And a brake: a chunkier version of the sort of thing you would get on a bicycle handlebar. That’s basically it, though after a lifetime immersed in car culture, some first-timers are apparently flustered by the lack of a steering wheel.

I take the little bucket seat at the left of the cab, wind the reverser with a big metal wheel until it locks into position for “forward”, and fix my gaze on the signal. It moves: we’ve got the road. Unclip the brake, lean forward, and with a wrist-wrenching tug, pull open the regulator. God, it’s actually happening: this colossal machine is rolling forward at my behest, and gathering momentum at a pace that would be alarming if it didn’t feel so organic.

We’re heading south on the Great Central Railway — the original HS1 that was opened in 1899 to link Marylebone to South Yorkshire before being ripped up in those accursed late 1960s, and later rebuilt by enthusiasts. “Unmitigated England” was how John Betjeman described it, and the GCR currently runs to the northern outskirts of Leicester, which means we’ve got eight miles of superbly-engineered main line ahead of us. The big Class 5 is finding her stride. I lean out of the window, oblivious to the rain, and hear her settling into a steady beat.

The driver — the proper driver — leans over and points out a “Whistle“ sign. On any railway, instructions are to be followed to the letter: when you’re in charge of 100 tons of fast-moving machinery, you are never, ever, just playing trains. A tug on a chain, and 73156 gives a shriek. Only the one; there are lineside residents to consider and I’ve been warned not to overdo it: “This isn’t Thomas the Tank Engine.” Well, no. But how many children developed an enduring love of these extraordinary machines while reading the Revd Awdry’s little books?

Awdry first conceived his stories while living near the Great Western main line, listening by night to goods trains struggling up the hill out of Bath: “There was no doubt in my mind that steam engines all had definite personalities. I would hear in the puffings and pantings of the two engines the conversation they were having with one another.”

A steam locomotive is not like other human inventions

He’d hit on something. Even without a face on the front, a steam locomotive is not like other human creations. It breathes. It’s warm. Even when built, like 73156, to a standard design, no two are ever the same. In the words of Awdry’s friend, the Revd Teddy Boston (train-mad Anglican clergymen are another vanished breed), “The steam engine is the nearest thing to a living being made by man.” I’ll buy that. In my garden I like to mess about with model steam trains. They burn camping gas and driving them is like walking a baby dragon on a leash.

How much more so with the massive, fire-breathing real thing? Rainclouds graze the hills of the Charnwood Forest as we accelerate through soggy Leicestershire fields, but dogwalkers in anoraks and mums in back-gardens look up and wave as we pass. Steam locomotives are charismatic fauna: humans are drawn to them. Harry Potter didn’t travel to Hogwarts by Pendolino, after all.

Meanwhile, we’ve slowed down — a bridge is under repair — but now the speed restriction is past. “You can open up” says the driver, and I give the regulator another heave. Immediately, 73156 begins to bark. Steam billows from the chimney and whirls away over the countryside as she digs in, with a throaty, basso-profundo shout that goes straight to the bones. Can any music match the exhilaration of that gloriousound? Beethoven’s Seventh, perhaps, or Sibelius in full flow. I
still haven’t stopped smiling.

Accelerating through the Quorn country with rain lashing in through the window and the speedometer needle wobbling around 25mph (the maximum permitted speed on most UK private railways) it feels like this is what humans were born to do. Faster than fairies, faster than witches: I never understood friends who got excited over BMWs and all those other petrol-powered Clarksonesque boys’ toys. Hit the ton on the M40 and you’re still just a worm in a tin box. 25mph on the footplate of a Class 5 and you’re Wotan riding the storm. If this is a midlife crisis, sign me up for more.

There is another signal ahead. Time to push back the regulator, to watch the speedometer fall and, with a careful application of the brake, to bring her to a halt in the platform at Rothley station. We’ve another three miles to Leicester North; then a brief rest and the run back to Loughborough, where a fried breakfast awaits.

We’ll be running in reverse, so at speed the rain will be sluicing straight over the coal and into the cab. Driver and fireman are both laughing at the prospect. Who cares about a spot of drizzle when you’re holding the reins of an iron dragon? The driver reaches for an enamel flask of tea, kept (as tradition dictates) on a shelf above the firebox door, and the fireman shovels coal, rebuilding the fire for the journey back. Heat floods the cab. Though, as I’ve learned by now, when you’re working with a steam locomotive it’s not just the fire that makes you glow.

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