Friday, 26 December 2008

Playing choo-choos

I never wanted to be an engine driver. This showed untypical percipience on my part, for even then I could see that it was a matter of doing a hot, dirty, exhausting, job while under the appalling stress of being responsible for the lives of four hundred people being pulled at a hundred miles an hour by a machine which might be thirty years old, the design of which had been essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century.
But I had never realised what a difficult job it was. The picture shows just how much you had to do compared with modern train drivers sitting relaxed at their controls, which are barely more complex than those of a family saloon.
To get going, you had to test the brakes A and then release them, open the blower valve B and wind the reverser C clockwise. Then the fireman H opens the cylinder drain cock E; this releases a cloud of steam and he has to shut it off once the train starts so that you can see where you are going. You might blow the whistle F as you pull forward the regulator lever G which makes the engine move forward.
As the train picks up speed you gradually wind the reverser anticlockwise until the indicator D moves towards the middle: too far, and the train will go into reverse. You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and you may need to inject more with the injector control valve K.
At full speed the fireman is shovelling up to 50lbs of coal a minute into the firehole I [This reminds me of Peter Cook talking about a coal miner's life: "You can do whatever you like, you've got a completely free hand, so long as you get eleven tons of coal up every day".]
You must keep an eye on the water gauge J and if levels go down inject more with the injector control valve K.
To stop, shut the regulator G and apply the brake handle A. Finally, wind the reverser to the middle of the indicator.
Watch the speedometer L and keep peering through the tidgy little forward window for signals.

There is one luxury: the steam-heated mash pot M which keeps tea piping hot all day, though I cannot imagine when you have time to drink any.


Froog said...

Have you ever read Flann O'Brien's Irish Times column (Beachcomber generation)? He had a recurring feature called 'For Steam Men', which was similarly wondrously technical about the minutiae of operating engines and railroads - but woven into literary pastiches of romance, adventure, etc.

It seems we are 'Steam Men' both, even if we never wanted to drive the ruddy things.

Tony said...

How would a clean-living cockney lad ever see the Irish Times?

But yes, I was a Steam Man, having grown up during the last decade of the Steam Age, when you could travel on real trains, so by the time I was 18 there wasn't much I didn't know about Walchaerts' valve gear. I found this got me nowhere at all when I left my all-boys school and met girls for the first time. It was several years before I could think of anything to say to them.