First-turn nerves on date with a Countess

For this still in his opinion fairly rookie locomotive fireman, qualified just over three years and having last summer survived his first three-year assessment, the opening turn of a new season is always accompanied by some trepidation.

I shouldn’t feel such butterflies, as to be honest once I am on a footplate it all comes back pretty quickly, but a break from such duties that can stretch around six months can so easily leave one feeling more than a tad rusty.

This year the trepidation was certainly there. Complicated demands of my day job had resulted in my last turn of 2013 being rather early, at the end of September a full month before the season ended. The 2014 season would start a couple of weeks later than in 2013, in April instead of March. And unlike previous seasons, I had been unable to get involved in the out-of-season boiler tests which at least gives one the opportunity to practice the early morning lighting-up process.

So first turn of 2014 was set, for Wednesday 16th April, and two things added to my jitters. Firsty, the assigned locomotive was ‘Countess’ – supposedly the same as sister loco (brother loco?) ‘The Earl’ but anything but, and known for its propensity to have the sulks and be awkward to firemen. “You’ve been Countessed” is a well-known phrase among Llanfiar footplate crew…

Secondly, I was rostered with JB, one of the drivers who makes me most nervous. To be honest that’s not really fair on JB – on initial acquaintance he seems a dour sort who doesn’t suffer fools, but underneath he’s really a kindly soul who will give you all the help he can, especially if you are a fireman suffering from a recalcitrant loco…

Anyway having sorted out all my gear, made my usual foray the day before to ensure there were plenty of rags marinated in diesel and wood ready for lighting up (I keep my own ‘stash’ at home just in case…), I still didn’t get to light up.

I was supposed to be F1 – in the shed at 6am, light and prepare the loco and take the first two of the day’s three trips. But Iain the F2, who would normally take the last trip and put the loco to bed, asked to swap places – he would light up but could I do both trip 2 and 3? Couple of extra hours in bed, tough choice…

1404Countess02So after a morning spent on ‘general duties’ I joined JB on the footplate for the 1pm train. And yes, it all came back pretty quickly, and the trip to Welshpool went pretty well. While potentially the biggest challenge, the ascent of our 1 in 29 Golfa bank, awaited, I was reasonably confident…

So of course it all went wrong… Before leaving I’d taken care to have a good poke around in the fire, hunting the dreaded clinker, and I had a roaring blaze as we left. It all seemed to be going well, but halfway up, the pressure started falling back, and could I stop it?

A pause for a ‘blow-up’ at the top of the bank gave both myself and JB another chance to “look in the hole” and we agreed there was plenty of fire and of the right colour. But still she proved obstinate, embarrassingly making us stop for some extra water before descending the steep bank into Castle station. By the time we reached Llanfair, Countess seemingly having got over her sulks, I was a very unhappy fireman…

The good thing was, my odd hybrid turn meant that just half an hour later, after a very quick cuppa brought by my replacement driver Del, I had to do it all again. And wouldn’t you believe it, this time everything went swimmingly. We roared up the Golfa, pausing only briefly at the top, and for most of the trip it was a case of using the injector to keep the safety valves merely feathering, and the smile seldom left Del’s face.

They say our line is one of the harder heritage railways to fire on, and I’m sure they are right. A day on the footplate can be frustrating and maddening, but at the end of the day, it’s also pretty addictive…

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Red light spells anger…

Taking Mrs C and number two son to work this morning, I drove out of our little ‘town’ (it’s a village really, but we get told off for calling it that…) to find yet another set of temporary traffic lights had sprung up on the main road – this set neatly straddling the pedestrian crossing to the local High School, which made for some interesting working out by the traffic…

1404traffic04Now I know that as the weather improves now is the time we are likely to see more roadworks, as the council tries to make good the ravages of the winter and fill in all the resultant potholes before the prime tourist months, but we seem to get epidemics of these lights. You’ll go for weeks without any, and then bang, three or four sets on one stretch of road – they seem to breed…

I’m reminded that some 15 years ago I was writing on this very subject, in the ‘Sideways Glance’ comment column of the Surrey local newspaper I edited – I was seeing red about seeing red. I recall I said; “This week I am not glancing sideways, I am staring straight ahead at what appears to be an ever-growing epidemic of temporary traffic lights – Trafficlightus Temporarnus.”

Well the first thing I will say is the way roadworks are done in Wales is generally a huge improvement on what passes for repairs in Surrey where i used to live. Back then whichever utility needed the road dug up would come along, dig a hole, make whatever repair they needed, slap some tarmac over the top and go away, leaving a nice hump or bump for traffic to negotiate. Then more often than not just days later another utility mob would come along and do the same thing – in the same spot…

Here in mid Wales they do things somewhat differently. The temporary lights arrive, while the affected bit of road is ripped up – not just one spot, they take a huge slice out. And passing by the works, you have to travel slowly, as the lights control a ‘convoy system’, traffic headed by one of the workers in a van or on a quad-bike travelling at a suitably slow speed.

While this is going on the road surface is put back properly – and I mean properly. While works are underway the convoy system is a mild pain in the butt for thos eof us wanting to be somewhere else, but once it’s finished the result is a top-quality surface with no lumps and bumps – it’s really good.

1404traffic03It made me laugh a couple of Springs ago when following a really harsh winter some locals were complaining about the resultant pot holes – “Why doesn’t the council do something?” and the like. But these potholes were on a back lane, and when I saw them – well they looked just like what is considered normal on Surrey A roads that take much more traffic. How the other half live eh?

Generally I find Welsh road workers far more considerate than Surrey ones. For example even in our rural location they seem quite happy to work late at night when the traffic is almost non-existent. I was seriously impressed when travelling home very late one night I discovered the road being ripped up close to where we lived and made a mental note to add 10 minutes to the work run the following morning. When we passed by next morning not only were the road works finished but the white lines had been repainted…

There’s still one aspect, however, that no-one seems to be able to get right – all the various utilities talking to each other. One set of lights on a road is followed by three more as four separate organisations decide to do their work at once. We had to have a water main replaced in the village at the start of the year, which meant a complex and quite tight diversion route for a couple of weeks. So of course Highways decided to do some resurfacing at the same time, on the diversion route – no matter where you went you couldn’t avoid the dreaded traffic lights.

In that column 15 years ago I alluded to the very regular occasions when temporary traffic lights go wrong; “Usually it’s when there’s absolutely no-one responsible around. You sit for what seems like hours staring at a red light, knowing full well that if you chance driving through you will either get an angry broadside from a person coming the other way or worse meet a police car…”

I then described one such occasion; “I could see people working in the hole, and traffic queued at the other end, but my light refused to change. Eventually I carefully drove down the road and stopping by a workman told him in a friendly, informative sort of way that his traffic light appeared to have stuck. “I know” he replied in a tone that suggested I was making the most stupid statement ever. I was so shocked I drove sheepishly away!”

1404traffic01Well it happened again a few weeks ago, just outside Welshpool. I could see the blokes sitting in a van so I carefully made my way past the red light, pulled up alongside the van and told them their lights had broken, at which point they laughed at me…

Well I wasn’t sheepish this time – we didn’t have Twitter in the old days. I discovered the traffic light suppliers had a Twitter feed, and I had a moan on Twitter – big mistake…

Within half an hour I had a phone call from a manager at the company concerned, wanting full details. More phone calls followed, along with e-mails and lots more, costing me rather more time than the traffic light had, while they followed up my ‘complaint’. It wasn’t a complaint, it was a frustrated me letting off steam! On reflection, I should have kept quiet…