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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