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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Why I am not a trainspotter…

Last weekend I had a day on the railway, the kind of day that always leaves me considering the phrase ‘train spotter’ particularly amusing.

I’ve never hidden my liking for railways, and my particular passion for the narrow gauge lines that long ago earned me the nickname that now adorns the top of this blog. And as a result, I’m quite often called a train spotter, usually by friends who mean it as a term of endearment.

Despite this you can never really get away from the negative connotations that railway enthusiasts attract. If someone has a passion for old cars, you don’t call them a ‘car spotter’ and ask how many numberplates they have written down in their notebooks – but if we like trains…

1401Trainspotter02In fact very few of the thousands of true railway enthusiasts throughout the UK collect engine numbers – fewer still amongst those of us who are actively involved with the many heritage railways. For a start there’s simply not the time, any spare days available needed to keep these lines running.

A great many people contribute a great many days to their particular railways – our little line in Wales, the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway has, for example, a Chairman that comes from Aberdeen and one volunteer who spends two or three weeks each year carrying out anything from coaling locos to the universally-hated but necessary job of emptying the ashpit – he does this having flown over from Canada…

Last Sunday my ‘train spotting’ consisted of sitting all day in a meeting, with no view of trains. As a Trustee of my line, I was on this particular day part of a team dealing with such delights as updating a health and safety risk register, the ever-increasing challenge of persuading enough visitors to spend their money with us each year, deciding how we go about raising the £65,000 currently required to restore one of our locomotives, and the need to spend several thousand on a new coffee machine for the tearoom. No trains on this day…

1401Trainspotter03When not doing that, I’m the line’s press officer, spending plenty of time away from the trains sitting at a computer writing press releases, not that far removed from my day job. Not nearly often enough, I am able to join the team in the workshop, actually contributing to the intensive level of maintenance that is required to keep our old rolling stock still rolling. Such maintenance is needed all year round but the pace steps up in winter, without the distraction of running trains. However the workshop can be a very cold, draughty place at this time of year and one always hopes to be given a job somewhere near the industrial space heaters…

1401Trainspotter05Such a luxury is not afforded to those out on the track. This includes three of our four paid staff (yes, only four, and the fourth is in the workshop). Winter is the only time major track relays can take place, and the team of staff and equally hardy volunteers spend day after day enduring whatever the weather throws at them – and in January, it’s quite a lot…

And me, I’m a bit player compared to some of our number, who no matter what the temperature, or the precipitation level, turn out week after week to provide the intense labour needed to keep our very early 20th century relic of a transport system going.

Only after all that, can we spend the summer months ‘playing trains’ – but certainly not being train spotters…

1401Trainspotter04In ‘the business’ there is another word for the train spotter. They are known as gricers, but this is a term used in wide ranging scenarios. For example if we go to another line merely to have a day out, we’re “going for a grice”.

But there’s also a much more negative connotation – applied to the small but irritating minority of ‘enthusiasts’ who never ride the train, never even buy a cuppa in the tearoom, but think the photos they take are more important than anything else, and that we should have no issue with them yelling at fare-paying passengers to get out of the way, or walking down the track when trains are running just to choose their perfect spot.

Those are the gricers, and far removed from us true enthusiasts – most of us are quite normal actually, just don’t call us train spotters…

Thanks to various staff and volunteers of the Welshpool & Llanfair Light Railway for photos used in this blog. You can find out more about the line, when to visit, how to get involved, here