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On the Footplate of an Express

Three Hours with the Driver of a Carlisle to Crewe Train

George the Fifth, a 4-4-0 locomotive of the LMS

“George the Fifth”, a loco of the same type as that dealt with in this article.

I RECENTLY had the pleasure of riding on the footplate of an express locomotive and as my experience is one that every reader would have liked, I think you may all be interested to hear something of it. Before giving you an account of my trip, however, I will tell you something of what I know about locos and the men who run them.

In a modern express locomotive speed is a necessary quality, but hauling power also is required, for in order to pay its way an express train nowadays has to be made up to weigh at least 300 tons for a long-distance run. Indeed, many trains of to-day reach the enormous weight of 440 to 450 tons, exclusive of the weight of the locomotive and tender - say another 100 tons. To produce a loco of sufficient power to haul this load at average speeds of from 50 to 60 miles an hour is an achievement of which our engineers are justly proud. Such a task has been straightforward in America and other countries, but in Great Britain the limits imposed by the small dimensions of our tunnels and bridges have been a tremendous handicap.

I began to take a keen interest in locos in the ‘80’s, when the “fliers” had one pair of large driving wheels 7 ft 6-in or 8 ft in diameter. They weighed from 40 to 60 tons, and their steam pressure was usually 120 lb. To-day there are two or three pairs of coupled wheels 6 ft to 7 ft in diameter, the weight averages 100-130 tons, and the steam pressure is some 200 lb. Against 1,500 sq ft of heating surface in the old days there is now as much as 2,500 sq ft.

So much for the locos - now a word about the men. Among the latter are some of my oldest and truest friends, men who have always been considerate to me, although at times I have been - and fear I shall always be - a fearful nuisance to them, asking “What is this?” and “Why is that?” Speaking generally, if you wish to see fine specimens of manhood, have a look at the enginemen when next yon are making a journey by rail. If they are fresh on duty you will observe clean, healthy skins, bright eyes, and a steady alertness that is delightful to behold. They are not perfect, but as a type of keen, intelligent men they are hard to beat.

When the enginemen come on duty, usually 70 minutes before the departure of their train, they “sign on” in a book. The driver is then handed forms on which he must enter particulars of his day’s work. For a passenger driver there are two statements, one called the “Engine Driver’s Ticket” which is quite a formidable document. On this, full details as to loads, shunting-duties, running times, piloting or banking assistance, hours standing in steam, state of weather, coal or water received from other railways, have to be entered in full. The other is the “Guard’s Statement for Driver”, and, has to be filled in by the guard with particulars of the coaches comprising the train to be worked, and, later, its actual running times.

After receiving these forms, and filling in as much as possible of the “Ticket”, the driver goes to the notice board. Here he finds full information as to repairs in progress on the line, altered signals, or any other matters affecting the working of the train. He next examines the “Repair Book” to see what defects, if any, there were in his loco when she was last worked, and it is his duty to make sure that each small matter has been put right. He then makes sure that the tank and boiler of the loco are filled, that there is plenty of coal in the tender and sand in the sand-boxes, and that the outfit of tools is complete. This done, he proceeds to “oil up” from front to rear, a task which takes much time - on the loco on which I made my trip there are no less than 61 cups or lubricators to be filled!

The fireman also inspects the notices and then proceeds to draw the necessary fire shovel, supplies of oil, waste, lamp wick, etc, from the stores. He then goes to the loco and sees that the fire has been started, that steam is rising satisfactorily and that the lamps are in working order. After stoking up he trims the lamps and places them on sockets in front or rear as may be required, and brushes up the footplate to make it presentable.

These preparations on the part of both the enginemen take up about 45 minutes, and it is time to back down to the station from which the first trip of the day is about to start.

My trip was on the old LNW main line from Carlisle to Crewe, over what we call the “North Road”. The LNW (now the LMS) is one of the trunk lines of the country, and from its earliest days it has been noted for its fine locos. I started my journey from Perth, travelling as an ordinary passenger as far as Carlisle. The Perth portion of my train should have been attached to one from Glasgow, but my portion was over an hour late - there was a coal strike in progress at the time - and when I reached Carlisle I found that it had been arranged for the Perth train to be worked specially right, through to London.

The Cab of the George the Fifth loco

 The cab of the “George the Fifth”.

Over the Caledonian line we had used the Westinghouse brake, but with the change of engines this gave place to the Automatic Vacuum. Before the latter brake can be. used the power of the Westinghouse brake must be exhausted.

The engine on which I was to be a traveller was a modern 4-4-0 of the well-known “George V” type, and the shed number at the top of the back of the cab indicated that it belonged to Crewe. This made me look at the driver, and I ascertained that although he was a Carlisle man turned out to work the late-running train as a special, the opportunity was being taken of returning the Crewe people their engine.

Along came the guard and informed the driver that the train weighed only 207 tons (eight carriages) - a mere trifle for our powerful loco - which piece of news the driver greeted with a smile. A good moment, thought I, to introduce myself, and I brought forth my coveted foot-plate permit and was told to make myself as much at home as the fine coal dust - you must remember the coal strike - permitted.

When our loco, “John Bateson” by name, backed carefully on to the train, he was whimpering plaintively from his safety valve, as though to say he had grown tired of waiting for us to appear off the Caledonian line. Now he was blowing off very loudly, for the damper had been opened and the fire made much more fierce in consequence. The driver had reversed the motion to forward gear and had opened the ejector so that the guard might test the brake at the rear of the train. The fireman, having coupled the engine on to the train, came aboard with a cheery “All correct, Bob,” and the Station Inspector came to announce “You are to miss Lancaster to-day.”

The trained eye noted several evidences of keenness on the part of the enginemen. For one thing, as “John Bateson” backed towards the train the rails were sprinkled with sand to ensure a start without slipping, and now the fireman tested the water-gauge and opened the fire-hole to make sure his fire was not burning hollow. Then he rolled up the sleeves of his jacket and 1 could see that, at any rate as far as he was concerned, only business was meant!

When the regulator was opened, the first few yards were not very steady, and there was collected moisture in the cylinders to be expelled with great noise and fuss by way of the draincocks. The driver kept a close watch on the signals as we drew clear of the station approach, for it sometimes happens that trains that are starting have to be stopped again on account of some unexpected occurrence.

We were getting away in style now and the fireman, had already started with his shovel. Down below us were the extensive goods yards for dealing with the vast amount of traffic to and from Scotland. We were finding a slight incline leading us out past Upperby, where the extensive LNW section sheds are situated.

At this stage the driver is able to weigh up the qualities of his loco, glancing at the lubricator in front of him and at the gauge showing how the efficiency of the super-heater is enabling the steam pressure to be maintained. Meantime, on goes the injector sending a supply of water into the boiler.

The ability of the fireman now gets a chance to show itself. If he is a capable man he will keep the steam just whispering from the safety valve, and to do this he has to regulate the fire and the water supply, and these are acutely affected by every change of gradient. The task demands great skill and judgment, and also unremitting attention. On this occasion his work was astonishingly good. He had inferior coal to work with, hut the needle of the pressure gauge did not move more than five points all the way. When there was a long tough stretch of uphill he cut off the water until it got rather low, and just when I was beginning to wonder whether he was not very daring, the safety valve began to tune up and on went the injector.

There were other interesting points to be noted. The small, dusty coal was liable to overheat the smoke-box, and the ashes had to be cleared out every 10 minutes or so. This was done by turning on a steam-blower in the smoke-box.

When “John Bateson” was tackling the heavy inclines up to Shap Summit, the firing had to be done very skilfully indeed. In the meantime the driver was as busy on the left-hand side of the footplate as the fireman upon the other. Having sized up his loco’s abilities, he adjusted the steam supply to the cylinders in order to maintain a high speed on both constant uphill and occasional downhill stretches, and he never failed to watch the signals as they flew past. It was a fine sight to see these two experts exercising their knowledge and judgment to the full.

We had to call at Penrith first of all, and the time allowance from Carlisle was 29 minutes. I was too interested in watching the driving and firing of the loco to time the train by means of a stopwatch, but I had another way of finding out how we were doing - I watched the faces of the signalmen as we passed their boxes. Most of them had a smile, and this meant that we were keeping to schedule. One who looked concerned had no doubt allowed a laggard goods train to leave with not too much time to get shunted out of the way into a siding at the next box in advance. Altogether I was not surprised to find we had reached Penrith in 24 minutes instead of 29.

Our next call was to be Carnforth, but first came the steep climb to Shap Summit on the crest of the lonely fells, 914 ft above sea-level. After breasting the summit there was a tempting run of five miles down the other side of the gradient of 1 in 75.

Through Tebay and Low Gill - where a line branches off towards Yorkshire via Ingleton - we flashed, the steam being kept on sufficiently to warm the cylinders, and then followed the longer though flatter gradient down Grayrigg Bank to Oxenholme. If the driver had wanted to do anything sensational this would have been his chance, but he was wise. He had no desire to overtake other trains on this busy main line. They themselves would be keeping to schedule time, and there would have been some excitement had “John Bateson’s” headlong rush forced them into undignified sidings!

We had started from Carlisle on the dot of 2.35 and as we stopped at Carnforth at 4.0 p.m. we had already picked up eleven minutes, but of course the load was very easy. By the time Preston (90 miles) had been passed the gain of minutes was 16.

A Single-Driver Express Passenger Loco, built at Doncaster in 1870

A “Single-Driver” Express Passenger Loco, built at Doncaster in 1870.

As we were nearing Preston, tearing along the levels of West Lancashire at very high spend, the fireman beckoned me to move to one side of my corner by the tender toolbox, and I caught the word “Water” from him above the roar of our passage. He stood at a small wheel, and then, before I knew what had happened, there was a hiss and a roar, a spattering of spray, and the water level in our tender-tank was rising at a great rate. We had filled up and were off the water-troughs again in the twinkling of an eye, and the scoop was immediately raised, otherwise it might damage points or cut its way through sleepers at level crossings.

As we speeded southward I continued to watch the various activities of the driver. He was amazingly alert. Every signal was carefully watched for, and in the case of a tardy signalman pulling over his lever only a short way ahead of us, an imperious blast on the whistle resulted. Where working parties of platelayers were passed on the line he kept his eyes on them until the train was well past.

He was always on the lookout for any flag-waving or lamp held aloft or other sign of distress or alarm. When the signals for trains in the opposite direction went off and heralded an approaching fast or slow, our driver watched for the newcomer and examined it closely in passing for opened carriage doors or anything else unusual.

Round the sharper curves he gently applied the air brake to steady the train, and before approaching a junction or large station lie frequently tested the working of his brakes for a moment or two. In rounding curves he also glanced back along the train to see if all was well. Every sound of the loco’s working had its meaning for him, and had the slightest rattle or “knock” set in, or even a slight unusual hiss of steam, he would have been on its trail at once. Every smell from the oily monster reached his nostrils, and the momentary sniff of an axle running hot, or the peculiar warm smell caused by friction in the motion, or the burning off of paint, would have found him stopping, or at least going round the frames to investigate.

The run lost something of its interest beyond Preston, as the line through a comer of industrial Lancashire becomes very complicated. With so much time in hand the driver could afford to take things easily, and only once or twice did “John Bateson” exceed 65 mph. Crossing the Mersey at Warrington, after a very careful approach, we entered upon the final stage across Cheshire to Crewe where our gallant steed had been built.

During the last few miles the fire was allowed to drop, and by the time we had drawn up at the long and crowded platform there was not enough pressure to raise the safety valves while the white heat in the fire-box had crimsoned to a dull red. When we were uncoupled, and the shunting-signal was snapped down for “John Bateson” to part with the train he had brought from the far northern border, another loco of the same type, with pressure up and great clouds of steam blowing off, backed on and was soon speeding southward for London.

In conclusion I will add a few interesting observations that I made on this footplate trip from Carlisle to Crewe. Approximately 4 tons of coal were shovelled into the box in 66 short spells of firing. No less than 136 different operations were performed by the engine crew, many of them frequently repeated. During the run of 141 miles we passed 42 stations, 17 junctions, 110 signal-boxes and 344 signals. Each of these signals had to be accurately observed, for the passing of one at danger might have involved the train and its 300 passengers in disaster. Hats off to the British locomotive men!

You can read more about “Driving a Locomotive”, “Locomotive Accessories” and “On the Night Goods” on this website.