If there’s one thing even more fun than riding on a steam train, it’s driving it yourself. The Moment finds out how you can on the Nene Valley Railway
Once Upon a time, most young boys wanted to be engine drivers. And while diesel and electric power may have diminished the romance of rail and most boys these days would rather sign with Manchester United or write a best-selling computer game, for many of us, the allure of steam remains strong.
There is just something about a hissing, smoking, clanking steam locomotive that is utterly evocative and enticing; good old fashioned heavy engineering rather than a collection of microchips, wires and sensors. It lives, breathes and has a soul.
Fortunately, for those of us with reveries beyond football or video games, the chance to live out our dreams of steam can be fulfilled – if even for just a few hours – by Peterborough’s Nene Valley Railway. The heritage line offers a variety of driving experiences, whereby the public can take the wheel – or rather wheels, as the average railway locomotive has quite a few – of a steam or diesel loco and see if they have what it takes to pilot something a little more complex than a Ford Focus. And that’s why I’m at Wansford Station, awaiting the arrival of the 09:30 departure to Peterborough which, for at least part of the way, I’ll be in control of. So, no pressure then…
A whistle from down the line and the increasingly more voluble pant and beat of something steam- powered signals the imminent arrival of the train. And it is a train; behind the locomotive is a brake van for the other rookie drivers on the course as well as our NVR staff guides. Also inside is a big wheel which, when turned, applies separate brakes to those on the engine. With my driving, that may well come in useful.
Providing the grunt for our trip is Class 4F 0-6-0 steam locomotive No 44422. Constructed in Derby by the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1927, 44422 spent much of its life plying the legendary Somerset & Dorset Railway between Bath and Bournemouth. This undulating cross-country route was a challenge for any locomotive, and 44422 would have had to make full use of its brawn. Steam locomotives don’t have their muscle measured in horsepower like a car, with them it’s all about the torque. This one has 24,555 pounds of force. To put that into perspective, the Ford Focus mentioned earlier would typically have between 170 and 200 to play with, if a current 1.6-litre model. The 85-year old machine has considerably more pulling power. No 44422 has also been immortalised in model railway form. And when I was a kid living in Bournemouth – yes, 44422’s old stomping ground – I had the 00-gauge model version of it. So getting to drive the real thing truly is realising a childhood ambition.
Before that can happen though, there’s basic instruction. As we trundle off through the long and very dark Yarwell Tunnel, I’m allocated to Bob Plant, the fireman, while a fellow journalist gets the enviable task of being the first to be taught the best job, courtesy of driver Peter Greenwood. It’s a tight squeeze on the footplate for four people, especially as my task involves swinging a hefty coal- filled shovel from the tender to the roaring firebox. It might not seem like there’s much to learn about putting coal on a fire, but actually, there is. The fire needs to be even to burn most efficiently, so each shovelful has to go in a different place; near left, near right, far left, far right and then a few loads in the centre. It’s quite a scientific process but also a backbreaking one. And this is just on a short 7.5-mile line on an engine doing 20mph with just one van in tow. Imagine it during the heyday of steam, at much higher speeds, with much heavier loads, and over much vaster distances. Other duties include making sure there’s enough water in the boiler. It’s measured by watching the level in two glass containers.
If it falls too low, a small stopcock on the side of the cab needs to be turned to inject more. And how do you tell it is working? Just look over the side of the loco for the inevitable leakage from the pipes.
Just as I’m getting into the swing of things – literally, with my shovel – it’s my turn to drive. Peter gives me the lowdown. Despite the fact that the loco’s footplate is generously endowed with wheels and levers, most of them can be ignored. The crucial ones are the reverser – a big red wheel on the left of the cab which acts as a sort of gear – which must be set to forward. Once that is done, the brake – a lever just above it – can be disengaged and then the regulator – a huge two- handled lever dominating the centre of the cab – nudged forward to get the engine underway.
Most people’s favourite control is up near the roof, the whistle. And, yes, shoving it to induce a high-pitched scream is every bit as much fun as you’d expect. This is rugged 1920s’ technology so there are no handy little universal symbols marked on things to tell you what they do, and no gentle press-buttons or delicate finger-manipulated stalks. Everything has to be forcibly manhandled; heavyweight engineering needs a heavy hand to make it give its best. There’s not even a speedometer to tell you how fast you’re going. Peter and Bob seem to know instinctively, but to me, it feels a lot faster than 20mph. Being on a bucking, wheezing locomotive with smoke billowing past the windows, steam oozing from the pipes and a roaring fire singeing your front does rather suspend your perception of the real world. It’s completely different to anything else.
But it is also immensely fulfilling too, being in charge of something so utterly powerful and charismatic and mastering the procedures for starting, stopping and whistling a warning at any distracted golfers not looking as they cross the line from one half of the Nene Park Golf Course. There’s so much to be aware of, keep your eye on and remember. The responsibility of doing this for a living, back before steam disappeared from Britain’s main railways back in 1968, must have been awesome. But I can quite see why so many once wanted to be train drivers.
And I’ll tell you something else too; drive a steam locomotive and you’ll never be fulfilled by a Ford Focus ever again.
Diesel driver experiences on the Nene Valley Railway start from £195, steam ones are from £245. For further details, see the NVR’s website at www.nvr.org.uk or ring 01780 784444.