A Railwayman's War - Chapter 4
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
The following afternoon Ray duly arrived at the appointed time and, after signing on, was introduced to his driver. On the way out of the roster room, the driver paused to check the notice board. Every driver, and most firemen, did this because the board held updated route information such as current works and changes in speed limits. Knowing this information almost by heart was an essential and mandatory part of the job. Ray and the driver crossed the lines to the northbound platform. There was never a need to show passes or tickets, their uniform clothes and L.M.S. cap badges were enough. The train arrived and they got into the guard’s compartment. The guard spent the trip doing his paperwork and the driver looked out of the window. This left Ray wondering about how something so momentous to him could, at the same time, appear so ordinary to others.
After a while Ray copied the driver and watched the world go by. The journey took on a different quality now that he was part of the company that made all this happen. A small part, but a part none the less. They passed Harpenden, then the junction at Chiltern Green. It was here that the L.M.S. main line passed over the L.N.E.R. line that went from Luton, Bute Street, through to Hitchin. A branch line slid past almost unnoticed. It was the Hemel Hempstead branch. Ray was not to know, but this line held much in store for him.
At last they came into Luton, Midland Road. The driver got off, followed by Ray. The pair walked the platform and continued down the ramped end onto the path that ran between the tracks. They came at last to the yard. From where they stood, the whole place seemed to be paved with steel. Ray found himself wondering how the driver would know which track to put what wagon on. This foolish thought was dismissed almost instantly, but it served to put him into a more ‘learning’ frame of mind. 7261, the engine that they would work that afternoon, stood before them.
Ray’s driver exchanged pleasantries with the crew that they were to relieve. The other driver turned to Ray and with a slight smile said, “You’re Jimmy’s old boy, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” replied Ray.
“Thought so. Oh well! We’re off now. Bye.”
Ray’s driver was climbing onto the engine by the time Ray turned. He followed.
“Don’t worry,” said the driver, “I’ll tell you what to do.”
And tell he did. Over the course of the shift, Ray learned many things. One of the first was how to hold a shovel. This was not a thing that Ray had given much thought to. The driver explained that as engines were made of steel and therefore very hard, a good way to avoid shedding blood was to hold the shovel with the hand INSIDE the ‘T’ of the handle. A problem solved by a simple yet not instantly obvious solution. Ray was also shown how to place the blade of the shovel in the firebox door so that the draft diverted the smoke and flame. This allowed a good view of the fire bed, essential for knowing where coal was needed.
The driver kept an eye on the fire, all the while giving instruction. ’Put a bit more on the back’, or ‘on the right’, or ‘behind the door’. Ray found out about a ‘bad fire’ and what made a ‘good fire’. A good fire is an incandescent fire with bright flame and ‘NO SMOKE’. Also, that a ‘dull patch’ meant ash and no fire: he had to give this a good poke and recharge the spot.
“It needs a bit more water,” said the driver during a lull in proceedings. Ray looked at him with half formed thoughts of the water tower. The driver tapped the sight glass. “See, now we’ve stopped, the level has steadied and it’s at the bottom of the glass. I’ll show you how to do it.”
Ray looked at the sight glass. It was a ‘Pyrex’ tube about as thick as a thumb mounted in a brass cradle. The level of water inside it was indeed in the bottom quarter. Even now, after they had been stationary for some minutes, the level was rising and falling gently. Ray would find that during shunting the level would fluctuate wildly.
“Look under the cab,” said the driver. Ray did. “See that pipe? Watch.” As Ray watched a jet of water and then steam gushed,roaring and spitting, from the end. The flow quickly died, the sound changed to a slurping, sucking noise. The driver explained to Ray just what was going on.
“You can’t put cold water straight into a boiler. The temperature inside would drop so much that you wouldn’t get any steam for about ten minutes. The water must go in at the same temperature as the water already in there. To do this there is a device called an injector. It’s just a series of cones. This lever opens the water, and this wheel opens the steam. That’s what came out of that pipe. Open the lever slowly until you hear the pipe sucking. Now you see the level rising? When it gets to about three quarters full, shut the steam wheel then close the lever.”
He closed it all and told Ray to try. Ease of use is the mark of a well designed machine so Ray had no difficulty filling the boiler, turning off the steam and water at what he thought was the correct level. So went his first trip, much to do and much to remember.
Being left-handed, Ray had learned to achieve a degree of ambidexterity in a right-handed world. When the driver moved to the other side of the cab, instead of waiting, Ray just changed hands and fired the other way round. He was to find that this was an asset. The driving position on a steam engine varied, some were right-hand drive, for example 3Fs and crabs, and some, such as eight freights and Fowlers were left-hand drive. Most firemen found that on a lot of the engines they got in the driver’s way. Not so with Ray. He would quietly change hands and get on with the job.
On that first day, Ray found that there were two shunts in Luton. The first, the one he was on, being known as ‘THE LUTON SHUNT’. This dealt with the Vauxhall Motors factory, which was involved in the manufacture of military vehicles, and a host of other factories in that general area. With the small engine they would move both full and empty wagons. The full wagons, loaded by the factories, were replaced with empty ones, and wagons filled with raw material were delivered in their place. The remaining empties were put at the top of the yard for collection by the second shunt, ‘THE LIMBURY SHUNT’. This was normally worked by a 3F as the smaller engines did not have the range to complete the evening’s work.
The shunt usually started at six pm. This was not too bad in the summer months: it being wartime, double summer time was in force. The clocks would go forward one hour in March and again in April. The effect of this was that it stayed light until nearly midnight. To get to the Limbury branch, the engine first had to go to Leagrave. The points were closed behind it and would not be opened until the crew personally asked the signal man to open them again. The line itself served the SKF bearing factory and other smaller firms in the same area. The Limbury shunt went on until about two am and the Luton shunt finished at about nine pm.
That first day, Ray learned some of the basic methods involved in the running of a steam locomotive. More importantly, he learned the reasoning behind them. For instance, after he put water into the boiler for the first time, the driver explained that early engines would literally blow up if the water level fell below the crown of the fire box. Later engines overcame this problem by the simple addition of lead plugs set into the top of the fire box. If the water level fell below these, the lead would melt and the steam would put the fire out. The driver would also be in for trouble as everything is, in the end, his responsibility.
Ray also learned that when he became a fireman on a permanent basis, he would be issued with a quarter of a pound of tea every month. The reasoning behind this unexpected act of charity is unclear. Whatever it was, the tea came in VERY useful during the privations of wartime rationing. About mid-afternoon the driver got down from the engine, turned to Ray and said, “Come on, let’s have a cup of tea.” Ray followed him to a small brick built hut. Inside was a small fire and about five locker seats. The driver picked up the kettle, shook it to check the amount of water and placed it on the fire to boil Over the next twenty minutes or so, other shunters joined them. The conversation was varied and unfamiliar. The men asked about him but did not, or could not, include him in their talk. As Ray was ‘the new boy’ this was not surprising. As he was the new boy he did not notice anyway.
Back to the engine and work. Their shift would normally finish at nine pm. Their sign off time was ten past ten but they were allowed twenty minutes to make the journey back to St Albans, and forty five to put the engine away. Ray found that this first shift passed very quickly indeed. Many things went round inside his head as he cycled home that night, above all was the thought ‘how the xxxx am I going to remember all this’.
After his first trip Ray found himself checking the daily roster a little more closely. Every day he would look at the listings and scan them for his pay cheque number. This was a brass disc, slightly larger than a bath plug, with L.M.S. and a number engraved on one side. On pay day, all employees would line up at a small window next to the main station entrance. The clerk inside would ask their name and, once they had produced their pay cheque, would pay them the appropriate sum of money. No envelope, just the money. The unbreakable rule was ‘NO PAY CHEQUE, NO PAY’. Ray was paid two pounds ten shillings a week. His number was 101. The number also denoted seniority; the newest recruit would get the highest number. When someone retired or left, everyone would move up to the next number. Wartime had the effect of speeding this process greatly. During peacetime the railway offered, at least, a secure and constant job. Provided the rules were obeyed.
Over the next weeks, Ray got several more shunting trips. On one such trip, the small engine being busy elsewhere, Ray was firing for a driver by the name of George Tolly, and they were working a 3F on the Luton shunt. George was an amiable man, sixty four years old and happy with his lot in life. When they got to the engine in the Luton yard, George and Ray climbed onto the footplate. Ray was surprised when George picked up the shovel and said, “Go on, you can have the shunt, I’ll fire.” Ray did not need to be told twice.
It must be pointed out that although it was normal for drivers to let firemen ‘have a go’, it was still very much against the rules.
All went well for about an hour or so. They picked up a particularly long train of wagons. The shunter walked to the engine and said to Ray, “Take it right back so the last wagon clears the points.”
“OK,” said Ray and, giving the obligatory toot, opened the regulator. The engine set off, head first, down the long siding at a sedate pace. Ray, seeing the distance to be covered, opened the regulator a bit more. The 3F gathered speed. Near the end of the line Ray started to close the regulator. It closed MOST of the way and then stopped. It would not close right down no matter what Ray did. Ray pulled, and pulled, but it would not budge. The end of the line was rapidly approaching in more ways than one. Ray put the steam brakes on. Although this made him feel better, it did little to impede the engine’s progress.
George, by this time, oblivious to the hand brake that was next to him, was trying to help. His help consisted mainly of hanging on the cab railing for grim death and shouting to Ray, “Pull that lever back, pull that lever back,” and so on. Ray did as he was bid and grasped the reversing lever. This lever moved the valve gear so that the steam operated the pistons the opposite way. With one hundred and eighty pounds per square inch of pressure being quite happy with the way that things were arranged, as soon as Ray pulled the lever out, the pressure pushed the lever back in. And so it came to pass that with George shouting, and Ray doing the hokey kokey, the engine hit the buffers HARD.
Even hard is too soft a word, for the buffers were set into the earth embankment that made up the footings of a road bridge. They did not give at all. The engine stopped dead, the coal shot from the bunker, the reversing lever decided to join in the fun and shot out, hitting Ray a hefty blow to the side. Silence. Inquisitive faces appearing over the parapet of the bridge. Ray standing, literally, knee deep in coal. “Are you all right?” said George.
“No,” said Ray, “I’ve hurt my side.”
George just gave him a ‘serves you right’ look and got off of the engine. Ray started to shovel the coal back into the bunker. He had all but finished when George re-appeared.
“We’ve got twenty seven wagons,” said George heavily, “and you’ve bent twenty six of them.”
Ray felt that this would probably be classed as an own goal. At this point a rather irate shunter appeared. “I told you to go back as far as you could, not go through the bloody bridge.”
By this time, a large, bemused crowd was quietly peering over the bridge parapet. Miraculously not a single wheel had left the rails. But ‘rules is rules’ and the incident was duly reported. Poor George had to face an inquiry at Derby, no less, and came away with a black mark against him. Ray never got to fire for George again.
It was a subdued Ray that sat down to dinner that evening. Halfway through the meal his father arrived home. He took off his coat and cap, he washed his hands, he sat down at the table after greeting his wife and family. His wife placed his plate before him, he cut into the home-grown vegetables and raised a forkful to his mouth. The fork stopped just before his lips; he looked at Ray.
“I hear you’ve been fly shunting.”
Ray’s heart sank, he should have known that there were no secrets ‘on the railway’.