A Railwayman's War - Chapter 5

The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system

By Derek Welch

LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 ("Black Five") 1968
Creative Commons https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_5_45073_at_Rose_Grove.jpg

A couple of days later, just as Ray had convinced himself that he would probably spend his working life down the ash pit, he was surprised to see that he had another shunting trip.  He would be standing in for a chap who had gone sick.  During a lull in the shunt, his driver asked him about the incident on his previous shunt.  Ray explained, in as much detail as he could, what had occurred.  The driver listened to the tale, his amusement growing steadily.  When Ray recounted his battle with the reversing lever the driver laughed out loud.   Ray was mildly surprised to find himself laughing along with him.  He finished the story and asked, “So, what went wrong?”

“Well,” said the driver, “you were pulling the wrong lever. You’d gone into second regulator and the only way to get it back to first regulator is to move the lever, quickly, to fully open and then immediately to the first quarter of the regulator quadrant.” 

Ray felt the explanation lacked somewhat.

“Do what?” said Ray, puzzled.

“Look,” said the driver settling himself more comfortably, “the regulator controls the PRESSURE of steam going to the cylinders. On a 3F it is split, if you like, into two halves.  The first half of the movement gives you low speed control.  The second half gives you less fine control for higher speeds.  It has a similar effect as the gears on a car.  Unless you take the lever all the way through second to fully open and THEN close down to first, the back pressure will hold it open.  I’ll bet you don’t make THAT mistake again.” 

Ray knew he certainly would NOT, but he was convinced that he would never be let loose on an engine again.  Much to his surprise, however, only about a week or two later Ray got his first passenger trip.  Ironically it was to be on the same train that took him to his first shunt in Luton.

He was to fire the two fifty one to Luton.  He stood, with the driver, at the end of the platform rather than in the middle as he had done before.  The train arrived and its crew alighted. Ray’s driver greeted them as he and Ray boarded the engine.  Ray, who had a few weeks experience by now, opened the fire box door. The fire was in reasonable, not perfect, condition.  Some firemen were not above leaving a fire in a poor state by ignoring it for the last minutes of their trip. 

Ray tended the fire and put a little more water into the boiler. The driver got the all clear from the guard and they were off. The trip itself proved quiet and uneventful.  They duly arrived in Luton, Midland Road, and after uncoupling and moving the engine to the other end of the train, they pulled out, past the points, and reversed into the rather small platform three.

“Settle the fire, lad,” said the driver, “we’ve got an hour or so to wait now.” 

Ray did as he was bid and the time passed quickly with the driver answering questions and relating anecdotes.  At about five o’clock the engine was again coming to full readiness for the trip to London.  Five fifteen, and the all stations ‘slow’ train was under way.  Into St.Pancras at six twenty five, where the engine was uncoupled and put into a siding.  About half an hour later another engine would be coupled to the train and off it would go.  Ray and his driver were not due out until eight twenty.  Checks to be made on the engine, water to be taken on, and, when all this was safely done, a welcome meal break. 

Eight twenty saw them once more on their way to Luton, arriving at nine twenty five.  After uncoupling the engine again, they returned to St Albans without a train.  This was called ‘running light’. They put the engine away and at ten fifty one Ray got to go home to bed. 

Ray’s most vivid memory of that trip was coasting from West Hampstead to Haverstock Hill.  Here there is a tunnel that is about a mile long and seeing brickwork going past his head, inches away, the noise in the confined space, the cab filling with smoke so that everything had to be done by touch alone, left a lasting impression on Ray.  In later years he would find that there was an electrically lit signal halfway through and if this was on amber, the signal at the end of the tunnel would be red. If it was green then a good run at the hill could be achieved.

Unfortunately, the smoke meant that the only way to see this was for the hapless fireman to hang out of the bottom of the cab so that his head was below the worst of the smoke.  He would usually do this hoping that nothing was coming the other way.  If this signal was missed in the gloom, then the driver had to continue at a pace that would allow him to stop if the second signal was red.  The resulting struggle up the hill would make the fireman’s job so much harder. 

The job was difficult enough as it was.  The L.M.S. employed various inspectors, but the one that the firemen worried about was the ‘SMOKE INSPECTOR’.  Ray nearly fell foul of one such.

It had been an afternoon like many others.  Fred was driving the 2.6.2. 3P bunker first to London, St Pancras.  They went this way because of the downhill gradients between Cricklewood and St P. To explain: when a steam engine goes down a hill, the water in the boiler naturally tends to slope to the front.  This makes it difficult for the fireman to know the exact level.  It also means that, on a long hill, the fire does not produce steam quite so efficiently. 

Ray had just put a large quantity of coal on.  This was to be the last BIG stoke this trip: the rest of the journey being downhill, Ray would only have to keep the fire even.  They stopped at Cricklewood station just as he closed the fire box door. Suddenly, the station began to fill with thick, black smoke.  A lot of engines have a device at the front called a ‘blower’.  This has the effect of FORCING air through the fire, making it burn much more efficiently.  Fred had, for some reason, turned the blower off.  Quickly, Ray turned it back on.  Dark thoughts all the way to St Pancras.  They pulled into platform three and stopped.

“I’ll fetch the tea then,” said Ray and went to the mess room that was on platform seven.  When he got back, Fred was arguing furiously with a man.  As Ray approached, he saw that it was a smoke inspector.  He had, apparently, got on at Cricklewood and was complaining about the black smoke.

“We never made any smoke” said Fred.  “He’s too good a fireman to do that.” 

Ray could tell by the man’s face that he was not about to swallow this and said, “Well, I was making a bit.  I put a bit on the fire, saw the smoke and realised that the blower wasn’t on.  Sorry”. 

The inspector looked at them both.  Fred shot Ray a ‘thanks for not dropping me in it’ glance.

“I’ll let you off this time then.  But I’m glad that you owned up or I would have thrown the book at you.”  They both thanked him, knowing just how large the ‘book’ was.

It seems to us now that to monitor environmental pollution is always a good thing.  It also seems incongruous to do it in time of war when man is doing his level best to destroy the place. But ‘rules is rules’.

Another inspector who was unpopular, although by and large that seems to have been the inspector’s role throughout history, was the ‘Permanent Way Inspector’.  It was his job to oversee any work carried out on the track, or to give it its correct title ‘the permanent way’.  It was this man who saw to it that all repairs were done to an exacting standard.  Track that was not one hundred per cent, or that was being worked on, had a speed limit imposed upon it.

This chap would hide behind a bridge, or similar, and time all the engines that passed him.  Any that he found going too fast were reported.  It must be remembered that nine out of ten engines did not have a speedometer.  The speed would be judged by the driver, who used his skill and experience and his extensive local route knowledge.  In other words, he guessed it.  There was a method of calculating speed, but as it involved counting things and then dividing this number by the dog’s birthday, it was not widely used.

Of all the inspectors, the men that most LOOKED the part were the loco inspectors.  The two that stood out in Ray’s mind were Mr Perry and Mr Jackson.  These gentlemen wore bowler hats, black suits and dark overcoats.  They had the right to get on the footplate of any engine and would ride with you for as long as they pleased.  This might be for one stop, or it could have been for the whole journey.  While on board they would check the crew’s job knowledge and sometimes would even ask questions. Both driver and fireman would be subject to a system of continuous appraisal throughout their working lives.  Usually they would board the train at Cricklewood and would ride, in total silence, to St Albans.  Once, Ray was complimented on ‘his ability to keep steam pressure constant, regardless of engine’s speed’.  In later years, Mr Perry would be the examiner when Ray took his driving test. 

The questions asked were usually about rules and regulations.  A favourite was, “What is rule fifty five?”  Now, rule fifty five was a very long rule that covered most things that might possibly occur during a shift.  It did not stretch quite as far as the second coming, but did not fall too far short.  It covered things as diverse as changing the colours on the front and rear lamps, and specified six methods of ‘wrong way running’.  This is when, for one reason or another, an engine had to go down the up line, or vice versa.  To this day, although he cannot remember the rule, Ray can remember Mr Perry teaching him a mnemonic. “MOSCOWS.  Forget the M and the letters left will give you the points of the rule.”

All crew were graded into links.  The top link drivers would work local and ‘fast’ passenger trains, number two link drivers would work local passenger trains with small engines and six coaches. At the time, Ray was on number three link.  This was more usually known as the control or relief link.  Working the control link meant that crews never knew what they would get next.  They would find themselves driving an eight freight or a 4F potato train or even a Garrett.  The trains would be mostly goods, and often this would be coal.  It was when they pulled coal that steam locomotives really displayed their true power.  Each engine would pull sixty four fully loaded wagons.  Eight hundred and fifty tons in all.  The mighty Garrett engines would pull eighty four wagons.  That is over one thousand one hundred tons of coal.

The coal was taken to one of two main depots.  One was at Cricklewood, and one was at Brent south west.  When they passed the signal box south of St Albans, at Napsbury, the crew would use the whistle to let the signalman know their intended destination.  Four blasts for Brent, and ‘cock a doodle do’ meant Cricklewood.  The signalman would wire ahead to the box at Hendon, Silkstream, and pass the information on.  When the train arrived at the two signals that guarded the lines to Brent and Cricklewood, the signal controlling the line to your destination would, sometimes, be against you.  The driver would remind the Hendon signalman by repeating the destination code on the whistle.  If the signal just went up and down a few times, this meant that this particular coal depot was full of trains queuing to unload, and that your train had been diverted to the other one.  It was not unusual for a train to queue for up to four hours behind four other trains.  At least this meant a bit of overtime, and on the whole Ray found that the unusual and varied work made him prefer working the control link. 

The range of engines that Ray got to drive was almost as varied as the work.  Dealing with mixed traffic meant driving crabs and black fives, even, on occasions, a baby scot.  One train that the  St Albans drivers hated was the ‘Carlisle fitted’.  Although pulled by the ubiquitous black five, the wagons all had brakes so a higher average speed could be achieved.  This had the effect of lengthening the trips and crews would find themselves a very long way from home. 

This resulted in two main procedural changes. Firstly, any trip that was longer than a hundred miles meant that the crew got a mileage allowance for all miles covered over this distance.  Secondly, as their time on the footplate was, for obvious safety reasons, limited, if the weather conspired against them they would leave the train, mid trip, and be put into a lodging dormitory for the night.

The engines would be thrashed and punished mercilessly in an attempt to finish the journey, or at least get to one of the better lodging dorms.  The relief crew would arrive to find an engine with a dirty, clinker laden fire, and a bunker that was half empty.  The control link was made up of mainly younger drivers and firemen so the crews tended to take this type of thing in their stride. 

At least, now that he was working regularly on the footplate, Ray did not have to go calling up. Some older employees did still get this task, but they were the men who either could not, or did not want to drive anymore. Others were taken off the footplate for disciplinary or medical reasons.  Some just could not handle the responsibility of driving and simply refused to take a driving test.

This page was added on 03/12/2013.

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