Founded 1953

The Birthday Present

As a result of dropping hints in advance of a birthday some years ago I received useful things such as a wagon kit and a soldering torch, but from my son John there was a note saying “... thought you might like to play trains - see you next weekend”.

It transpired that John was offering to pay for a one day locomotive driving course at the Birmingham Railway Museum, Tyseley - using GWR Castle 5080 “Defiant”. What better for an ardent GWR fan!!

John was to come with me as a “guest” and have the freedom of the museum for the day. We settled on a mutually convenient date, Wednesday June 30th.

We reached Tyseley in good time and were told that we could wander round for a few minutes until the other students arrived.

Entering the museum we could see the rear end of a GWR tender, and beyond it a chimney with a trickle of smoke rising from it - presumably Defiant raising steam. However, rounding the corner of a building we found Defiant, very dead, smoke box open and hammering noises from within! We hurried to see what was raising steam - a King!!! 6024 King Edward I, would I really be allowed to drive that?

The five students for the day assembled in the museum cafe for a cup of coffee and an introductory chat - including a detailed safety briefs. When this was finished the organiser explained that Defiant had recently split some boiler tubes and was being totally re-tubed, as a result the museum had borrowed the King from Didcot to keep the courses going. Barely keeping a straight face he apologised for the substitution and hoped that no one would object; he was quickly assured that everyone was perfectly happy with the arrangements!

At this point we were kitted out with overalls and Day-Glo vests. We were divided into two groups, I was with Cliff, a Scotsman, and John (not my son!), a New Zealander. There was a lady in the other group, obviously just as enthusiastic as the rest of us.

The day was split into 1/4 hour segments. First there would be a look around the workshops, with a description of what went on and some explanation of the construction and workings of locomotives; then a driving session on either the King or an industrial tank, followed by lunch; a talk on signalling in the yard box; a driving session on the other locomotive and finally a short wash-up session before departing. The separate groups were necessary for the driving sessions because a maximum of four people is allowed on the footplate at any time, one of course being the resident driver.

The workshop period was very interesting. It seems that the museum, through the forethought of its founder, acquired several useful items of locomotive repair equipment at the end of the BR steam era, and is now a thriving repair and maintenance centre for many of the preservation groups. Wheel tyre reprofiling is one speciality and the 10ft faceplate wheel lathe was demonstrated.

Another gadget is the wheel lift. This is a section of track, about 8ft long, which can be lowered by as much as 20ft to drop out any pair of a loco’s wheels without the use of heavy lifting tackle. An unbolted wheel set, with axlebox and springs, disappears into a black hole, sliding rails then replace the missing track and the loco can be pulled away so that the wheels can be brought up and swung onto the lathe using a relatively modest crane. To replace the wheels one reverses the procedure. The life of tyres, about 100,000 miles, is such that replacement is never envisaged - the preserved locos will have failed in other ways by the time this mileage is achieved.

Re-tubing boilers is another steady job and there was a queue of locos waiting. The top priority was Defiant, the Castle was scheduled for a funeral train on July 20th and had to be ready. Re-tubing and the finer points of boiler construction were dealt with in great detail by Eddie the shop foreman. He also explained that the staff of 8 in the workshop was full time employed there, so much work was available that this was possible and was the main source of revenue for the museum. The driving courses had been embarked upon to support the refurbishment of their own 6115 (LMS Royal Scot class), a loco loaned to them by its owner for ever, as long as they restored it to full running order and never sold it; this would cost £90,000 and while some £20,000 had been raised by special events the courses were necessary for the rest.

But now the great moment had arrived - we were to be let loose on a loco. My group had first go on King Edward I so we climbed aboard. The driver, a smiling man named Alan, gave us a quick run down on the controls, and then gave us a demonstration run up the line. The length we had to drive on was short, only 400 yards or so, but adequate. Alan pointed out the landmarks at which one was advised to open or close the regulator and when to apply the brakes in order to stop at the right places. Back we came to the station and then “Who’s first?” There was a collective catch of breath and I quickly leapt forwards.

Following instructions I advanced the reverser to 75% forward and opened the regulator to the first resistance (further would open the “second valve”, unleashing a definitely excessive amount of power). There was a most satisfying bark from the chimney and the engine surged forward, rapidly reaching 10 mph at which the reverser came back to 45%. We pounded out of the station accelerating to about 30 mph until the point came to shut the regulator and look for the stopping mark, deceleration was helped by an increasing gradient and it needed a little help from the regulator to reach the right place. The loco had to be held on the gradient by leaving the vacuum brake partially on while the reverser was brought to 45% in reverse. The brake was released, everything paused while the vacuum was re-established and then there was movement. Now I could open the regulator for just 6 beats to get adequate speed for drifting into the station. By careful application of the brake I just managed to stop at the correct place. Then it was a repeat of the same exercise. We went on like this for half an hour, each student making two return trips at a time. We quickly gained confidence, the engine was very responsive, and to say we reverted to being schoolboys is no exaggeration, with much blowing of the whistle!

Alan remarked that if we had guests with us we could give them footplate rides. John was visible at the far end of the platform so I took the engine along to pick him up while Cliff got off. John was delighted to be offered a ride, but a look of extreme doubt appeared on his face when he realised I was driving! All went well and afterwards he and I left the footplate while Cliff’s wife had a ride, the maximum of four on the footplate being carefully adhered to.

The rest of the session was spent as before, taking it in turns to drive up and down - bliss! By this time we had got the hang of it and were experimenting with regulator settings and amounts of brake needed to get as smooth a ride as possible.

Firing was needed very infrequently and seemed to coincide with my turns at driving, so I did not try it, in any case I think friend Alan wanted to keep the fire under his control. The change of colour of the fire from orange to nearly white was obvious on every beat from the chimney.

The time passed all too quickly, and when we had climbed down from the King to go for lunch we realised that in spite of it being an extremely hot day we had not noticed the heat, regardless of the occasional opening of the firebox doors.

We ate a leisurely lunch in the museum restaurant and spent the rest of the time looking at exhibits.

First thing in the afternoon was signalling. We gathered in the signal box and heard a thorough description of the apparatus and procedures. Operating in isolation this box had no need of block instruments - a sad lack from my point of view. Nevertheless the use of block instruments was described, at some speed, to the total bafflement of one of the students! During the talk the signalman had to allow the industrial tank to leave the shed and enter the station, so that we could drive it later. This gave him the opportunity for demonstrating the order of operation of the levers and the influence of the interlocking. There was one hiccup, a calling-on signal refused to work; the engine crept slowly up to and just past the signal with the driver looking very puzzled. Eventually the signal came off and all was well. I asked a few questions about facing point locks and detector bars, of particular interest to me.

The final period was driving the tank engine. We walked to the station and stepped onto the footplate. The driver looked distinctly morose, but we soon discovered that he was very ready to smile and chat. “This engine is very different to the King,” he said, “it’s for shunting in a factory so everything is kept simple. The reverser is a lever and you just select forward or reverse.” The loco had a steam brake, so it was instantly on or off, no waiting for the vacuum to be established. The length of track was even shorter than for the King, one limit being a coach parked in a platform as a shelter for visitors in the event of bad weather.

The regulator seemed to be either open or shut, with a very small movement, and the little tank set off smartly, rattling and rolling as short-wheelbase four-wheelers do. Such was the enthusiasm with which it started that the water surged in the saddle tank and sprayed out round the filler. It was definitely in a different class, instead of everything being absolutely as it should be, there were numerous small wisps of steam from odd joints, and a few splutters of hot water. Control was indeed simple and made easier by the small size of the loco, you could see where the extremities where, there was no mile of boiler ahead or massive tender behind.

After a few turns each the driver was content to hang over the side and ruminate, or chat with the non-drivers at the time, while whoever was driving got on with things. He roused from his position only to top up the fire - a difficult operation on a very small and crowded footplate - or, once only, to show considerable alarm as the engine came into the platform faster than usual and he obviously had visions of the parked coach being re-diagrammed. John the New Zealander was under the mistaken impression that as he had obtained a reasonable braking effect with a quarter turn of the brake cock he would get twice the effect with a half turn; this was not so, the quarter turn reached the maximum. Luckily the available braking was just adequate, but we got much nearer to the coach than we should have done.

I queried the small movement of the regulator, and asked if that was all the movement available (it seemed to come against a stop). The driver explained that yes there was more movement, and although the engine was lively when light it would need much more steam even to shift a couple of wagons. He also pointed out that we drove this engine faster than the regular staff did, and if we went faster still it would, being light weight, jump off the track! Somewhat chastened I resolved to be more careful next time I drove and, as on the King, to try for smoother control.

Stiffness in the regulator was the problem, but with practice I was able to obtain intermediate settings; having sorted that out I could experiment with using reducing steam and minimum braking to stop at a given point.

My aim was to stop with the rear buffer head exactly aligned with the centre of a step let into the platform face, regardless of the speed with which the engine had started the run into the station. The step was only about two feet wide.

Cliff soon cottoned on to what I was up to and we had a friendly competition to see who was most accurate. By the time the session finished we were both stopping well within the step limits every time. John the New Zealander, totally oblivious of everything except the joys of the moment, just belted up and down the track.

I asked the driver how much coal these courses used up. He reckoned about 8cwt for the saddle tank per day, and about 11/2 tons per day for the King - the reason for the big difference being the size of grate which must always be covered by the fire.

With great reluctance we finally had to admit that time had run out and we made our way back to the reception area for a cold drink and, in two senses, a wash-up.

As we gathered I looked round at the ecstatic expressions on the faces of my companions, and knew that my face was just the same!

We were given our “certificates” for the course and it was time to start for home. John obviously realised that I was still in another world - he insisted on doing all the homeward driving!

By Tony Hocking

Additional note

These courses are no longer run at Tyseley, however if you are interested in having a treat like Tony many heritage railways offer them. The nearest to the REC is the Watercress Line at Arlesford