I've talked about Santa Specials run by most preserved railways in December. As it becomes more common for the holiday to extend to New Year, many preserved railways have found it commercially worth while to operate a service between Christmas and New Year. Parents with children, particularly, may be seeking new ways of entertaining their offspring once the immediate appeal of Christmas presents has dimmed.
At the Battlefield Line, 'Mince Pie Specials' are run on a number of days and, although I had no rostered duty, my friend John Archer and I decided to go along to Shackerstone on the 1st January 2008 to start the New Year in style. We arrived to find that (not for the first time) the steam locomotive which was to work the trains, 'Sir Gomer', had failed with a leaking boiler tube. With quite a healthy number of passengers arriving, the only alternative was to run the trains diesel hauled. The Class 33 'Griffon' was available but the problem was to find a 'scratch' diesel crew at very short notice. Because no qualified diesel driver was available who could cover the whole day, it was eventually arranged that Adrian would drive the first round trip to Shenton, Simon the second and, by providing relief for John in the signal box, John would drive the last train. As a qualified steam and DMU driver, I was eligible to act as the required 'Secondman' on the diesel and so I found myself unexpectedly busy for the rest of the day. The most arduous task is 'hooking-off' and 'tieing-on' at each run-round, but these jobs were informally shared between the various drivers during the day and myself. Timings during the day were a little haphazard but the passengers seemed happy. As a consolation prize, two steam locomotives trundled around the station - the four-coupled Barclay saddle tank 'Linda' (not quite big enough to operate the service train herself and with rather limited water capacity) and the improbable but very attractive Aveling-Porter 'Blue Circle' (half traction engine, half locomotive). Both steam locomotives had very friendly crews so a number of the younger passengers were able to enjoy a close inspection of the motive power.
It was decided to give the writer some driving training on the 'Crompton', so I ran round after the first trip with Adrian and was then invited to take the second service up to Shenton. Simon brought the train back to Shackerstone and handed over to John who took the last train up to Shenton. Jan then ran round and brought the train back to Shackerstone under supervision. I always try to enjoy the unexpected, and it was a very educational day.
I've always been intrigued that, historically, once a driver was passed to drive steam locomotives, he was expected to drive any type, including classes he had never seen before. But diesel drivers were passed class-by-class, because of the need to be conversant with the particular control systems and fault-finding techniques. When I was a volunteer at Birmingham Railway Museum some years ago, in addition to being passed to drive all steam locomotives, I was passed to drive Class 08 and Class 47 diesel electrics.
I trust that readers will accept that I remain a committed steam enthusiast. Whilst I have, in facetious moments, referred to diesel traction as "The Dark Side", the more complex control systems of diesel locomotives have much of technical interest but, for me at least, never the romance of steam.