Sunday, 24 February 2008

Mutual Improvement Classes

Becoming an engineman in the old days was a long and demanding process. But the prestige of the job was such that men would attend training sessions in their own time. In addition, the cameraderie was such that the trainers were not provided by the railway, but were senior footplatemen who volunteered their time. They were proud to pass on their skill and knowledge to another generation. These training sessions were called Mutual Improvement Classes, or simply 'MIC'.

The railway company would often provide an old, grounded coach body or a spare room at the Motive Power Depot, where the classes would be held. Sometimes the men would make models to illustrate a particular topic. Wooden models showing the operation of valve gear originally made for use in the MIC can now be seen in various museums. Scrap components, like injectors, might be collected as a visual aid to help demonstrate their construction and operation.

'The Rules' were always an important part of the job and classes would often involve a catechism where the younger staff would learn to respond correctly to various situations which would occur from time to time.

'The Passage of Steam' was a favourite topic, where the creation, transmission and utilisation of steam was analysed in some detail.

In the old days, locomotivemen out on the road were expected to carry out running repairs and 'limp home' when failures occurred so the diagnosis and treatment of faults was another recurrent theme.

The daily examination of the locomotive by the driver before coming "off shed" was important in that a thorough and intelligent 'Exam' could obviate many breakdowns which would otherwise result in failure in traffic. The 'Exam' was carried out whilst 'oiling round' the locomotive. Again, crews in the MIC would learn the myriad oiling points which required attention on various classes of locomotive. Proper attention to lubrication and an understanding of how to check and make the various worsted wool trimmings which controlled the flow of oil could avoid many instances of bearings running warm. All these skills were taught in the MIC.

In these days when there are accusations of 'dumbing down' in our education system, it's hard to imagine people willingly embracing the long-term commitment to learning needed to become a good engineman. The prestige drivers in the steam era once enjoyed is a measure of the difficulties which they had overcome in acquiring the necessary knowledge and skill.

Railway preservation today perpetuates the Mutual Improvement Class - there are still men and women willing to train to work on steam locomotives, not as a career, but as an absorbing and unpaid 'Hobby'. The various training arrangements which each preserved railway adopts keep alive the best traditions of the 'MIC'. Under the label 'MIC', I've published some of my own notes which I've used when training railway preservation volunteers.

There's an index, including links, of the posts currently available at Mutual Improvement Classes (2).

You can select all the posts in this blog labelled 'MIC' here.