Thursday, 22 July 2010

On the Footplate (Part 1)

The Mutual Improvement Classes of the old steam railways continue for today's preservation volunteers. This is one of a series of articles about working on preserved railways. To find them all, select label 'MIC'.

Jan Ford with 8624 at Peak Rail.


I consider myself very fortunate that I've been able to work on the footplate at a number of preserved railways. Of course, speeds are rather limited and journeys tend to be quite short so it's nothing like the old days of main line steam. But it's quite similar to the operation of some of the short branch lines which proliferated until Doctor Beeching decided that there was no future in feeder lines.

Some enthusiasts prefer modern steam on the main line, with longer distances run and speeds up to 75 m.p.h., presumably as being more like "real steam railways". I've done a little main line support in the past, but I find the situation rather artificial, with so many modern requirements that, for me at least, it doesn't evoke the steam railway as I remember it from the 1950s and 1960s.

We can't turn the clock back, those times have gone forever, but preserved railways with all their restrictions allow us to pay homage to that very special group of men (and, in certain grades, women) who once ran our railways.

Most preserved railways these days offer some sort of driving experience course where people can pay to come along for a few hours and learn a little about working on the footplate. It's quite a popular present to somebody with a 'significant birthday'. I strongly approve of these initiatives and I've personally had thousands of students on numerous locomotives at various railways.

On most (but not all) driving experience courses, the locomotive is already prepared and steam raised before the trainees arrive and few trainees remain to see the dirty and hot tasks involved in disposal at the end of the shift. To really understand footplate work, you need to spend a fair bit of your spare time as a volunteer working through the footplate grades. The old grades of Cleaner, Passed Cleaner, Fireman, Passed Fireman, Driver are still in use on most preserved lines. Although shifts for footplate crews in preservation today are generally not as demanding as in the old days, they can still extend to 11 or 12 hours so a certain stamina is required. Some preserved railways allow volunteers to work half-day shifts.

The idea of this talk is to give you some insight as to what footplate crew on preserved railways get up to and contrast that with the "old days".

Raising Steam

View of the fire during preparation of 8624. Left and right, sliding firedoors. Looking through the round firehole, the baffle plate is clearly seen at the top.

Most commonly, the locomotive fire will be lit fresh each morning so, even on a small locomotive, the fireman will need to be there three or four hours before the locomotive is needed in traffic, to allow steam to be raised. Larger locomotives need around eight hours to "brew-up" - these are quite big 'kettles'. Steam can be raised more quickly but this will cause rapid expansion of the boiler and may encourage leaks, giving rise to increased boiler maintenance Sometimes a 'warming fire' may be left in from the night before, intended to get the boiler hot without actually producing steam. It is possible to leave an engine in steam overnight but it really needs somebody in attendance to make sure there's sufficient water in the boiler. A friend of mine left an 'A4' unattended overnight in a shed on a preserved railway. There was rather too much fire - the boiler pressure increased until the safety valves lifted and the steam discharge blew a hole in the roof!

Back in B.R. days, locomotives would usually be left in steam continuously until the next 'washout', when sediment and scale produced by boiling water would be flushed from the boiler. Other maintenance work could be done at the same time as the washout. The period between washouts would depend upon the quality of the water being used and the work done by the engine - 14 to 21 days was typical. There would be a 'Steam Raiser' in attendance to go round maintaining the fires and boiler water level, ready for when the fireman 'booked on'. The fireman would then bring the boiler up to working pressure ready for leaving shed.

Oiling Round

The driver of a preserved locomotive will need to 'book on' an hour or so before the locomotive is required in traffic. The driver is responsible for oiling round and examining his engine. Lubrication on locomotives is by various 'total loss' systems - oil is used once and then allowed to drip onto the ground (or adhere to the frames, wheels and motion so as to attract any airborne dirt and coat every surface with a black slurry - this is why Cleaners are required).

In producing his semi-streamlined 'Merchant Navy' class, Bullied tried to copy automobile technology by enclosing part of the chain-driven valve motion in an oil bath but the experiment was not a total success. When Riddles set about rebuilding the class, peculiarities like the chain-driven valve gear were removed and oiling reverted to 'total loss' systems.

It can take some time to apply oil to all the right places, particularly on a larger engine with one or two inside cylinders. Getting at inside motion usually involves climbing between the engine frames. The Great Western only used two sets of motion for four cylinders on the 'Stars', 'Castles' and 'Kings'. Rocking shafts were used to supply valve movements to the other two cylinders. Unfortunately, it was the two inside cylinders which were provided with Walschaert's valve gear, making oiling especially difficult. When Stanier moved to Derby, he copied the rocking shaft idea on the first of the 'Princess' class, but sensibly put the two sets of Walschaerts gear on the outside so that the rocking shafts provided the valve events for the inside cylinders. On later designs, each cylinder was given its own set of valve gear.

There were a number of good reasons why enginemen liked Stanier's two-cylinder designs such as the 'Five' and the 'Eight Freight' but ease of access for oiling was one of them.

The driver should not be hurried during preparation as examination whilst oiling is important - a driver needs to develop a sixth sense to spot something that's not quite right. Early detection can avoid subsequent failure 'on the road'.

In B.R. days, some drivers would allow fireman to help with oiling round as being good practice for their subsequent promotion. Some drivers were unable, by reason of size or impaired mobility, to complete the oiling round without help from the fireman. Some drivers were simply unwilling to perform the task themselves.

Route Knowledge

All drivers must be familiar with the route they're required to drive. This is much less of a task in preservation as railways tend to be fairly short and not too complex but, nevertheless, drivers must have an intimate knowledge of speed restrictions, gradients, signals and all aspects of the line.

This was a much bigger task in the old days of steam, where a driver might travel hundreds of miles over a multiplicity of routes with frequent signal boxes, a bewildering array of semaphore signals and ever-changing permanent and temporary speed restrictions.

All drivers had to periodically sign a 'Route Knowledge Card' which acknowledged which routes a driver was competent to drive without a 'Conductor'. A 'Conductor' is a second driver provided for at least part of a journey because the booked driver did not sign for that route. A driver with wide route knowledge was clearly more valuable because he was less likely to require the uneconomic use of a Conductor Driver (often called a 'Pilotman' although strictly that term should be reserved for a Single Line Pilotman).

Again, a main line driver was more use clocking up miles than oiling round so some 'turns' enjoyed the luxury of the locomotive being prepared for them. A pair of more junior men on a 'P and D' turn (Preparation and Disposal) would be responsible for getting a number of locomotives ready for traffic and receiving a number of incoming engines which would need coaling, watering, fires cleaned and ash disposed.

These were mainly post-war developments when the 'Common User' engine policy was adopted. 'Common User' meant that the first available engine would be allocated to a turn, so a crew working the same train for a week could have a different engine every day. Before the war, it was more common for an engine to be allocated to a single driver who would take personal pride in keeping "his" engine in good condition. But, of course, this caused problems in fully utilising the driver when "his" engine was not available.

In preservation, the footplate crew are normally responsible for their own Preparation and Disposal, although some railways utilise 'Passed Cleaners' (a cleaner who is allowed to fire when required) as 'Steam Raisers'. In addition to actually cleaning locomotives, Cleaners may be involved in preparation and disposal duties as part of their training.

Leaving the Shed

All being well, the driver and fireman will be ready to come "off shed" at the booked time. The mainstay of most preserved railways is a passenger service so, most likely, the engine entering traffic will move to the coaching stock ready for the first departure. Depending on the railway, there may be hand operated points or a ground frame to be operated to leave the shed area.

Richard at Darley Dale South Yard Ground Frame. Before locomotive preparation moved to Rowsley, this Ground Frame gave access to the running line for an engine coming 'Off Shed'

This is usually the fireman's job. Climbing down to ground level and then back onto the footplate at the beginning of the day is not too bad - by the end of the shift both driver and fireman will probably be heartily sick of it, particularly if the weather is poor.

When the locomotives reaches its train, it will normally stand clear until called on by the Guard. The Guard "owns" the train and is responsible for deciding when the engine can couple up.

In Part 2, we'll talk about attaching to the train to be worked.

[Link to Part 2 added 8-Oct-2016]