Things I had no eyed deer about driving a steam train
- How much fun it is!
- That I would be driving a train wearing a zero gravity flight suit bearing a Star Trek logo
- How you make sure there is not more than one train on a single line track (without technology)
- How often the locomotive has to fill up with water
- Plus did I say how much fun it is?
Ever since my Dad introduced me to the Flying Scotsman as a child I have loved steam trains. Even at university, whilst other students spent their days in offices for their work experience, I catalogued signal equipment, and polished inside Royal train carriages at the National Railway Museum in the UK. So when I raced a steam train over 13.5km in the Puffing Billy Great Train Race earlier this year and saw that there was the opportunity to be a Steam Train Driver for the day I jumped at the chance.
A few weeks before my experience, the excitement (and trepidation) started when I received a pack of information, a course and a test to do on my locomotive. This was real! The course covered hand and fixed signals, ticketing systems, brakes, train inspection, regulators, reversers, train handling on the steep gradients of the railway, and other technical stuff. I’m not going to pretend I wasn’t daunted. But as the day approached and the lovely Karen kept in touch it was hard not to get excited, her own excitement was infectious.
The instructions also specified what kit to wear on the day – specifically safety boots and coveralls. Safety boots purchased, I decide to reuse my flight suit from my zero gravity experience to serve as coveralls. I’m probably the first train driver for the day that turned up wearing the American flag and a Star Trek logo.
After arriving in the very beautiful Emerald the night before, a little bit nervous I set off for the 7am start. Walking into the rail yard past the train turntable, I could see the large shed doors were open and steam already rising from within. John, the fireman for the day, responsible for firing the engines, was already hard at work getting the locomotive ready…. and what an amazing locomotive.
I put on my coveralls and help put coal on the fire, mastering the art of throwing the coal into the right spaces in the firebox. When logic fails me John patiently points out that when he said front it was ‘the other front”. Next we circumvent the locomotive with our oil cans to lubricate the moving parts. As we do this, I take the opportunity to bombard John with questions in a way that would challenge Macaulay Culkin’s record for consecutive questions in Uncle Buck. John is one of the many volunteers that keep the Puffing Billy railway running. They cover roles as diverse as drivers, station masters, signalman, guards and engine cleaners. He is so passionate about what he does (like everyone that I meet throughout the day) and tells me a bit about the locomotive we will be driving today. It was built in 1886 and originally operated at the West Melbourne gasworks. Later in its life it passed through different hands and was modified to its current America Wild West look.
Soon the other John, John the driver, arrives and does his own checks and then we hop in the cabin and I get a lesson on how the train works: I hand in my exam and he tests me on whether I have read the course book. Then the real fun starts, the steam is ready, John pushes and pulls the leavers and after a few seconds we are moving. We leave the shed and roll onto the turntable. I “help” push the turntable around until it is lined up with the right track. Whilst we are there the little yellow Track Patroller goes by. It is the first vehicle of the day on the track and checks for problems such as branches on the line. It is so small it looks like the Fiat 500 of trains!
After a few manoeuvres we couple up the carriage. And then we are off, but not without first getting the ticket which allows us to travel in this route. Something we do for each part of the journey. Puffing Billy operates a train staff and ticket system: a train cannot travel on a section of the single lane track between two stations unless it is in possession of the metal staff engraved with station names. You can’t depart into a section unless the driver has seen the staff first. When not in use the staff is kept locked in a special wooden box.
It is a cold day to start with but cosy in the cabin with the firebox. The scenery is amazing. But, how could it not be with names like Emerald and Cockatoo. We travel on the narrow-gauge railway over trestle bridges a bit like a cowboy movie, with spring flowers beside and between the tracks. I’m not paying that much attention on our first trip though as it is straight into being shown how to drive the train and taking the controls. The route is steeply graded and the first part of the journey is mainly downhill to Lakeside. The locomotive alone is about 9.5 tonnes so picking up speed is easy and despite the limit being around 15 miles per hours it feels fast and you can start to feel the ride get a bit bumpy when picking up speed.
I admit that going over the trestle bridges I was a bit paranoid about making the national news by going over the side. But the Johns assured me that I would know there was a problem if suddenly they both jumped out of the train. A lot of the driving focuses on applying the brake. This takes some getting used to so as not to apply an emergency stop. I don’t think I was that bad but we did make at least one “unscheduled stop” before Lakeside. Also, despite being told I was doing well I did notice a bit of manoeuvring of other brakes taking place on my behalf! Excitingly we did have some stop signals to abide by, at one of which I’m pretty sure I stopped just a little past where I intended and triggered the lights at the car cross roads – so apologies to the cars that had a bit more of wait then they should whilst I got her going again!
At Lakeside we take on water and continue our journey to Cockatoo. Mastering pulling up to the water station and stopping in the correct place is not easy. It’s a bit like pulling up to the petrol pump for the first time with a new car, except reversing in a Steam Train is not such a quick manoeuvre. Although, at least with a steam train you don’t suddenly realise your petrol cap is on the other side after all.
At Cockatoo we take on more water, de-couple and re-couple the carriage. There is no turntable so the locomotive detaches and then is moved via another track to the front of the carriage and then runs in reverse formation “back to front” for the return journey. The itinerary I received prior to the day referred to this as “running around the train” so this was very different to what I had visualised but I was relieved there was no exercise involved. I am given the chance to do this manoeuvre a few times during the day – the first time I was so worried about hitting the carriage I stopped short a number of times. However, by the last time I think I almost shunted the carriage into next week.
When we head back to Lakeside the journey is mostly uphill so it is a completely different type of driving – applying steam but not too little or too much. It is a great feeling when the train starts to move “under its own steam”. The noise as it starts reminds me of Native American drums. Then as it gets faster it sounds suspiciously like me 20 kilometres into a marathon.
At Lakeside we stop for lamingtons, take more water, run around the train and have lunch and talk to the many tourists that get off the Puffing Billy locos. Then it is back down to Cockatoo and back again to Emerald. This time I focus more on the journey and enjoy riding with my head out of the window like a happy dog for awhile (but I didn’t put my tongue out), listening to the noise, watching the trail of steam and admiring the scenery.
It is amazing how the inner child comes out when you have a train whistle to play with and I mastered the art of pulling it at the right track signs, to acknowledge the instructions of the train staff, at cross roads and of course as a hello to passers by. Occasionally I got to pull the bell as a special acknowledgement, but I never did quite manage to make it masterful, more a namby-pamby tinkle.
Back at Emerald while the Johns engage in a chess game of manoeuvring locomotives I sit in Thomas the Tank engine. Then sadly it is time to say goodbye to everyone and I leave John clearing the coal ashes from the front of the firebox of the locomotive, ready to put it to bed.
I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my experience. I’m proud that I got to drive such a majestic machine and I’m so grateful to everyone I met on the day. I was so struck by the genuine passion everyone shows for Puffing Billy and for sharing that excitement with all that they came in contact with. Everyone, from the fascinated toddlers to the people behind bushes taking photos got a friendly welcome and a pull of the whistle and a wave hello.
The beautiful local area, including a very nice hot chocolate!
This is not a sponsored post. This represents my personal opinion.