Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: A special excursion back to yesterday with driver Colin

The age of steam

The age of steam - Credit: Archant

AS the ’80s indie band Half Man Half Biscuit once observed: “Time flies by when you’re the driver of a train”. Last week I wrote about our rail services. In an attempt to make a comparison between railways now and railways as they once were, I talked with Colin Andrews, a local man whom I discovered was one of this country’s last working steam engine drivers.

“I wasn’t familiar with that road,” he says, regarding a photograph of the Royal train between London and Sandringham on which he was fireman, rather than driver:

“I started in Norwich in 1955 (aged 15) as an engine cleaner. You progress. It’s all done by strict seniority. As the drivers die or retire, you move up the ladder.

“In 1956, I was ‘passed’ for firing (firemen’s duties). You became what was called a ‘passed cleaner’. You’re still a cleaner but you can then go out on ‘firing’ when required. That’s preparing the engines and ‘disposing’ them – because they have to be disposed at the end of a run. You have to drop the fires. They just put a small fire in the firebox so it keeps the steam in.”

Was that how the engines were kept ticking over? I enquire.

“They had what was called ‘firelighters’ go round, who would regularly visit the engines because you needed to top the water up and keep a little fire in.”

“But how would the coal and ashes be riddled out?” I asked.

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“A good point. They had ash pits for that. Some engines had a dropped grate, so you’d drop them straight through. It was a very hot and horrible job to do. And then you had the ash-pans. You had to go up right underneath and rake them out and, of course, if it was windy you had the hot ash all blowing out – though sometimes there was a water spray under there.

“As you worked your way up, you’d then become a fully-fledged fireman and then you’d go on the roster as a driver. You’d start at the bottom, shunting, and then graduate through to goods work. I became a driver in ’65.”

What I still have dim memories of, I tell Colin, is that, sometimes, steam engines seen in the night would puff out orange gobbets of hot coal, which looked quite impressive as they illuminated the trail of steam from the funnel.

“It was spectacular when the engine was working well,” he agrees.

We move on to the subject of summer track fires, when, during a dry spell, the engines would regularly set the embankments and sometimes nearby grain fields ablaze.

“Well, the farmers, if a crop of wheat or a cereal crop caught fire, could actually claim off the Railway for the restitution,” recalls Colin. “The drivers would then get an explanation form: ‘Why did you set fire to this field?’”

He chuckles, wryly. “You weren’t even aware of it – because it didn’t ignite until you were way down the road, anyway.”

I ask about this: “So the Railway Board would pick up the tab – and if the farmer just happened to have been having a bad harvest year . . .”

“Precisely,” Colin replies. “Or you might burn their fences – there was quite a lot of restitution work to be done . . .”

The last steam trains ran in 1968, after which time Colin drove diesels or electric trains until he left the rail service in 1979 to become a landlord of Wivenhoe’s

Station pub.

We backtrack to Colin’s brief but heady career with steam.

“I was at Kings Cross then, as a ‘passed fireman’ ready to drive trains when required. As the seniority process moves on, you go on the roster again and you start to climb up through the links.

“It depended upon ‘route knowledge’. Every six months you had to sign an MOT document to the effect that you were familiar with all the routes. You had to do route-learning. But because I’d passed over them all, as a fireman, I could sign to, say, Newcastle.” Kings Cross to Newcastle was Colin’s favourite route.

Is it true, then, I ask him, that steam trains actually got you to your destinations quicker and more reliably than many of our modern ones do? He ruminates upon this.

“The top speeds might have been comparable,” he says, “but you had very slow acceleration, compared to modern forms of traction. There’s lots of loyalty to steam but . . .” and he trails off momentarily, before conceding, “Steam was very reliable. There were only seven ‘full failures’ and one of them was if the whistle packed up – which was like losing your voice.

“When I left Norwich, being keen to progress, I went on loan to the Midlands as a fireman. That was the old Great Central, which is totally gone now. It went from Marylebone to Sheffield.

“The whole railway went. There were coal trains, iron ore trains, there was a beer train – a Guinness train.”

Your correspondent marvels at the thought – all that freight, all those miles of long-gone, torn-up track; the general waste and ruination of it all .

Now, though, we have a good head of steam up, as Colin remembers the guards’ vans with their little coal stoves and their own handbrake.

“It must have been fun!” I exclaim. There’s a final pause. “It was very good fun,” he smiles.