Pure Gold – Footplate Experience

Written by Graham Chambers

As experiences go, this was one of the best – driving and firing 160 tons of fire and smoke-breathing steam powered muscle, in fact number 92214 – a BR Standard 9F 2-10-0.

We turned up on Monday morning and first met each other – Nigel a retired Petroleum manager, Daniel – a seventeen year old who would turn 18 during the course with his father and then me, a 62-year old desk driver.

The instructors were Bob – steam engine driver of huge experience and Robert a younger man still working at York as a signal controller and spending his spare time on the NYMR.

We walked through what is probably the world’s oldest railway tunnel from Grosmont to the sheds, and to one particular hut called the railway driver’s mutual improvement classroom. Here, surrounded by bits and pieces of steam engine, valves, injectors, models of different valve gear and diagrams, pictures and memorabilia we were all introduced. Daniel and his father actually made model steam engines and had a rail circuit in their garden, so were experienced drivers of model trains. Nigel and I were just people who had wanted to drive a steam engine probably since childhood.

Bob and Robert took us through the elements of how the steam is produced, what is done with it and how the Stevensonian principle is the key to efficient steam operation, using exhaust steam from the cylinders to push the smoke up the chimney and create a partial vacuum in the smoke-box which draws the fire through the boiler tubes.

With the aid of film, slides and description we came to understand how you put additional water into a boiler under pressure (pump or even better an injector, which uses steam to carry water into the boiler and at the same time heats it to almost boiling point). We learned about the details of the firebox, how an arsenical copper inner firebox is attached by struts to an outer, steel firebox with water between the two, so that the inner firebox is surrounded by it. How the flame from the fire is guided back toward the cab by a brick arch and then sucked through the boiler taking additional air through the firebox door to burn the “volatiles” in the smoke and extract yet more heat, leaving the exhaust smoke a pale grey – the sign of efficient burning.

The following days were spent inspecting the sheds, and being drilled on safety procedures at all times.

Wednesday saw us climb aboard this impressive engine and learn to check the boiler water level using the twin gauges, how to fire the engine properly (not too much coal on the shovel and a nice smooth easy almost balletic motion to get the coal just where you want it on the firebox grate bars). Checking the brakes, handbrake and steam brake, learning to operate the reverser and the regulator, and the two injectors, both on the fireman’s side in the 9F.

Then, after checking and lubricating every part of the valve gear and other working parts of the engine and brushing accumulated dirt from the shed roof from the running board (in case, once moving, these rusty particles were blown off and into the driver’s eye), we were ready to leave the shed and very slowly moved out and onto an unused stretch of line. It was then the turn of each of us to drive and fire the engine, forwards and backwards along the length of line.

The regulator had to be used with care (after all, this engine can easily haul a 1000-ton ore train). Open the regulator and listen until you hear the ‘whoosh’ of steam entering the cylinders then shut it back immediately and release the steam brake. It was remarkable how controllable the engine was and we found we could approach the buffers of the locos and carriages stored on the line ahead very slowly and even ‘kiss’ the buffers gently. Forwards then backwards we went until we began to get the ‘feel’ of the engine, for every one is different. We learned from Robert how to deflect the flame in the firebox by using the shovel so that you could see where more coal was needed and learned to aim for a spot just before the bare patch so that the coal would move forward on the inclined grate and how to turn the shovel and flick the coal to the sides of the very wide firebox.

Then it was time for us to drive and fire the engine ourselves, under the watchful eyes of Bob and Robert.

We had been well instructed about signalling, whistles and general line lore, but before we started we had to pick up two coaches, one a former Great Northern Railway director’s coach and rather splendidly decked out.

We had already taken on coal at the coaling station and then water at the water tower (about 5 tons of coal, but 25 tons of water – the tender being largely full of water, not, as many would think, coal.)

Once the carriages were attached, safety again being emphasised when you have to go in between two carriages to link up the heating and vacuum tubes and the coupling, it was then time to check the vacuum brakes, for with a train attached, the steam brake on the engine is not sufficient and brakes must also be applied on each carriage wheel. No passengers could be carried for insurance reasons, except those accompanying the course members and two of the participants were on the footplate with the instructors, while the other two had the directors’ observation coach and dining coach.

For the final two days we steamed the length of the line from Grosmont to Pickering and back each participant driving, one way forward and one backwards and firing, again one way forward and one back. With the engine in reverse, the way was less smooth because the fixed wheels of the tender go first into curves, rather than the 2 wheel moveable bogey which leads the heavy locomotive into the curve when going forwards. Unfortunately the 9F cannot be used on the network line to Whitby because it is a 2-10-0 configuration and the central driving wheel on each side has a very small flange in relation to the other driving wheels, this to help the engine take tight curves. Unfortunately today’s rails will not stand the ravages of an unflanged wheel and so the NYMR’s most powerful engine is unfortunately banned from the Grosmont to Whitby stretch of the line.

Daniel was the first to drive to Pickering on his 18th birthday and on arrival under the splendid canopy of Pickering station, a chef from the station came with bacon, egg sausage and black pudding and cooked breakfast for him on a (new) shovel over the fire – a very nice touch.

Firing entailed keeping the grate evenly covered and learning to smoothly direct the coal to exactly where it was needed. A close watch was kept on the water level and injectors used to top up the boiler, for the inner firebox must never be exposed above the water line, or damage will result. The whistle was operable from both sides and so the fireman would use it whenever the whistle sign, or approaching junction was visible from his side, rather than the driver’s.

The driver would operate the regulator, ensuring that not too much power was applied to cause wheel slip and controlling the reverser cut-off, starting at maybe 65% and then reducing to 20-30% when moving. The Line speed is restricted to 25 m.p.h on level and straight sections of the line. Very important was to open the cylinder drain cocks when starting off. This causes clouds of steam to issue from the forward facing copper pipes under the cylinders when an engine starts moving. If the cylinder cocks are not opened when starting, there is a risk that water in the cylinder, from cooling will be of sufficient quantity to be compressed by the piston, but water cannot be compressed and the result could be to force the head off the cylinder explosively, even though the head is made of ½ inch mild steel with at least twelve ½” bolts holding it on!

The feeling of driving 160 tons of solid steel with so much power is quite indescribable, but if you can do it, I strongly recommend the experience. It was a golden week.

Thanks are due to the NYMR and to Gerry Bacon, who organises the footplate experiences and to our excellent teachers, Bob and Robert.

Nina Wilson recounts her trip of a lifetime on the Footplate of Southern 825.

NINA WILSON, eldest daughter of founder member, Tom Salmon – who herself volunteered as a teenager on the fledgling NYMR in the 1960s – realises the dream of a lifetime when she rides the footplate of a steam engine along the line.

I HAVE just enjoyed one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

My daughter, Natalya, organised a footplate ride for my 57th birthday.

Now I am not a person who is usually envious by nature, but I must admit to having being rather ‘green’ when Natalya enjoyed an exhilarating footplate ride on the NYMR earlier this year and subsequently wrote a captivating feature about it for the Gazette and Herald and The Press.

In fact, I had hoped to celebrate my 50th birthday by riding the footplate, but because of work commitments, was unable to do so.

Well, it was certainly worth the seven year wait.

As we drove over the moors from York to Grosmont to join the train leaving for Pickering at 11.30am, I was so excited that I could scarcely contain myself.

On arrival at Grosmont Station, we collected my special yellow driving cab pass from the control office, where we received a very warm welcome from the staff. The platform was very busy with smiling passengers hurrying to climb aboard the waiting train and I noticed how neat and well-kept the station was and thought how proud my Dad, founder Tom Salmon, would be when I told him.

I was then introduced to the friendly crew of the driving cab: driver Shawn Kay, fireman Pete Shaw and trainee fireman Jack Prince.

At last, I eagerly scrambled aboard the footplate of Southern Region locomotive 825 in anticipation of the 18-mile journey from Grosmont to Pickering – a journey I had already done numerous times, but always inside a carriage behind the engine.

Shawn made sure that I was safe and comfortable and lent me a cap to tuck my hair into, before Pete instructed Jack to shovel the largest chunks of coal I had ever seen into the firebox to set the wheels of this huge machine in motion.

As we waved a cheery farewell to the onlookers at the level-crossing, we were immediately over the Murk Esk bridge and into the tunnel adjacent to George Stephenson’s original railway.

Memories of early childhood holidays in Yorkshire came flooding back, as I remembered being in the carriage of a steam-hauled train with my parents and younger sister going through Grosmont tunnel, in the days of British Railways before Beeching wielded his axe on the branch lines which criss-crossed our countryside.

I recollected smartly-dressed passengers hastily getting out of their seats to shut the windows before the acrid sooty fumes could enter the carriage and pondered how times have changed and how we now love the nostalgia of the days of steam, and how a ride on the footplate of a steam engine epitomises the very stuff of dreams.

We quickly emerged from the tunnel into bright sunlight and I soon had a lovely view of Esk Valley’s row of cottages with livestock in the back gardens to our right. Shawn told me that he is ‘the most junior driver on the NYMR’, as he qualified last year after eight years training. He went on to explain just how much effort is required on the part of these giant ‘iron horses’, powered by steam, to haul their sets of coaches up the three-and-a-half mile incline to Goathland, with its gradient of 1 in 49.

As I peered through the windows of the front of the cab, I had an entirely different perspective of how steeply the incline rose in front of us.

Jack was under instruction from Pete to double the amount of coal he was shovelling into the firebox, to feed its now insatiable appetite.

Meanwhile, the view from the footplate provided a stunning vista of the steeply wooded slopes around Beckhole and Darnholm, with their soft green colours and a clear view of the recently renewed bridge no 30.

After toiling up the seemingly never-ending incline, we chugged into picturesque Goathland Station, to be greeted by enthusiastic crowds of onlookers and passengers jostling to board the train.

I watched as Jack received a lesson on how to give the passing-loop to an outstretched arm in smart NYMR uniform held aloft in attentive anticipation from the platform below us.

Two children in a carriage of the train alongside us heading for Grosmont gazed wistfully up at me and returned the smile and wave that I gave them before we left in opposite directions.

As we pulled out of Goathland Station behind a good head of steam in the direction of Moorgates, I felt quite overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the surroundings, evoking different aspects of nature.

From my vantage point high upon the footplate, I could enjoy a truly multi-sensory experience: the wind blowing in my face and the warm sunshine with white clouds occasionally scudding across the blue sky above, while down below us primroses, celandines and wood-anemones adorned the grassy banks alongside the track. I spotted newborn calves in the meadows and lambs scampering up the hillsides at the sound of the approaching train, their tails bobbing up and down.

Then onward we hastened towards Ellerbeck and the point at which the Lyke Wake Walk crosses over the track, the wild moorland stretching beyond our horizon into the distance. As the engine curved round a bend into Fen Bog, I glanced back at the train snaking along behind us and recognised Natalya’s beaming face, peering out of a window, camera in hand, as she captured the moment for posterity of her Mum’s long-awaited footplate ride on the NYMR.

The water glistened in the beck below us as I discerned the sweet scent of Newton Dale’s pine forest ahead of us and some men cutting timber waved to us, as we broke the silence of dense tall dark green trees.

I thought of my parents, Tom and Erika Salmon – NYMR members one and two – with gratitude for all the hard work that they did to save this glorious railway, as we journeyed on to Levisham through this, their favourite part of the line.

I was delighted when Shawn invited me to blow the engine’s whistle near Platelayer’s Cottage and again as we neared our journey’s end at Pickering.

As we drew into Pickering Station, I was very impressed by the wonderful reconstruction of the engine shed roof – it was so much more impressive viewed from the footplate of the locomotive which had brought me on this trip of a lifetime.

As a final word, I would like to say ‘thank you’ to all those who made this footplate trip on my beloved NYMR possible for me!

Scheduled Locomotives

Locomotives scheduled to run on Wednesday 4th May 2016

45428 - Black 5 - Eric Treacy

76079 - BR Standard Class 4 2-6-0

37264 - Class 37 Diesel

D7628 - Sybilla Class 25 Diesel


Subject to change at any time. Updated at 09.00 on 4th May 2016


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