A Rough Riding Steam Engine

The moon was full and high late one night when a pilot engine backed down on to the front of a late express train from Sheffield down to Derby, none stop. On the front of the heavily laden train was one of the newer express engines, hard work on the climb but greyhounds on the flat or down hill. They were quickly coupled up. The old pilot engine was wheezing steam and smoke. As the fireman tidied the footplate, tended the fire and checked the gauges, all was well, as far as it could be. Pressure was rising slightly in the glass, a little wisp of steam escaped from the safety valve. Just about right!

Driver turned to the fireman, “We’re in for a rough ride to night! What with being late, the heavy climb out of Sheffield and then the hairy ride down into Derby – there’ll hardly be chance to breathe and be ready to hang on! Everything, OK?”

“Aye, Aye captain!” was the fireman’s answer with a twinkle in his eye. He knew it was going to be tough but he relished the challenge and, though the engine was well worn, he knew there was plenty of life in the ‘old gal’ yet. Then, perhaps strangely, the fireman said a quiet prayer. Not everyone knew it but he was a conscientious objector throughout the war years; a man of faith. As a consequence he had to stay working on the footplate and learn to take the rough with the smooth. Sometimes he was working with a driver who had absolutely no time for ‘conscys’ especially if he had family fighting in the war. Life then could be very difficult. On others, like this night, it was OK, the driver was a real mate. They worked well together.

The whistle blew and the fireman waved in response to the guard’s green flag. Almost immediately there was a ‘whoosh’ of steam and movement as both engines moved in harmony, easing out of the station, into the night and the first big test as they climbed up toward Millhouses. Soon the regulator was open wide and both engines barked savagely as they got to grips with the task in hand. It was in this part of the journey that the number two- passenger engine would really earn its keep giving a lead to the 5XP express engine but by the crest of the climb it would feel as though the smaller engine was flying for its life with the express well in charge of the whole train. It was also clear that the express crew were intent on regaining the lost time. Could they really regain all the time by Derby?

As they crested the hill, the fireman finished firing and shut the doors on the fire and they felt the rear engine buffer up, just a slight bump which shivered through the tender to the footplate.

“Now we’re for it!” said the driver above the rattle of wheels on track.

They felt the speed increasing, no speedometer, but the quarter mile posts seemed to flash past alarmingly quickly.

“Signals all seem to be off, ready for us, but what about the slacks?” (places where there were speed restrictions)

“I don’t think they have any intention of observing many of those tonight.”

“But what about that really tight curve at Ambergate?”

“Hold on and pray!” was the drivers reply. The fireman did just that.

The rattles and bangs, continued in the rhythm of the rails, the wind rushing past. The cab swayed to and fro. They hung onto the hand rails at the side of the cab. The fireman stuck his head out searching for the next signal – it was OK – in the off position. Clear away! And were they moving now!? In laymen’s terms something over 70 mph probably near 80 mph and the old engine rolled around as if the next roll would roll her right off the track.

Ambergate curve came on all too soon!

“We should be slacking off.” yelled the fireman. “Does he really know the road?” thinking of the express driver.

“The best we can do is shut off so he’s  having to really push us.” With that the regulator was closed and the whistle sound. They felt the train begin to slow – but it seemed marginal. The next second they hit the curve, the scream of wheels and rails could be felt as much as heard as the train attempted to stay on the tracks. Finally the express driver had got the message and they felt the brakes go on – so theirs could too.

The curve was coming to its end, the pilot engine came onto the straight and everything just seemed to settle down. The driver opened up the throttle again, brakes off, the driver tended the fire.

“Straight run into Derby now. The sooner this old lady gets a refit the better.”

A few minutes later they pulled to the end of platform six and came to rest. An inspector stood by the cab with his fob-watch in his hand.

“Well done lads! You must have flown! If we can get the passengers to move on, you’ll leave here on time.

“Just a minute,” said the driver, “I need to stand down on the platform, my legs haven’t stopped shaking.”

“What about the fireman?” asked the Inspector.

“Oh! He’s alright! He takes his God with him!”

The Fireman’s favourite Psalm;

“Out of my distress I called on the LORD;

The LORD answered me and set me free.

The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.

What can man do to me?” (Psalm 118 Vv5,6)