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Chuffed to be driving a train

It takes about 10 years to learn to how to control a steam locomotive - so don't leave it too long, reports Kevin Berry

A ride on a steam train is the highlight of many a UK holiday. Talk to the engine driver and you will probably discover that he has spent his working life doing something totally different. He is a railway enthusiast but he is as well trained as any of the drivers in the great days of steam.

Take Frank Cronin for example. A driver-trainer for the East Lancashire Railway Company in Bury, he is a former engineering lecturer who restored his own steam engine when he was 20.

"I've had a lifelong interest in railways," he says. "My school backed on to the railway. I qualified as a steam-engine driver on the Severn Valley Railway in 1976 and I've been training drivers on the East Lancashire for 20 years."

The railway preservation societies have their own driver training schemes.

Procedures are largely the same but each society has its own distinct rule book.

Frank is taking Donald Bateman, a recently retired engineer's pattern-maker, through a one-to-one practical session. Donald has worked his way up the railway system, going through the grades of engine-cleaner and then qualifying as a fireman. Driving is the next logical step. The whole process can take between eight and 10 years.

We are at the East Lancashire Railway's huge engine depot at Bury. Donald is to drive 5690 Leander, a magnificent Jubilee Class locomotive. Initially my envy is palpable but the responsibility of 130 tons of valuable engine and eight Pullman carriages is more than I can handle.

Leander has been prepared - meaning fired up and oiled - by another crew of driver and fireman, but Donald must check the wheels. There are corks on the coupled rods that must be tight or oil will drip and the wheels will seize. Frank watches Donald checking and then we climb up to the cab.

"I want to see that he pays attention to the road ahead, looking for obstructions, and to see that the points are open. Also that he shows good use of the reverser (a means of controlling steam flow) and steady use of the braking - not too hard because we don't want any passengers falling over," says Frank.

We chug backwards to take on some coal and I'm warned to watch for lumps landing in the cab. Donald holds the huge regulator arm and he must have a gentle touch.

Fireman Martin Grundy stands by the handbrake waiting for Donald's command.

The coal is on board. Now we chug backwards to the station to connect Leander to the carriages. Gently does it is the maxim. Orders are clear and precise. Safety is paramount.

"Remember, hand signals from the signalman only authorise you to process as far as him," says Frank. "He wants you to back up 10 feet."

Donald backs up superbly. There is a gentle clunk as he stops and the connection is made. A flag is waved, the engine's whistle is blown and we are off.

The passengers are the guests of a wine company which has chartered the train. The East Lancashire Railway runs trains six days a week, with Tuesday kept free for film and television work.

Later in the morning there is a break. Donald's day will end at 7.30pm. We are in the mess room and trainee signalmen are on a course next door.

"Increasingly we are getting volunteers with no railway experience at all," says Richard Law, the company's operations and safety director. "So we've written this course for them. We've collected experience and regulations from everywhere we could.

"They'll be going home wiser than when they came. If they pass they will be working on level crossings and then going on to train for more complex signal boxes. We have 75 signalmen at various stages of training."

There will be some more one-to-one sessions for Donald Bateman. When he is judged to be ready for assessment, there will be a practical session, a two-hour paper on rules and regulations and a half-hour test of his mechanical knowledge. His status will be that of passed firemandriver and when there is a vacancy on the roster he will become a train driver.

"I've had a lifelong interest in railways," Donald tells me. "I just wish I'd done this sooner."

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