The story of one Gold Fire & Drive Course participant, Graham Radband:


Graham Radband took part in one of the railway's 'Gold' courses during 2011 and he felt moved to write to the course administrator, Tony Stockwell.  This is what he wrote:


The course was brilliant both in its organisation by Frank and in its execution by Tony, the Driver; Jamie, the Fireman; and Bob, the Guard and Signalman.

I had a wonderful day, this being my 60th birthday present from my wife who also thoroughly enjoyed herself too as a passenger along with the other participants' supporters who were also travelling on the train.

The day started with a cooked breakfast and when lunchtime came around we had a packed lunch; both of which were excellent.

The day began with a talk by Tony who explained the various principles of the steam locomotive and after this the day began in earnest. Frank directed everybody during the day as to who was to be firing or driving as determined by his roster.

For the course we had 7903 Foremarke Hall and six coaches, altogether about 325 tons total weight.


The Driving Experience


As Tony pointed out in his pre-course talk, he said that braking a locomotive and carriages is very different to braking in a car because you do not get the feedback of what is actually happening. Hence drivers have their known sighting points for braking and this is one example of the necessity for very detailed route knowledge and was something I had read much about but never really grasped until I had done the course. I did however find that getting a "feel" for the regulator control the speed of the train was becoming easier but braking still remained a problem because I tended to err on the side of caution and apply slightly too much braking, a good thing I suppose, but not very good if you are trying to bring the train alongside the platform correctly at one go without having to open up the regulator again and blow off the brakes and then re-apply them! 


Tony and Jamie were both very understanding and helpful. Tony was particularly understanding when I pulled the vacuum brake handle the wrong way and brought the train unexpectedly to a gentle halt. You very quickly learn from such a mistake! By chance there was a foot crossing about 100 yards ahead and a person happened to saunter across so perhaps they thought I had stopped for them! My wife, travelling on the train, said she did not notice this out of course stop. 


The Firing Experience


Under Jamie's careful tutelage, with his ten years as a fireman showing its value, I was able to fire the locomotive and get the injectors to inject water into the boiler. He skillfully "fined tuned" the injectors so as to waste no water and also when I struggled to throw the coal the 8 feet to the front of the firebox he then proceeded to do just that and after his work I was more successful in getting the coal to the front of the firebox but I still I would more need practice to get it right first time. Firing into the other parts of the firebox was straightforward.


This firing experience brought back memories of some 35 or more years ago when I had some 6 cleaning/ learner firing turns on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway in Yorkshire and these were all on an 0-6-0 ST with a rather smaller firebox making it a little easier to fire but with very lively riding!


One of the other duties as a fireman is to couple and uncouple the locomotive from the carriages. If anyone was struggling again Jamie was there to help. I managed to both couple and uncouple successfully but not without a struggle with the vacuum hoses, these being rather stiff. One of the other participants described it as trying to get two recalcitrant elephant trunks to meet up! This too reminded me of the struggles I had had with these hoses on my cleaner / learner firing trips on the KWVR.


The Guard


Bob was both Guard and Signalman, he being passed for both duties. He invited those that were interested to see what was involved in operating the signal box at Cheltenham Racecourse station when the locomotive had to run round the train. This was a much more complex procedure than one would imagine and all very interesting with Bob explaining what was involved and why. 


Carriage and Wagon Department


It so happened that Dave, the Deputy Carriage and Wagon Manager, was also doing the Driver Experience course. At the end of the course he very kindly showed those of us who were interested the C&W restoration work they undertook and the complexity and difficulty of some of the tasks involved.


At the end the above tour I felt rather guilty seeing both Tony and Jamie still working hard for at least an hour or more after we had finished the course coaling up and clearing the ashes and doing all the other work necessary to "bed down" the locomotive. I would have liked to have helped them and said so to Jamie but I think that would have been asking a little too much indulgence from my wife!


Summing up


The course was a truly great day and I would strongly recommend anyone to try it who has the slightest interest in either the steam engine or working a railway. It also really does highlight the skills and knowledge needed to operate and run a steam railway by all the team.


All-in-all a fantastic day and I would love to do it again and give myself a chance to improve my firing and braking skills and get a second certificate framed!


Editor's note: Graham's day out made such an impression on him that he has joined the Railway as a volunteer and now is our Commercial Director, promoting the Railway. You may get to hear his story first-hand if you meet him at Toddington where he often works as a station master.