Driving Steam Trains

by Chris Kemp

Not so long ago it was said to be every little boys’ dream to be a (steam) engine driver; maybe in the age of the computer and instant celebrity this is no longer true - today children perhaps are more likely to desire pop stardom. However the lure of steam for many remains, as demonstrated by the popularity and multiplicity of preserved railways in the U.K. Our local railway at Swanage for instance has enjoyed a record breaking season this year.

However, although the preservation movement has done wonders,

it cannot really recapture the time of everyday mainline trains because lines are generally short and by law the speed limit is a sedate 25 m.p.h. The sight of an express engine trundling up a branch line is a bit like watching a tiger pacing its enclosure! Whilst most preserved lines run driver experience courses to give the participants a taste of what it is like to be in control of a full size locomotive, it would be totally out the question for an amateur to take the controls of engine pulling one of the occasional mainline specials. These are all in the hands of professional full-time railwaymen.

To experience the thrill of driving a steam engine at speed pulling a scheduled public train you must journey to the small market town of Wolsztyn in Poland. It is here that working steam clings on, albeit tenuously, thanks to ex-pat Howard Jones and his agreement with Polish state railways. It is he who had the idea of asking PKP if they would retain the last working steam locomotives in Europe if he could subsidise their running costs by forming a Mutual Trust Society and running courses for visiting enthusiasts. Howard had spent many hours watching the last steam trains running on the Weymouth – London mainline, all this ended in 1967 and all mainline steam ceased on the British network the following summer but steam continued in parts of Europe for much longer so it is no surprise that British enthusiasts turned their eyes abroad.

So thanks to Howard Jones and the co-operation of Polish state railways the historic depot with its roundhouse and turntable dating from 1907 was saved as a working depot and continues to service and house steam locos as it has for the last 102 years. This is made possible to the Polish common sense attitude to safety that seems to have been lost in this country to be replaced by reams of red tape and the fear of litigation that means insurance costs preclude many activities even where they are not already prohibited by rules and regulations.

I journeyed to Poland by the flying to Berlin, spending a night there then onwards next day by train, changing at Rzepin where I met most of the other participants of the course. We travelled onto Poznan from where we were picked up and driven to Wolsztyn. Accommodation was in the Trusts guest house which was perfectly comfortable but not for those used to five star luxury. This is very much an activity holiday involving some early starts and late finishes – well this is a working railway after all!

I found the food in Poland to be distinctly unmemorable, but to be fair I am a vegetarian so had a very limited options and prices are very cheap.

Wolsztyn is a pleasant market town, small enough that you shouldn’t get lost and the walk to the engine shed from the guest house is only five minutes or so.

So, what is it like to drive a large steam locomotive at speed? Well on the first day, climbing onto the footplate was a bit nerve racking. Howard Jones turned up briefly to offer a few words of advice, and no doubt also to let the Polish crew know our level of experience (in my case very little!) Then we were off! The Polish crews drive out of the main stations then with little warning you are beckoned to take over and find yourself in the driving seat. The thing that really strikes you most is the extremely limited forward vision along the long boiler, this forward vision vanishes altogether when the track curves to the opposite side to the drivers position and you have to hope your fireman is watching out! You soon appreciate that safely running a steam loco requires good teamwork and awareness.

Starting the engine is actually very simple, you just wind the reverser to put the engine into full forward gear and on the command from the Polish crew open the regulator (or throttle in American parlance) until pressure rises in the cylinders enough and off you go, gradually reducing what is known as the “cut-off” as the train picks up speed. Stopping is trickier, the air brakes used are very powerful and I tended to be braking too early, but it is very satisfying when you do manage to bring the train to a smooth halt.

When you are swapped over with the other course member and have a go at firing the engine you appreciate how tiring it must have been to do a full day on the shovel. There is an art to getting the coal to the right place in the frankly huge firebox, that is once you’ve managed the art of actually getting any coal through the firebox door in the first place! To state the obvious this is not a holiday for those that don’t like to get hot and dirty.

The Polish crews are generally friendly, although one or two individuals can be somewhat keen to sell you PKP souvenirs such as hats and ties. They keep a careful watch on you in the background to make sure you don’t do anything that is unsafe.

Highlights of my time included driving on the narrow gauge line at Gniezno, an optional extra, where the little loco and slow pace made for a more relaxing experience than on the mainline, and driving back from Poznan at night when you seemed to be going twice as fast with even less idea of what was ahead!

For the non-railway enthusiasts, Poznan is well worth a visit, with its lovely central square lined with cafes and bars in typical European style.

So if you fancy a week living in the past, in the age of metal, fire and steam rather than 24 hour on-line shopping and super clean, super fast and super boring electric train travel then take a look at the Wolsztyn Experience website for booking your turn driving one of the last real steam trains in the world…..


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