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How to drive a steam engine

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Drive -a -steam -engineWhen we mentioned to Phillip Gray our chief engineer that we wanted to write a blog post about how to drive a steam engine he recommended talking to John Riley - so we duly did!

John has been volunteering here at Bressingham for about 15 years. He does a variety of things.  He drives almost all of the steam powered machinery -  narrow gauge, stationary engines and traction engines and spends a lot of time assisting the chief engineer Phillip Gray with routine maintenance of the engines and training new volunteers.

Where did you learn how to drive a steam locomotive?

No simple answer to that one!  I’ve been interested in steam engines all my life - I’ve studied them as opportunities have permitted.

I did start some traction engine driving back in the 1980’s, I had a friend who owned some steam engines for a short while - but I really learnt to drive on a regular basis when I first started at Bressingham 15 years ago.

How much preparation is needed before the loco can go anywhere?

It all depends on the size of the locomotive but the work is fundamentally the same.  If the engine’s been in service the previous day (i.e. being driven) the remnants of the previous day’s fire will need to be cleaned out - Cinders from the fire box end, Soot from the smoke box end.  That takes a little while.

Then it’s a matter of lighting a fresh fire, raising steam gently, cleaning the engine while it’s raising steam and then finally oiling it round before it’s ready to move.

It takes about two and a half to 3 hours on our narrow gauge railways.

Can you describe, step by step, what the driver does?

The first thing, depending on which railway I’m working at Bressingham, is to check that the route is clear (especially on the Nursery line), there’s always the possibility that someone’s standing infront of you on the level crossing!

Then it’s just a matter of gently putting steam through to the cylinders using what we call a “Regulator” (much like the accelerator on a car), let the brakes off, then working up to what’s known as “line speed” (the safe speed for the line you’re on).

There are other adjustments you make to the engine (which I’m not going to go into - they’re a bit technical!).  Thereafter it’s really just a matter of keeping an eye out for obstructions on the track and the other eye on the pressure of steam in the boiler - which requires constant monitoring.

Do you get to enjoy the scenery or are you too busy?

A steam engine’s operator is expected to take full responsibility when driving, there are no automatic safety devices - so you need to be aware of the conditions all the time and prepared to take action at any moment.

Constant monitoring is still required - not only the boiler and water pressure, but listening to the noises the engine makes. If it starts making different noises you have to be able to quickly identify what the issue might be and take action accordingly.

But, having said that, if you drive the same railway over a period of time you get to know what you have to do at certain points.  The more familiar you become with it, the easier it is to enjoy the ride!

Do you have any Steam Engine related questions or comments?

Do you have any experiences, comments or stories about steam engines?

Is there anything you think we should have mentioned?

If there is get in touch and let us know – you can also do it on Facebook or Twitter.


By Alastair Baker at 22 Aug 2016, 00:00 AM