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Learning to Drive a Steam Train

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Steam -train -driversFor a generation of boys in the first half of the 20th century becoming a train driver was the equivalent of being a pop star or premier league footballer, such was the way that huge, powerful steam locomotives fired the imagination.

But how did those brave few achieve their ambition of driving steam trains up and down the country at the height of their dominance?

Traditionally how long did becoming a train driver take?

The route to becoming a fully fledged Steam Locomotive driver was not a straightforward one - surprisingly there was no accredited school of Steam, if you wanted to learn it was unpaid and informal.

Even though there is a slowly rising number of female train drivers, traditionally it was always boys who were recruited in the early days of rail travel.

At around the age of 14 boys with a basic education were recruited as engine cleaners, but they were still a long way from the feted drivers job -  They went through many stages of learning before getting anywhere near being at the helm of a locomotive.

After about a year of cleaning grime off engines and assisting engineers and fitters they might receive the nod from a locomotive inspector to start firing duties, eventually making it to be a fully fledged Fireman.

Once the role of Fireman had been achieved it still would be a long haul (10 years) before they might hope to be given even the lowliest driving duties (Shunting or preparation and disposal of locomotives).

It would have only been after 20 or 30 years in the job that the role of Driver might be achieved!

What online Train driving resources are available?

For anyone interested in learning the art of driving steam locomotives today you choices are a bit more varied.

All of the information in this section was gleaned from the fantastic range of articles on

The website Loads of resources and historical info about driving trains written by a professional driver with thirty years experience on the footplate.

He provides invaluable pieces of hard won advice for the budding train driver such as:

“If you’re one of life’s worriers the job will kill you, so forget it!”

Steam enthusiasts websites like this one for the 5637 Steam Locomotive Group provide lots of geeky information for the truly devoted, such as this detailed breakdown of the Driver's and Fireman’s duties.

For those who prefer to watch or listen to things we also found a fascinating page on the BBC website with a large collection of period Train recordings, documentaries and sound effects for you to root through!

How can I get some practical experience?

There are ways of learning some of skills a train needs without getting your hands dirty - you could try this selection of online train simulations and games.

Once you’ve tired of virtual train driving and are hungry for more you could treat yourself and try the real thing - You can book a Steam experience day here at Bressingham!

You’ll get to experience the whole range of tasks involved in driving our locomotives, being shown everything by one of our seasoned drivers (like John Riley who we interviewed for our blog last year) and by the end of the day you’ll get to take it out for a spin yourself!

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 11 May 2017, 00:00 AM