Yorkshire Life learns how to drive a locomotive with the North Yorkshire Moors Railway

PUBLISHED: 14:56 09 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:36 20 February 2013

Arriving at Pickering Station

Arriving at Pickering Station

Ever dreamed of being a train driver? Dream no more. Chris Titley joins the crew of a steam locomotive to try out the footplate experience. Photographs by Andy Bulmer

After spending just over an hour on the footplate of a steam engine, I told everyone that I was pretty much a qualified train driver. But in my heart I knew this to be an idle boast. If, for example, I was aboard the Orient Express speeding through the night towards Venice and the call went up: The drivers indisposed! Were out of control! Is there anyone on board who can drive a train? I wouldnt rush to seize the controls.

This is not the fault of my hosts aboard the North Yorkshire Moors Railway locomotive. Driver Mike Mitchell and fireman Steve Clark explained everything to me: what all the levers did, what all the dials meant, why you shouldnt let the steam gauge needle go past that big red line (it becomes a time bomb basically).

But none of it really sunk in. The honest truth? Im not terribly good with this sort of thing. It took me three goes to pass my driving test, and that was in a car no bigger than a sofa. The idea that Id ever be able to drive a 70-ton locomotive pulling a dozen carriages without it leading to some sort of public inquiry and a national day of mourning well, its folly Im afraid.

Luckily you can approach a North Yorkshire Moors Railway footplate experience in two ways. Either as a chance to learn the basics of locomotive propulsion, with a view to taking up the controls at a later date. Or as a one-off opportunity, a very special day out, the chance to have a blast. And I had a blast.

However you approach it, I would recommend starting your day with breakfast at the Pickering station caf, which serves some of the best bacon sandwiches in Yorkshire. We were dabbing the ketchup off our chins when we got word it was time to climb into the cab. Our loco was no 75029 The Green Knight, a large and handsome beast, built in Swindon in the 1950s and brought to the NYMR in 1998.

Mike and Steve welcomed photographer Andy and me aboard with friendly smiles. Like so many of the people involved with the railway, they are volunteers but had arrived early that morning to get the engine ready.

Its the only machine man has ever invented that is close to a living thing, says Steve. Its got a life. When its cold and theres no fire in it, its dead. With a fire in it, and a bit of steam, it comes alive. And it will talk to you. Anything thats wrong with this, it will tell you through making a noise.

Once the passengers were all safely in the carriages, Mike gets the OK from the guard on the platform and sets The Green Knight in motion. Not even the best car driver in the world can start his car as smoothly as one of these will start, says Steve, and hes right. The loco simply glides out of the station.

Steve is soon set to, shovelling the coal into the hungry furnace. He can get through between half a ton and a ton. It is not a job for a feeble-limbed journalist, although I do throw in a couple of spadefuls.

To do the job you need a certain amount of strength and a certain amount of stamina, says Steve. He complains about the quality of the coal, which isnt burning as well as it should, but other than that is happy with the way things are going.

This is a good machine, very good. Its highly rated by all the crews and its well liked. Everything is easily placed from the drivers point of view, and the firemans point of view.

Throughout our journey to Grosmont we are travelling backwards. You need eyes in the back of your head, says Mike as he cranes his neck to see the way ahead which is behind him. He leans out of one side of the cab, Steve leans out the other. They talk to each other constantly. One shouts, Clear this side. The other counters, Ive still got a red.

Hes my eyes and ears that side of the cab, Mike says of Steve. Theres always interaction between us.

At each station Steve exchanges a token with someone on the platform. A train can only enter a section of the line if it has the relevant token. Its a simple safety measure to ensure only one train at a time runs along the single track.

As we rush by the beautiful North Yorkshire scenery, and Mike pulls the chain which emits a loud blast of the whistle, you understand the allure of the steam engine. Even though speed restrictions on this heritage railway mean were only going at 25mph, you feel like youre about to break the sound barrier.

The thumping heartbeat of the engine, the stream of steam against the blue sky, the heat from the furnace and the metallic tang in the air make this a feast for the senses you just dont get cocooned inside a Ford Mondeo on the M1.

Mikes been a driver for little more than a year. Whats the hardest thing to do? Stopping in the right place at the right speed, he says. Can take a bit of mastering. Thats an experience thing, something you have to learn.

You never stop learning, he says. Every day is different, every engine can be different. Im constantly watching the water level, where Im going.
Its a feely-feely job definitely. Believe it or not, I am listening to the engine its not bad at the moment.

After 20 years with the railway Steve hopes to become a driver next year too. Hes travelled up from Peterborough, where he works as an electrician, to be on The Green Knight today. Its the best-preserved railway in the country, and the nearest to what it was like in the old days.

If I could do it full time and get paid for it then I would. This is the most hard-working line in the country. If you want to see an engine working hard, hear one working hard, this is the railway to come to.

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway offers a range of footplate experiences, from the 330 bronze experience which includes a return footplate ride between Pickering and Grosmont to the five-day, 1,495 Gold experience. To find out more, go to the website nymr.co.uk

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway - A Great Day Out video

Latest from the Yorkshire Life