top of page

French Exchange

British and French enginemen try each other’s locomotives. . . . . . .

After a run on BR (Western Region), on the footplate are Old Oak Common Driver Dick Bailes with Mécanicien André Duteh from La Chapelle, and at platform level Fireman John Page with Mécanicien Henri Duterte from Calais. Photo: R H N Hardy.

In the late 1950s, Richard Hardy (who was generally known as Dick Hardy to colleagues and enthusiasts) arranged footplate crew exchanges. During his 42-year career which started as a premium apprentice at Doncaster Plant Works, Hardy had been Shedmaster at four BR Eastern Region and Southern Region sheds, and was later District Motive Power Superintendent at Liverpool Street. In the interests of development at the time, he had taken two sets of Stratford shed drivers and firemen over to Calais to do trips with the French crews on the Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français (SNCF) from the Calais and Boulogne areas to and from Paris for a week. He then brought two French drivers over to England and arranged trips for them on each of the regions. The visitors came to the BR Western Region shed at Old Oak Common. One run for them was a trip to Wolverhampton and back on “King” class locomotive number 6005 “King George II”. The French visitors were Mécanicien [Driver] André Duteh from La Chapelle, Paris depot and Mécanicien Henri Duterte from the Calais Depot. Their hosts on the footplate were Old Oak Common Driver Dick Bailes and Fireman John Page. Dick Hardy took photos and sent souvenir copies to the enginemen involved.

The very same “King” class locomotive 6005 “King George II” working an up express to Paddington from Wolverhampton through Princes Risborough in 1961. Photo: Mike Peart.

On a French footplate, SNCF Fireman [Chauffeur] Robert Gourdin is wearing the typical French footplate goggles. Photo: R H N Hardy

On 22nd September 1958, the up “Bristolian” express from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington had a good run timed by recorder Ted Patten. The 245 ton train of seven coaches was hauled by Bristol (Bath Road) four-row superheater “Castle” locomotive 5057 “Earl Waldegrave”, soon after the fitting of its double chimney. The schedule for the trip was 105 minutes, and it was completed in 99 minutes 5 seconds. This included a signal check through Tilehurst. A speed of over 90 mph was maintained between Wantage Road and Goring and Streatley, with a maximum of 95.5 mph recorded at Steventon. The 26¾ miles from Shrivenham to Goring had been covered in 17 minutes and 7 seconds. The footplate must have been very crowded, as apart from the regular crew, there was an inspector, a French SNCF driver and an interpreter! It was confirmed by the inspector that the SNCF man had done much of the driving.

As far back as April 1916, the Great Western Railway started French classes at Paddington for its members of staff who regularly came into contact with the travelling public. It had been found that refugees and others arriving in England during the Great War were often unable to speak English and it was thought that staff with a basic knowledge of conversational French could help them. During my time on BR Western Region, I think I only had to answer an enquiry made in French once. My reply was probably something like “le quai numero quatre à dix heures et demi” or “platform 4 at half past ten”. Here below is some vocabulary you might need – or not. The phonetic pronunciation is my best attempt!

FIREMAN - CHAUFFEUR (show - fur)

DRIVER - MÉCANICIEN (meck - an - issy - on)

GUARD – CHEF DE TRAIN (chef - dur - tran)

INSPECTOR – CONTROLEUR (con - troll - ur)

FITTER – MONTEUR (mon - tur)

CLEANER - NETTOYEUR (net - why - ur)

SHED – HANGAR DE LOCOMOTIVES (ang - ar - dur - loco -mot - eve)

SIGNALMAN - AIGUILLEUR (hay - ghee - ur)

PLATELAYER - POSEUR DE RAILS (poz - ur - dur - rye)

BOOKING CLERK - PRÉPOSÉ AUX RESERVATIONS (pray - pose - ay - oh - rez -

ur - vas - eon)

GOGGLES – LUNETTES DE PROTECTION (lioo – nets – dur - pro - tex – ee - on)


You can see a lot more French footplate action (packed with goggles and smoking Gitanes - or were they Gauloises?) by searching for YouTube extracts from the 1938 French film “La Bête Humaine” (“The Human Beast”) based on the psychological thriller by Emile Zola about a psychotic and murderous mécanicien. It doesn’t end well but the footplate scenes are well worth seeing. The locomotive in the 1938 film is a Pacific that we would call a 4-6-2, but which the French call a “État 231” from the “Chemin de Fer de l’État”. Some of this class were actually made by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow.

Mike Peart

Please use the box at the bottom of the page to provide a comment. Your e-mail will not be published and your comments will just be linked to this item and not used elsewhere.

[E08, G03, H01]

660 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Oct 24, 2023

Our old gaffer Ron Hill told me as an apprentice he was on an exchange visit to that French depot .Ron is now 86 years of age and remembers his exchange visit very well he always said they were more advanced with their ideas .

bottom of page