The scene was the gloomy and rather cold interior of the locomotive shed and workshop at Loughborough on the Great Central (Heritage) Railway. Taking a visitor around, the two of us were looking at GCR 8K, later LNER O4 class 63601, from the National Collection, but then laid up, awaiting a full overhaul. I was surprised at my visitor’s interest. After all, O4’s were sturdy, black workhorses but hardly elegant or particularly exciting. He pointed at the builder’s plate – ‘Gorton 1912’. Then he looked up at the cab.
‘Not much, is it?’ he commented. ‘Imagine taking a slow freight across the Pennines in January with only this for protection. And that’s assuming you weren’t tender first.’
‘It’s not much better on a snowy day in Leicestershire either,’ I joked.
This film, made in 1939, shows the progression of a young man in the LMS from engine cleaner to fireman and onwards to driver.
Some oral history interviews elaborate further on what it was like. Many feature experiences in poor weather conditions but others mention tunnels. ‘Eastbound with a freight on, we would usually be held in the siding at the Woodhead tunnel west portal,’ explained Jack. ‘It was to let passenger trains through first, see? It was a long slog up into the Pennines but you were expected to restart a heavy load of (coal) wagons and go straight into the tunnel. It was terrible – our exhaust, but a lot from previous trains entering the tunnel as well.’ On an O4, the cab wouldn’t help much. They must have cast envious eyes at the cosy cabs of diesel and electric locomotives. It was almost as if the Woodhead route electrics were designed to tease them – take a look at Class EM1 ‘Tommy’ in the NRM. Very spacious, but where is the arm chair? Romantic though steam might sound, such cabs were a different world – and very welcome.
York Oral History Society interviewed Bill Ridsdale, born in 1907 and footplate crew on Great Northern ‘Atlantics’. ‘We worked in all weathers. I've had my head out as a driver, on a night in frost and snow for 100 miles without pulling it in.’ Take a look at the cab of Atlantics in the National Collection and you can see what he means.
Joe, from the Great Central interview collection, recalled being ‘gassed’ in one of the tunnels approaching Nottingham Victoria with an O4. The locomotive stalled while hauling wagons loaded with stone. The cab gave little protection, and that, mainly from bits coming off the roof of the tunnel. Joe passed out in the smoke and fumes. ‘My mate covered me over and put a wet hankie in my mouth and then walked to the signal box for help. When the ambulance reached the box, two Annesley men from another O4 picked me off the footplate and put me in the ambulance van. The nurse gave me gas and air. Two GC Pom Poms shoved our train out of the tunnel.’
Cab development was a rather side issue compared to locomotive performance, so making do with tarpaulins, and temporary screens against the weather was a regular feature. By the time of Gresley and his contemporaries, things had improved considerably, as you can see from inside the cabs of some of the locomotives in the NRM collection, right up to the rather luxurious surroundings of the cab of ‘Evening Star’ (still no carpet, though).
Evening Star. NRM
Some folk, like my visitor to Loughborough looking at the O4, had a pretty good idea what footplate life was like but for others, the thought of a warm fire closed off all thoughts of cold winds and bad weather. Visitors turning up to drive a steam locomotive as a ‘driving experience’ guest would arrive in anything from shorts to overcoats (one group of jovial Australians arrived dressed in striped ‘American engineer’ outfits (from Harrods) looking like replicas of ‘Casey Jones’). My experiences reminded me that few had any real idea of what it was like on the footplate.
We did use 63601 on occasions for driver experiences, but not with a rake of coal wagons on a winter’s day!
So, wrap up warm and take a look at the cab of 63601. You can’t see it for real at the moment because of pandemic restrictions and, anyway, it’s in bits undergoing that long awaited full overhaul.
By John Swanwick.
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