Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Enginemen of the Victorian Railways

B lent me Enginemen of the Victorian Railways, in two volumes, by Nick Anchen.  These are collections of reminiscences by engine drivers and firemen, focussing on their experiences on steam locomotives and also (in the second volume) on rail motors, but there are some stories from the diesel era, too.   Numerous excellent photos (many in colour) are included.

For me, it was fascinating reading, especially being able to relate to many of the railway lines mentioned. It's clear from the acknowledgements that although the author has presumably collated the material, he has drawn on interviews conducted by others, at least some of which have been broadcast on Eastern FM.

Obviously, working on steam locomotives was often not romantic in the slightest, although it's said that many of the locos had personalities of their own.    The shifts were sometimes long and at awkward times, the conditions for overnight rest breaks were poor and at least for the fireman, the work often involved a lot of physical effort.    On the other hand, there are several stories about the "highs" of the job, such as driving the S class on the Spirit of Progress and the single H class loco, Heavy Harry.

Other themes that come out are the distinction between the enginemen (who, in the Victorian Railways, came under the Rolling Stock Branch) and other employees, in different branches.   The career structure for an engineman typically started in the workshops, progressing as a cleaner and hostler in the loco depot before becoming a fireman and finally driver.  In the 1930s, promotion was often slow.   Guards and station staff were in Traffic Branch. It emerges at a couple of points that often there was no love lost between these branches,  or between them and the Ways and Works Branch (including gangers and the like).

But even on the footplate there were sometimes issues between the men.   Although the driver and fireman often worked as an effective team, mention is made of at least one "old school" driver who produced a piece of chalk and drew a line down the centre of the cab, informing the young fireman that he was to stay on his own side.    Another driver had a habit of drinking a bit too much before arriving at work, until all the firemen refused to work with him.   Other depots were renowned for their friendliness.

R765 at Guildford on an excursion train to Avoca, 4 Nov 1964
There are lots of stories which give an insight into life on the railways in the days of steam.   Many are about things going wrong and people getting up to mischief, such as the guard who hopped off the train to collect mushrooms and then couldn't get back on it.   I guess these are the aspects that are remembered and make the best stories!

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