On the Main Line.
Passing For Main Line.
At last the footplate inspector arrived for my assessment test to pass for main line work. I was feeling quite confident; I'd had a lot more experience and had already been up to Godley, the usual destination for the test. However, I was not so confident when I checked my engine number, 92053, a big black Class 9. I had never fired a Class 9 and I had visions of a failure. Not only did it have ten driving wheels instead of the eight on the Class 8s, but also all the controls were different, and although the firebox was a little shorter, it was much wider.
We left the shed and set off to the sidings to pick up our train, destination Godley. The driver was a jovial man and seemed to grab the opportunity to tell jokes whenever we were at rest. He was a stout red-faced fellow, like Father Christmas without the red suit and the beard. Best of all he gave the impression that he thought it his job to help me pass the test. The fireman was giving me advice on how to fire a Class 9, though he knew better than to pick up the shovel. The inspector didn't seem to mind the verbal help being given and we arrived at our destination without a hitch. The inspector told me that I had passed, said his cheerio's, and set off down the sidings to who knows where. I travelled back with the train crew, sharing the firing and listening to the driver's jokes. Although still only graded as a passed cleaner, I now felt like a proper fireman.
Sometimes, due to breakdowns, there is not enough diesel multiple units (D.M.U.s) to cover all the services between Manchester Central and Chester Northgate so steamers have to be used.
It was early evening as I walked across to Northwich station with my driver to relieve the passenger train to Chester. I noticed the sudden excitement as the sight of the steamer approaching with five old carriages pleasantly surprised the people waiting on the platform. It drew up to the end of the platform bang on time, steaming and squeaking it came to a halt. It was a Class 5 known as Black Fives. Because it had just had a long run down the bank from Knutsford it had a full boiler and a full head of steam. The previous fireman had put some coal on, but I put some more on for the climb up the viaduct to our first stop at Hartford & Greenbank. The safety valves on top of the boiler erupted sending a plume of steam forcefully skyward as we got the whistle from the guard to get going. The driver had to get the train moving as quickly as possible and as we passed through the bridge at the end of the platform he put it into full power, (second regulator). However, he was a bit too eager and the wheels started to spin, clanking the side rods and sending great embers out of the funnel. He eased back on the power, the wheels gripped the rails and we were soon picking up speed. We were travelling at full power on the gradient out of town and I knew that I wouldn't spend much time sitting on the wooden seat.
As we approached the viaduct I looked over the River Dane, daydreaming about my ex-girlfriend Jane. Jane was not happy about the amount of time I was spending with my mates. She gave me an ultimatum to choose between them or her, but I was not prepared to give up my freedom, so sadly we split. I was jolted back to earth when my driver began shouting frantically pointing to the boiler gauge glass. I calmly knocked on the injector to top up the boiler and then slung open the firebox doors. I looked at the swirling mass of yellow and orange flames, and then picked up the firing shovel and began to hurl coal into the mouth of the hungry engine.
I gave a blast on the whistle as we approached the cottages where I lived. If my mother was at home she would always appear at the back door, along with any visitors that we had at the time, and give a wave. But this time seemed special, hurtling up the bank in the early evening darkness, hauling a passenger train. We had four small stations to call at and although it needed a fair steam effort to get moving again, the couple of minutes at the stations gave me time to make up any deficiencies. We were travelling fast and the little and often fireman's rule certainly applied; not long after I had put the shovel down and sat on the seat, I had to get up again.
We pulled into Chester Northgate station (now demolished) and all the carriage doors started to open. The people were smiling as if it were a treat for them to be on a steam train again instead of the usual boring D.M.U.s. As the passengers passed on their way out of the station, I stepped onto the platform to change the headlamps for the light engine trip back to the locomotive depot at Northwich. I couldn't help feeling a little proud to be the fireman as if I were the star of the show.
Limestone Hopper train.
The old Class 8 locomotive stood in front of the signal at the end of the platform. A fine 2-8-0 beast and its tender, built during the war by the London Midland and Scottish railway. My driver was what I would call a standard driver, like many at Northwich; well turned out in his uniform and never a problem to the firemen or the foremen. He seemed dedicated to his profession and skilful in a job that he mastered very well. A spare crew had been to the ICI sidings and picked up our train of empty hopper wagons. We relieved them in the station platform and were waiting for the signal to come off so that we could set off to the Peak District with our 18 empty, double-bogie, hopper wagons. I sat on the drop down fireman's seat, having done all I could for now. The fire was burning nicely and the dampers were down cutting off the air supply through the fire. I had the fire doors open and the chimney steam jet on slightly to draw the air over the fire to disperse any black smoke. I had just finished topping up the boiler via the injectors, I had broken the few oversize coal lumps with the hammer, and swilled the cab floor with the water pipe.
I stood up and lifted the enamel billy-can from the tray above the firehole doors and poured some tea into the lid. I wanted to enjoy tasting the brew before it became stewed by the heat rising from the firehole. My driver, Ernie, had his eyes set towards the signal, eager to get going. “Are you calling in the Railway Hotel later?” I asked the question, but Ernie declined to answer. He knocked on the ejector to build up the vacuum as he knocked off the brake handle.
“We’re off,” Ernie said.
There was no need to give a whistle to the guard like we would with a loose-coupled train. This train was fitted throughout with vacuum brakes and the guard would notice we were about to set off by the needle movement on the vacuum gauge in his brake van. I pulled up the two damper handles as the driver lifted the regulator handle to get us going. As soon as the dampers were open the air flowed through the fire bed bringing the fire fully to life. The beating of the exhaust through the chimney was increasing the draught further and causing the coal to burn fiercely. I sent a few shovels of coal into the firebox to top up the fire and then partially closed the fire doors leaving enough for the airflow to disperse any black smoke from the new loading of coal. Thick black smoke can get the train crew reported if it is considered excessive. I sat on my seat and after a few moments I looked to the front of the locomotive and saw the smoke was not a problem, so I put my boot on the fire door and shoved them closed.
We were climbing a long gradient and would be until we crossed the motorway before Knutsford. Although the wagons were empty they were still a heavy load up the bank and the beating punching sound from the funnel was closing up to become continuous. A full head of steam was showing on the gauge and the boiler glass was showing full, but they would not remain like that if I didn’t keep ahead. I opened the fire doors and checked the fire by directing an air stream off the firing shovel to see any deficiencies in the fire bed. The fire was fine, but I had to top up to keep it that way and began hurling coal into the box hitting the areas intended to keep the fire bed even and intense.
Once over the motorway, Ernie eased off the power and we started down the bank, hurtling through Knutsford towards Altrincham. I eased the dampers partially closed and opened the fire door a little to stop the pressure rising too quickly now we were not under much power. Going round a slight curve with the signal visible on my side, I called across to Ernie. “One-on Mate.” Ernie completely shut off the power and started to apply the train brake. One-on meant we could pass the signal because the top one was up giving us permission to pass, but the lower distant signal was down which indicated that the next signal was at danger. We passed through Altrincham station and the road level crossing with the next signal showing one-on again. Round the curve the signal was visible from my side again and was showing two raised signals and green lights. “Right-away driver,” I shouted across. Ernie lifted the regulator and I lifted the dampers and the firing shovel as we went under power again.
Through Cheadle and then the long hard climb starts towards the limestone quarry at Peak Forest. The driver keeps the power high as we go thundering up the back. We will probably not be stopped as it will be a struggle to get going again on some parts of this gradient. The draught through the firebox is strong and the coal burns quickly so I am on the go most of the time pivoting from the tender to the firebox with shovels of coal. The driver gives me a blow now and then, but not all drivers are so considerate. I take an occasional mouthful of stewed tea from the billy-can to moisten my mouth, but spit most of it out through the cab window. We eventually get over the peak and dropped down into the sidings with our empty wagons. I ran the fire down a bit on the approach to the summit and eased down the dampers to reduce the draught through the fire as we approached the sidings.
We left the wagons to be taken away by the I.C.I. shunter and took the locomotive to the turntable to turn it for our trip back. I filled the water tank in the tender, went to the shunters’ cabin to make a fresh brew and then settled down in the cab for our 20 minute break.
It was soon time to set off to the sidings and I started to build up the fire, but kept the dampers closed as it would soon have the safety valves popping off to send two plumes of steam wastefully skyward. We backed onto our train for our return trip. This time the wagons were loaded with limestone and were very heavy. Even though these trains were fitted with vacuum brakes from front to rear, this would not stop the train if it were going too fast, so the driver had to be very cautious on the way down.
We had a short hard stretch under power from the sidings, and then once over the top we start the long descent down to Cheadle. Back under power through to Altrincham and up the bank past Knutsford and over the M6 motorway where the weight of the 1,000-ton load was certainly noticeable.
We were supposed to pull into the platform for relief and to allow the banker to come behind, but we were turned into the loop at the sidings. A shunter walked over and said that there was no relief and asked if we would work through to the I.C.I. works at Oakleigh. The driver was quite happy to continue, and so was I.
The signal came off and we dropped down to the next signal at end of the station platform to await the banking engine. The fire was built up and the safety valves had just started to blow off as the banker came behind. I knew we wouldn't be kept waiting long as we were a top priority train. Off came the signal. I gave a whistle to the banker as my driver took the brakes off. The banker whistled back and we felt a surge of power from behind. I saw the great fountain of blackish smoke as his wheels slipped a little. My driver opened up and away we went. We were soon going at full power up and over the town viaduct. I looked back past the line of uniform hoppers with their limestone crowns, the Class 8 locomotive behind working just as hard as us. With all this power we were still slowing down as we went round the curve on the Oakleigh branch. The banker made his way back to town as we dropped down into the sidings. The I.C.I. diesel shunter was already there waiting to take our train into the I.C.I. works. We uncoupled, went round the train and shunted the brake van against three or four others before picking up the guard and setting off light engine for the locomotive depot.
Tragedy at Acton Grange.
The old Clockface run that went via the Runcorn Bridge to St Helens had been re-routed via Warrington. On the Friday 13 May 1966 a Northwich crew left Wallerscote sidings for the Ravenhead glass works. The goods train consisted of: a Class Eight steam locomotive 48717, pulling 31 wagons (30 loose coupled soda ash covhops, and a vacuum fitted van) and a brake van. The estimated total weight of the train was over 1,100-tons.
The 20.40 Euston to Stranraer express was following as the goods train made its way up the bank at Acton Grange near Warrington, crewed by Carlisle staff, and powered by English Electric 2,000 HP diesel engine D322. The train conveyed 10 vehicles including 2 sleeper cars and 3 parcel vans and was estimated at almost 350-tons.
Due to a problem with the screw coupling, the goods train became detached. The first portion of the train, the engine and two wagons, travelled forward to Walton New Junction. The rear portion, 29 wagons and a brake van ran away back down the gradient in the wrong direction colliding with the Stranraer express at 23.58, blocking the up and down lines to Crewe.
The Northwich goods guard applied his brakes and jumped clear from his van just before the point of impact. 13 covhops and the brake van were derailed; the engine of the express was also derailed, the front cab flattened by the impact. Four passengers were taken to hospital for minor injuries, but tragically the express train crew were killed. The emergency services were alerted at 23.59 and the first ambulance arrived at 00.12. The fire brigade arrived at 00.18 and extinguished a fire on the diesel engine. An amount of repairs were needed to the damaged track, but trains were running under caution from 06.30 Sunday and normal working resumed on the line at 12.30 Sunday.
I had a passed fireman, as a driver and we were on a routine trip to Summers Steelworks at Dee Marsh just into the border of Wales. However, the engine was a bit strange to me. It was called a Crab, not a large engine, a little smaller than a Class 5.
We left Northwich sidings and had only got to the arches when I knew we were to have trouble. I was fighting to keep up the steam pressure, and losing. The driver was of course, a very experienced fireman and he took over the shovel, but he could do no better than me. He checked the fire and could find nothing wrong with the firing. He eased off the power as much as possible, hoping we could get over the top between Delamere and Mouldsworth, but we both knew that we wouldn't make it. At Delamere Forest, we were getting very low on steam, though we were managing to keep the boiler safe we would not have the steam to get over the summit. The driver stopped at the signal box at Delamere station and told the signalman that we were stopping for a "Blow Up." We thought that we would have to split the train by shunting it in the small goods yard, but the signalman said that there was nothing behind us so we could wait on the main line, as long as we were not too long.
We built up the steam pressure and gave the signalman a pop on the whistle, he waved us on and we set off once more. We started to lose steam again right away, but made it over the top and started on the long downhill run to Barrow. It took a while for the steam to build up again. Although I had the boiler injector turned on, I kept the fire up and the dampers fully open which would soon have most engines blowing off, but not this one. We passed through Barrow and on the approach to Mickle Trafford Junction we started to run under power again. After passing the branch to Chester Northgate Station the run becomes pretty flat through Blacon and past the RAF base at Sealand, so we knew we would be all right, but the driver still had to take it easy.
When we arrived at Dee Marsh sidings they had a return train for us, but the driver refused to take it. He telephoned control and told them that he would only take the engine light, and was booking it off. We were told to take the engine to Birkenhead, but when we got there they didn't have a replacement so we travelled home on the passenger service.
Most young people around Northwich in the mid-sixties could not afford a car so the next best option was a motorcycle. I was eager to get my first motorcycle especially as my brother had bought a BSA bantam, and it was not long until I got my father to sign as guarantor for a smart looking James 250cc Superswift. I soon passed the learner's test, and the first job was to call to see my girlfriend and give her the good news.
I was dating Christine, an apprentice hairdresser, who lived in the neighbouring town of Winsford. She seemed to be a little embarrassed when I turned up at the salon unannounced to give her the news, but still she was pleased for me. I called back later to give her a lift home, the first legal lift. Helmets were not a problem as at the time as there was no legal requirement to wear them. Apart from the test, I only wore mine if the weather was bad or if I was going out touring.
So, when not at work my main pastimes at that time were; going out with the lads, motorcycling, and my girlfriend. In that order, which is probably why Christine finally gave me the elbow and went off with my mate Dave.
But it was not all bad. At work, I became the senior passed cleaner and when a vacancy came up, I moved into the bottom link: the shed link. I was now graded as a fireman and my cleaning and labouring days were over.