Blue skies and thick black clag, which to some railway enthusiasts is just as it should be. However, there’s another school which thinks making black smoke is bad form, gets railway preservation a bad name, and upsets the neighbours and the green lobby. Then there are the almost inevitable arguments about, how the fireman should have opened the dampers, or firehole door etc., etc.
Debates about how to drive and fire a steam locomotive usually bring out all the armchair theorists, a sprinkling of ex-steam firemen and drivers and, the inevitable, ‘ Mr. Know it all’, who could be an ex-footplateman just as easily as it could be an enthusiast. One grows to accept all this as part and parcel of a hobby which arouses people’s passions and prejudices in almost equal proportions. Being an ex-footplateman, and an enthusiast you could say I have a foot in both camps – I even had a regular column in, the now defunct, Steam Railway News, which went under the name ‘Clag and Rockets’ – so maybe my sympathies lie more towards the ‘I love clag camp’.
There is another debate, and this one does concern me more than the colour of the exhaust, it’s about setting off and having the cylinder cocks open. In general terms one completed movement of the piston, with the cylinder cocks open, should clear any water from the cylinder. There may be an exceptional set of circumstances which could result in the need to open the cylinder cocks if the engine was carrying water from the regulator valve – only a seriously over-filled boiler, or an engine priming very badly due to needing a washout are likely to cause this.
However, the are some drivers, on the heritage railways, who run with the taps open for ludicrous distances, way beyond anything reasonably required to clear the cylinders of any build up of water. In the case of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway some of them still have the taps open as they approach the entrance to Grosmont tunnel – this is dangerous, they cannot see that the line ahead is clear of obstruction, nor can they see if anyone is waving a flag, lamp, or arm to warn them. I suggest that those who think this is sound operating practice, take a long hard look at all the hours of footage of steam action from the 1900s to 1968. What you don’t see is engine and train enveloped in a white mist for a quarter of a mile or more.
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