The thing about being a fireman on a big engine, like the Bulleids or any of the other Pacifics, is that once the lights are green and the guard drops his flag, there’s no hiding place.  On your shoulders rests the difference between ‘rockets flying’ and ‘stopped for a blow-up’. Yes it’s team work and if things are not going well a decent mate will coast where he can and use no more steam than he has to where he can’t.

The number of variables is greater than you imagine, a cross-head wind, for instance, makes an appreciable difference to the amount of power needed to overcome that resistance – even straight or curving track alters the equation. Less esoteric but, equally important are; how long the engine had been in service since the last boiler washout and were the ash pans and smokebox cleaned out properly when the engine was last disposed. And of course the usual suspects, the type and quality of coal in the tender and how clinkered the firebed was. A bad day at the office inevitably involved a combination of these factors – if you had them all, you really should have ‘stayed in bed’!

On top of the factors already mentioned different classes of engines respond in different ways to  the level of the fire and the style of firing as well as to different styles of driving. The class 5 Standards, for example, didn’t always steam that well if pulled up to less than 25% cut-off – they needed that blast, that pull on the fire to make them steam. The Stanier Jubilees were very similar and they didn’t like a lot of fire down the front under the brick arch either. Firing isn’t simply a matter of chucking coal through a hole.

I haven’t even mentioned route knowledge or type of service being worked and already there’s quite a bit to be thinking about. There’s firing to a pattern or to the bright spots and keeping it all light and bright – on some engines this might be the only way, it is the ‘copy book’ way. On the other hand you might just ‘cob ’em up’ and sit back while it burns through!

By now you’re probably wondering about “Sooty” – well Sooty was my regular mate in 3link at 70A, driver Eric ‘sooty’ Saunders. A top bloke to work with, who not only taught me a great deal about how to fire the Bulleids but, gave me the chance to drive them too – at speed out on the main line. By the end of a shift the pair of us were usually covered in grime, however, this isn’t where the nickname came from. He was “Sooty” because when he wasn’t driving steam engines,  his part-time job involved travelling around Feltham on his motor bike and sidecar – cleaning folks chimneys!

No.35018 British India Line, an engine ‘Sooty’ and I worked on regularly during the 60s, is seen her at Helwith Bridge, on the Settle to Carlisle Line, with the Dalesman Rail Tour.

If you have enjoyed my blogs – I have written a book about my 60 years involvement with railways, from trainspotter, via steam age footplateman, to railway author and photographer, this is a link to it: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Gricing-Real-story-Railway-Children/dp/1514885751


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