Driving 5552
(the fulfilment of an ambition)

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I had been on a "Driver Experience" course at Bodmin and Wenford railway a few years ago, and seeing on their web site that they were to run courses again this Spring and Autumn, I wrote to enquire whether 5552 could be used on the course, or whether, as it was still fairly "new", only experienced drivers were permitted on the footplate. To my delight, the reply came back that, yes, I could drive 5552, so I promptly sent off my deposit to book the course.

On arrival at the station on the first morning of the course, I met the other two participants, one had the course as a 50th birthday present, and the other had a late Christmas present. Over a cup of coffee we had a brief outline of the railway, and short instruction on Health & Safety - very important with very hot parts of the engine, the steam, and heavy equipment. We then met our instructors, two very experienced ex-railway men. Not only had they years of experience of driving and firing main line engines, but they had a multitude of fascinating stories to tell.

Oiling up

We all walked to the engine shed where 5552 was simmering away. The fire had been lit earlier in the morning, and pressure was now building in the boiler. Before each day's run, the engine has to be oiled up. We were shown where all the oiling points and oil reservoirs were, which all had to be topped up with a thick green lubricating oil.


The instructors gave us a guided tour of the footplate, explaining what each of the controls did, and we even crawled down into the pit under the engine to see how the reversing lever mechanism works, controlling the amount of steam fed to the cylinders.

In the platform at Bodmin General

Once sufficient steam had been raised, we moved forward to the yard, where several mechanical digger bucketfuls of coal were loaded into the bunker, and several hunded gallons of water were put into the tanks.

It was now our turn to drive, and under the watchful eye of the instructors, one of us positioned the reversing lever, took the handbrake off and opened the regulator. With much hissing of steam, as the cylinder drain cocks were still open, we moved off down the line.

As soon as the engine has picked up speed, the reversing lever is repositioned, and the drain cocks are closed. The drain cocks are opened if the engine has been standing for any length of time, to expell any steam that might have condensed to water in the cylinders.

The first part of the line down to Bodmin Parkway is a slightly rising gradient, so the regulator is left slightly open until the approach to the 5mph limit at the junction to Walker Lines. From then on the line is downhill all the way to Parkway, so the regulator is closed, and you are on the brake to check the speed. Operating the brake there is delayed action, whilst the steam brake pressurises and takes effect. You put the brake on momentarily, then take it off, and only after a second or two do you feel the engine slowing down.

Once at Bodmin Parkway, the fireman is busy. Firstly the injectors are put on to force water into the boiler, watching the water level in the guage glass. Then the fire has to be built up ready for the run up the gradient back to Bodmin General. When all is ready the reversing lever is set, handbrake is released, the regulator opened, and the engine moves off up the line. The driver does not seem to do as much going up the gradient as coming down, as the regulator is set and the engine just goes at a fairly constant speed.

On the first day we made three trips "light engine" to Parkway and back, so that each of us had a turn at driving, a turn at firing, and a turn of just riding and watching.

5552 and train at Bodmin General

On the second day we used the coaches to form a true "train", and again made three trips to Bodmin Parkway and back, each having a turn at driving, firing, and riding with the guard in the coaches.

This time the fireman had an extra job to do coupling up. This involved connecting the vacuum pipes and steam heating pipes from the engine to the coaches, and lifting the big link onto the hook on the coaches.

Going downhill with the coaches was a bit more tricky than just light engine, as you were on the vacuum brake, and the coaches of course were pushing us down the hill.

5552 passing Charlie's Gate

My wife came with us on the second day, as "Official Photographer", and riding in the coaches as the only passenger. When it was my turn to drive however, she drove to the other side of Bodmin to "Charlie's Gate" to get this picture of me driving 5552 up the gradient to Bodmin General - fantastic!

For an enlargement, click on picture.

Click here for more details about Driver Experience courses, and for more details about the Railway in general, see the Bodmin and Wenford Railway web site.