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Hello everyone from the wilds of Central Burma!
Our resident preservation hobby horse, Maikha "V" Ly, has spent a great deal of time in preservation circles ever since finishing his schooling. Although in his role mainly as a Train Guard, he has since progressed onto other roles like Trainee Signalling, yet his latest progression is one most desired by all with the common aspirations.
Here, Maikha details his first experiences in firing a large and heavy steam locomotive and the many trials and tribulations he experiences as a trainee, but all as a means of a start to reach every little boy's dream of working on a steam locomotive.
(The following recount is posted in the Preservation and Tourist forum at http://www.railpage.com.au/f-p217691.htm#217691)
The following is a recount of my experience yesterday on my first stint as a trainee steam fireman on the Zig Zag. Such a position is well sought after in almost every tourist railway and preservation organisation operating steam, and I hope this recount generates interest amongst readers to prove that persistance, commitment and passion can at least start you off to where you want to go.
Having been with the railway since June 2002, and an operational volunteer since January 2003, it has taken 2 years for me to get here now. Although my time was limited in those 2 years, it has seemed that the last 4 months has allowed my time and commitment to intensify in working there and in doing so, has opened up many other opportunities to progress from Guard, such as signalling as posted sometime ago (http://www.railpage.com.au/f-t11300237-s0.htm).
My recounted experiences have more an unusual objective behind it. I have stated that I've gone onto other fields within the railway, like signalling, as it seems forever to be stuck in the queue for firing training. I made an objective that I wouldn't rush into it, I'd wait til I turn 18yrs (2nd June 2005), get qualified as a guard to manage trains on my own, and do that regularly until October, which is when I should officially begin.
It was the previous time I was there a fortnight ago that I ran into a favourite firing/guards mentor and we fell into discussion about how I were to progress. He then suggested I have a day on the footplate to "see what you're in for" as a big contrast to guarding and gladly offered to mentor me for a day to fire. I agreed upon this suggestion under the conditions that he, quote, "do your best to deter me, and make it as horrible and horrendous as possible, and if I pull through without a squirm, you will give me another day to carry on". He gladly agreed upon that
So I started on Tuesday evening. It was a hectic evening as I had spent the whole day down at Eveleigh helping on a carriage restoration project. I had basically left Eveleigh at 1410 and jumped on a Mt Vic train, and Lithgow bus, to get there at 1730, still in work clothes and jeans, and having to simply change my name tag from 3801 to ZZR.
At 1930 myself and a mate were asked by my mentor to clean the locomotive, which I was to be on the next day, BB18 1/4 number 1072 the railway's flagship locomotive and probably the most forgiving to fire badly in. We spent a great deal wiping down the tender with soap and water, the cab exteriors, and then I had to go on the running board to clean the side and top of the boiler. Afterwards I had the fun and enjoyable (But cold) job of washing it all off with a pressure cleaner.
My firing mentor went through the initial steps in prepping a steam locomotive, oiling and greasing alot of parts (Took me a while to go about the differences in mechanical and cylindrical oils and which parts needed them) and then he demonstrated the intial layers of coal and timber, with how we'd go about laying them neatly in the firebox before light up (Which was the next morning). We also went to get a bucket of sawdust, but to find the supply of it had exausted, we used initiative and made our own.
We finished the prep at 2230. Although the locomotive wasn't lit, it was ready to for the next morning. After a long and heated discussion about many issues, we all retired to bed but right before I did, he sprung onto me what time he needed me there the next morning.... 0445!
Next morning, having got up at 0430 and ready in my King Gee overalls and my gladstone bag, I made my way to the locomotive at 0450 and he was already there. It was still dark, the stars were still out and it was the first time I had to wake up before 0700 for operational duty! We began by checking the water level in the tender (Full, filled from the night before), the water in the boiler (Full), and so after filling the sawdust with 50-50 diesel, we lit it up, shovelled it all in the firebox and finally our locomotive began to wake up.
"A watched kettle never boils" my mentor stated. It makes sense, if you watch a kettle, it takes ages to boiler, whereas if you went off to do other things, it seems to take seconds. While the fire was heating up and getting warmer, my mentor stepped through other checks needed to be done on the locomotive. Checking all the oil and lubrication once again, water levels, sand (And it's awkward why they have to put the sand box on the TOP of the locomotive!) and the smokebox, This process took something like two hours, every hour or so we'd pop in for some tea. Every 15-30mins throughout this light up, I would inspect the fire and it was here (And the objective of today's stint) I had to get the knack of practicing the art of firing. Aside from the checks, much of this two hours was to tutor me on how to fire and shovel coal into the firebox and the theory about the affects of a good/bad fire.
It's not all about coal and fire, but it makes up a big part of it. Having never fired a locomotive, I did find abit of difficutly at first firing into a relatively easy square firebox the BB's had. The many problems that ALL first-timer trainee firemen have, trying to shovel the coal to the front of the firebox, 'aiming' the coal with enough momentum to a certain spot, using discretion to determine the sufficient supply of coal for the time, trying to get coal into the back corners of the firebox completely out of view from the cab, but probably most commonly.... trying not to hit the firebox doors!
And with all of the above, it took me a while to get use to them all. At first I kept jerking the shovel from the doors to shoot the coal off, which didn't go very far and formed a pile in the middle. It took a while for my driver (A retired physics teacher) to demonstrate and put into a physics context of momentum, and after a few more shovels, I finally was able to shoot the coal from the shovel through the firebox doors onto the desired spots in the firebox. Like any trainee would, I did hit the shovel on the firebox doors a few times (And how that hurts), with most or all the coal going onto the footplate, but then I realised I didn't open the firebox doors completely, as the handle is abit hot and I'm a whoos when it comes to heat. I finally opened it to the full and managed to make a good cover of a fire sometime before departure. All these trials and tribulations, and yet we haven't even left the shed yet! But more lessons had been learnt. "A good fireman, is a clean fireman" as I was handed the broom to clean up all that coal.
It was after those two hours, the pressure had risen to half way (70psi ish) and our driver showing up, I began cleaning the dirty cab everywhere, trying not to burn myself on some hot pipes, nor scoulding myself with the wet rag. The whole cab from tender to front cab windows I had to wipe down with soap and water, which took half an hour, and then rinse it all out with the deck hose that shot hot water through some valve from the injector. Cleaning the cab does wonders, as I soon learnt afterwards. However, while doing so, I had to put up with my driver and mentor discussing amongst themselves loudly how many carriages should be on today's train, not for the capacity of passenger loadings, but was to see how hard I'd be willing to work
At 0900 our guard arrived and after a brief chat, he went to prep the carriages stabled at Bottom Points and set the road for us. We were on our way at 0940 out of the shed, and in minutes was coupling onto the carriages on the platform. If there was something about today which would be emphasised to me as a trainee, was the number of times I would have to couple/uncouple the locomotive for runarounds, and that the day would require me doing it 32 times. I coupled the locomotive on without a sweat and begin washing the coal in the tender to get rid of the coal dust (Which didn't see use seeing as though the water evaporated anyway).
It was about 1000 we finally departed Bottom Points for our first trip of the day. Being a relatively uphill trip, my mentor insisted that he'd fire for the really steep sections as from what everyone says, firing uphill really needs initial practice with normal firing and a thorough understanding of the line and gradients. I agreed upon this and that what I would to mainly throughout the day is firing for more easier sections and also keeping the fire going. A stop at Top Points had me uncoupling the locomotive, running around, then coupling again for the Clarence trip to which my mentor also fired and I watched inquisitively.
Getting to Clarence at about 1040, we quickly had to run around for a prompt 1100 departure. After coupling on, doing continuity test and getting right of way, my mentor then handed me the shovel for the following trips to Top Points and Bottom Points. I put on another good cover of fire and as we departed, I gave the injectors a blast of water (The handle on that thing was quite hot when I had to hold it to let the steam through before pulling it open!). I shut the firebox before entering the tunnel and as we got out, gave a quick flick of the injector handle as the gradient near Mt Sinai (Which is next to the highway) has an almost level gradient where I can get an accurate reading of the water level in the boiler. I was about 90% full so the water seemed sufficient and I'd need another blast of water later. Right after, I looked at the boiler pressure, 150psi. Sweet, because I was about 5psi than required and there was still alot of grey spots on the fire, so I continued shovel after shovel aiming coal on those spots. By then I had already got the knack of shovelling and was doing it ok, without hitting the firebox doors or getting the shovel load on the footplate. At that point, the firing became very exciting, as the embers in the firebox would bounce with every puff of the cylinders and the fire was absolutely white hot. I made a good, consistent and level cover of fire so I closed the firebox as we continued on passing Edgecombe.
It was 1 minute later passing Edgecombe siding that I then suddenly heard a loud blast of steam coming from the front. Looking through the holes in the cab front, I noticed two valves immediate outside us were blasting steam right into the air. Then it hit me, they were the safety valves!!
In the fury of the footplate, I pointed and yelled "IS THAT GOOD?". My mentor shurgged his shoulders, and answered "In your case it's ok, but to the others no". I wondered why this happened, and so I took a step to the right to look at the boiler pressure gauge.... 170psi!! About 5psi ahead of the limit or red line. It was very loud and furious on the footplate, but wasn't loud enough for my driver and mentor not to hear me yell a few expletives, and I received some laughter from them.
The safety valves kept blowing for another 2 minutes as we continued on to Top Points. As we crossed the No.1 Viaduct, they stop blowing steam and my mentor stepped over to tell me that when making pressure readings, read it from the front of the gauge as practicable, as if I did it slightly from the side (To which I did) then it'll give me a very biased reading. We descended into Top Points as he told me to give another blast of injector, and as the gradient eased abit better than the uphill before Top Points, the reading of the water level in the boiler had me at about 80% water so I left it on. We rolled into Top Points and after coming to a stop, I hopped off routinely and went to uncouple the locomotive for our runaround.
We ran around, and so I shut off the injector as it had filled much already, put abit more coal in as it seemed to be cooling. Coupled on the other end for the next run to Bottom Points. By departure, I already had a good fire going so I left it at that, and mostly stood back for the short trip to Bottom Points. At Bottom Points, after uncoupling the locomotive, we moved forward a few metred to the water column, and so I climbed onto the tender to move the column and start filling it with water. My driver began opening the column yet the column hadn't even moved over the tender yet and by opening it early turned the top of the tender into a swimming pool (Which cleaned the dust off my boots though). I got the pipe into the tender and we really began watering, on the side adding abit of "Boiler treatment" chemicals into it.
Finally filled the tender, we moved the column back and we began another runaround for our return trip to Clarence. By then, the footplate crew rotated around, my mentor was driving, my driver was firing, and I was relieved.
This went on for all 4 return trips during the day. By the Beer O'Clock express trip to Bottom Points (Last empty trip to depot), I had really got the knack of firing. Finally arriving at the depot, my driver and mentor spent abit of time clearing the smokebox before moving the locomotive back over the inspection pit and so I had the, mandatory, job of shovelling all the ash they had dropped from the locomotive. I went back down to the locomotive to help hose down the ashpans and as the crew went off to have their beer, I continued on hosing down the inspection pits and then putting all our equipment back where we got it from in the morning. The day was finally over.
Yesterday was a brilliant day in beginning as a trainee fireman. I learnt the fundamentals of shovelling coal, the discretion needed to keep a fire warm properly (But not make it too furiously hot and not let it cool), how to make a good even and consistent cover of coal without making 'chinamen' humps and bumps which grow, alot of line familiarisation on how and where to add a fire enroute, but also smaller yet essential tips on firing. I learnt alot seeing as though I had no clue at all on firing, I definately had a good start.
It will still be a while before I really pick up further training to progress onto a restricted fireman (The qualification for those who have yet to get a Boiler Ticket), this could be at least 2 years, however like in my days as a guard, the learning process was probably the more exciting part of my time in operations.
I think I've proven to alot of people, but more importantly, to myself, that those of you out there who aspire to work on the footplate, very surely if you are commited to the organisation, hard working, keen, but more importantly, have an awareness for the other parts of the organisation other than just the footplate, you'll surely get there.
If there's one thing you really really need to have, is patience.
In the end, it wasn't as horrible and horrendous as I requested it to be. My mentor stated that the horrible and horrendous part wasn't having to fire for the smaller grads uphill and drifting downhill, was me having to couple and uncouple 32 times. He saw that I wasn't at all deterred by that, and on all occasions, I coupled and uncoupled properly. That basically meant I passed our little agreement and so he'll be giving me more days to practice firing before I really get into it and officially do the courses to get on the way
Maikha "V" Ly
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