Steam power all the way

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - Shane Ni­chols

LIT­TLE kids love it, big kids love it. The Bal­ly­hoo­ley train peo­ple have seen tears rolling down the cheeks and ear to ear grins of peo­ple who have been in­vited to stand on the en­gine plate and ex­pe­ri­ence the steam train sym­phony up close, to thrill to all that power, the smell, the sound of it, and the feel­ing of rock­ing along el­e­vated above the car­riage­way and the coun­try­side. It’s joy on wheels. There’s some­thing so pleas­ing about the in­evitabil­ity of lo­co­mo­tion.

Once it’s up and run­ning there’s those rails hold­ing The En­gine on course, and you know where you’re go­ing be­cause it’s in­evitable - the 125 lbs psi of pres­sure driv­ing two 12-inch pis­tons and a sheer mass of 20 tonnes tons of metal say so, not to men­tion the tonnes of car­riages and hu­mans ( 25 peo­ple to the tonne!).

There is no back seat ad­vi­sor on where to park closer to the shops or how to steer. There are no toi­let breaks ev­ery 20 min­utes; there are no cries of stop! be­cause some­one’s seen a sign in a shop win­dow say­ing 50% off. There is no ask­ing strangers for di­rec­tions. No pedes­trian cross­ings. There is no stop­ping. This is busi­ness, the ded­i­ca­tion of pure, glo­ri­ous lo­co­mo­tion.

Of course it’s a cer­ti­fied fact that the only de­cent rock songs have had trains in them - Rock Is­land Line is a mighty fine line (thank you Mr Cash), Mys­tery Train (‘‘Train I rii-ii­i­ide, 16 car­riages long’’ - thank you E. Presley); Fol­som Prison (‘‘but that train keeps on movin’ on to San An­tone’’ - thanks again Mr Cash); Do the Lo­co­mo­tion (we will, thank you Lit­tle Eva). And Morn­ing­town Ride (The Seek - aargh, not that one, get off the train!).

The only way to gild it is to have two trains (be­lated thank you to Lit­tle Feat for Two Trains Run­nin’).

The Trainee wasn’t pass­ing Fol­som Prison, or on his way to Ge­or­gia at mid­night, or movin’ on down the line to San An­tone, but to gen­tle St Crispin’s in Port Dou­glas, where sadly, the line ends.

The Trainee was hav­ing his first les­son in how to drive a train.

Within mo­ments of be­ing in­vited onto the en­gine plate I had been in­tro­duced to the use of the train whis­tle. Just a short pull on the cable sus­pended un­der the cabin top and whooooo-arh! Peo­ple on the plat­form flinched at the blast. Even if you knew it was com­ing it wouldn’t help, it’s loud!

First up and most daunt­ingly it’s for some ‘‘cou­pling’’ (not what you think). Peter, a vol­un­teer driver for the day, slots the lever into the re­verse cog, and tells me to in­crease the throt­tle. ‘‘Do it grad­u­ally,’’ he says, sen­si­bly. I move it a bit. ‘‘More, a bit more . . .’’ I move it some more. ‘‘You’ll feel it take up when you hear that hiss.’’ He’s talk­ing quite loudly.

I move it some more and feel a grad­ual re­sis­tance in the lever; push­ing past that I hear the hiss an­nounc­ing the de­liv­ery of pres­sure and feel the en­gine start to move. Whoa! In fact it’s gath­er­ing speed at an alarm­ing rate and I glance back be­hind us to the parked pas­sen­ger car­riages wait­ing at the plat­form, where we are headed now at a quick­en­ing rate.

‘‘Back it off!’’ yells Peter, and I undo ev­ery­thing I’d just done.

In­stantly it slows, and our re­vers­ing feels con­trol­lable.

‘‘She’s got a lot of ac­cel­er­a­tion,’’ he says with pride. Yes it bally well does, I note.

He gen­tly re­verses her back to the line of parked pas­sen­ger car­riages. Nudge them too hard when cou­pling and they’ll jump off the tracks. The fire­man has jumped down and stands by the tracks in line with the front of the sta­tion­ary car­riages. His out­stretched arms are me­ter­ing the dis­tance be­tween the re­vers­ing en­gine and the first car­riage. The driver looks at noth­ing but those arms as they nar­row to faith­fully in­di­cate the clos­ing dis­tance, un­til fi­nally with a gen­tle thump the en­gine con­nects with the cou­plings of the car­riage train.

With car­riages in tow and pas­sen­gers aboard we set off from the ma­rina bound not for San An­tone but St Crispins. Tom, a cane train driver from Gor­don­vale, is also on the en­gine plate, and I’m along to shovel coal and do a bit of driv­ing at the turn­around points at each end and the sim­pler stretches of the track.

We have hardly left the ma­rina when the guard sees smoke in a spot be­side the track ahead. We pull up along­side and train some wa­ter on the burn­ing sleeper. The fire truck ar­rives as well. It’s all hap­pen­ing. That sorted, we open up the Reg­u­la­tor (ie, the throt­tle) and head on. Within two hun­dred me­tres there’s a road cross­ing and right in the mid­dle of it is a white Mazda sedan obliv­i­ous to our ap­proach. It’s prac­ti­cally sta­tion­ary. Tom gets on the whis­tle, yank­ing it so hard the cord breaks (good thing there’s another cord on the fire­man’s side).

On the way it’s a good chance to come up to speed on some ba­sics. First - the fire­man’s job.

To get the en­gine out of bed you need to check the wa­ter boiler for leaks and then start the all-im­por­tant fire in the fur­nace. Peter did it around dawn and it took about two hours be­fore it could de­liver steam. But Tom is re­ally old school. He lights it at 2am, goes back to bed for hours, and then builds it up later. It’s a slower way of warm­ing the ma­chin­ery and ‘‘gen­tler on the boiler’’, he says.

The progress of the train is a men­tal bal­anc­ing act be­tween the sta­tus of var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties of the train - fire, wa­ter, steam - and what the driver needs it to do. The fire­man and the driver work a skill­ful dou­ble act. The fire­man has to know how to keep the fire alive and evenly dis­trib­uted, so that good heat is be­ing de­liv­ered. It’s easy for it to be un­even and spotty, and for cold air be­ing sucked through in­let grilles un­der­neath to di­lute de­liv­ery. You have to watch the even­ness and qual­ity of the fire like a hawk, shov­el­ling coal into ex­actly the right place in the fur­nace that needs it.

The wa­ter gauges are like spirit lev­els, show­ing the level in the boiler. ‘‘You don’t want to let the ket­tle run dry,’’ says Tom drily.

The other main gauge is the pres­sure. It is mea­sured in lbs per square inch, and you need it to be just over the 100 mark at the top of the cir­cu­lar gauge to get the train rolling well.

When a train like this is work­ing hard - never on the St Crispins run - the fur­nace is an im­pen­e­tra­ble white glow when you open the doors to peer in.

The fire­man mon­i­tors the colour of the smoke to tell if the fur­nace is work­ing ef­fi­ciently. It has to, be­cause when the driver needs to tap that built up pres­sure it needs to be avail­able. ‘‘It’s the en­ergy in the steam,’’ Tom the driver ex­plains.

A sys­tem of pipes means that the steam is su­per­heated, well be­yond boil­ing point. But there’s a qual­ity to steam. You don’t want ‘‘wet’’ steam, with wa­ter con­den­sa­tion in it, be­cause it won’t have as much en­ergy.

Steam. Who’d a thought?

At a later spot, when a car does a U-turn in a cross­ing as the train ap­proaches, we have to halt. The steam gauge is ris­ing, and the hawkeyed fire­man makes a men­tal note to tap that steam and put it to good use by us­ing it to force more cold wa­ter from the tanks into the boiler.

It’s like that - you have to work with the ma­chine, set­ting it up con­stantly, hus­band­ing its re­serves, and all the time car­ry­ing in your mind an av­er­age of the sta­tus of each fac­tor. There’s no time to drift off men­tally.

You have to be care­ful about ev­ery­thing; even the short cou­ple of kilo­me­tres to St Crispin and back have their se­crets and in­ti­ma­cies -- a bit of a gra­di­ent that needs a bit of back­ing off the Reg­u­la­tor, a bit of brak­ing, watch­ing the points to make sure they cross over when you’re re­vers­ing, full alert as you pass over the street cross­ings, back­ing off ahead of the cor­ners and then ac­cel­er­at­ing half­way through be­cause you’re driv­ing for the rear of the train as well as the front and mid­dle . . .

Another thing that be­comes clear is what a boon is the train to this com­mu­nity.

The tourism as­pect is ob­vi­ous, but there’s more. The weekly Sun­day run of the train hap­pily co­in­cides with the pop­u­lar Port Dou­glas mar­kets, and many peo­ple, know­ing it’s of­ten hard to get a park­ing spot there, drop off the ve­hi­cle at St Crispins and com­mute via train.

The Trainee’s four Sun­day train lessons are over now, and to be truth­ful there are many mys­ter­ies of fire, steam and track that re­main to be mas­tered. But for me there is life be­fore steam and af­ter steam.

Be­cause when you are ini­ti­ated into the brother­hood of steam you will have for­ever tran­scended life’s an­noy­ing and triv­ial speed humps, such as when some­one says to you, ‘‘do you re­alise you can’t do your own tax re­turn or even as­sem­ble an Ikea shoe rack?’’

You are above such things now, be­cause you can say this:

‘‘I may not know th­ese things. I am not per­fect. But know this - I, sir, can drive a train.’’ The Bal­ly­hoo­ley vol­un­teers are very keen for new mem­bers, as many of the old crew’s pis­tons are start­ing to wear. They will teach you ev­ery­thing so you too can one day Drive A Train. Go on, go loco; be a train trainee. You’ll be a bally hero.


Pic­ture: TOD WALKER

CALL­ING VOL­UN­TEERS: you too can learn to drive the Bal­ly­hoo­ley steam train

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