Steam power all the way
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.
CALLING VOLUNTEERS: you too can learn to drive the Ballyhooley steam train