BRITAIN’S YOUNGEST DRIVER
The next generation of footplate crew
Yeah, it’s a dream come true really, it was always something I wished could happen but didn’t think it ever would!” Admit it. You grew up wanting to be an engine driver, didn’t you? For many it was a childhood dream. For Teessider Matthew Earnshaw it came true… and on the main line.
We’re used to seeing contemporary ‘Top Link’ drivers as having BR steam experience; such as recently retired ‘Jacobite’ veteran Alec Ian MacDonald, who began his footplate career 62 years ago.
So it’s bizarre to think that Matthew, who is effectively stepping into Alec’s steel toecaps, was still a child at the turn of the Millennium. But training footplate crew who were born two or three decades after the steam era is essential if railtours are to survive.
In March 2015, and at the age of 33, James Clarke took the record of being the youngest man to take charge of a steam locomotive on the ‘Big Railway’, under the auspices of DB Cargo. The story made national headlines.
While James is a regular fixture on the likes of Clan Line and Tornado in the south, Matthew, 30, is seconded to Fort William for six months of the year, at the business end of the turn-and-turnabout ‘Jacobite’ between Fort William and Mallaig, over the ‘Road to the Isles’ (SR479).
How did it all come about for a lad who’s ostensibly employed as an engineer for Ian Riley’s Lancashire engineering business?
“Getting passed for driving on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway in early 2016 was the catalyst, plus Riley had just finished Flying Scotsman. At almost all of the preserved railways I visited with the locomotive, the drivers allowed me to acquire valuable train handling experience,” he tells Steam Railway.
“Also, the considerable amount of time I spent working on the ‘Jacobite’ operation in Scotland, then for Riley in 2012, and as a West Coast fireman since 2013, has all helped put me in the picture as a potential new driver.”
Knowing your way around a locomotive is one thing, but applying that practical knowledge under the spotlight of the modern railway is quite another…
“Since then I’ve been through all the training a new driver would have to undertake at any of the train operating companies anywhere else in the country: a psychometric test, the multi-week rules course and so on. The only difference is that my mode of traction is steam.
“After a busy summer doing ‘practical handling’ on the ‘Jacobite’ (driving under supervision by WCR inspectors or driving mentors) I’d done the necessary hours and number of turns required to be eligible for examination.”
Familiar with the trio of ‘Fives’ owned and managed by Riley, Matthew would now take control of an Eastern Region machine for his passing-out assessment on August 22: ‘K1’ No. 62005.
“It’s amazing it happened this way. I did think that I’d have to leave the steam industry and work for a regular TOC to become a driver, then come back to work on main line steam.
“But in the end it happened the old-fashioned way – I went from cleaner to fireman, and then to driver.”
For his first rostered turn, Matthew’s fireman was Lewis Maclean who, at 19 years old, is also the youngest qualified main line fireman. Their combined age of 49 is less than the time that’s elapsed since the end of standard gauge steam on British Rail.
And you wouldn’t bet against Lewis following his mate through the grades – sooner rather than later.
IN THE END IT HAPPENED THE OLD FASHIONED WAY
Learner no longer. The ‘P’ plate says it all as Matthew Earnshaw (right) prepares to take the ‘Jacobite’ from Fort William with ‘Fifteen Guinea Special’ veteran No. 44871 on August 23. His fireman is 19-year-old Lewis Maclean.