DRIVING & FIRING: THE RHDR
Taking the controls of a 15in gauge ‘Pacific’ at 20mph
You’re at the controls of a two-cylinder ‘Pacific’. The footplate bucks and sways as you speed along the arrow-straight track, which stretches into the distance for mile after mile. A level crossing comes into view; regulator shut, you let the resistance of the track slow the locomotive down as you prepare to stop. A flashing white light – you’ve got the road, so you pull the regulator open again. The locomotive responds with a will and picks up speed, its staccato exhaust echoing across the countryside as a column of smoke and steam rockets skywards. Approaching the barriers, you yank the chain, and a chime whistle wails with its distinctive tone, telling everyone within earshot that you’re coming through.
You keep one eye on the steam chest gauge, the other on the fire, which burns brightly in the grate. The ballast and sleepers below you scurry past in a blur, and the locomotive continues onwards in its relentless pursuit of the horizon.
SMALL BUT MIGHTY
Where else in the world could you experience such a thrill than at the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway? Some disregard the RHDR as a ‘toy railway with toy trains’, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Anyone who has travelled on this fascinating line – let alone operated one of its fleet of 15in gauge locomotives – will know this is as far from a ‘toy railway’ as it is possible to get. For one thing, there’s the length. The distance between Hythe and Dungeness is 13½ miles – longer than most standard gauge railways, but given that these locomotives are a third of full size, they do the equivalent of 81 miles every round trip.
Furthermore, these locomotives are designed to cover that distance at speeds of up to 25mph – or 75mph if they were scaled up – so they are worked hard, day in, day out; and they’ve been doing that for over 90 years. The RHDR is, in every respect, a main line in miniature, and it is operated as such.
It is a real privilege then to be allowed to command one of its engines. Our charge for the day is 1931-built ‘Pacific’ No. 9 Winston Churchill. Unlike the classic Gresley-esque styling of 1920s-built Romney engines, No. 9 and its ‘classmate’ No. 10 Doctor Syn are distinctly North American – or more specifically, Canadian – in outline.
Although they were originally intended to follow the designs of the previous Greenly engines, Captain J.E.P. Howey – inspired by his frequent travels over the Canadian Pacific Railway – decided to complete Nos. 9 and 10 in a Canadian style. The main upshot of this change was that the pair were fitted with larger cabs, affording greater weather protection for the crew.
This added insulation from the elements is very welcome on a wet and windy November day, particularly in the knowledge that we will spend it on the flat and exposed Dungeness section of the line. We also have the line to ourselves, but such is the nature of the RHDR’s driving and firing experience days they need to run outside the main operating season.
Slotting down into the driver’s seat, the cab is surprisingly spacious given the RHDR’s diminutive proportions, and there is plenty of space for both me and my driver-cum-fireman, Phil. Phil has one of the best jobs in the world, for like all of the RHDR’s footplate crews, he’s employed here full-time.
Unsurprisingly, everything falls easily to hand, and the backhead is a scaled-down version of those on full-size main line locomotives. The principle is exactly the same, just smaller. By virtue, that means the controls are easier to operate which, coupled with the seated driving position, makes the RHDR’s experience days ideal for those with mobility issues.
After a short briefing, it’s time to get going. There are three of us booked on today, taking turns at running between New Romney and Dungeness, swapping at each stop, so we cover decent mileage and we get plenty of time to learn the road.
You forget very quickly that you’re handling a miniature locomotive. There is plenty of power in reserve, and the Crosby chime whistle is as loud and as tuneful as any you’d find on an ‘A4’. It may be known as ‘the world’s smallest public railway’, but it is run in the same fashion as its full-sized counterparts, so the rules of the road must be obeyed.
Strangely, one of the trickiest things to get used to is firing. There’s no hurling coal onto an enormous grate, as on many standard gauge locomotives. The firehole door is small – it’s
IT MAY BE KNOWN AS ‘THE WORLD’S SMALLEST PUBLIC RAILWAY’, BUT IT IS RUN IN THE SAME FASHION AS ITS FULL-SIZED COUNTERPARTS
barely wider than the shovel – and the fire needs to be carefully built up in exactly the same way as you would with a larger locomotive. It’s certainly strange to sit down for what is, on fullsized locomotives, one of the most physical aspects of footplate experiences, and being able to fire with one hand is a novelty indeed! Nonetheless, the technique requires mastery, and your footplate companion keeps a watchful eye over proceedings.
TAKING A TURN
One of the most interesting aspects of the RHDR, thanks to the Dungeness balloon loop, is that its locomotives never run tenderfirst, so every time we return to New Romney, Winston Churchill must make an awkward shunting move onto the turntable. The turntable wheels struggle to grip the rail in the damp conditions, so we muck in and give the crew a hand. It’s all great fun, and satisfying to assist the regular crew with their work.
After several hours of taking turns at driving and firing, the day rapidly draws to a close and it’s time to put No. 9 to bed. Every participant is presented with a certificate commemorating his or her achievement, plus free one-year membership of the RHDR Association, and you can’t help but going away wanting more. It’s an experience unlike any other on offer in Britain, but if that doesn’t sate your hunger, the RHDR offers plenty of options to suit your budget and interest.
For £195, you can take the controls with two light engine runs between New Romney and Romney Warren Halt, before enjoying a full round-trip footplate ride. The Silver Course, at £320 per person, is what we did – a full day with 15 miles of driving – or you can opt for the Gold Course. This is only open to those who have completed the Silver Course, but for £480 per person, you get 28 miles of driving plus the opportunity to shunt coaches, run round and turn the engine on the turntable. If you’re really keen, you can even assist the crew to prepare the engine.
If you haven’t experienced the RHDR before, these courses are an absolute must.
●● For more details and to book your experience, visit www.rhdr.
A driver’s eye view of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway, from the footplate of No. 9 Winston Churchill.