DRIV­ING & FIR­ING: THE RHDR

Tak­ing the con­trols of a 15in gauge ‘Pa­cific’ at 20mph

Steam Railway (UK) - - CONTENTS - SR org.uk/ex­pe­ri­ence-days

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.

THOMAS BRIGHT/SR

A driver’s eye view of the Romney, Hythe & Dym­church Rail­way, from the foot­plate of No. 9 Win­ston Churchill.

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