Chris Newton recalls his recent driver experience course at the Nene Valley Railway on Deltic diesel locomotive No. 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier, which he enjoyed with his brother after seeing it advertised in Heritage Railway.
At the end of August my brother Brian celebrated his 60th birthday. Like most people when they get older, he can be very difficult to cater for when it comes to presents. I say this as for his 50th I bought him a Western diesel driver experience course on the Severn Valley Railway. I couldn’t possibly think how I could top this for his 60th.
All was not lost, however. As a regular reader of Heritage Railway magazine, I happened to come across an advert in issue 255 for Deltic Driver Experience courses which were being held at the Nene Valley Railway. I thought that this would be perfect and just like the Western Experience, it was better to be able to share it with someone you know and who has a passion for the same things.
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This was good as it meant that I could go along and also experience the thrill of getting behind the controls of a former East Coast Main Line legend with him. After running the idea past my father, we decided to share the cost and in terms of the perfect present for Brian, we had killed two birds with one stone.
A phone call was made and our places were reserved for September 19 at 1.30pm. There were three time slots to choose from but due to the distance we had to travel, this fitted the bill perfectly.
Five or so weeks later and the day was finally here. It was a 6am alarm call as we intended to leave home at around 7.30am to allow for traffic and to cover the 170 miles from East Lancashire to Wansford station, which is where our course was to start.
After negotiating a couple of accidents on the M66 and again on the M62 over the Pennines, we finally could relax and enjoy the rest of the journey down the A1. We were exceptionally lucky as the weather was perfect for a September day – only days away from autumn, with blue skies, unbroken sunshine and temperatures in the early twenties.
We finally arrived at Wansford at 12.25pm, giving us around an hour to wander around and enjoy our lunch which was provided as part of the package. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by George Buckingham, one of the railway’s dedicated volunteers. It turned out that there were two former East Coast legends present at the railway as A3 No. 60103 Flying Scotsman was also at Wansford having some routine maintenance checks prior to working passenger trains at a later date.
After George had gone through all the paperwork and kitted us out with a high visibility vest, we had time to enjoy a well-earned cuppa with our plates of gammon and chips and sausage and chips respectively in the station cafe. After we had made light work of lunch, it was time to go and climb onto our locomotive, which of course was Deltic No. 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier.
We were welcomed on board by Stuart Page, who was from the locomotive’s owning group, the Deltic Preservation Society and was our instructor. Also riding along with us was Nene Valley Railway driver Mark Ekiert.
The first thing we both commented on was just how good the visibility through the cab windows was. You always get the impression that looking at photographs of Deltics from the lineside that the driver is somehow peering through the windscreen with the view slightly restricted by the nose end of the locomotive, but this was not the case.
It was decided between us that Brian was going to take to the controls first so he sat and listened carefully as Stuart, our instructor, explained the locomotive’s control desk to him. He said that when taking power, the controller must only be moved initially to the first notch where you will feel it click into position.
This is done to allow the electrical current to build slowly from the generator and start flowing to the traction motors. There were no clicks for notches beyond the number one position, thus making the travel of the control handle smooth after this point. The notches were numbered on the base of the handle – although we were both a bit flummoxed when we changed ends of the locomotive as the numbers appeared to have been rubbed off.
Stuart also added that it was just as critical when decreasing power that the controller was always returned to position one to allow the needle on the ammeter to fall back to zero before shutting power off completely. Failure to do this could cause the generator to suffer a flash-over and consequently it could then cost a five-figure sum of money to repair it. This was something that neither of us wanted to be responsible for.
The course lasted around 1hr 45 minutes, so we both got to do a good share of driving. Brian drove from Wansford to Peterborough and then brought the locomotive about half way back towards Wansford, where we did a lineside photo shoot.
I then took over, driving the locomotive to Peterborough and then all the way back to Wansford. One thing which Brian and I were both astonished at was the power that the Deltic could deliver, even while working on just one engine. As we were on a heritage line, the maximum speed was 25mph.
This was achieved with ease, especially when Stuart gave us instruction to open up the throttle somewhere between notches four and five. You could feel a very noticeable shove in the back as it launched us forward with a spine tingling note from that Napier engine behind us.
Brian commented that he couldn’t possibly have imagined what it must have been like to drive one of these beasts at full chat and hurtling down the East Coast Main Line making that famous Deltic howl at 100mph. Stuart added that it was indeed an amazing experience and that the Deltic locomotives were incredible pieces of kit.
For us the other factors that made the experience even more enjoyable were the clear blue sky and unbroken warm sunshine, allowing us to take in some of the amazing wildlife and scenery which the nearby countryside has to offer.
I have visited the Nene Valley Railway on a couple of previous occasions to ride behind diesel locomotives during the railway’s annual diesel galas, which are always enjoyable – but actually getting to drive one of these beasts just beats everything. To have all of that available power at your fingertips was just awesome. By the time you are reading this, the Deltic will have taken part in the line’s autumn diesel gala in mid-October.
Upon arrival back where it all started, approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes earlier at Wansford, we were congratulated on getting everyone back in one piece and were greeted by Martin Vos. Martin was the official photographer for these and indeed many of the other events held on the railway.
Martin finished proceedings off by taking photographs of Brian and myself with the locomotive and our instructor, which as part of the package we got to take away as souvenirs of our day after he had processed and framed them for us. Fortunately, the photographs were ready for us to take away that afternoon.
All in all, we both had a truly fantastic day and got to share a truly wonderful experience, which neither of us will ever forget! We would like to thank everybody at the Nene Valley Railway for making us feel so welcome and of course to Stuart Page for being a fantastic instructor throughout.
We highly recommend one of these courses to anyone, whether it’s for yourself or as a gift. Whether your taste is in diesel or steam, there are courses available all year round on most preserved lines. We thought that the 350-mile round trip was well worth the early start and we returned home not just with a day to remember but also a goodie bag courtesy of the Nene Valley Railway. The bag included a 12-month membership for each of us, as well as our framed photographs, a mug, a notebook and a pen.
Interestingly, later in the evening when I returned home, I learned that Orton Mere station had been given a makeover and changed to the setting for Walford Common station, which appeared on that evening’s episode of Eastenders. It was quite a coincidence that we had actually driven a Deltic through that very location on our course. The only dilemma that I have left myself with now is how to top this for his 70th – no pressure then!Enjoy more Heritage Railway reading in the four-weekly magazine. Click here to subscribe.