Bitesize Driving: Our list of top low-cost driver experience courses

Gareth Evans talks to eight heritage railways operating low-cost driver experience courses for £20 and under and learns about their approaches and what they can offer would-be participants in the hope of inspiring others to ‘have a go.’

You’ve admired locomotives large and small at heritage lines, but have you ever wondered what it would be like to be in the driving seat? Not everyone has a three-figure sum for an intensive driver experience course or the time to commit to climb the ranks to become a fully-fledged volunteer locomotive crew member at a heritage line.

Fortunately however, a number of heritage railways across the country offer low-cost driver experience courses, ranging in price from £5 to £20. As well as whetting appetites for a more in-depth experience in due course, such ‘taster’ sessions provide an affordable birthday or Christmas gift for a loved one – or maybe a treat for one’s good self.

For railways, they can be useful cash generators for minimal outlay, providing an unforgettable experience for participants and generating invaluable goodwill in the process – perhaps eliciting donations or volunteers as a result. Former industrial diesel shunters appear to be the traction of choice among many more embryonic lines, but others such as the Vale of Rheidol offer the chance to drive a charming steam locomotive for £5, while visitors to Cambrian Heritage Railways can try their hand on a class 101 DMU at Llynclys for £20.

 

Vale of Rheidol

The Vale of Rheidol Railway began offering driver for a fiver five years ago.

“It’s part of our educational programme for people to learn how an engine works and to have a go,” explained Debbie Morgan, VoR marketing manager.

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“We also wanted to make use of our smaller engines in the collection – and it gives people the opportunity to see them working too.”

‘Quarry’ Hunslet 0-4-0ST Margaret (No. 605 of 1894) is currently allocated to the duty, which takes place in the siding at Devil’s Bridge station between July 16 and August 30 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – plus Saturdays in August, between the hours of 11am and 5pm.

Visitors can drive the veteran Penrhyn Quarry Railway locomotive for a donation of £5 or ride on the footplate for £3. All funds raised go towards the on-going restoration of locomotive No. 7, which has been out of service since 1998.

Participants need to be of good health and deemed fit and able. Children may participate with parental consent, but must be supervised – and the driver may ask for a parent/guardian to accompany.

Quarry Hunslet 0-4-0ST Margaret at Rheidol. Credit: VOR

 

Rocks by Rail

On selected Sundays, visitors to Rutland’s Rocks by Rail can take to the controls of an historically significant diesel locomotive for £5 on top of the museum’s normal admission fee.

Named Mr D, the 1967-built Thomas Hill Vanguard 0-4-0DH hauled the last quarry train in the UK in 2005 at Barrington Cement Works, before being donated to the museum. For the remainder of the 2018 season, driver for a fiver will be operating on August 5, September 9 and October 7.

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Explaining why the museum offers the experience, Robin Bickers, curator said: “We started driver for a fiver last year. We only steam one Sunday a month, so we wanted an additional attraction on other selected dates. The novelty factor has appeal.

“Operationally, our diesels are dual-controlled, so they’re safe. It’s relatively cheap to run compared to a steam loco that needs to be lit at 5am. Resourcing it is minimal too – we only need one driver, a responsible officer/controller and one volunteer in the cafe. It’s a great income stream for us.”

Turning to what advice he would give to other railways, Robin enthused: “The popularity of giving people the chance to drive a diesel locomotive should not be underestimated. We could charge more but £5 rolls off the tongue.”

Thomas Hill Vanguard0-4-0DH Credit: Railway

 

Derwent Valley Light Railway

Located on the eastern edge of York, the Derwent Valley Light Railway only began offering ‘driver for a fiver’ at Easter this year.

“We wanted to give people the opportunity to drive a real full-size locomotive and help raise much needed funds for the railway,” explained Allan Briggs, DVLRS trustee.

“It’s immediately proved popular. We were pleased to launch this unusual experience at a truly bargain price and it’s just because fiver happens to rhyme with driver. The cost is five pounds, but as such a rare life experience, the value is surely far higher, so come along and enjoy it for a fiver before some poet/wordsmith finds a different rhyme or alliterative name to fit its true worth.”

There are a limited number of sessions over the course of the line’s scheduled running days, which are held on Sundays and bank holiday Mondays from Easter to the end of September. It is therefore recommended that participants, who must be aged 18 or over, arrive early to register for a session to avoid disappointment.

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According to Allan, all the line’s operational locomotives are suitable for the duty: “Up until now we have used our one-time Island Line-based 03 No. 03079 and Ruston 4wDM 88DS Rowntree No. 3 Ken Cooke. The 03 is the easiest loco to drive but some people want something more challenging.”

Offering a railway experience with a difference to a wider audience, the DVLR also welcomes group bookings, which can be accommodated on non-operating days.

Allan said: “For example, we have a Land Rover club which comes annually where most members do driver for a fiver and we hold that on a Saturday.”

Asked what advice he would offer railways considering following in the line’s footsteps, Allan replied: “Just do it, but make sure you have the correct insurance in place and ensure the drivers running it are competent and willing – not everyone wishes to do it.

“Also, publicise it – we have made two ‘A’ boards to advertise it. We keep one on the platform and the other at the entrance to the farming museum. On top of this, we advertise as much as possible through social media.”

Derwent Valley Railway. Credit: Jonathan D. Stockwell

Aln Valley

The Aln Valley has taken the concept of a low-cost driver experience course a step further by offering it for sale as a gift which can be presented to friends or loved ones.

Mark Hayton, company secretary at the Northumberland line said: “We have been doing them for a few years and they are very popular, providing a welcome income stream for our small railway.

“We sell vouchers which are valid for a year, so they make ideal presents for £10. Participants normally get to drive our Drewry 0-6-0DM Drax backwards and forwards a few times along about 250m of track. With dual controls, the locomotive is ideal for anyone from teenagers to a lady well into her 80s – yes, it was on her bucket list.”

The locomotive is an industrial version of a BR Class 04, built by Robert Stephenson & Hawthorns of Darlington as Works No. 8199 in 1963. Weighing 32 tons, it is powered by a Gardner 8L3 engine, generating 204hp.

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Stainmore Railway Company

Visitors to the Stainmore Railway Company normally have the opportunity to take the controls of a diesel locomotive, but the operation is currently suspended, pending completion of permanent way works.

“We allow adults to drive my 0-6-0DE Yorkshire Engine Stanton 50 for a short distance up and down the tracks at Kirkby Stephen East under supervision,” explained Sue Jones, secretary and director of the Cumbrian line.

“We currently have major track work on-going so cannot offer this option, but once the task is complete, we will resume. This option is only available on steam operating days as we use Stanton 50 on the passenger service on diesel days with my other locomotive, 0-4-0DM Hibberd Planet Elizabeth.”

The railway also offers cab rides for adults on operating days, where the crew explain the workings of the engine – the cost for a single trip being £15 for steam and £7.50 for diesel.

Stanton 50. Credit: Alan Fisher/ Stainmore Railway Company Ltd.

 

Yorkshire Wolds Railway

Driver for a fiver is currently being offered on one day a month at the YWR, which is in the early stages of restoring part of the former Malton & Driffield Junction Railway as a heritage line.

“Because our line is currently 300ft long, we wanted to offer an out of the ordinary experience that would appeal to any sized pocket,” enthused Matthew Brown, the line’s membership, media & archive director.

“It’s created a lot of interest. We try to encourage all participants to pre-book as it allows us to better plan our days and helps to avoid disappointment. We want everyone to be happy.”

Participants can drive GEC Traction 0-4-0DH Sir Tatton Sykes, new in 1979, to High Shotton Steelworks.

“The locomotive is perfect – it’s dual-controlled, so our driver can sit opposite the participant,” added Matthew.

Participants must be at least 18 years of age. At the discretion of the driver, one paying adult guest may be permitted in the cab during the experience. Open Sundays and bank holidays until the end of October, the YWR also offers a ride in the cab for £1.50 per adult or £5 for a family of four.

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Plym Valley Railway

The Plym Valley Railway offers what it calls a ‘Driver Taster’ course for £5 in between its normal passenger train workings.

Lasting approximately 15 minutes, participants learn the controls of the diesel locomotive and then drive the train for one return trip over half the line, a distance of approximately one mile.

All participants must be over 14 and those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult at all times. Under 14s are welcome in the cab of the locomotive with an adult driving. All attendees in the cab (a maximum of two visitors) must be wearing sensible clothing and footwear, be medically fit and be able to disembark from the locomotive to track level in an emergency. Participation is at the discretion of the driver on an individual basis.

Explaining why the line began to offer the low-cost course, the PVR’s Daniel Phillips said: “We wanted to allow the public to do something different, something they’ve perhaps not done before and to stand out from other railways in the area.

“We mainly use our Sentinel 0-4-0DH No. 10077 due to the dual control and ease of use.

“Pre-booking isn’t necessary, but we have recently started offering online booking as it gives us a guaranteed income and provides reassurance for participants. We also fit in people turning up in between the booked slots.”

As for advice he would give to other railways considering following suit, Daniel commented: “Give it a try and vary it to use different engines for example, so participants return several times. It is a perfect gift.”

The PVR also offers brake van rides and cab rides at intervals between the driver experiences.

Plym Valley, Sentinel 0-4-0DH No. 10077. Credit: Daniel Phillips

 

Cambrian Heritage Railways

The charm of a 1950s railcar is something many of us find irresistible. It may therefore come as no surprise that the opportunity to drive a return trip between Llynclys and Pen Y Garreg Halt in CHR’s class 101 DMU for £20 has become an increasingly popular draw.

According to CHR chairman Rob Williams: “It doesn’t have to be pre-booked, but it is advisable.”

Participants enjoy a cab ride on a scheduled service in which the driver talks through the line and the vehicle’s controls and features. They then drive a non-public train, albeit with members of the participant’s family or friends on board, who must be in possession of a valid ticket.

CHR also offer the £20 experience in two of its industrial diesels – Ruston 165DE Alun Evans at Llynclys or Drewry/Vulcan Foundry Telemon at Oswestry.

“In my experience, those who take up the budget priced course tend not to be part of the railway enthusiast community – they’re the sort of individual who fancies trying something different,” Rob enthused.

“Smaller railways are well-placed to offer low-cost driver experience courses as they can normally fit easily around the regular public trains. As a driver, I’ve found the courses can help break up the day because you’re meeting different people, teaching them about the locomotive and getting to know them.”

As for any advice he would offer other heritage lines, Rob said: “Just do it. It takes minimal effort to prepare a small diesel locomotive – and it’s even more efficient if the loco or unit is already in use that day.”

Class 101 DMUs, Cambrian class. Credit: Railway

 

Weardale Railway

The Weardale Railway began running driver for a fiver on Father’s Day 2015.

“We operated it during the following two seasons to supplement the normal running days up and down platform 2 at Stanhope,” explained Tony Slack, trust director.

“However, we’ve been unable to offer it this year due to the Sentinel 0-6-0DH diesel shunter we use on it awaiting maintenance. Our mechanical engineering department volunteers are having to focus their time on preparing our recently-acquired former Bodmin & Wenford Railway class 108 DMU for service.”

Tony was keen to stress: “We are though, planning to restart driver for a fiver as soon as possible. We will post details on our website when it’s back in action.”

Weardale, Sentinel. Credit: Tony Slack

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