Les activités sur le réseau, les chantiers sur le matériel roulant, la voie, les bâtiments...
Activities of the society: workshops, track, carriages maintenance, buildings...

jeudi 31 octobre 2019

Ode to steam training

The Rillé railway is renkoms for its steam locomotive driving training sessions. Here is the testimony of what a trainee experienced over 3 days.

A satiated trainee's log

Saturday 9am, I am in view of the roundhouse, visible from the road. Tension rises a bit, the training is said to be physical and due to my size, it is not the domain where I am the best but it is a childhood dream to be able to ride a steam locomotive and when I heard it was possible with the AECFM, nothing in the world could stop me.
Friendly welcome with a good coffee, introduction, visit of the site and without delay we get to the heart of the subject. As we are only two trainees, the roles distribution is quickly done, for this first day, Jean-Marc will be driver and I will be fireman, each one of us being chaperoned by a skilled instructor.
Bernard tells me the role of the fireman and the first tasks to accomplish. Armed with buckets, a brush and a trowel, I undertake the cleanining of the fireplace and the somkebox. For this time, I am exempt from sweeping the boiler tubes.

No dead time, once everything is dust free, the fire must be lit and regularly fed with wood at first. After two or three smoking out on opening the firebox door, I end up  understanding the draught operation. No question of wandering because in parallel, we have to proceed to fillling the tender with coal. While stuffing logs I frequently have a glimpse on the pressure gauge and I am a little disappointed not to see the needle to take off. Bernard explains that heating up 1000 liters of water takes time before event rising pressure. A slight hissing sound begins to be heard, the boiler sings. During a pause I closely look at the cabin, it is way more complex than I imagined. I take the opportunity to immerse myself in this atmosphere, I want to sstore a maximum of memories of this unique experience, as the noises and the smells, those of the wood and coal, of the overheated metal, of oil and grease, of the steam...
All around, the association members are at work too: upkeep, repair, but alos a ballet of engines on the turntable to form the train we will tow this afternoon. For this first day, it will be a merchandise train.
11am, it is the moment for the lecture by Fred while our instructors take over to continue the heating. After a presentation on the history of railway, a detailed introduction to differents types of track, the saga of the association and the complete biography of the locomotive, we review its operation, simple in its principle, ingenious and complicated in its design (I will take some time to assimilate the steam reversing within the drawers). Lunch is the occasion to get to know each other better and as soon we drank our coffee, we resume the preparation of the machine. Marc and Bernard explain us our respective role and the different controls we will have to handle. For the fireman, it will be the locomotive brake, bleeders management, supply in water and coal while en route. I think I will cope and the afternoon will be easy.
Big mistake !
2 pm, this is the moment, we are just about to drive a steam locomotive ! Marc carries out the manoeuvres to hook-up the wagons, this step requires skills only years of practice allow to get. After a passage over the ashtray to get rid of the ashes, he gives us the controls ! First surprise : there is no dead time. The circuit is technical with a succession of cilmbs, descents, curves, level crossings, without counting the manoeuvres.  The driver's orders are flowing: "brake released", "bleeders closed". For these two tasks, I am dealing well, on the other hand, feeding the water is an other story. I well understood the injector principle, but when going practical, impossible to find the balance point of the valve. Without Bernard I would have drained the whole reserve over the track, he did success in two or three tries to fill the boiler, it is an art ! The afternoon goes on, chaining the circuits and repeating the gestures that gradually become more automatic and fluid.

 5:30pm, Back at the depot where the firebox must me emptied over the ashtray before Marc will do the manoeuvres to release the wagons and park the loco. First impressions:  intense, physial and taking, all I expected, all came to get at Rillé ! Debrief around a beer or a soda, time passes by, we do not want to leave...

Sunday 9:30am : Inversion of the roles, today I am driver and we will tow a passenger train! First step of the preparation: degreasing the linkage with a brush soaked with gas-oil. somewhat clumsy, I spill as much on my suit than on the parts to be cleaned. Once the whole is clean, greasing must be done with 3 different lubricants: high density oil, classic oil and grease. Fortunately, Marc is there to prevent me from mixing everything, he does not only indicate me what product to use, he also tell me why one is prefered to an other. This operation allows me to discover the linkage in detail and the astute devices doing the lubrication, as the greasers, hollow cylinders we tighten slightly during stops to compress the grease and send it to the axles. After the lecture, the lunch and the coffee, we are ready to go again. Split sentiment between excitement to take controls and anxiety to the idea to carry passengers. Marc explains the differences with the train of the day before. Firstly the weight: we go from 22 to 33 tons ! The carriages brake then, it works "reversed", read that they are tighten when there is no pressure, a system designed for more safety. This control we did not have on saturday adds up to the regulator and the drive lever I will have to handle, not to mention an additional pressure gauge to watch.
2 pm We must go, le regulator lever is hard to move and I have trouble dosing the pressure, the first start is quite abrupt but then it is better. It is impressive how we feel the reactions of the machine. We arrive in view of the station pushing the carriages, peoples are waiting on the platform, some little stress. Prior to departure, we perform a turnaround of the loco on the triangle as well as a general bleeding in a noise from hell. Marc does the connection and places himself behind. Here we go !

Photos: Jean-Luc Fievet
As the day before not a moment of rest, orders fuse: "regulator at zero", "countersteam", "convoy brake at 3 bars", "pressure at 4", "march ahead", "whistle", "brakes off", "get more traction". I don't really have time to worry for the passengers, turns succed one another. Some places are more delicate as when we have to get water at the depot. We stop in a climb ant the restart requires a particular attention, it is necessary to rise the pressure and release the brakes then dose for not to slip nor lose power. Gradually I get confidence, kinda player, Marc sets me challenges like "you stop at the sign and maintain the loco motionless, beware we are in a climb !"  What I like is that the instructions are always assorted by detailed explanations, we do not just execute orders, we learn too why we do this or that action. It allows to anticipate and forsee what command to execute even if we are very far from autonomy. 5:30pm already, back to the depot, tired but satiated. As the day before, not in a hurry to leave the site, force is to say that the ambiance is friendly.
  Monday, 9:30 am : For this last day, it will be a repetition of the previous ones where we will alternatively man the two stations. No lassitude to accomplish the same tasks again, on the contrary we activate knowing the dream is about to end but it is real and we must enjoy it.  But I well understood that it was a game for me. While doing all the tasks we measure the hardness for the teams that worked so every day, by any weather, all their life.
The days after the training,: beware to secondary effects, mostly during car driving. Frequently observed are glimpses on the tachometer in despair not to reach 3 bars of pressure, the orders barked to the spouse: "brakes on, bleeders open".  On the contrary, a maximum vigilance is required to avoid counter-steam, the clutch gear doesn't like it at all...  Thanks to the whole members of the AECFM for their patience, their forgiveness and their professionalism, we are not ready to forget those times we spent in their company. The training met my expectations, organized with seriousness and rigor while allowing us to be truly actors and taking real pleasure from it.

Jean-Luc, trainee 2019

Such a testimony is a nice award for all those who prepare and handle these training sessions, thanks !

You too can live this experience. The Aecfm society offers different formulas of 1, 3 or 5 days duration. All the infos 'in french) on : https://aecfm.fr/stageVapeur.html

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