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By Anthony Dawson on

A Day in the Life of a Locomotive Fireman

We get a lot of questions from visitors about how we maintain and operate our working locomotives, so Volunteer Fireman Anthony Dawson explains the key tasks we have each day the locos are running.
Picture of the locomotive crew at the Museum of Science and Industry preparing the Planet locomotive
The locomotive crew preparing Planet. Image credit: Jason Lock

Here at the museum, we have two working locomotives. They are essentially self-propelled kettles; this is particularly the case with Planet, which was built at the museum in 1992 as a replica of an 1830 design, and is about as simple as they come.

The locomotive crew, largely comprised of volunteers, will be on-site from around 8.30am, if not before, to prepare the engines for the day ahead. Before we can put a fire in her, the most important task is to ensure that there is sufficient water in Planet’s boiler. We do this by opening the gauge glasses (toughened glass tubes) and checking the levels, and provided it is between three-quarters of a glass and 1 inch, we’re happy.

The next task is to ensure that there are no leaks in the boiler tubes (which carry the hot gases through the boiler, heating the water), and neither the seams between plates are leaking nor the stays (these allow the flat plates of the firebox to withstand high pressures).

Once satisfied that it is safe to light up, we check the firebars to ensure they are clean. Then, Welsh steam coal is scattered across them, followed by neatly cut up sections of old wooden pallets. Finally, a bucketful of old rags previously used for cleaning are doused with diesel, placed on a shovel and set alight. The flaming rags on the shovel are then tipped onto the dry wood, which soon starts to burn. We record the time at which the fire is lit; typically this is around 8.50am.

Planet is then shunted over the inspection pit so that her mechanics can be prepared by the driver, the only member of the crew who is trusted with the essential job of lubricating and inspecting them.

Whilst this inspection is taking place, the fireman periodically checks the fire, and once the wood has started to burn through we begin to place rounds of coal on top. This interrupts the essential task of cleaning, which we carry out not only so that Planet looks good, but also so that you have a clean, tidy and therefore safe working environment.

The guard arrives around 9.30am, often accompanied by a trainee, receiving on-the-job experience so that they too can eventually become a qualified member of the museum’s train crew. The guard is responsible for the safety of passengers travelling on the train, they ensure the coaches are safe to run, and they carry out a walk of the track to inspect its condition.

Following all this preparation work, a well-earned cup of tea is had and breakfast is often cooked in the traditional manner – on a shovel inside the firebox of Planet.

Picture of sausages being cooked on a shovel in the boiler of Planet
Breakfast being cooked on a shovel in the firebox. Image credit: Lee Shaw

With sufficient steam pressure raised in the boiler, we can now test the injector, a vital piece of equipment that allows us to replenish the boiler water level. A key responsibility of the fireman is the safe management of the boiler, regularly checking that there is enough water in there so that the top of the firebox (called the crown) is kept covered.

If the crown were to become uncovered, it would be at extreme risk of overheating and ultimately collapsing. However, there is an early warning device for such situations – a special fusible plug fitted in the crown. It has a lead core that will melt if the water level drops below it, releasing steam into the firebox and alerting the crew (lead has a lower melting point than a steel or copper firebox, and so will melt before the crown overheats).

With preparations complete, the crew clean up and put on their smart overalls, or ‘whites’. A common question is ‘Would they have worn white then?’ And the answer is ‘yes’, the enginemen of the 1830s did indeed wear white, or at least unbleached, undyed cloth. Why? Because it was cheap and easily boil-washed.

Finally, before our guard can board the first group of passengers, a test run is carried out to prove functionality.

During public operations, the fireman manages the boiler and assists the driver by watching the track ahead for any hazards. Putting coal on the fire is done little and often to keep steam pressure just within the safe working range and prevent wastage through ‘blowing off’ (this is when the safety valves lift and release pressure, preventing it from going beyond the safe working range).

Picture of locomotive fireman in action on Planet.
The fireman in action. Image credit: Lee Shaw

The fireman will use the colour of the smoke from the chimney to make sure there is enough air for the coal to burn properly. No smoke suggests there is too much air, while black suggests not enough and light grey means just enough.

During the last trip of the day, we allow the fire to gradually burn down, but must maintain sufficient boiler pressure to move Planet to our disposal point and operate the injector to refill the boiler.

As we store Planet in a museum gallery, the fire must be extinguished. This is done by using a poker to riddle the fire through the firebars into the ashpan. Another member of the crew dampens the ashes with a hosepipe, before dropping them on to the track.

Picture of locomotive volunteers chatting on the footplate of Planet.
The crew on the footplate of Planet at the end of the day. Image credit: Jason Lock.

On a nice summer’s evening this can all be very pleasant, with thoughts turning to the all-important refreshing post-work drink. However, after dark in the winter months, or in the rain, it is the exact opposite.

With the fire out and the boiler full, Planet can be shunted back into the Power Hall ready for her next turn of duty. At this point, it’s probably around 4.30pm. Time to complete the operating log, note any faults, get washed, changed, sign out and then head for that drink.

2 comments on “A Day in the Life of a Locomotive Fireman

  1. A friend said her Irish ancestor was a fireman…circa 1910….but I found out he was a locomotive fireman and filled her in on their tasks.

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