On the tracks – the life of a locomotive engineer on the railways


Steam Engine, Slieve Donard, no. 172. Courtesy of JA Smyth.

In his latest Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth looks at the training someone goes through to become a railroad locomotive engineer.

When I hear of the railway, I think of pleasant travel and leisure, and the dreams of the children of yesteryear who, with their little trains, wanted more than anything to drive a steam engine as adults. . But those dreamy notions, coupled with the nostalgia, were far removed from the reality of joining a rail service. Once accepted, then came years of hard work climbing the ranks until an opportunity arose for them to drive an engine.

Recently I watched a documentary made in 1939 about what it took for a young man in his mid-teens to climb the railroad ranks as he gained a lot of experience and extensive training, theoretical and practical before being placed in charge of the footrest. But, after having applied to enter a company and take its first steps towards a starting position, it was necessary to pass a rigorous medical examination comprising above all, in addition to physical fitness, an eye examination. Railroads required alert people with keen eyesight, especially if they wanted to work on the footrest and, before they could approach driving a train, there was a lot of experience needed to achieve the coveted job and no guarantee that they would be good. enough to get it.

In the past, residents of Cavan had the option of applying to join local rail services such as the Midland Great Western Railway, the Cavan and Leitrim Railway and the Great Northern Railway of Ireland.

The applicant, often aged sixteen or over, having been heard by a railway official, if he deemed fit, was then sent to a doctor for a medical examination. An eye examination decided the candidate’s suitability, as did a physical examination, as work on the railway could often prove to be a strenuous task, especially if employed as a porter or working in the goods shed.

Upon arriving at work, the new employee signed a copy of the company rules and regulations book, which he had to memorize, that is if he intended to have any hope of future promotion. At first, the future engine driver was employed as a cleaner to shine the engine each evening, polishing it daily with wintergreen until it shone like a new pin; a clean engine in perfect condition reflected the high standards of the company.

As the person progressed, they learned all aspects of the locomotive, and while oiling its many fittings, they learned more about each function, and the controls in the driver’s cab were also mastered. For the most part, the railroad workers were in good spirits and, although a strange prank might be played on a newcomer, the railroad was no place to mess around and its operations demanded the utmost respect from the point of view of health and safety.

trainee firefighter

In order to reach the next stage of his career, an employee had to take courses, sometimes called “refresher courses”. After satisfying management as a cleaner, the next step for the worker was to become a trainee firefighter, and with the theoretical knowledge acquired through rules and regulations, it was time once again for another eye exam. After passing the eyesight test, which this time included a color chart, one had to learn the trades of a firefighter as he worked in unison alongside the machine operator in the cab. The fireman had to see that the engine maintained good steam pressure without wasting coal, and that the water supplied to the boiler was properly regulated and that the lights of the engine were suitably lit and visibly clean and shining. There was even a correct method of distributing the coal in the combustion chamber for maximum efficiency.

The fireman assisted the locomotive engineer in constant monitoring as the train traveled the line making sure there were no dangerous obstacles in front of it. The conductor and the fireman prepared the train every morning. An instructor accompanied the trainee firefighter on the course to test his knowledge until he became a full-fledged firefighter. It was important to master the route and know the signals and their location so that the fireman, when he came up the line to become a conductor, would know enough to operate the locomotive day or night on that same track.

After a few years, the firefighter was ready to take the next exam to train as a former firefighter, which allowed him to drive the train when the driver was away. To arrive at this position, it was necessary to be able to identify all the parts of the locomotive and to recite each function in the presence of the inspector. A former firefighter needed to know how to identify needed repairs and then clearly report them to management.

The inspector accompanied the candidate on the engine making sure he was familiar with the mechanics of the engine, to see that he was a good judge of distance and had a perfect knowledge of the signals, and to know how the boiler and the fire worked. It was a requirement for most trainee drivers to be tested to drive a freight train and then a passenger train. Again, a thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations was of the utmost importance and would have been mastered to such a degree that the candidate would be an expert in them. Again, another sight test and color vision test was required before the new driver received their driving instruction manual. Over time, the worker has achieved full-time driver status, while continually mastering his instruction manual, to keep his knowledge up to date.

Some of the people I found listed as Cavan engine drivers with the various railway companies over the years included: Thomas Hamill, James McCourt, Joe Scully, Frank McPhillips, Cootehill; William McMullan, Mr Murray, Ned Breslin, Henry Gauthier, Stephan Byrne, James Gibney, Mickey Murphy, Cavan; Nicholas Haughey, Thomas McGuinness, Belturbet; and James Killkelly, Portaliffe, Killeshandra.


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