By Parson Thru
Oh, what high drama it must have been. The impatient whistles of guards and despatchers. The clamour of the electric “right-away” bell, ringing through the deafening roar of blown safety-valves.
The spitting shriek of a chime whistle, yanked uncompromisingly by the driver in answer to the “right-away” – sudden enough and loud enough to still any heart not already skipping a beat.
Lost among this, shouts between platform and crew, and somewhere the knock of water injectors, the rattle of reversing gear wound fully forward.
Adding to the cacophony, cylinder drain cocks are opened to expel water condensed in cylinders. The front of the engine disappears in a cloud of steam. Still the clamouring bell urges the whole spectacle on towards the timed departure and the driver nudges the regulator open.
Six-foot-eight driving wheels slip on wet rails and a tower of smoke and steam crashes against the glazed station roof. Sparks and smuts shower the tracks and fall on the sleek green engine, which looks fast standing still.
The driver opens the regulator again. Another slip, but this time the six-coupled wheels catch the shining steel beneath and conquer the inertia of the six hundred ton load, curving away behind.
The chimney barks. The cylinders hiss. The bell clamours. Slowly, one beat follows another. And another. Until they resolve to three beats of exhaust, then three more and three more – picking up the tempo. The whistle chimes again as a warning to permanent way men resting on picks and jemmy bars on the station approach.
The track-bed groans under the weight of wheels as they roll over straining joints and fish-plates and the rhythm of bogeys settles to four beats – rest – four beats – rest, quickening, as the triplets of locomotive exhaust lose their reverb in the open air and accelerate towards the north yard, out of sight. A final double-beat from the last bogey chases the blackened carriage-end from the platform, and a confused clatter of cross-overs and points fades to an echo in the empty air.
At some juncture, unnoticed, the “right-away” bell had fallen silent. The railwaymen fold their timetables and melt away.
Far away, at the south end of the great curve, another “right-away” rings out. Despatchers’ whistles shrill and are answered by another watery chime as the whole drama repeats for the southbound “Scotsman”.
I missed this scene by ten years, but we had our own version, as we raced over the foot-bridge with our duffel-bags to schoolboy shouts of “Dellie!” “Dellie!”. Straining to reach the platform before the great throbbing blue giant could pass beneath us. Would it be an old favourite? “Argyll and Sutherland Highlander”? Or maybe “Nimbus”? Or “St. Paddy”?
English Electric Deltics had displaced Gresley’s A4 Pacifics on the Top Link expresses ten or more years before, but provided drama enough at the clanging “right-away” for our generation. Designed and introduced as a stop-gap for the Advanced Passenger Train, they had shaken themselves to pieces by the time the High Speed Train arrived at the end of the Seventies – the APT severely delayed, then cancelled.
What is it about railways?
Time to go to sleep. The alarm’s set for 5.50 am and my commute to Bristol. Maybe it’ll be “St. Paddy”. I doubt it. I’ll be happy if it arrives on time. I’ll be happy if it arrives.