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Riding on the footplate of the Broadsman

PUBLISHED: 11:10 18 November 2017

On aboard: The Broadsman waiting to leave Liverpool Street in 1951.

On aboard: The Broadsman waiting to leave Liverpool Street in 1951.

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Jonathan Mardle: This 1952 EDP essay from the pen of the great Eric Fowler tells what it was like to ride on the footplate of the Broadsman express.

Railwaymen are a special breed of men. They tend to congregate in smoky streets near railway stations, where they have social clubs and institutes named after dead chairmen of railway companies, in which they play billiards, bowls and whist to the accompaniment of distant engine whistles and shunting noises. The stranger is made welcome there, but he is conscious that although these are plain men like himself they are dedicated to a mechanical mystery. They work at all hours of the day or night in smoky sheds and yards that are closed to the public, or in offices hidden up dingy staircases above the booking halls and waiting-rooms. The railway is a state within the State, and its servants do not speak lightly of its business. Their ability rarely becomes manifest to the outside world unless, in the exercise of their common as distinct from their railway citizenship, they enter politics, when they almost always become Mayors or Members of Parliament, entering as of right into the aristocracy of Labour.

The work of the railways is taken for granted. It is the ambition of every boy to become an engine driver, but it is the prerogative of every grown man to grumble about the trains. Small wonder that railwaymen are stoics — yet they are forgiving and welcoming when a member of the vast anonymous mob, that perpetually hurries in and out of railway stations, becomes an individual with a sympathetic interest in their achievements.

I entered the stationmaster’s office at Liverpool Street one morning last week, with a pass to ride back to Thorpe on the engine of the Broadsman express, which now runs the 115 miles from London to Norwich in two hours. I asked how it was done, and I then learned that in the years since the war, while the railways have - in the opinion of certain season ticket holders of my acquaintance - been going to the dogs, they have been working miracles in the grim, dirty and constricted approaches to Liverpool Street. They have electrified the web of lines running out to the eastern and northern suburbs of London, and by means of a new electrical system of signalling have revolutionised the traffic. They have reinforced the track and strengthened the bridges between London and Norwich. They have introduced a new type of locomotive which will haul a 300-ton train at anything up to 90 miles an hour. And by the combination of all these means they have contrived, among other things, to knock ten minutes off the running time from London to Norwich.

It is a strictly practical business. They are after regularity - not records - and Loco Inspector Slater explained to me with due severity: “We are not going to be three minutes early, nor three minutes late: we are going to be exactly on time.” Whereat Driver Harbord grinned and looked at the schedule of times chalked on the window of his cab, and fireman Freestone busied himself with a handful of cotton waste. As for me. I felt like a child out for a treat as No. 70007 - Class 7 Mixed Traffic locomotive - with her six six-foot driving wheels, and her train of nine coaches pulled out of Liverpool Street at 3.30, swore “chuff-chuff-chuff-chuff!” at her load, and then settled down to her long haul up the gradient to Shenfield.

Railway engines have no speedometers. The driver times himself over sections of the track, and judges his speed by knowledge and experience. The section out of London into mid-Essex is the slowest and most subject to checks, but beyond Shenfield we had, as the inspector told me: “Got our nose through the seven arches.” We roared through Ingatestone at 80 miles an hour, hooting at the stations and the gangs of platelayers —- for 70007 does not scream “Pee-e-eep!” - she hoots “Fore! Fore!” like a husky tenor on a golf course.

On the footplate the all-pervading sound is the enormous jarring rumble and clatter of 120 tons of locomotive rushing on steel wheels over steel rails. It shakes you from the heels to the teeth, but if you listen very carefully you can hear beneath it a “rump-rump-rump” like a ship’s engine and the “chiffa-chiffa-chiffa” of the steam.

We slowed for the bend at Colchester, where the track ahead seems to wind like a snake; and there Driver Harbord spat on the window, wiped out all the chalked figures down to “4.23 CH”, and gave me a wink of satisfaction. He looked at his watch now and again on the journey, but always with the air of a man confirming something he knew. He was dead on time.

At Ipswich we were, correctly according to schedule, three minutes ahead of the old timing. One minute was saved on station time in Ipswich - and we were away to clip off the other six minutes across the fields of Suffolk and Norfolk. The westering sun cast a shadow across plough and pasture of a racing engine with an immense plume of smoke. That, for me, was the gauge of our speed as we rushed down the gradient from Mellis to Tivetshall at 85 miles an hour. The engine is too huge and heavy a thing, and its acceleration too gradual, for its speed to be manifest in sensation. There is only that enormous jarring of iron wheels on iron road, and a little sway.

But at Tivetshall Driver Harbord spat again, and wiped all the remaining figures off the window. Fireman Freestone got a cake of green soap and washed his hands in a bucket of warm black water. It was all over bar the shouting, and we came to a stop in Thorpe Station at precisely 5.30 by Inspector Slater’s infallible watch. I leapt from the footplate into the midst of my admiring family, and I wondered what they were laughing at until I got home and found I was as black as a sweep. I have never washed away more honoured grime.

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