A Fortunate Day in the Life of a Passed Fireman

It was late autumn/early winter and that time of year often resulted in widespread fog and heavy mist from Marsden in the west to the Vale of York in the east, and that year was no exception.

In the 1950s I was a young Passed Fireman with an excellent route card and it was no surprise when the shed messenger arrived on his bike at my home one lunchtime. He woke me from my sleep to inform me that I was required for driving duties that night. I was to sign on at 20.03, turn 887 and work 20.35 Oldham Road (Manchester) to York, which was a fully fitted control reportable express freight.

 Control reportable freights enjoyed similar status to that of passenger trains which mainly reflected the importance of the goods carried, on our outward journey this was the two wagons of diabetic bread next to the engine, and on the return trip it related to urgent shipping traffic conveyed by that service.

As expected, dense fog and heavy mist persisted throughout the journey from Marsden, through the Calder Valley until our arrival at Altofts Junction (Normanton).  Despite having been crossed Fast to Slow and back on several occasions between Huddersfield and Wakefield, and having threaded our way past numerous standing freights, the journey to that point had proved uneventful.

We were brought almost to a stand at Altofts Junction before being turned on to the branch for York and I proceeded through the junction at 5 to 10 mph looking for the starting signal which was situated on the Fireman`s side. This was a rather tall signal, so positioned to give a clear view to approaching trains under normal working conditions, but instead of insisting the Fireman looked out for the signal I crossed the footplate to observe the signal myself. On seeing the signal at danger I was too late in getting back to apply the brake to prevent it being passed by approx 10 feet. I could not set back that small distance because my train was standing on the trap points protecting the junction. It would also have alerted the Guard and Fireman to my error and the fact that the signal had been passed at danger.

Oblivious to what had occurred, my Fireman, a rather tired individual and considerably older in age to myself, was quite relieved when I volunteered to go to the telephone in the West Riding Colliery ground frame in order to speak with the signalman.

Walking to the ground frame the swirling mist momentarily cleared and I was relieved to see the advanced starting signal at danger with no other train standing awaiting acceptance by Whitwood Junction. Arriving at the ground frame I found the telephone hanging off the wall and the cabin vandalised, I was none too pleased.

Returning to my train I again glanced back at the advanced starting signal as the swirling mist again cleared and saw that it had been pulled off for me to proceed.

I returned to my engine, gave a blast on the whistle, proceeded, and as the cab of my engine was passing the advanced starting signal the distant signal for Whitwood Junction came off. This I could not accept and I brought my train to a stand at that signal box, went in, and asked the signalman if I could speak with his colleague at Altofts Junction.

I can remember clearly the words of the Whitwood signalman when speaking to his mate. “I have a young lad here off the York freight who would like a word with you”. I told the signalman what had occurred, and he replied, “You had just occupied my track when you came to a stand preventing me from clearing the starting signal”. I explained about my efforts to contact him, and how the telephone in the ground frame had been vandalised and he replied, “It`s been like that for some time”. He also said how pleased he was when I proceeded once he cleared the advance starter as the St Pancras to Glasgow was approaching and there would have been hell to pay had it been stopped. I thanked him for his action and I clearly remember his reply, “Ah lad if tha has no bigger problem in th’ railway career tha will have nothing to worry about”.

I thanked them both again, left the signal box and continued on my way to York a relieved and happy young man, safe in the knowledge that my error of judgement would not be the subject of gossip and ridicule in Newton Heath canteen during the coming weeks.

Returning from York with the 01.00 Dringhouses (York) to Walton (Liverpool), another express fully fitted freight, I whistled approaching Altofts Junction and was greeted by a huge man standing at an open window of the signal box, a mug in one hand giving me a cheery wave and a thumbs up with the other.

Altofts Junction signal box was on the Firemans side and on seeing this he enquired, “Do you know that bloke, he sure seems to know you”. IF ONLY HE HAD KNOWN!

It was a fine line that Passed Firemen trod, particularly if they were young and dealing with people much older in age than oneself and someone who had served in the forces during the war. If they stamped their authority, as I should have done at Altofts Junction, they would be seen as big headed and overbearing. If not they stood a chance of making the grave error I did, but not necessarily with the same fortunate outcome. When you became a registered Driver things were much easier regardless of age, a Driver was a Driver, but a Passed Fireman no matter how proficient was fair game.

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