Like most boys growing up, I had more than a passing interest in trains.
I had a model railway which took pride of place in my bedroom for many years and, of course, always enjoyed a trip on any form of train - be it a steam engine at the seaside or an InterCity 125.
So you can imagine my delight when I was invited along to the Steeple Grange Light Railway, near Wirksworth, for a crash course on how to drive a train, well a small locomotive called Greenbat.
Dave Matthews was instructor for the morning, showing me the controls on Greenbat.
Greenbat dates back to 1961 and is a locomotive which originally worked at Flather’s Bright Steel works in Wednesbury in the West Midlands and later at Tinsley Wire Works in Sheffield.
It has been the mainstay of Steep Grange’s locomotive fleet for many years and received an extensive overhaul in 2011 and another one in 2014.
As for Dave, he is one of a small army of volunteers who work at the attraction - which offers an unusual mix of interests, from transport heritage to geology, wildlife and the area’s industrial history, all contained on a gentle 20-minute trundle along the 18-inch gauge line.
He is responsible for teaching people how to drive locomotives like Greenbat at Steeple Grange in his role as the attraction’s chief driving instructor.
Dave has been involved with the railway for 11 years and is a reassuring figure as I begin to contemplate my first ever train driving lesson.
“I’ve been involved in heritage railways since the 1980s - so it’s a long time,” Dave tells me.
“I actually learned to drive on heritage lines on full sized diesels, so I do have a bit of experience in train driving. They’re a bit different to driving this of course. It’s always something I have been interested in. When I was a little boy - about four years old - there was a miniature railway in our local park and the bloke said to me ‘do you want to ride in the engine?’ and ever since then I have been hooked.”
Many of the volunteers come from professional rail backgrounds and they spend their Thursdays all year round maintaining the line, locos and rolling stock.
“I enjoy doing it,” says Dave about his role as an instructor. “Sometimes it’s a challenge when you’re trying to train a novice that has no experience at all and trying to get over to them what they have got to do to drive the thing.”
Of course, with the Steeple Grange attracting visitors from far and wide, safety has to be at the heart of all things.
Dave tells me: “What you’ve got to remember is you’re carrying passengers and they are your responsibility. If you make a mistake and injure those passengers, it’s you that’s going to be carrying the can.
“That is something I have to get over to everybody that wants to be a potential driver. “They have got to take into account that responsibility - that’s why we have driving courses set up based on the original British Rail manual.”
Volunteers like Dave are key to the success of Steeple Grange - which is widely regarded as one of Derbyshire’s best-loved railway attractions.
This year has so far proved to be a successful one for Steeple Grange - with the hot weather helping to draw in a healthy number of passengers.
Its success has meant the need to bolster its team of around 40 volunteers is more vital than ever before.
And as well as roles like Dave’s, there are a variety of opportunities on offer at the attraction including:
- Selling tickets and helping with customer enquiries
- Acting as a guard on the trains
- Helping to set up specially-organised events
- Maintaining and updating the railway’s social media and online activities
- Helping to maintain the railway and its heritage locomotives and rolling stock
So, if someone wants to learn how to drive one of its trains how do they go about doing it?
“You have to be a member,” says Dave. “If a member wants to learn to drive the first thing they do is to become a qualified guard. It sounds a bit odd, but it’s getting them to learn the route - to learn the line, where you need to slow down and where you need to speed up, where the points work, where you’ve got a (level) crossing and things like that.
“It gets them used to the line. “Once they have qualified as a guard then they can learn to drive. They learn on Peggy - one of the most basic ones to drive - and once they have passed on this they can learn to drive on Greenbat.
“Once they have passed out on this they can go onto ZM32 diesel.
“There is no timescale because it depends on how much time the person has got to come over and the availability of locos and how many other people are wanting to drive. “We are hoping in the near future to set up training days so people can actually come on set days and have a go.”
So, after an enjoyable couple of hours at Steeple Grange I came away even more enthused about life on the railways.
Perhaps if you’re a train buff too who can spare a few hours each week, then why not consider volunteering at Steeple Grange? You won’t regret it.
For more information about the attraction, visit www.steeplegrange.co.uk.
- Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer should contact Martin Smith on 01629 55123 (evenings) or Rob Wheeldon on 07761 756187.