Steam Engine, Slieve Donard, no. 172. Courtesy of J.A. Smyth.

On the tracks – an engine driver’s life on the railways

In his latest Times Past column, Jonathan Smyth looks at the training a person did to become an engine driver on the railways.

When I hear of railways, I think of pleasant travels and leisure, and the dreams of children from yesteryear who, with their toy train sets, wanted more than anything in the world to drive a steam engine in adulthood. But such dreamy notions, coupled with nostalgia, were very far removed from the reality of joining a railway service. When accepted, then came the years of long slog to progress up the ladder until an opportunity arose for them to drive an engine.

Recently, I watched a documentary made in 1939 on what it took for a young man in his mid-teens to work his way up on the railways as he gained lots of experience and a grounding in thorough, theoretical and practical training before he could be placed in charge of the footplate. But, having applied to join a company and to take one’s first steps in gaining a starting position, it was necessary to pass a rigorous medical examination involving most importantly, aside from physical fitness, an eye test. Railways required vigilant persons with sharp eyesight, especially if they wanted to work on the footplate and, before they could get next to near driving a train, there was a lot of experience needed to reach the coveted job and no guarantee that they would be good enough to get it.

In bygone times, Cavan people had the option of applying to join local railway services like the Midland Great Western Railway, Cavan and Leitrim Railway, and the Great Northern Railway of Ireland.

The applicant, often aged sixteen, o upwards, having been interviewed by a railway official, if deemed suitable, was then sent to a doctor for a medical examination. An eye test decided the applicant’s suitability, as did a physical examination since work on the railway could often prove an arduous task especially if employed as a porter or working in the goods shed.

On arriving for work the new employee signed for a copy of the company’s book of rules and regulations, which they had to learn by heart, that’s if they intended to have a hope of future promotion. At first, the prospective engine driver was employed as a cleaner to shine up the engine each evening, polishing it daily with wintergreen until it shone like a new pin; a clean engine in the prime of condition reflected well on the company’s high standards.

As the person progressed, they learned about every aspect of the locomotive and, while oiling its many fittings, they learned more about each function and the controls in the driver’s cab were mastered too. For the most part, railway workers were good humoured and, although an odd prank might be played on a newcomer, the railway was not a place for messing about and its operations required the utmost respect from a health and safety point of view.

Trainee fireman

In order to attain the next step in their career, an employee had to attend classes, sometimes referred to as ‘improvement classes’. Having satisfied management as a cleaner, the next step for the worker was to become a trainee fireman and, with the theoretical knowledge gained from the rules and regulations, it was time yet again for another eye test. Having passed the eye test, which this time included a colour chart, it was necessary to learn fireman duties as he worked in unison alongside the engine driver in the cab. The fireman was to see that the engine kept up a good head of steam without wasting coal, and to see that the water supplied to the boiler was regulated properly and that the lights on the engine were satisfactorily lit and visibly clean and bright. There was even a correct method of how the coal was to be spread out in the firebox for maximum efficiency.

The fireman helped the engine driver to maintain a constant look out as the train travelled the line making sure there were no dangerous obstacles ahead. Both driver and fireman got the train ready each morning. An instructor would accompany the trainee fireman on the route to test his knowledge until he progressed to full fireman. It was important to master the journey and to know the signals and where they were situated so that the fireman, when he moved up the line to become a driver, would know enough to drive the locomotive by day or night on that same track.

After a couple of years, the fireman was ready to go for the next examination to train as a past-fireman, which allowed him to drive the train when the driver was absent. To reach this position it was necessary to be able to identify all the parts of the locomotive and recite each function in the presence of the inspector. A past-fireman needed to know how to identify repairs needed and then to report them clearly to management.

The inspector accompanied the candidate on the engine making sure they were up to speed on the mechanics of the engine, to see they were a good judge of distance and have pristine knowledge of the signals, and to know about how the boiler and the fire operated. It was a requirement for most trainee drivers to be examined driving a goods train and then a passenger train. Again, a thorough knowledge of the rules and regulations were of utmost importance and would have been mastered to such a degree as to make the candidate an expert in them. Again, another eye test and colour vision test were needed before the new driver was given his driving instruction manual. In time, the worker attained a full-time driver status, while continually mastering their instruction manual, to keep their knowledge fresh.

Some of the people I found listed as locomotive engine drivers in Cavan 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.


‘Mad’ Jack Churchill: Soldier with sword, longbow and pipes