Published 16th March 2012

An article by Harold Philbin

A pleasant afternoon, the sun was shining and all was certainly very well as far as I was concerned. Perhaps all was not quite well with the fireman who had knocked sick, and I was on his job. We had left the shed in charge of engine number 199, one of our class 3P tank engines, I had already coupled our little engine onto a passenger train of about four coaches in the platform, and we were ready to leave Bacup Station en route for the big City.

Despite our being ready and in my case raring to go, Teddy O’Shea our Guard was not, he was walking up the side of our train, smart as a King’s Guardsman in his normal unruffled manner. “We have to pick up a horse at Rawtenstall and the horsebox is in the cattle dock,” said Teddy in his mild Irish accent. I hooked the engine off the train, Bill Griffiths my driver backed it into the cattle dock and I hooked it onto the most luxurious horsebox that you could imagine. It was upholstered in the finest Red velvet for the horse, and it was padded everywhere, there was no way that he could injure himself on this journey. This horsebox even had a sleeping compartment for the groom to travel with his charge. Visions of a most valuable racehorse at the very least passed through our minds, as we finally left the station with our by now, very impatient passengers.

More efficient

In those days the railways were far more efficient, they could and they did, move anything to anywhere. The size of the consignment and the distance of the journey was no problem at all. In this instance I am sorry to say the usually immaculate timing of the Fat Controller was a bit off, and we were late.

The suspense approaching Rawtenstall was unbearable, we stopped in the platform, passengers got off the train and passengers got on, but of the magnificent creature about to join us there was no sign at all. “Just a minute, hold the train,” called out Bill the station porter with his usual authority, he just loved to let everyone know that he was in charge of this station. Bill disappeared into his booking office and then he reappeared, leading a tiny donkey, what a comedown to our “Great Expectations.”

The door of the horsebox was opened, the loading ramp was lowered down onto the platform and Bill led his charge towards this most Royal compartment as we all looked on in wonder. The donkey most ungraciously refused to enter, Bill pulled and he pushed, he fumed and he fussed, with no result at all. Then Teddy the Guard joined in and they both pulled and pushed, and still the donkey would not go into the horsebox.

"I don’t know what he expects me to do!"

Time went by and the watching passengers joined in, some with abuse and some with a little advice as well. “Put a coat over his head” called out one passenger who also promptly assisted in the fiasco by taking off his jacket and joining the party to prove his point. To no avail, the stupid creature possessed a form of sixth sense that told him when he was exactly in the centre of the doorway and there he stopped. “Go and help them, or we shall be here all day,” instructed Bill my driver. He made no attempt to join in himself; he just sat on his seat sucking his pipe.

“I don’t know what he expects me to do,” I muttered as I walked the full length of the train to arrive at the scene of a full-scale comic opera. Our coaches were sticking out over the end of the level crossing, and the main road into Rawtenstall was blocked completely. The signalman could not close his gates to the railway, and this attracted the attentions of a passing police car that was just arriving on the scene. Inspiration as I counted the number of assistants at hand, one, two, three, four with myself, the very same quick mental arithmetic also disclosed that there was exactly the same number of legs on the donkey. We grabbed one of them each, four paces forward and he was inside the box and very quickly fastened up. The ramp was put back into position, the doors were closed and I was very speedily; back on the footplate.

Teddy waved his little Green flag; I gave a little toot on the engine whistle, and amid cheers from the watching crowd we were off on our journey, leaving Bill in charge to the very last. He could explain to the policeman exactly why he had managed to hold up the traffic for almost half an hour and Teddy would have the same problem of explaining to the Fat Controller.

We would just enjoy one more experience of a declining era, not being aware of just how fast it was all going to disappear. Even so, as experience and knowledge was gleaned from the older drivers so too was more than a little of their sixth sense of direction in the darkness of the night or a thick fog. I also began to be able to know exactly where we were, by feel, smell, or sounds. We could feel an engine lurch, and the sound of the wheels would change a note or two as we took a bend, a crossing, or a tunnel, a cutting or points. Even the sense of smell, played its part in identifying a well known place, but these men could find an exact spot even in dense fog, the Black Out of the war years was no problem at all to them.


Have your say...

Please note: you have to be logged into the site before you can leave a comment

Liverpool street station in the UK at rush hour

Help and advice with train travel in the UK

Train travel in the UK should be a pleasure, not a headache. So if you’re taking a train on the UK railway, start your journey here. We’ve lots of hints, tips and advice to help you find your way around, travel smoothly and arrive in style by train.

Read more

eurostars passing at 375mph from the drivers seat in france


Welcome to our #railchat page. Our #railchat discussions take place over on Twitter, with our resident expert Phil Marsh. If you would like to get involved, please do join us, and use the dedicated hashtag #railchat. See our previous discussions below:

Read more

Old steam train in Shanty Town Museum

Locomotives & Engines

Our rail network would be nothing without them. From Stephenson's Rocket to British Rail Class 92 and beyond, explore the facts, information and anecdotes behind the steam, diesel and electric locomotives that built the age of the train.

Read more


Latest Tweets


Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh to London Kings Cross by Train

Book in advance with and save 85% advanced bookings.

From £21.00

Buy now

Millenium Dome, London

Birmingham New Street to London Euston by Train

Book in advance with and save 92% on advance bookings.

From £6

Buy now

You may also like...



Follow us on Twitter and become part of our rail community! is the easy way to buy cheap train tickets online.



Control your business fuel costs with a supermarket fuel card – free to apply, no ongoing account charges and no monthly minimum spend.