Published: 26th June 2015
Riding on the footplate of a steam locomotive has become a very realisable dream in this day and age with many heritage lines offering driver experience packages. Most are standard gauge but there are narrow gauge footplate experiences around.
Surely the most novel package yet encountered has to the Moseley Railway Trust’s (MRT) ‘Tracks to the Trenches – The Driver Experience’.
Described as an immersive Military Railway Day, participants are transported back in time nearly 100 years to northern France during 1917. It is made clear you will get dirty - and very probably wet and cold – just as a Tommy serving on the battlefield lines would have done.
You can also anticipate a midday meal of hard tack biscuits and a mess can full of tea in the trenches, although MRT does confirm you can opt for hot meal in the adjacent café instead if you prefer to sacrifice that element of authenticity!
The reward for this hardship? You get to drive both a 60cm gauge steam locomotive and a small diesel, undertaking tasks such as delivering supplies to the front line trenches, all at the Apedale Valley Light Railway near Newcastle-under-Lyme.
A basic legend prepared by MRT sets the scene. After the German army withdrew to the prepared defences of the Hindenberg Line in spring 1917, the British 5th Army (located south of Arras) pushed forward and consolidated their position in the devastated area in and around Bapaume.
A rapid expansion of the light railway network in the area was undertaken in the following months. On November 9 1917 the 6th Light Railway Operating Company arrived in Bapaume charged with manning the light railways in the area and keeping troops and positions supplied.
Course participants take the role of an operational member of the 6th LRO Company who has arrived in Bapaume on November 12 1917. On reporting for a day of duty at the company HQ you receive Traffic Orders throughout the day in the form of telegraphs.
You are responsible (with the help of MRT locomotive crews) for shunting and operating trains to complete the assigned tasks. Each task is worth a specified number of ton-miles, your aim being to complete the highest number of ton-miles possible, without contravening any operational restrictions.
While the outcome of a major European war may not hang in the balance on the basis of your performance, it will certainly be a challenge and quite likely a lot of fun!
The package can be tailored according to participant’s wishes and previous experience. MRT say that within reason, most things can be arranged.
The cost is £350 shared with one other participant. A leaflet with more details can be downloaded from www.ww1-event.org, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0845 094 1953.
How can an authentic 1917 battlefield experience (but without the gunfire) be provided in North Staffordshire? A 2ft gauge passenger railway has been progressively developed by Moseley Railway Trust in Apedale Country Park in recent years. In 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, MRT organised a major event over September 12-14 centred on the contribution made by narrow gauge light railways towards achieving eventual victory.
To reproduce the role of the light railways in microcosm – steam working on the ‘main’ line moving large numbers of people and supplies, with linking tracks from depots to the forward battlefield areas - MRT developed a wholly new light field railway system on land at the Apedale Heritage Centre site which virtually doubled the available length of operational line, running up to a specially constructed WW1 trench system.
The event was literally ground-breaking and it is this rail system which creates the opportunity for the new-style, highly novel, driver experience.
MRT has already announced dates for repeat editions of the ‘Tracks to the Trenches’ gala formula, May 13-15 2016 (TttT2) and (subject to final confirmation) May 10-13 2018 (TttT3).
Norfolk may not have any connection to the slate industry but if you are looking for something a shade more gentile as a driving experience, Bressingham Steam Museum is worth looking at.
Slate train driver experiences are being offered this year on the 2ft gauge Nursery Railway with participants driving ex-Penrhyn quarry 1909-built Hunslet 0-4-0ST George Sholto hauling ex-Ffestiniog slate wagons restored at Bressingham. Courses must be pre-booked, call 01379 686900 for details.