Published: 4th September 2015
If you have a heritage railway anywhere near home, and let’s face it few places in Britain do not have a reasonably local heritage railway, the chances are an ambition to drive a steam (or diesel) locomotive can be fulfilled.
Many will urge that the best way to get your hands on the regulator and the opportunity to shovel coal into the firebox is to sign up as a volunteer. If you do not fancy that level of commitment but want to taste the feeling of being on the footplate, the way forward is to sign up for a footplate experience. There are plenty of options, but what about something a bit different – but not quite as different as the Moseley Railway Trust’s WW1 light railway soldier experience ( http://www.rail.co.uk/rail-news/2015/1917-loco-driving-experience/ )?
Maybe driving a steam locomotive or an electric tram on a Government-run 3ft gauge railway would fit the bill. Intrigued? Such an experience is available on the Isle of Man and bookings are now being taken for next year.
Isle of Man Transport has released 2016 dates for what it describes as Ultimate Driving Experiences. Okay, ‘ultimate’ may depend on individual definitions but these experiences are highly sought after and decidedly different from the usual fare on a UK heritage railway.
So 3ft gauge is narrow gauge, but this is ‘standard’ for the rail systems on the Isle of Man – and both the Douglas to Port Erin steam line and Manx Electric Railway linking Douglas with Ramsey are Government owned and run by the island’s Department Of Infrastructure, so that is a bit novel! The Snaefell Mountain Railway (3ft 6ins gauge electric) from Laxey to the top of the mountain is also Manx Government-owned, but not part of the experience package.
The Manx Ultimate Driving Experiences last a full day and include safety briefings, history and theory. The driving element offers the chance to drive a steam-hauled train between Castletown and Port Erin, or a Manx Electric Railway tram between Ramsey and Laxey. Available dates are limited, not least since the experiences are operated alongside public services.
Bookings, on a first come first served basis, can be made via Miss Marieanne Bridges, Marieanne.firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 01624 697419.
The trio of nationalised lines are far from the only rail interest on the island. The 2ft gauge Groudle Glen Railway running from Lhen Coan station to Sea Lion Rocks on a headland above the sea (one of its neater marketing claims is its distinction of being a railway which runs uphill to reach the sea!) is a historic pleasure railway revived by the Isle of Man Steam Railway Supporters Association and is thus a heritage line run by enthusiasts in the sense we are more used to in Britain.
The Laxey Mines Tramway is a 19in gauge line restored on the surface section of the old tramway which transported ore from the Great Laxey Mine to the Washing Floors at Laxey. The project, undertaken by Laxey and Lonan Heritage Trust, ran its first passenger trains in early 2005 and employs replicas of the 0-4-0T locomotives built by Stephen Lewin of Poole, Dorset which worked the original tramway named Ant and Bee.
A traditional feature of the seafront promenade at Douglas is the 3ft gauge Horse Tramway operated by Douglas Corporation. There are plans for development of the promenade which could see the tramway moved from its traditional route along the road into a new reserved corridor on the seaward side of the promenade. Douglas Horse Trams ran during 2015 but operation in 2016 is yet to be confirmed.
The Orchid Line miniature railway system within the Curraghs Wildlife Park in Ballaugh is operated by Manx Model Engineering Society.
If the Isle of Man is too difficult to get to, then why not try the steam driving experience at the Chinnor & Princes Risborough Railway? This four mile railway runs alongside the Chiltern Hills on the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire border located almost mid way between London and Birmingham. The line has a ruling gradient of 1 in 68 and is a challenge to drivers and firemen alike. These experiences are rated highly and generally use a former Great Western Railway main line locomotive.
Other railways also offer these experiences as the Severn Valley and Mid Hants Railways using larger locomotives on longer distances. The Mid Hants is known as steaming through The Alps between Alton and Alresford due to its long steep gradients rising to over 600 feet at Medstead station, the highest in southern England.
The Severn Valley Railway steams through a former desert and the red sandstone can be seen on the line which runs between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth. These are not cheap but remember that it can cost £2000 just to operate a locomotive for a day and the tuition is given by volunteers, otherwise the costs would be astronomical!