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New line, new season, new engine!

5542 GWR prairie at Totnes

5542 The Planet's Favourite Prairie

Yesterday was my first day to experience the new extended 12 mile Glos Warks Railway from Cheltenham to Laverton and it was also the first day of the new season for my fireman training. So, I was feeling slightly nervous and daunted as I set off up the M5 at 05.00 after far too little sleep.  Nonetheless, I knew I was in safe hands with Andy Beale as Driver and Ben Evason as fireman trainer/mentor so I was also expecting to have a great day once I had remembered what to do in the early morning dark at Toddington.

I began my training when the steam department was based at Winchcombe while the railway was severed by the landslip at Chicken Curve, so it was odd to be back at Toddington (where the hell are those lamps stored?) but all went well as 5542, newly arrived from overhaul at the South Devon Railway came into steam nice and slowly as the day light dawned.  A baguette and a cup of tea got us off shed by 09.20 and we were on the train in Toddington and ready to go well before departure time at 10.00, leaving the crew of 7903 ‘Foremarke Hall’ to kick their heels until the Sunday lunch train. Nice short day for them, I thought.

It was a satisfying feeling to be going round the rebuilt Chicken Curve and past the new bracket signal into Winchcombe, a couple of minutes in the platform and then up through the tunnel and away down to Cheltenham.  It is quite a quick turnaround at the Race Course but there was just time to see the footings going in for the new platform 2, which will be such a major benefit to us during future Race Weeks and galas.

It was as we got to within sight of Bishops Cleeve, just before the climb back to Gotherington, that I realised I had underestimated how long it took for that Welsh coal to get going and the pressure was slipping alarmingly, along with my confidence.      Luckily, Andy is a forgiving driver and he gave me a chance to get things back and by the time we slowed for the loop at Gotherington, things were back on track.  5542 steams very well indeed (‘lively’ was the description from the previous day’s fireman) and the main challenge is keeping her under control by not over firing. I think I had been over-compensating.

At Winchcombe we met the 3-car DMU shuttle service and it is noticeable how much busier everything is this year, with a more intensive service and 3 trains operating.  It feels like we have just been promoted into the Premier League.

The new length of run needs some thinking about as a fireman but it is only uphill round Chicken Curve and then downhill all the way to Laverton.  It was a great feeling to be going over new track north of Toddington and the PW gang have made a good job of it and it seems too soon that we come to halt at the site of the old Laverton Halt, with Broadway so tantalisingly close but still 3 expensive derelict bridges away.

We run round and then set off along the whole 12 mile line which we did twice more before we arrived back at Toddington at 5.00.  I think I’d let the fire die down a little too much towards the end because we were rapidly running out of puff as we shunted stock around before arriving on shed well past 6.30pm.

A marvellously stimulating day with great guys for company but also pretty challenging for an old chap just starting his 7th decade!   Luckily, I’ve already started my new regime at the gym but it is quite clear that I am not as  fit as I need to be (attaching those new steam heat hoses is like wrestling anacondas!) so now it’s down to that treadmill and the cross-trainer!

Roll on Thursday when I get to do it all over again!

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