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A day in a life of ... The Running Foreman

Discussion in 'Bullhead Memories' started by Jamessquared, Jul 3, 2020.

  1. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    (This was in the latest issue of The Bluebell Times, Issue 8, but since it is my story and I rarely get to write much extended prose these days, I thought I would add it here in case it was of interest. See the actual article for the illustrated version...)

    It's 11.10am on a fine spring Sunday morning at Sheffield Park. At the far end of Platform 2, BR Standard Class 5MT No. 73082 ‘Camelot’ is fizzing impatiently to depart with the second train of the day. The view from Platform 1 is partly obscured by the Pullman carriages. Looking south, Wainwright H class No. 263 is simmering at the exit to the yard. Far to the north, Stirling O1 No. 65 has just left Kingscote heading back with the first train. With a short pop on the whistle, 73082 starts out on its journey to Horsted Keynes. Three minutes later, as the sound of ‘Camelot’ attacking Freshfield Bank fades into the distance, there is a whirr of points and a clank as the yard exit signal clears; then with another whistle, 263 drifts down to the water column on Platform 2.

    So begins another day on the railway. Except of course, 11:10am is not the beginning – for the loco department, the beginning was nearly five hours earlier. At the centre of it all, responsible for activity within the yard is the Running Foreman, one of those largely unseen jobs around the railway. So what exactly does the job entail?

    The Running Foreman’s domain is the locomotive yard at Sheffield Park (including the Wealden Rambler dock, and movements in the running shed). He or she is responsible for ensuring that each locomotive leaves the yard on time, prepared, coaled, cleaned and with a full crew; that all activities within the yard are carried out safely; that the yard is kept clean and tidy with ash cleared away and supplies of wood and oil replenished; and that at the end of the day the locomotives are berthed so as to make the following day’s activities proceed as smoothly as possible. During the day, the Running Foreman also looks after the welfare of all the loco staff, particularly ensuring that crews get proper breaks and are supplied with drinks as required.

    For me, the Running Foreman’s duty begins around the previous Thursday when the Special Traffic Notice is sent out. This is one of the key operational documents on the railway; amongst a wealth of information, it includes the working timetable – not just the public trains, but the off-shed times, shunt moves and any non-public trains. From this document, I make a note of the key issues for the day: the locomotives needed (referred to as A, B and GL for the two service trains and Golden Arrow Lunchtime train); the booking-on times for crews and off-shed times for locos. Next stop is to check the rostered staff for the day. The day’s complement is Driver, Fireman and Third Man for each loco; the same again for a spare (“as required”, or AR) crew; same again for the workshop (or “X”) crew and four cleaners to work around the yard – twenty people in all including myself. Any gaps in the rostering, or maybe an additional train that was not known about when the roster was drawn up become obvious on checking: if there are any issues, better to find out on Thursday when something can be done, than on Sunday when the clock is ticking more furiously.

    Sunday morning, and just before 7.00am I walk up the path to the yard from the car park. Somewhere across the road, a solitary woodpecker taps away, but I am listening for activity in the yard. The GL crew was due to have booked on at 6.15am: as I enter the yard, there is no smoke, but a rattle of clinker into a barrow indicates that the fireman is well into her job. I detour round to say hello: Ali is throwing out the old fire and I let her get on, while the driver is methodically going around the loco, inspecting and oiling each part. The third man is standing on the tender pushing coal forward. Nothing to worry about there; the other crews are not yet due, so next stop is to sign on inside the lobby. First check for new notices, then consult the “swaps book” for any late roster changes. Finally, note the locos for the day, which are organised by the workshop: No. 65 on the GL (but which takes the first A service on this timetable); No. 73082 on the B service; No. 263 the main A engine. There is a throng of cleaners waiting to sign on; I tell Dan (the most experienced of them) the engines in use and ask that he ensures they split their resources to clean all three, but concentrate first on Nos. 65 and 73082. The AR (spare) crew are also booking-on at 7.00am; I make a mental note that Martin, the AR fireman, is qualified to drive the forklift truck to coal engines, another uncertainty resolved. After that, it is time to get changed into overalls and make a cup of tea and bowl of cereal; it is eaten somewhat on the hoof back in the yard so I can keep an eye on what is going on. Different foremen have different styles of supervision: I am very much from the “management by walking about” school.

    Each loco has a scheduled “off shed” time, normally from thirty to sixty minutes before the departure of the train it is due to haul. While the third man wheels away the barrow of ash and clinker from the old fire, I ask Ali what time she is off shed: 9.15 she replies. I know the answer, of course, but by asking, I assure myself that she knows as well. Next, to check with the driver whether he wants to come into the yard during the day. The smaller locos tend to do so, to replenish coal and empty the ashpan. We exchange a few pleasantries, then I leave the crew to get on. Meanwhile there is activity around ‘Camelot’ as that crew starts work. A quick check shows Dan has the cleaners split in pairs on Nos. 65 and 73082; the spare driver and fireman are also lending a hand with cleaning, while the spare turn cleaner is collecting empty mugs and plates from around the yard to wash up in the lobby.

    Just before eight, Colin, the Operating Superintendent for the day, walks through the yard. The Running Foreman has responsibility within the yard, but the OS has overall responsibility for the railway. I’m able to tell him that I have all my loco crews and nothing untoward; I let him know we will want No. 65 back in the yard after the first trip.

    Once the workshop opens, I find the Manager to see if he has any requirements. “Can you move 847 into the workshop?” The loco is sitting cold in the running shed; of the locos in steam, ‘Camelot’ is best for the job, so I suggest we do it if possible after the first trip, when the yard will otherwise be largely quiet. I let the crew know we might have a little CYJ (“can you just…”): much rolling of eyes, but better to know early than late.

    For a little while, the pace slows, though I keep a periodic check on each loco, to satisfy myself their preparation is on track – experience as a fireman means I have a fair idea, from how far through its preparation each loco is at any given time, whether there is any impending problem. Checking with No. 65, I see they have a boiler pressure of 100 pounds per square inch – it is about 8.30am so all is in hand. I ask the spare crew to look after the loco so the main crew can have a break for breakfast and get changed. Twenty minutes later, pressure has risen to 120psi, and the spare driver asks me for permission to set back to take coal. Checking the cleaners are all clear, I give my permission, and cautiously the loco moves back until the tender is on the paved coal dock behind the pits. As pressure continues to rise, Martin – the spare fireman – descends and gets the forklift truck out to start coaling the loco which the driver supervises from the footplate, washing the coal down to lay the dust. Once coaled, it is time for a blow down, part of the daily management of boiler water quality. While the fireman monitors the water level on the footplate, the driver opens a valve and a jet of hot water and steam is ejected from the boiler into the pit. The blowdown causes a shattering roar that requires anyone not involved to move back. Finally, the crew ensure the coal is well trimmed, and I ask them to go and move on to the signal at the exit of the yard.

    I call the Sheffield Park signalman and inform him that the first loco is ready to come off shed. A few moments later, the first indicator on the ground frame moves to “RELEASE FREE” and the second changes to “FROM LOCO YARD SHUNT SLOT OFF”. Three lever pulls release the frame, change the points and clear the yard exit signal, followed shortly afterwards by a “pop” from No. 65 and it rolls down into the station. I note the time: 9.13am, or two minutes early. Once fully clear of the points, I return the ground frame to its normal position, which in turn allows the signalman to resume full signalling control of the station.

    The departure of 73082 at 10:30, and 263 at 11:15 follow a similar pattern. While 73082 blows down, the cleaners take a well-deserved tea break, then return. Two of them continue cleaning 263, the other two clear the long pit (“three road”) of ash and prepare three barrows of lighting-up wood. Once the engines are off shed, there is time to relax, though the day is punctuated at intervals as trains return and locos come in and out of the yard: No. 65 to clear its ashpan; ‘Camelot’ to carry out the “can you just” shunt of 847; No. 263 in the afternoon for coal. Each such move requires from the Running Foreman a move into the yard controlled from the ground frame, then hand signalling the locomotive into position, arranging coal or organising the shunt move, then finally dispatching the loco back out into the station via the ground frame again. The timetable is such that often no sooner has one sequence of moves finished than the next loco is back in its turn: the job doesn’t involve much sitting down!

    Finally, late in the afternoon, the locos start to return, and the RF has to get them berthed in such a fashion that the next day’s moves can be made easily: you don’t want to block the first engine back home behind two others if it needs to be first off shed in the morning. Loco Tetris is easy enough with three locos; rather more involved on a gala day with half a dozen! When everything is back, it’s time to write up the day’s journal, noting any operating issues, then finally wash and sign off. If at the end of the day you feel you have solved five problems, averted ten others from occurring and no-one has even noticed, you’ve done a good job!

    Tom
     
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  2. torgormaig

    torgormaig Well-Known Member Friend

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    Excellent Tom - a very interesting insight into the operation of a 21st century running shed.

    If anyone is interested in the role of the Running Foreman back in the day I can heartly recommend a little paperback produced 30 odd years ago by the Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust. Called "Organised Chaos!" by Brian Macdermott, it is a transcription of the Bath (Green Park) Running Foremans's log book for 1960/1 with additional information from John Barber and Peter Smith who were S&D enginemen at that time. Although I believe it is now out of print it is still available from the usual 'tinternet sources.

    It really brings home how primitave the working conditions still were at the end of the stam era, as well as highlighting what a fickle and unpredictable machine the average steam loco was. Some of the workforce were not much more reliable than the locos they worked on, although all identities are kept hidden.It is a facinating insight into the daily reality of operating a steam running shed.

    Peter
     
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  3. 30567

    30567 Well-Known Member Friend

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    Thanks Tom, Thanks Peter. Just invested £6.80.

    Peter
     
  4. Jamessquared

    Jamessquared Nat Pres stalwart

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    Thanks Peter - I'll look out for that book.

    It's an interesting job (whisper it quietly - sometimes I prefer it to firing!) The above was a description of an easy day: where you earn your money (such as it is in a volunteer role!) is when you have missing crew and a recalcitrant engine... Then you are thinking on your feet to swap round crew diagrams or start phoning people up. ("Hello? Is that dial-a-driver of Newick? Fancy a turn today?"). Pit space is a particular issue on busy days. We can fit about three locos over pits, so on a normal day there is no problem and each crew can prepare at leisure. But on a busy day, you'll have locos lit up in the running shed blocked from getting on a pit until the first three have cleared away - so you have to hurry them along. Plus - the demands of Loco Tetris mean it is more likely you get things left in the wrong order on a busy day. Not unknown in such circumstances to need to chivvy along a crew and then tell them to "do your blow down then go and wait at the top of the loco headshunt" so the loco behind can come out in front. That's when communication with crews is important, because you might be wanting them to be ready to move sooner than they might expect; having a clear plan in your head allows you to give them as much warning as possible so they can control their steam raising appropriately.

    We normally roster an RF at weekends, bank holidays and very occasional mid-week days when there is an intense service. In addition, if the day is long, the duty is split into early and late shift turns. (That often happens on Saturdays, when the late-shift RF is always a driver who can in extremis cover for the Evening Golden Arrow driver or fireman in the event of a no-show or illness). That means over 100 turns in the year and since there are about 25 of us qualified as running foremen, it means probably about four or five duties per year. I did my first (supervised) turn to qualify at the beginning of 2017 when we had a one engine service. My first "solo" turn was - a couple of months later - early turn on the Friday of the Flying Scotsman gala, when we had six engines plus one from the Romney, moves off shed in rapid succession and a shed and yard part-open to the public who were there in droves recording every move. Everything went off shed to the minute ...

    Tom
     
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2020
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