Volunteering to work at keeping our steam train heritage alive

Morgan Young chats to driver Robert Edwards and trainee fireman Jonathan King.
Morgan Young chats to driver Robert Edwards and trainee fireman Jonathan King.
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Even though the UK’s heritage railway lines attract over 13 million visitors a year, steam-train organisations are having problems finding young, volunteer engine drivers, as I recounted here last Wednesday

Morgan Young, Operations Manager of Downpatrick and County Down Railway reminisced about joining DCDR as a volunteer when he was only 14 years old and told us a little about the behind-the-scenes operations in his organisation.

The railway at Main Street, Clogher Valley, Fivemiletown.

The railway at Main Street, Clogher Valley, Fivemiletown.

As promised, Roamer has invited Morgan back today to explain more about volunteering.

He told us last Wednesday that he’s both a ‘passed-out’ (certified) fireman and Operations Manager of the DCDR.

The latter entails compiling the rosters that keep the line running and he has to factor in the volunteers’ holidays, family commitments, social life, sickness - and the fact that some drivers are also required for other railway duties.

“The delicate art of creating a roster can be incredibly difficult,” he told me, I think an understatement!

Poster from The Past in DCDR museum.

Poster from The Past in DCDR museum.

“When people’s availabilities do not coincide,” he added “the realist in me recognises that we can’t operate successfully if we rely on volunteers rearranging their lives or work shifts at the 11th hour.”

Unquestionably, new recruits are vital.

“We are never finished recruiting, training and bringing new people on,” Morgan told me, adding an unexpected detail - “not all volunteers at a heritage railway actually want to drive a train - steam or diesel.”

Heritage railway enthusiasts are evidently interested in every aspect of their hobby and some want to work on the track, the carriages, locomotive restoration or manning the platform and shop.

Timetable from 1946 in Whitehead.

Timetable from 1946 in Whitehead.

Morgan explained very vividly that the path to ‘driverhood’ isn’t a short or easy one.

“You simply cannot turn up and want to drive and start right away,” he stressed “and our training processes are designed along the lines of best practice from right across the UK and Ireland.

“At the DCDR you start out as a shunter, and upon attainment of the necessary hours and passing a written and practical exam, you progress to guard, fireman, and finally driver - all of which are similarly dependent on accumulating hours of experience and passing the two-part examination, each step of the ladder requiring more hours than the last.

By the time new drivers have ‘passed out’ they’ll have spent an absolute minimum of 280 hours of combined training in the four roles.

Maggie Coulter's goat regularly held up the Clogher Valley train in Fivemiletown

Maggie Coulter's goat regularly held up the Clogher Valley train in Fivemiletown

Becoming a fireman can take anywhere between one and three years depending on regularity of attendance numbers of trainees.

“The training process is certainly not one that could - or should - be streamlined to make it easier to rise to the rank of driver,” said Morgan, emphasising the fact that steam trains “are essentially large, moving, pressurised kettles. Knowing how to operate one safely is paramount, which should at least give an indication of how hard it is to quickly fill shortages in even the best-case scenario - as well as testing the dedication and commitment of the trainee!”

In the past the DCDR ran a joint training scheme for volunteers with the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland at Whitehead “with RPSI helping train the steam drivers and us training the diesel drivers on our line,” Morgan recounted.

The innovative ‘twin-track’ approach was successful and “a number of people went through this process” said Morgan, adding “whilst it hasn’t happened in a few years, we are open to exploring this again.”

He is adamant that more young volunteers, or indeed any volunteers of any age “are urgently required, just as with many heritage railways across Ireland and the UK. Alas, here in Ireland we do suffer from lower population density and proportionally less people are interested in industrial heritage and railways as their past-time.”

He stressed again that a heritage railway needs people who are “dedicated, practical and able to think creatively and act with their own initiative.”

Bundoran Express in Bundoran Station. Photo J.J. Smith.

Bundoran Express in Bundoran Station. Photo J.J. Smith.

And there’s a hurdle to overcome which Morgan said isn’t faced by societies in England and is unique to Northern Ireland - “a good portion of the public appear to disbelieve we are volunteers!”

Here, the impression of volunteering held by people who don’t volunteer “is that it’s spending a day picking litter from a park and ticking your good deed box - not actively joining and running a tourist attraction knowing that it’s a long term commitment.

Morgan has often been asked by the public on open days at DCDR “surely some of you are paid?” or “Stormont must be funding your salary” or he has been told “I can’t believe you’re an unpaid volunteer!”

“No, nope and yes,” he tells them, “we really are all volunteers!

And he told Roamer “no-one in England would blink an eye at the idea of people volunteering in these sorts of roles in an organisation such as ours, and it does put a psychological barrier up to people potentially interested in what we do joining us as they might think they’re not needed or can’t do the work, when nothing can be further from the truth!”

Co-incidentally, BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme is running a railway slot every morning this week about our local railway’s past, present and future, and if Morgan has inspired you to volunteer for heritage work more RPSI information is at www.steamtrainsireland.com and DCDR is at www.downrail.co.uk

Remembering Steam in Downpatrick Station.

Remembering Steam in Downpatrick Station.