FROM the intense heat of the firebox to their whistle which echoes across the moors, everything about steam locomotion screams drama and passion.
So it is perhaps a little surprising to find this engine is crewed by a pensioner and a used car salesman.
Engine 76069, the Pocket Rocket, is hauling a train for the North York Moors Railway and its carriages are loaded with families enjoying a relaxing ride through the countryside, but here at the business end, things are a little more exciting.
Kevin Drabble is a car salesman from Louth, in Lincolnshire, but once a week he dons his fireman’s uniform, packs his specially-designed coal shovel into the boot of his car and travels to the heritage railway, where he fulfils a lifelong ambition.
He has been involved with NYMR for five years, qualifying as a fireman in 2010.
During the journey he is the sole individual responsible for shovelling coal into the firebox, working to achieve temperatures of up to 3,000ºC.
Like each of the railway’s hundreds of volunteers, Kevin has been a steam enthusiast since his formative years, so fulfilling this fantasy eases the workload required to get a 540-feet long, 240-ton train rolling.
He said: “When you qualify, your first few days out are very exciting because you haven’t done a full day until then and it’s difficult.
“It’s a lot of shovelling and it’s very hot, very physical.
“In the summer you just can’t drink enough, you get through litres of milk and I would go home and be half a stone lighter.”
Coal currently costs £65 a ton and with over five tons of fuel required each journey, that amounts to over 450 shovel loads which Kevin has to shift.
Kevin receives clearance from the station and with a call of “Right away Charlie” he gives driver Charlie Wood the go ahead to depart.
Retired electricity-board manager Charlie began volunteering on the railway in 2000 and having achieved driver status, his shovelling days are behind him.
Instead, he is able to take a seat throughout the journey, although Kevin holds no grudges.
“You’ve got to keep your driver happy,” he said.
“If he pulls that lever and turns that wheel he can release steam and make my life very hard.”
From his position on the footplate, the driver can see very little of the world around him and the process of driving a steam train instead relies on past experience and intuition.
Charlie said: “You drive a steam train through the seat of your pants and your ears.
“You’ve got to listen to them because they talk to you, we think they’re a living thing.
“It isn’t just about pulling levers and when hurtling into the pitch black you can’t see anything, so a big process is about learning the route.”
Each driver must sign a ledger to declare that he has learnt a route off by heart, but Charlie says it helps if an engine is well-behaved, and the Pocket Rocket has a favourable reputation.
For this engine the day begins at 5am, when the three-hour process of bringing it to life begins.
A cleaning crew gives the engine a once over, coal is loaded into the tender, and the engine’s heart begins beating as the fire is lit.
The trains appear to glide through the beautiful scenery of the National Park, but it is only from this viewpoint on the footplate that the hard work that goes into each journey can truly be appreciated.
However, as Kevin said: “There’s no one here who doesn’t absolutely love it, because otherwise they wouldn’t be here.”
NYMR are currently offering visitors the opportunity to take part in a footplate experience.
l For more information about this, other tickets and attractions, and for information about volunteering opportunities, visit www.nymr.co.uk