Full steam ahead: Driving the world's last scheduled steam train
Martin Fletcher reveals the secrets of steam trains as he makes an unforgettable journey through Poland
It is 5:20am, and I’m sound asleep in a guest house in Wolsztyn, a small town in western Poland. The light snaps on outside my room. I hear Howard Jones, my host, shout: “It’s working! It’s working!” It takes me a second to register what’s happening, then I leap from my bed and hurriedly dress.
Thirty minutes later, Jones and I reach the train station. It is cold, dark and raining, but sure enough there’s a huge black steam engine standing at the platform with clouds of steam and smoke billowing from its chimney.
"The great steel monster pulls out of the station, clanking and creaking, shaking and shuddering"
We climb up into the cab, where Andrzej and Marcin, the driver and fireman (or engine stoker) are waiting in their grimy clothes and baseball caps. At precisely 6:03am, the great steel monster pulls out of the station, clanking and creaking, shaking and shuddering, huffing and puffing as it slowly gathers pace.
Thus, the world’s last scheduled standard-gauge steam-train service, the last one primarily for regular passengers, not tourists, begins its morning journey.
It is also the last one on which novices like me can learn to drive. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Meeting the steam train community
It was four years ago that a friend of a friend, who was a steam-train lover, told me about Wolsztyn’s steam engines and of Howard Jones, the curious Englishman who had done so much to keep them going by setting up courses for those who longed to drive them.
Intrigued, I contacted Jones, who invited me to visit in February 2020. I booked my flights, but the day before my departure he called to say that none of the three trains were working. Then came Covid-19 and the lockdowns.
I resurrected my plans in early 2022 and booked a flight for a three-day visit to Poland. There, I met Peter Lockley, a railway enthusiast—more commonly known as a “gricer.” The retired solicitor from Leamington Spa, in central England, now travels the world photographing steam engines for fun, and, like me, he wanted a crack at driving one. But when I arrived in Wolsztyn, Jones broke the news that just one of the locomotives was working.
The steam-train from Wolsztyn to Leszno, some 45 kilometres away, runs twice daily on weekdays most of the year, at 6:03am and 11:41am. After arriving in Wolsztyn late, I opted to sleep in and take the second run. That was a mistake. The loco developed a fault in its brake pump on the early run, so the later run was cancelled.
That gave me time, at least, to be inducted into the strange and secret fraternity of gricers—most of them old enough to recall Britain’s steam trains. They were raised on Thomas the Tank Engine books, and films like Brief Encounter and The Railway Children.
The guest house where Jones accommodates visitors is full of steam-engine memorabilia: signals, ticket-collectors’ caps, guards’ lamps, platform signs, model trains, railway DVDs and photos.
Lockley and I explored the Wolsztyn engine “shed,” a depot where there is a splendid old “roundhouse,” a railway turntable of a sort I had not seen since childhood. There were also 18 steam engines in various states of repair. Lockley knew them all. “That,” he’d say, “is a Pm36-2, built in Poland in 1937 and the last of its kind in the world.”
Over a lunch of wild-mushroom soup and venison in a pre-war aristocrat’s country mansion, Jones, now silver-haired and 70, told me his story. Born and raised in London, his father took him to see a rare Clan Stewart steam locomotive at Liverpool Street Station when he was five. He would sneak into train sheds with names like Cricklewood, Neasden and Old Oak Common to admire the engines.
“In the summer it was trainspotting, and on the dour winter days it was a model railway in the bedroom,” he said. When the last regular steam-train passenger service ended in Britain in 1968, “It was almost like losing a close friend,” said Jones.
"'Steam trains are the closest thing in machinery to being alive—like breathing dragons,' Jones explained"
He left school just as the era of cheap package holidays was starting. He worked for a couple of travel agencies, and later set up a company that organised weekend trips for British gricers to heritage railways in Germany and Poland. That was how he discovered the Wolsztyn depot.
Steam trains had survived longer in Communist Poland than elsewhere because it produced lots of cheap coal, and diesel replacements were expensive. Steam engines were still common in the 1980s, and three or four working sheds survived until 1990, but by 1994, Wolsztyn’s was the last one left. “It was just clinging on,” Jones told me.
By that time, Jones’s company—and his marriage—were in trouble, so he decided to follow his heart. In 1997, he moved from England to Poland to try to save Wolsztyn and its steam engines. “It was a eureka moment. Someone said, ‘You’ll never get beyond five years.’ That was a bit of a kick in the backside. And here we are 25 years later.”
He promised to raise funds for the shed if the state railway company kept running the trains. He tapped into the surprisingly large community of British train lovers. He persuaded 40 gricers to invest £2,000 each (roughly C$5,400 at the time), and in return they could spend one week a year for the next five years learning to drive the trains. He settled in Wolsztyn and began organising steam-train trips around Poland.
By the early 2000s he was contributing about £50,000 a year to Wolsztyn’s shed and attracting visitors from around the world to the Polish town. In 2006, he was awarded the Member of the British Empire for this work and his contribution to British-Polish relations. “I felt like a bit of a fraud because all I’d done is play trains,” said Jones. Today the Wolsztyn-to-Leszno service carries around 50,000 passengers a year, of which only about 5,000 are tourists.
I asked Jones what he found so fascinating about steam engines. “They are the closest thing in machinery to being alive—like breathing dragons,” he explained. “No two are alike. You have to learn how each one handles. You call them ‘she,’ and you swear at them. It requires a lot of skill to drive a steam engine, but any idiot can drive a diesel or an electric.” Jones, incidentally, can drive a steam engine but not a car.
Manning the train
On my second morning the brake pump was still broken. I was due to fly home at noon the next day. So a young employee was sent on an 11-hour, 1,000-kilometre round-trip drive to a railway museum in southern Poland to get a part. When he returned, the pump was swiftly mended, and at 5:20am on my third and final day, Jones woke me. Over the next three hours I began to understand why gricers are gricers.
Dressed in a boiler suit, I climbed two metres of metal steps to the cab of the engine, an OL49-69 built in the early 1950s. It has wooden floorboards, and doors and windows held together by wire. In front of me, over the firebox, is a bewildering bank of levers, wheels and dials. Behind is the coal tender. Every surface is oily, black and grimy. There is a strong smell of sulphur.
Jones shows me the regulator (a steel lever that serves as the accelerator), the reverser (a wheel that determines direction of travel) and a handle for the brakes. Then we’re off—140 tonnes of steel rumbling into the darkness amid clouds of steam and smoke.
It is thrilling, but alarming, too. We can barely see the tracks because the loco’s long boiler is in the way. Andrzej, a 67-year-old who is a 48-year veteran of the railways, relies almost entirely on his intimate knowledge of the track to know when to accelerate and when to stop. He could navigate it blindfolded.
Leszno is 45 kilometres, or 83 minutes, away. En route we stop at 11 village stations. Normally there would be lots of schoolchildren and students waiting on the platforms, but it is a school break, so today we pick up just a few commuters. They are blithely unaware that they have a beginner helping in the engine room, pulling levers and turning handles as Andrzej barks instructions in broken English.
I’m told to blow the whistle as we approach crossings. I shovel chunks of coal into the blazing firebox, filling the cab with an orange glow and blast of hot air each time we open its steel doors to expose the red-hot furnace. At times we reach 60 kilometres per hour and the whole loco is vibrating, but somehow we make inch-perfect stops at every station.
"Driving the steam train is thrilling, but alarming, too"
Approaching Leszno, our branch line merges with a dozen others. An unseen signalman guides us through the tangle, and we grind to a halt in a crescendo of noise and smoke. Diesel and electric trains glide in and out almost silently, but steam engines are prima donnas—a statement.
A dozen passengers get off, and scarcely 20 minutes later we set off back to Wolsztyn. This time the loco is at the end; we are going in reverse.
We pass factories, warehouses and modern houses as we leave Leszno. We thunder through rich farmland, then forests of pine and silver birch, scattering deer. We pick up shoppers heading to Wolsztyn’s market, and night workers going home, 38 passengers in all. Then we’re pulling into Wolsztyn station, having burned our way through two tonnes of coal.
It is 9:07am. Elated, I thank Andrzej and Marcin, pull off my boiler suit and sprint to a waiting car, my hands and face black and filthy. I should make it to my plane on time. Jones tells me: “You’re one of perhaps 2,000 people who have helped drive a steam locomotive on a main line this century.”
© Martin Fletcher. 2022. "Driving Europe's last steam train." Financial Times / ft.com. 14 February. Used under license from The Financial Times. All rights reserved.
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