SMRS @ RER - Railwaygardener



Readers will be well aware that the Welsh Highland is but one of many preserved railways in the UK, and in these uncertain times they need all the assistance they can get, both financial and material, to survive. This is an account of how some WHR volunteers opened a second front in their platelaying activity, and in their struggle for fitness for railway adventures further afield. Slightly off-topic I hear you complain, but at least it's something to read....

This time the chairman of the Southport Model Railway Society led from the front, taking advantage of a long-term let of a Lake District cottage to gradually worm his way into the confidence of the management of the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Much to his, and our, surprise he was accepted as a trainee guard and allowed to wield whistle and flag on selected train services, all the time under the close supervision so necessary for the protection of the public. During one such episode it was let slip that a track maintenance fortnight was planned for November 2008, and virtually anybody who could look convincingly busy whilst leaning on a shovel would be welcome to participate.

Now pretending to be pre-occupied is a lifetime skill of SMRS members, many of whom have learned the ability during years of devoted public service, so there were plenty of volunteers to choose from. Only two were permitted to accompany the chairman, their experience in North Wales undoubtedly carrying much weight in the selection process. We reported for duty at Ravenglass early one chilly morning, with visas, references and other essential credentials at the ready. Whether such documentation had already been checked, through or similar, or whether any help was considered better than none, was not clear. What was clear was that we we were welcomed aboard with the minimum of formality and invited to join the works train. What this lacked in physical size it more than made up for in being heated.

The activities planned for the two days we were there included a considerable amount of ballast replacement, interspersed with collecting and stacking rail that was past its best-before date but not apparently its sell-by date. The foreman supervised his gang with much cunning, noting with pin-point timing when fatigue was setting in and/or motivation running out, and taking appropriate action. This might be permitting a tea-break (in aforementioned heated coaches) or switching to another activity that used an entirely different set of muscles and, quite probably, a different group of brain cells. And at almost precisely mid-day lunch was declared and the train promptly returned to Ravenglass station. There skilled dinner ladies pressed plates of steaming hot-pot and mashed potatoes into our work-hardened hands, and made quantities of tea available to lubricate the food passages. Even seconds were on the menu, and a civilised period allowed for digestion before the train departed for its next worksite.

Such a promising start clearly required follow-up action, and a second foray was made on a January weekend which promised worse weather than it delivered. This time we were aligning track at Dalegarth station, where the approach ran between two 6ft dry-stone walls, with the added complication of a siding to accommodate in a restricted space. Even we could see the problem, two straight points on a curve in a confined road-bed makes for wiggly track. On the first day, much heaving of rail to, fro and sideways had little effect, leaving those trying to gauge the track suffering from Alignment Eye and the rest of us from Crowbar Back. And it was Bring Your Dog to Work Day, with no less than four canines in residence. As well as Derek the Well-Named Dog we had Thomas (I can chase sticks for longer than you can throw them) the Deaf Dog and two fine Rhodesian Ridgebacks for company. For a while we began to wonder if they were the more intelligent ones, as they trotted around having a good time while we pointlessly moved a point from point A to point B, and a little while later moved it laboriously back again.

Another complication was that the permanent way at that location was also a public footpath, so every so often a couple of walkers would step gingerly around our workings, trying not to tread on anything important, whilst we tried not to impale them on a pick or run them down with a wagon. A couple of traffic cones gave rather unnecessary warning of our fairly obvious presence, as well as being something else to trip over. One consolation however was that the weather was fine enough for lunch to be served al fresco on the station platform.

Next day one Final Last Push got both points in their optimum position, and the realignment could be completed. Old ballast was carefully dug out and even more carefully not dropped into the stream running with some vigour under the bridge. The Environment Agency have eyes, and quite possibly other sensing devices, everywhere. Lunch that day was taken inside the new and rather fine cafe/shop building, around a long table arranged in school-dinner mode. This time there were mince pies for pudding, and the rain was beginning to threaten, so it required a deliberate effort of will to return outside and kick more ballast. To encourage more effort a Jim Crow was produced, a younger and smaller brother of the one we have spent many happy hours playing with on the WHR. However like its sibling it still seemed to have a mind of its own, not to mention a slippery, heavy and unyielding body.

I will not draw comparisons with the Welsh Highland Experience, only to say that it was different, and variety is the spice of a rail ganger's life, along with other more basic condiments. And it has not escaped our notice that the Corris Railway is plotting an extension to its trackbed, and will no doubt shortly be grateful for battle-hardened troops for yet another theatre of operations, working in a style almost certainly different again. Watch this space....

More pictures are here.

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