It is a somewhat unpromising morning - the river is dark with fog and the huge arch of the station nearly hidden by mist and steam. A cold, damp wind makes the passengers hurry into the carriages, and strikes us sharply as we step on to the foot-plate of the engine, which has just joined the train. But as we get behind the shelter of the screen, we feel a generous and slightly unctuous sensation of warmth very comforting to a chilly man. The brasswork of the engine shines brilliantly, the footboard has been newly scrubbed, and the driver and stoker stand waiting for the signal. The needle shows that the steam is just below the pressure at which it would begin to blow off; the water in the gauge glass is just where it ought to be; in fact, the engine is in perfect condition and ready for a start. The line is clear, the guard's whistle is answered by our own, and we glide almost imperceptibly past the last few yards of the platform. The driver opens the regulator till he is answered by a few sounding puffs from the funnel, and then stands on the lookout for signals so numerous that one wonders how he can tell which of the many waving arms is raised or lowered for his guidance.
So he goes on, with hand on regulator and lever, gradually admitting more steam as signal after signal comes nearer and then flies past us, till at last we are clear of the suburbs and find ourselves on a gentle incline and a straight road, with the open fields on either side. It is now that the real business of the journey begins. Locomotives are as sensitive and have as many peculiarities as horses, and have to be as carefully studied if you would ride them fast and far. The lever is put into the most suitable notch for working the steam expansively; the driver's hand is on the regulator, not to be removed for the rest of the trip; the furnace door is thrown wide open, and firing begins in earnest. Here it may not be amiss to state, for the benefit of the uninitiated, that the regulator controls the supply of steam from the boiler, while the lever enables the driver to reverse the engine, or, as we have already stated, to expand the steam by cutting it off before the end of the stroke. The engine answers to the appeal like a living thing, and seems, with its steady beat and sonorous blast, to settle down to its work.
It is pleasant from our seat in the corner of the screen to see this preparation for the work ahead - the absolute calm of driver and stoker, who exchange no word, but go steadfastly and quietly about their business; to feel the vibrations from the rails beneath throb through one with slowly increasing rapidity, or watch the trees and houses go past as gulls flap past a boat. For there is a certain apparent swagging movement of the objects past which one travels which can only be likened to the peculiar flight of a large sea-bird. But now there are signs of increased activity on the foot-plate; the stoker is busy controlling the feed of water to the boiler, and fires at more frequent intervals; the driver's hand moves oftener as he coaxes and encourages the engine along the road, his slightest gesture betraying the utmost tension of eye and ear; the stations, instead of echoing a long sullen roar as we go through them, flash past us with a sudden rattle, and the engine surges down the line, the train following with hot haste in its wake. We are in a cutting, and the noise is deafening. Looking ahead, we see an apparently impenetrable wall before us.
Suddenly the whistle is opened, and we are in one of the longest tunnels in England. The effect produced is the opposite of that with which we are familiar in a railway carriage, for the change is one from darkness to light rather than from light to darkness. The front of the fire-box, foot-plate, and the tender, which had been rather hazily perceived in the whirl of surrounding objects, now strike sharply on the eye, lit up by the blaze from the fire, while overhead we see a glorious canopy of ruddy-glowing steam. The speed is great, and the flames in the fire-box boil up and form eddies like water at the doors of an opening lock. Far ahead we see a white speck, which increases in size till the fierce light from the fire pales, and we are once more in open day. The weather has lifted, the sky is gray, but there is no longer any appearance of mist. The hills on the horizon stand out sharply, and seem to keep pace with us as the miles slip past. The line is clear; but there is an important junction not far distant, and we slacken speed, to insure a prompt pull-up should we find an adverse signal. The junction signals are soon sighted; neither caution nor danger is indicated, and, once clear of the station, we steam ahead as fast as ever.
One peculiarity of the view of the line ahead strikes us. Looking at a railroad line from a field or neighboring highway, even where the rails are laid on a steep incline, the rise and fall of the road is not very strikingly apparent. Seen through the weather-glass, the track appears to be laid up hill and down dale, like a path on the downs above high cliffs. Over it all we advance, the engine laboring and puffing on one or two heavy gradients, in spite of a full supply of steam, or tearing down the inclines with hardly any, or none at all and the brake on. And here it may be noted that, like modern men, modern engines have been put upon diet, and are not allowed to indulge in so much victual as their forefathers. The engine-driver, like the doctor of the new school, is determined not to ruin his patient by over-indulgence, and will tell you severely enough that "he will never be guilty of choking his engine with an over-supply of steam." In the mean time, the character of the country we travel through has changed. It has become more open, and there is a stiff sea-breeze, which makes itself distinctly felt through the rush of air produced by the speed at which we are going.
We fly past idle streams and ponds, and as the steam swirls over them are disappointed at producing so little effect; but the ducks, their inhabitants, are well used to such visitations, and hardly deign to move a feather. Suddenly we plunge into a series of small chalk cuttings, and on emerging from them find ourselves parallel with a grand line of downs. We speed by a curve or two, and find ourselves on the sea-shore; one more tunnel, and with steam off we go soberly into the last station. But there is one step more. The breeze blows about our ears. Before us the rails are wet, for the sea swept over them not many hours since, and to accomplish the last few yards of our journey the lever controlling the sand-box must be used liberally, to prevent slipping; the signal is given, and at a walking pace we make our way to where the steamer is awaiting us. A gentle application of the brake pulls us up, and the journey is over. It is difficult to realize, as the engine stands quietly under the lee of the pier while the driver examines the machinery, and the fire, burned low, throws out a gentle warmth as we stand before it, that half an hour ago we were tearing along the line at full speed, while the foot-plate that is now so pleasant to lounge on throbbed beneath us.
Nothing now remains but to kill time as best we may till the return trip many hours hence. It scarcely promises to be as comfortable as our morning ride, for the weather has changed - it is blowing half a gale, and the rain comes down in sheets. Our train is timed to start in the small hours, and the night seems dirty and depressing enough as we make our way for a cup of coffee to the refreshment room, where a melancholy Italian sits in sad state eating Bath buns and drinking brandy. We walk past the train, laden with miserable sea-sick humanity, and step on the engine, which stands in the dark at the end of the platform. Time is up, and we pass from the dim half-light of the station into outer darkness. A blacker night there could hardly be; looking ahead there is nothing to be seen but one's own reflection in the weather-glass. We are in the midst of obscurity, which suddenly changes to a rich light as the whistle is opened and we enter a tunnel. The effect is far more striking than in the daytime. The light is more concentrated, and the mouth of the tunnel we have just entered might be the entrance to Hades - for there is no telltale spot of light to prove to our senses the existence of any opening at the other end.
The sound echoed from the walls and roof has a tremendous quality, and resolves itself into a grand sort of Wagnerian rhythm, making a vast crescendo, till with a rush we clear the tunnel, and are once more under the open sky. The pace is increasing, the steady beat of the engine tells more distinctly on the ear than in the daytime; the foot-plate is lit up by the glare from the fire-door; but still there is nothing to be seen ahead but the impenetrable night. Looking back, however, the scene is very different. The tender and guard's van glow in the light thrown by the fire, trees and houses by the side of the track stand out sharply for a moment and are then lost to sight, the light from the carriage windows produces the effect of the wake of a ship seen from the stern. Gradually the clouds have rolled away, leaving the sky clear. The moon is seen fitfully through the whirling steam; the surrounding country is visible for miles round. The effect produced is unspeakably beautiful. In the mean time let us turn our attention to the working of the engine. In the first place, let us take note that, although the engine we are now on, and that which took us from London, belong to the same type, their performances are somewhat different.
No two engines ever resemble each other, no matter how carefully they may have been built from the same plan, neither do any two drivers manage their engines precisely in the same way. We have in this instance an excellent opportunity of comparing two different methods of driving. It is the driver's principal object to get the required amount of work out of his engine with the smallest possible expenditure of coal and water. To obtain this result the steam must be worked expansively, which is done by placing the valve gear in such a position by means of the lever that the supply of steam to the cylinders is cut off, as we have stated at the beginning of this article, before the piston has accomplished its full stroke. There are two ways of controlling the speed of an engine worked, as all locomotives are worked now, expansively. You may keep the regulator wide open, so that there is always a full supply of steam on its way to the cylinders, in which case you increase or diminish the speed by using the steam more or less expansively through the agency of the lever. Or you may work with the same amount of expansion throughout the journey, and have command of the engine by constantly changing the position of the regulator.
There is no doubt that the men who employ the latter method save something by it, although this would hardly seem to be the opinion of the driver who is bringing us rapidly nearer to London, for unlike the driver whom we accompanied on the daylight journey, his hand is not often on the regulator. As we rush on past countless signals, punctual to the minute, yet always having ample time to slacken speed before we come to the places where the different colored lights cluster thickest, we are reminded once more how much is required of an express engine-man besides a thorough acquaintance with the machinery he has to control. Traveling at night at a great speed, he must know every inch of the road by heart - where an incline begins and where it ends, and the exact spot at which every signal along the line may be first sighted. He must have completely mastered the working of the traffic on both the up and down lines, and, above all, must be ready to act with the utmost promptitude should anything go wrong. Mr. Michael Reynolds' publications have done much toward enlightening the public on these points, but we doubt if there are many who really know the amount of toil and danger cheerfully faced by the men on the engine, who hold their lives in their hands day after day for many years.
These thoughts occur to us as we recross the Thames and pull up at the platform after a thoroughly enjoyable run. - Saturday Review.