With the new Covid 19 isolation rules with a maximum of two people - it might be of interest to know that are two people on the footplate – the driver and fireman (observer) on locomotives.
Therefore it might be asked, what does a driver and fireman discuss when they are on the footplate? (the locomotive). This question is often asked by those who have never been there. A driver and fireman (the crew) spend numerous hours together. The camaraderie of the footplate is a very special part of working a locomotive.
Barracks working creates a sense of community for locomotive crews. A crew could be working a train for 10 hours in one direction, eight hours in barracks rest, then back to the home depot. I’d been away from home for 39 hours on many an occasion. In busy seasons, I would sometimes only be home for 11 hours before another turn of barracks duty. Locomotive crews can spend a lot of time together.
From my 10 years of working on the footplate, I remember one discussion which brought much joy to my heart. On this occasion I was working a barracks trip from Port Kembla to Goulburn hauling a load of steel. The timetable allowed sign-on time preparing the two 44 Class diesel electric 1800 horse power locomotives and then the following schedules:
This was in the early 70s', running to the Unanderra steel shunting yard, attaching the train, the brake test, the mountain climb to Summit Tank where the Banker engine detached, onto Moss Vale and then to Goulburn on the main south line where a fresh crew came on duty. This was a seven hour duty.
My fireman was a thoughtful young man. His topic of conversation was ‘values’ and how they affect decisions. I explained that honesty is a value, as is loyalty, integrity, trust and many others. I noted that these most important things in our lives are those we cannot see or touch. As a Christian I explained that ‘faith in Jesus’ fell into the same ‘unseen’ category, as valid as honesty, integrity, loyalty …….
This was a philosophical revelation to the young fireman. He had never thought of ‘faith in Jesus’ in that light. That footplate discussion led this young man to a fresh encounter with the Living Christ and a new God-centred world view. This in effect meant, that he went on a search, started reading his bible, attended a local church, spent many hours with the Minister and with some good books explaining theology and made a decision to follow Jesus.
That was real life example a serious discussion, but equally there was much humour on the footplate.
Humour has always been a feature of railway life. In my years as a locomotive engineman I cannot recall a day when we didn’t draw much merriment, sometimes at the expense of a fellow railwayman, from a story or a situation. Such stories regularly involved the correspondences that locomotive enginemen received from office staff, some of whom were former or unsuccessful enginemen.
This particular story reflects the days of steam hauling goods-trains in outback areas. It was a very different era from today’s diesel hauled train culture. The timetabled period of time between the two rural centres was 40 minutes, but the goods-train hauled by a steam engine took 60 minutes, 20 minutes over scheduled time.
Sure enough correspondence (commonly referred to as a ‘bung’) from the locomotive depot clerical office duly arrived some four weeks later with the steam engine driver’s sign-on sheet. This process ensured the driver had officially received the notice.
The ‘bung’ required the steam engine driver to account for the 20 minutes delay on the said date and in the said ‘section of line’. The driver replied in writing that there was a ‘bull’ on the line and that the farmer’s gate was open.
Another seven weeks went by when another ‘bung’ came to the steam engine driver which stated that enquiries to the said farmer had revealed that his gates adjacent to the railway line were always closed.
In the days of steam it was not uncommon for sheep and cattle which had strayed onto the railway line to be hit and killed by steam engines. The railway department now required an itemised account of time lost. This was the written reply the steam engine driver gave: “20 minutes lost: 10 minutes fireman chase bull; 10 minutes bull chase fireman.”
I have often thought of that story. The dilemmas of life come across as so real in this story. The second time round, the steam engine driver was faced with answering the same question in such a way that both revealed the truth and discredited the other options.
On a trip to Taieri from Christchurch on one occasion I rode in the engine with the crew and discovered that much the topics of conversation we had on the NSWGR was typical of those crews in New Zaealand.
The Footplate Padre says that sometimes only you and God know the real story, as the listeners may come to other conclusions, depending on their interpretation of the situation. The Bible speaks about this situation as a peace that surpasses all understanding, and this is the joy of the Lord.
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children. Dr Tronson writes a daily article for Christian Today Australia (since 2008) and in November 2016 established Christian Today New Zealand. Dr Mark Tronson’s Press Service International in 2019 was awarded the Australasian Religious Press Association’s premier award, The Gutenberg.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at