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New Europe

Day One Hundred and Two: Poznan

Driving the 8.58 from Wolsztyn 
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Driving the 8.58 from Poznań to Wolsztyn. Janus, the fireman and the hands on-controls, no power steering here.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe moment of departure comes and as Janus eases us out of the station, and Poznan slowly recedes, I make a mental note of everything he does. Not that it makes things much easier when the time comes for me to take control. Utterly spoilt by power-steering and automatic transmission, it takes me some considerable time to realise that moving the regulator alone requires brute strength. Janus heaves it up and down with one hand whereas I find I have to grasp it like a hammer-thrower. I kick the bar underneath the reverser to release the steam and the engine moves slowly forward with a series of deep throaty grunts. There's no time to sit and enjoy it until the gears are gone through, which requires a series of rolling turns of the reverser wheel as demanding as anything you'll do in a gym. Then comes the moment when everything's in place and, apart from keeping a hand on the whistle and an eye out for any crossings, the great beast is belting along, swaying and shaking like we're in a stampede. An iron horse indeed.

Fifty miles per hour seems awfully fast as the silver birch groves crowd the train so close that you have to pull your head in for fear of a twig taking an eye out, and alarmed deer veer from cover and race away across the fields. In the cab of this great, hot, heaving monster I feel a strange serenity, a sense of power and recklessness at the same time. Pure polot. Though we're big and strong and fast, we're completely dependent on those two slim, almost ephemeral rails stretching, dipping and curving into the distance.

An hour and fifty minutes later, I'm just beginning to get the hang of it as we enter the last curve into Wolsztyn station. Janus doesn't, thank God, trust me with the buffers and he brings us to a dignified halt. The remaining passengers disembark without, it seems, a care in the world. I'm happy, grimy and trembling ever so slightly.

More than anything else the experience is a reminder of the physical effort required to drive a steam locomotive. No buttons to push or computers to do the thinking for you. The 8.58 from Poznan to Wolsztyn has only further increased my respect for the engine drivers I watched with such envy fifty years ago.

Howard tells me I've done well. His parting words have an almost Churchillian ring. I will be, he tells me solemnly, one of only a tiny handful of people able to say they have driven a steam locomotive on a scheduled service in the twenty-first century.

Thank you Bob Wyatt, whoever you are.
Driving the 8.58 to Wolsztyn 
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Driving the 8.58 from Poznań to Wolsztyn. At Wolsztyn on time.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day One Hundred and Two: Poznan
  • Country/sea: Poland
  • Place: Poznań
  • Book page no: 241

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