British Rail sends 12 drivers back to the age of steam: Christian Wolmar reports on a Christmas treat for train enthusiasts that promises to revive the romance of the railways

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THE ART of driving a steam engine has become so lost in the depths of time that British Rail has turned to a preservation society to rediscover it.

In the week between Christmas and the New Year, British Rail is planning to run a series of steam specials from Brighton to Victoria for the first time on the line since steam was superseded in the late 1960s.

Although BR still has a number of drivers old enough to have operated steam trains, they needed to refresh their skills. So BR turned to the Sussex-based Bluebell Line which operates an eight- mile section of the old Lewes to East Grinstead railway with a variety of steam trains, including a Merchant Navy Class engine similar to the one BR is going to use on the excursions.

BR had previously banned steam excursions on the Brighton line because it is generally full of commuter trains and because of concern about train buffs walking across the electrified third rail to get a closer look at the engine.

The 12 men who are being taught were all drivers or firemen on steam engines in the 1960s, some of them having served up to 15 years as a firemen until they got the chance to drive. One of those on the course last week - Don Clarke, aged 45 - never made it to driver, but hopes that now he will qualify to drive the trains: 'They're going to need younger people if these first trips are a success,' he said.

After an introduction from Jack Owen, now retired, who left BR in 1951 but spent a quarter of a century driving Bluebell trains, the men are taken out to try the controls.

Gordon Everest, 59, said: 'There's nothing much to it, really. You release the brake, pull on the regulator, and let her go. It's like riding a bicycle. You just never forget.'

The drivers who were chosen from 68 applicants for the 12 places are not impressed with their present jobs and miss the excitement of steam.

Brian Bowrer, 61, said: 'It's boring, just a routine. People now join the railway because there's no other jobs going. We joined because we loved the idea of driving a steam engine.'

The men start their practical training by shunting the engine up and down in the yard, before progressing, on the second day, to a journey along the entire length of the line.

There are a few tips to relearn, like how to hit a jamming brake with a hammer to release it, but the men find no difficulties and they are all itching to go: 'It's going to be a Christmas to remember,' Mr Everest said.

(Photograph omitted)