Chuffed to bits

Ever since childhood Michael Williams has wanted to drive a locomotive. Now he's living the dream, on the 16.05 to Wolsztyn - one of the world's last scheduled passenger steam trains

I've coal in my hair, grease up my nose and I can barely hear above the hiss of the steam. The heat of the fire is skinning my eyeballs. I spot a Transit van up ahead, speeding towards an ungated level crossing. Whoo! Whoo! I lean on the whistle, praying he's going to stop. It's too late for the brakes on this 100-ton loco travelling at 40mph, with its train of double-deck coaches full of passengers.

But he's not going to stop and, whoosh, he disappears in front of me, my view obscured by the boiler and the billowing smoke in front, and all that runs through my head are the words to the kids' song about the runaway train "with her whistle wide and her throttle back". Then, phew! A grin and thumbs up from the fireman as the van shoots out on the other side of the track.

Lucky, because this is no simulator, or video game, or dream. Yet it is a fantasy of a kind. My own real life one, in fact, and probably that of every boy who once wanted to be an engine driver. Here I am, on the 16.05 from Zbaszynek junction on the Warsaw-Berlin main line, heading for Wolsztyn in central Poland, one of the last timetabled mainline steam services in the world - and I've got my hand on the throttle. Not some polished and pampered train on a heritage railway dressed up as Thomas the Tank Engine, but a workaday steam giant, oozing oil and sneezing soot, bearing fare-paying commuters at up to 50mph on a schedule designed for modern diesel trains.

It is a myth that somewhere in the recesses of the Third World there are scheduled steam passenger trains chugging along on the main line as though the Empire had never ended. They are now only a memory in India or South Africa or South America. In China, the last country to build steam locomotives, they only pull freight trains. If you're lucky, you might catch the odd one on a secondary line in Syria or Eritrea or Burma, but in many developing countries these days, modern electric or diesel services put Network Rail to shame.

Which is why it is so extraordinary that the engine shed in the sleepy little market town of Wolsztyn, in what was once the heart of Prussia, should end up as the last bastion of the world's steam passenger trains, largely thanks to the efforts of one Englishman, who in effect, has been paying the bankrupt Polish rail system to keep it going.

Flashback to 1997, when, in the UK, life was going through the rough for Howard Jones, a travel industry executive who'd cut his teeth in the low fares business with Freddie Laker. At 47, his second marriage was breaking up, and his business was on the rocks after taking a hit in currency exchange on Black Wednesday. Like many British blokes who had once been a train buff, he'd mourned the end of steam in the UK in 1968, and was now spending the odd weekend taking parties of enthusiasts around Europe's last steam railways.

Then he had a reckless but brilliant idea. Even though he didn't (and still doesn't) speak Polish, he went to PKP, the Polish state railway, and asked the sort of barmy question no one would ever venture at home. "If I raised some cash from enthusiasts in Britain, would you keep steam on the main line in exchange for them having a 'timeshare' on driving the engines?" The bureaucrats of PKP - often wryly described as "the last Communist state in eastern Europe" - astonishingly said yes: "You get a hundred people to put in £2,000 each and we'll keep steam going for five years."

As it turned out only 22 Brits stumped up the cash, but what the hell, thought Jones. He sold his home in Burgess Hill, Sussex, and invested in a modest backstreet house in Wolsztyn, which has since become paradise for the doctors, teachers, dustmen, architects (and, yes, train drivers), who stay for a week, taking out temporary membership of his non-profit society and live out their dreams by driving the world's last mainline steam passenger engines.

"When I was a boy in the Sixties," says Jones, "I used to watch in wonder the steam engines racing up and down the Bournemouth line, but little did I think that years later I'd be driving engines at 70mph myself." It's easy to get nostalgic in today's rural Poland, with its John Major world of small shops, crime-free streets, neat church-going families - and while the vodka may not be warm, you're not talking exactly about Sea Breezes here. Larkin would have been happily at home pausing at Wolsztyn station, with its country junction atmosphere - rusty tracks and sidings knee high in poppies and ragwort. Everywhere you can sniff that treacly, tarry smell of heavy grease on metal, which was once ubiquitous, but is all but vanished in modern Britain.

Also absent on this sunny June morning are any health and safety aparatchiks, which is why I, a complete amateur, am on the footplate, poised to drive the 11.07 on the 50-mile trip to Posnan, Poland's fourth city, after only a day of rudimentary training. You can also forget about any pollution controls, which is why I can happily stoke up the fire of 50-year-old 2-6-2 locomotive Ol49 23 until a vast pall of black smoke hangs over the town. How can this be possible? "The great thing about Poland," says Jones, "is that there are no lawyers."

Driving a steam engine, as I soon discover, is more than just watching the signals, bossing the fireman and hanging out of the window posing in a Jean Gabin hat. It's a job which demands the sort of physical effort which we have forgotten about in our microelectronic age. First you have to move a heavy rod called the regulator, which allows steam into the cylinders, then, as the train gathers speed you have to strain to turn a lumbering heavy wheel called the cut-off, which controls the steam expansion, acting effectively like gears in a car. The scary bit is the brakes. Rotate the handle and nothing happens. It's like manoeuvring an oil tanker - act now and gamble on what will occur half a mile up front.

In fairness, I'm not exactly on my own here - there's the Polish crew, Stanislaw and Hendryk, who have an incentive for me not to foul it up, since they're on a timekeeping bonus, and David, a retired local government solicitor from Derbyshire who is on his 40th visit to Wolsztyn, and is doing the firing. "Excuse my finger nails," he says, holding up hands riven with ingrained coal dust, "but I'm sleeping at the engine shed and there's nowhere proper to wash."

Hendryk eases the train out of the station and then motions me into the driver's seat. David, sweat glistening on beard, is heaving great shovelfuls on the fire. "Driving steam engines is a bit like sex," he says. "You read about it a lot and you're nervous the first time you try it. But you end up enjoying it and it becomes second nature."

Chuffa, chuffa, clickety clack. With the comforting sound of the railways of childhood, we are bowling through one of those paradisiacal, East Anglia-like landscapes you see printed on wall plaques in ads at the back of the Telegraph magazine. A deer leaps across the track, a family tilling a field with an elderly Fordson tractor waves. Here are sparrows and wagtails and, look, a red squirrel. I'm getting super-confident. Maybe time to brew up a billy can with water from the boiler or fry an egg on the shovel?

Then a poke in the back. It's time to stop at Tloki, the first station, which from a distance looks no more than a white line painted in the undergrowth. I remember what I have been told: you don't need to understand Polish to know what passengers are saying when they have to fight their way through the brambles after you fail to line up the train with the platform.

Naturally, I completely muff it and have to be rescued, humiliatingly by Hendryk, who speaks no English but, jokingly, brings out a stick to remind me to get it right next time (and, presumably, to safeguard his bonus). I am a sweating heap as I struggle simultaneously to concentrate on signals, steam pressure and brakes, terrifyingly aware that I am responsible for the lives of the passengers in the carriages behind. The only respite is when the boiler injector breaks down and the train has to stop for some loud banging with a wrench.

Back in the depot, after four hours on the road, we "drop" Ol49 23's fire and "put her to bed. Later, I drink Bols vodka with some of the drivers - Andrzej, Irek, Christof, Janusz, Stanislaw. There are 13 remaining at the depot, all big men with traditional Polish moustaches, wearing check shirts, union diehards to their fingertips. What do they reckon on spending their last days of steam pampering Englishmen pretending to be train drivers?

"Sometimes," says Irek," you have to grit your teeth and think of the money." Certainly, with unemployment high and EU entry still months away, jobs are at a premium, and the new diesel railcars now appearing on the line don't need firemen. But there's security at least to 2007, the centenary of the Wolsztyn depot, with a new deal done between Jones and the Ministry of Transport in Warsaw.

The men are grateful, too, for the extras that Jones, who has become something of a Polish national hero, can provide. Aside from the deal with PKP, there is extra cash slipped in pay packets, and, with the remaining nine locos needing constant nursing, Jones will find a way to get them fixed. In last year's cold snap, fire grates cracked and Jones hired his own blacksmith to get them back on the road. And, of course, there's the cash from selling locomotive paraphernalia and the uniforms and hats that some of the enthusiasts like to dress up in.

Which brings me to a delicate question. Is all this, well, a bit "Upminster" in the railway parlance (ie, one stop farther than Barking?) Certainly, the Brits I've met, who have all spent about £1,000 on the trip seem like regular guys. True, some, like Richard, a GP from Bournemouth, have been here before and admit they are addicted. (There's a touching moment when a passenger asks my fireman David, why he is here. "Forty times in Wolsztyn? You must - how you say it - be a fan-a-tic!")

But some bring their wives and girlfriends, and there are women learners, too. Others, like Martin, a telecoms specialist from Leamington, who's here with his friend, Peter, a management consultant, are not even train buffs. "It's like the excitement of learning to fly," he says. Glen, who's in logistics, sums up the view of most: "For years I've wanted to do something like this, and my dreams havecome true."

"Of course, we're here to keep the world's last steam going," says Jones. "But the Wolsztyn experience is also a form of escape. Britain has too many rules and regulations which dictate what you can't do, rather than what you can. Many of the guys who come here say that either they're getting older or their job is getting harder. I suspect it's a bit of both. Grown men come here to drive trains simply because Britain isn't fun any more."

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Michael Williams flew from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel with British Airways (08708 5090850; www.ba.com). Return fares start from £99. He then took the train from Berlin Zoo station to Zbaszynek in Poland, the closest mainline station to Wolsztyn. The train fare is £42 return. All travel can be arranged through The Wolsztyn Experience. A one-week driving course, including b&b accommodation, costs between £585 and £675, depending on time of year. Contact from Trevor Jones at The Wolsztyn Experience, 20 Whitepit Lane, Flackwell Heath, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP10 9HS (01628 524876).

Get steamed up on Britain's railways

With Britain's national railway under the spotlight for its own safety problems, it is hardly surprising that amateurs are not allowed to drive trains on the main line in the UK. But many of the more than 50 preserved lines around the country, run by volunteers, offer driving courses. These range from pottering on a shunter or bashing a few trucks in a siding to taking the regulator of a top link express engine on a former main line. But don't expect to be put in charge of a train full of passengers. A gift token is a perfect present for anyone hankering to fulfil that childhood ambition. Here are five railways that can realise that dream.

Severn Valley Railway (01299 403816; www.svr.co.uk)

Running 17 miles from Kidderminster in the Black Country along the Severn Valley to Bridgnorth in rural Shropshire, this is one of the most authentic preserved railways, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the rural lines of the 1950s. It is also host to some of the most powerful retired express engines. Driving courses range from a half day for novices at £165 to the two-day Steam Supreme, driving and firing a loco and seven coaches for two days on a trip of 32 miles.

North Yorkshire Moors Railway (01947 895888; www.nymr.demon.co.uk)

Another of Britain's premier preserved lines, it runs for 18 miles from Grosmont to Pickering in the spectacular scenery of the North Yorkshire Moors. It boasts a collection of "big beasts" from the former main lines. Try a one-day "taster" course for £125 or an intensive five-day course at £1,025.

Ffestiniog Railway (01766 516024; www.festrail.co.uk)

Running on the steeply graded narrow-gauge through the Snowdonia National Park, this is the oldest independent railway in the world, built to carry slate, but now the top preserved line in Wales. One of the most popular driving courses is the one-day "couples package", where two people can share the footplate for £695. Said to be the perfect way to entice a reluctant partner into a passion for steam.

Great Central Railway. (01509 230726; www.gcrailway.co.uk)

Formerly part of the main line from London Marylebone to Manchester, this is Britain's only twin track preserved line. Imagine you are on footplate of the Master Cutler, letting rip as you travel between Leicester and Loughborough. For £1,350 you can take the "gold package" and drive a main line express all day long.

West Somerset Railway (01643 704996; www.west-somerset-railway.co.uk)

The quintessential branch line, creating the atmosphere of the Great Western Railway and evoking memories of sunny childhood holidays in the West Country as the train rambles through the Quantock Hills from Taunton to Minehead. The academy of driving will hone skills over three days for £604 total, though each day is priced individually.

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