Spit and Polish

Get your overalls on and climb aboard. Anthony Lambert stokes up the engines on a train-buff's dream trip, driving a steam locomotive - and real passengers - across Poland
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The Independent Travel

"More coal," urges Marek, as I feed the insatiable inferno, burning so fiercely that I can't see the back of the vast firebox. I had already discovered that turning over the soil in a typical British back garden was hardly preparation for getting rural commuters to work on time. Imagine finding out that your morning train was being driven by a foreign visitor on work experience. That is what commuters in western Poland have to deal with on a regular basis.

"More coal," urges Marek, as I feed the insatiable inferno, burning so fiercely that I can't see the back of the vast firebox. I had already discovered that turning over the soil in a typical British back garden was hardly preparation for getting rural commuters to work on time. Imagine finding out that your morning train was being driven by a foreign visitor on work experience. That is what commuters in western Poland have to deal with on a regular basis.

A fortnight in the gym might have fettled up the muscles required for shifting half a ton of coal, but nothing could have developed the ability to do it on a heaving foot-plate. Miss the fire-hole and the shovel hits the back-plate of the boiler, scattering coal everywhere. This, in turn, invokes muttered imprecations from Marek, who grabs a lump hammer and straightens out the dented shovel with slightly disconcerting vehemence.

Remember a time when every boy wanted to be an engine driver and children waved at trains as a matter of course? When the end of the platform at every major station would have its knot of schoolboys toting Ian Allan Locospotters' books, multi-coloured biros and satchels of Tizer and Smiths crisps with their blue paper twist of salt. Railway company posters even sold the prospect of summer holidays using the admiration of the young for steam locomotives and their crews, a child gazing up in awe at the romantic figures of the driver and fireman.

Today, there is only one place in the world where you can enrol to drive or fire an ordinary service train hauled by a steam locomotive, in a setting that has changed little in 100 years. The small town of Wolsztyn lies in western Poland in the former Prussian province of Ostbrandenburg, and the older buildings reflect the time when the town was named Wollstein. In 1945, the Germans were replaced by Poles displaced from the Ukraine by the westward movement of the USSR/Polish border.

Nearby lakes make the town something of a tourist attraction, but it is the Wolsztyn Experience that has put it on the map thanks to brothers Howard and Trevor Jones. Howard had a background in tourism and developed the idea of offering authentic driving courses while taking groups around the remaining steam railways of Eastern Europe. The Wolsztyn Experience is a non profit-making mutual trust society and has a contract with Poland's national railway (PKP) to offer weekly driving sessions on three return trains a day over the 81km line to Poznan - the equivalent of driving from Hull to Leeds and back. The contract runs until 2007, which marks the centenary of the depot that houses the half-dozen operable steam locomotives.

Fringed by a thick belt of trees on the edge of town, the engine shed exudes an atmosphere that only decades of coal dust, cinders, steam and hot oil can create. Sex is no barrier - women, too, sign up to drive the locomotives. Nor is age - the oldest person to book so far is 82. The level of repeat business would be the envy of any tourist enterprise: nearly everyone comes for a second session sooner or later, and the most frequent guest has been 60 times. What is it that so fascinates people about the steam locomotive?

It must have something to do with it being one of the most demonstrative of man's mechanical creations. You can see, smell and hear the simple source of its power. When it's at rest, it is almost silent apart from escaping wisps of steam and the sizzle of hot oil, like bacon frying; when on the move, you know from the note of the exhaust how hard it's working.

At one level, the steam locomotive is simple to understand: steam is collected in the boiler, fed into the cylinders to drive the pistons and exhausted through the chimney. But after half an hour on the foot-plate, you begin to appreciate the skill required to extract the best performance from a machine with all kinds of subtleties - and begin to understand why there was such a sense of partnership between driver and fireman.

All the Polish crews who supervise participants are based at Wolsztyn depot, a quarter roundhouse with eight stalls for locomotives. They prepare the locomotive, taking on coal and water, and attending to the numerous oiling points before backing down to the station to couple-up to the waiting coaches. Departures from Wolsztyn are at 4.17am, 11.20am and 4.03pm, each returning about six hours later. There's a two-hour stopover in Poznan, during which the locomotive replenishes its water tank and the crew gets something to eat. The 4.17am is for die-hards, as it's the busiest train and requires a 3.30am alarm. (Before alarm clocks, sheds used to employ a "knocker-up" to go round the houses of men on early turns and make sure they were out of bed.)

Wolsztyn's regular locomotives were built in 1949 for use on the kind of secondary line that the trains now take to Poznan. The route wouldn't appear in any compendium of Europe's scenic railway journeys, but it traverses a pleasant mix of gently rolling farmland, with huge open fields and woods of birch, beech and spruce. The deer still skitter away from the snorting behemoth, but the crows cling to their branches, however stentorian the bark. In the orchards of abandoned smallholdings, apples lie neglected on the ground, a testament to the cold winds that have blown through the Polish economy. Near Tloki, trees are growing through the roofs of ageing greenhouses, but the market at Grodzisk is gaudy, with awnings over tables displaying clothes and piles of fruit and vegetables.

There is time enough to enjoy the countryside in intervals between firing, and even while driving, since the PKP driver takes over on the approach to and departure from important stations. Usually there are two guests on the foot-plate, each driving one way and firing the other. The basic skills of both tasks are quickly assimilated. When firing, you need to get coal evenly spread around the firebox, particularly in the corners at the front; this requires a tricky, twisting manoeuvre. The speed is controlled by a regulator and the trick is to avoid the wheels spinning on slippery rails. Most novice drivers also require help to judge the braking, so that the train stops at the right place alongside the platform. After the initial instruction, the Polish crew watch over you to make sure you do everything correctly.

After sunset comes and gradually steals away the landscape, the atmosphere on the foot-plate is intensified; the orange glow of the fire creating a fan of brilliant light and the steam swirling around the cab like white wraiths. Cut-out beer cans shroud low-wattage bulbs to focus their feeble light on to the various gauges. At the remoter, unstaffed stations - often standing isolated at the end of an avenue of trees - figures hunched against the cold flit through cones of light from the few platform lamps before disappearing into the darkness. At larger places, uniformed station masters or mistresses exchange greetings with regular passengers and the guard before the "right away" is given.

The dark and smoke combine to make it difficult to see the line ahead, despite the powerful headlight that British locomotives never had. It brings home the importance of route knowledge for everyone involved in train operation, exemplified by the travelling post office operator in John Grierson's classic documentary Night Mail, who has to recognise every bridge and station, and even count the rail joints, to time the moment when he swings out the bag to be dropped into a line-side net. After each station, the interval between the staccato barks of the locomotive shortens until the exhaust beats become an indistinguishable roar, as the train ploughs through the night to the next set of signal lamps or dimly lit halt and cluster of waiting passengers.

At journey's end, it is customary to help the crew by at least wiping down the wheels, while they undertake the least glamorous of shed tasks by raking out the fire and ash-pan and going into the pit underneath the locomotive to oil round once again. To paraphrase Kipling, if at the end of all that you emerge with a grubby smile on your face, you might find yourself not only signing up for another week at Wolsztyn, as most do, but even finding a way of developing the knowledge on a heritage railway in Britain. But you won't have Marek to straighten out your shovel.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Berlin is the easiest gateway for Wolsztyn. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Berlin Tegel while Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com) flies there from Stansted. Berlin Schonefeld is served by easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com) from Luton, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies there from Stansted.

STAYING THERE

The Wolsztyn Experience (01628 524876) offers one week from £525 including room-only accommodation at the Wolsztyn Experience house or in the comparable hostel at the shed. All but two rooms are en suite. Bookings accepted year-round except August.

GETTING AROUND

Contact the Deutsche Bahn UK Booking Centre (08702 43 53 63; www.bahn.co.uk) for rail tickets from Berlin to Wolsztyn and within Poland.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Polish National Tourist Office (08700 675010; www.visitpoland.org).

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