Steam train fitter Bob Gant recalls his last day working on Lancashire's steam trains

Lancashire's age of steam ended 50 years ago this week. Here's Bob Gant's story.

Wednesday, 1st August 2018, 4:04 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st August 2018, 5:58 pm
Class 5 45212 is departing from Preston station on  August 3, 1968 with the through coaches from Euston, which formed the 20.50 Preston - Blackpool train.
Class 5 45212 is departing from Preston station on August 3, 1968 with the through coaches from Euston, which formed the 20.50 Preston - Blackpool train.

August 3, 1968 started off as any other day as I set off to work in my powder blue and white Ford Anglia 105e.

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On board Lancashire's final steam train journey

They were looking at their beloved steam engines for the very last time and saying goodbye to steam as we had known it all our lives.

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Locomotive, Black 5 No 45318 at Preston Station

My job was to ensure that no engine breaks down and if any do they were sorted out with the minimum delay.

Before any engines went off the shed I had to do any repairs the driver or fireman reporte. I had to also examine the engine myself for any faults such as broken springs, worn brake blocks and cracked framing and any other safety issues.

Then I had to authorise the engine fit for traffic and safe to haul trains. One of the problems on that day was the steam enthusiasts as they wanted to talk to me about steam engines and they were very knowledgeable.

Some knew more about steam engines than I did, I spoke to one young boy, aged about 13, who told me he had ridden his push bike from Blackpool to Lostock Hall and he had done this on many occasions after Blackpool shed shut.

Fitter Bob Gant, of Garstang, was a young fitter working for British Rail at Lostock Hall in 1968. Hes pictured inside the smoke box of a steam engine.

There were people from all walks of life. One young man told me that he worked in a bank and that bank staff never worked on a Saturday but, the day before, to his horror, the bank manager told him he had to work Saturday morning and in those days if a manager told you to do something you did not question it – you did it.

Some of these enthusiasts had spent many hours the previous week with oily rags polishing the last two steam engines, working all night in some cases, so that the two engines could look as spick and span as possible on their last working haul for British Rail.

The last steam engine to run on British Rail was 45318 driven by Ernie Heys, or Granny Heys as he was affectionately known by the younger men for his ability to go into great detail about the workings of a steam engine.

On examining this engine I found that one of the sand pipes was too low. I used a very technical method of fixing this with a six foot crowbar and a piece of packing (a wooden block) by placing the packing on the concrete floor using this as a fulcrum for the crow bar and placing the end under the sand pipe and levering it up till there was enough clearance between the rail and sand pipe.

Ernie also pointed out that the cylinder taps were blowing. This was a safety issue as this would impair the driver’s view. So, with tools in hand, I went and stripped down the cylinder taps to find them full of bits of broken piston rings.

After removing all the bits of piston rings and putting the cylinder taps back together, Ernie was happy.

Next to the last steam engine to run on British Rail was 45212, driven by Bob Barker.

On 45212 the exhaust injector was not working.

This meant removing the end with a big spanner and removing the cones with a big box spanner. These were full of bits of gravel. After removing all the bits of gravel and putting it back together it worked fine.

Later in the day, when the 9.25pm Preston to Liverpool was due to come through Lostock Hall station, the platforms were absolutely packed with enthusiasts.

Then the engine could be heard in the distance –the sound got louder and louder to the cheers of the onlookers.

As the train approached with whistle blowing, there was a bang, bang, bang that seemed to go on for ages.

The enthusiasts had put small explosives we called fogs on the line. These were devices normally used to alert drivers to signals etc. during foggy conditions on the line.

Then the sound of the last steam engine got lower and lower until it finally disappeared in the distance towards Liverpool. The crowds, some with a tear in their eye, made their way home and there was a deadly, sad silence.

Everyone knew that the end of an era had come, and no more would the sound of the beloved steam engine be heard on British Rail, except for specials and on preserved steam railways.