Teenager's steamy ambition realised

Chris Hill A century ago, when hissing mechanical marvels steamed into every station in the land, it was easy to understand why young boys dreamed of becoming train drivers.

Chris Hill

A century ago, when hissing mechanical marvels steamed into every station in the land, it was easy to understand why young boys dreamed of becoming train drivers.

But now, as memories of steam's Victorian heyday disappear further down the line, most kids aspire to more modern careers.

Nevertheless, a Norfolk teenager who always wanted to drive a train has achieved his unlikely ambition after securing an apprenticeship at one of the county's scenic light railways.

Engineering student Thomas Jones, 19, works four days a week on the Wells and Walsingham Light Railway, thought to be the longest 10.25in narrow gauge line in the world.

He was recruited full-time after the railway was awarded a �38,300 grant towards the cost of a second purpose-built engine to run alongside the Garratt locomotive Norfolk Hero, which has operated on the four-mile route since 1986.

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Thomas, from Springfield Close in Weybourne, has assisted with the construction of the new engine, named Norfolk Heroine after Edith Cavell, which is due to be ready for action in October.

But he has also helped prepare the original Norfolk Hero for the start of this year's season on Good Friday - including a few supervised stints as its driver and guard.

Thomas said although he had fulfilled his lifelong dream, he was keen for the experience to continue.

“I was always interested in trains for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I would go anywhere just to see a steam train passing by.

“But I never really told anyone I wanted to be a train driver while I was growing up - I don't really know why.

“I suppose it is rare to want to be a train driver - you would think someone of my age would want to be doing something else, like maybe becoming a footballer or a builder or a carpenter.

“But I always said it would be my dream job and, now I have got the chance to do it, I would hope for it to be a permanent move and stay here for as long as possible.

“I wouldn't want to drive a big engine. With a smaller engine you get to do everything, from checking the steam pressure and the water level in the gauges to make sure you don't run out.”

The Norfolk Heroine will increase passenger capacity by allowing more carriages to be added to the train, and is expected to reduce delays by ensuring there is always at least one engine running if the other breaks down.

Its boiler is being built by a specialist engineer Mervyn Mayse at a Victorian rail shed in Yaxham with other parts being constructed in London.

The scheme became the first to benefit from the Norfolk Coast and Broads Rural Development Programme (RDP), which gave a grant of �38,300 towards the expected total cost of �105,000.

Project manager Richard Mountstephen said: “Thomas is progressing steadily at college and on schedule with his work. It is lovely to find somebody who can appreciate the skills that go into mechanical engineering, and the workings of these engines.

“Anybody who is a steam enthusiast will regard a steam engine as a having a soul of its own. You might have to swear at it at times, but once it's up and steaming you think of it as a living thing.”

Former Sheringham High School student Thomas gained a NVQ Level 1 in engineering at Norwich City College before starting his Level 2 NVQ at the College of West Anglia (CoWA) in King's Lynn, where he studies for one day every week. CoWA works with about 600 employers in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire to provide vocational training for more than 800 apprentices.