by ANTONY CLAY
IT has been a good few years since 93-year-old Jim Mason has been in charge of driving a freight train but he still remembers his days on the railways with a sense of nostalgia.
Jim, of Swinton, worked his way up from cleaner to fireman to driver at two of the county’s busiest railway marshalling yards.
He chose the railways rather than staying on as an office worker at Denaby Colliery and said it was tough work with long hours.
Jim worked on the railways as steam trains were being replaced by diesel. It was a time of change when trains still transported large quantities of freight, as well as passengers.
“I started on the railways when I came out of the Army at the end of the war. I could have gone back to my job at Denaby Colliery but I wanted a change,” said Jim.
“My brother was on the railways.”
In the late 1940s when Jim started work, the newly nationalised British Rail had a large marshalling yard in Mexborough with 500 drivers, foremen and cleaners employed, as well as a fitting section.
Nothing remains of this vast workplace and its engine sheds today.
“It was alright but when I was cleaning the trains and using paraffin sometimes my wife would complain as I would stink of it, and my skin would be black with the dirt,” said Jim.
“But it was a friendly place, and I took an interest in trade unionism and eventually became the branch secretary of ASLEF. We had branch meetings every month,.
“But working there was dangerous. You had to be very careful. The rules were probably not as strict as today but we had a rule book and if you broke a rule you were up in front of the gaffer.”
Jim said he enjoyed working at Mexborough and witnessed the changes in the railway industry at first hand.
He saw electric engined trains based in Wath which were used to take take freight to Manchester, for instance.
Born in Denaby, Jim got his first job at Denaby Colliery where his father worked,. It was an office job recording the men going down the pit and coming back out again.
But when war broke out there was a ballot of workers because it was a restricted occupation where people did not have to sign up due to the importance of their work and Jim ended up becoming a soldier.
He served in the 6th battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
As an engine cleaner at Mexborough, his work was to wipe grease and grime off the locos. He had to clean two engines per shift so it was gruelling work.
He had to climb into the train framings.
“It was not really hard but was just mucky,” said Jim.
After a while he became a fireman, standing on the footplate alongside the driver of steam trains which were used by British rail until eh 1960s when they were phased out.
But having to go on train journeys offered up new challenges for Jim.
“It was the shifts that were more of a problem. We had to work nights and sleep in the days. But it was a living and I could not pick and choose,” said Jim.
Financially, becoming a fireman was a step up. A cleaner got about £4 a week where as a fireman got £5. A driver would be over the £6 mark.
But if he wanted promotion, Jim found that he would have to move away from Mexborough and start work at the railway site in Canklow where there was a vacancy for a driver in 1964.
People may think that to become a train driver would be the result of long periods of intensive training, as would be the case today, but Jim said that there was none back in the day.
New drivers learnt how to drive a train by watching the driver of the train where they worked as a firemen.
Budding drivers would take their final test by driving a train with an inspector watching in the cab. If they got to their destination safely, they would pass!
“When I went o Canklow I didn’t get any training. The only training we got was learning the routes we were going on,” said Jim.
”When I went o pass for driving I had to take control of a passenger train with the inspector behind me. It was a passenger train from Sheffield to Manchester.
“When you got to Manchester the inspector would pass you out. There were chaps who failed because they couldn’t drive a train.
“You just had to watch the driver when you were a fireman to learn how to drive. You followed what drivers were doing. The railway company was getting training on the cheap.
“When you are driving an electric or diesel train you don’t have to think about whether you have enough steam or water.”
Jim said that working in a freight depot meant he did not have much opportunity to drive passenger trains.
But freight was an important feature of the railways back then, much more than is the case today.
“There were thousands of tons of coal going over the Pennines,” said Jim.
“There were different sorts of freight, such as iron to Scunthorpe from the Midlands.”
Jim would drive trains as far afield as Cleethorpes and Birmingham. He said that although he was supposed to do an eight hour shift, that would often be summarily extended to 12 or more if replacement staff did not turn up.
“If control had no one to replace you you had to carry on going,” said Jim.
“You never knew if you were going to get home.”
Jim said that he had been involved in three bad accidents during his time as a train driver. On one occasion he was approaching Masbrough Sorting Sidings when he felt a bump. His train, in foggy weather, had hit a man who had been walking down the line.
“As long as it’s not your fault you don’t feel guilty about it,” said Jim.
Jim later worked at Masbrough and finally at the Tinsley marshalling depot until he retired early aged 62.
Jim has not travelled by train recently but has a high opinion of modern trains which he said are more comfortable and much safer.
“It was harder work when it was steam than with diesels,” said Jim.
“But the drivers now have to be more alert.
“Steam trains were mucky so I don’t really miss them.”
He volunteered as a fireman on the Earl Fitzwilliam steam train based at Elsecar Heritage Centre for a while.
Jim, who has been married to his wife Connie since 1948, looks back at his time on the railways with pride, remembering his former colleagues.
“There were some good people that I worked with,” he said.