It was probably the dream of every youngster - to be a driver of one of these amazing railway automobiles. Whether you loved Thomas the Tank Engine, preferred Ivor the Engine or were a number fan of Hornby. Everybody would love to take control of a railway line and the world of locomotives and wagons is fascinating when you're young. And judging by the popularity of heritage railways, it would seem the enthusiasm for these amazing machines is un-waning as we grow up!
What we love about our experience days is the fact that they are offer a really comprehensive itinerary. Many start in the morning with a experienced crew meeting over a cuppa where the running schedule for the day is discussed. You will instantly feel like part of the team, many of whom are actually volunteers with many, many years of experience in engine restoration, maintenance and driving. So much so that's it's a real honour to spend time with them.
Those lucky enough to be going on a footplate experience will then relish the chance to be 'up front' in a wonderful, fully restored loco. We have to say, it's a proper working environment (as the coal fire needs stoking after all!) so prepare for it to be hot, sooty and noisy too. But that's all part of the fun. Of course, there's no firing up to be done if you're in a diesel set up - which is one of the reasons why steam locos were superseded by the 'cleanness' of these engines, but it's a real thrill to be at the helm of a early 1950s diesel multiple unit chugging along the railway.
As well as having the chance to be a driver for the day, you can also find out what it's like to be a signal operator. Nowadays everything is fully electronic, but back in the days of steam, each signal box was staffed and it involved shifting heavy metal levers to change the tracks for the trains. As you can imagine, the job came with a lot of responsibility!
You'll also get to have a nosey around the steam train workshops on the vast majority of these experience days. Within the confines of these huge sheds you'll be amazed at the skill and dedication of the restorations teams. Locomotives and carriages are painstakingly stripped down to bare metal and built back up again using traditional engineering methods. Parts are nigh impossible to find, so many are fabricated in-house or reconditioned to as-new quality.
The history of the railway will also be explained to you as part of your day out. There's almost always a museum on the platform too, packed full of memorabilia such as dining car menus, artefacts and old black and white photos from an age where the station master wore a top-hat and tails rather than a high-visibility jacket. Of course, you'll be welcome to ask all the questions you want and you're sure to find an answer with such knowledgeable hosts leading the event days.
Whether you get to ride on the footplate, change the signals or watch from the spare seat in the cab as the diesel driver shunts carriages around, we think you will love the day you spend at these wonderful heritage steam railways. And at last, you might just get the chance to realise that dream you had to drive a train.