Talyllyn Railway's Have-A-Go Gala Report

By russell prince

To get this event off the ground it took well over 18 months of planning. The Gala’s working group consisted of Dale Coton, Alex Eyres, Bill Heynes, Russell Prince and John Smallwood, with advice on topics of engineering, Health & Safety, and traffic being covered by the railway’s officers. One of the group’s decisions was for the gala to give the opportunity to members of the public to try something ‘hands-on’ at a price that was not too expensive and as a result would give good value for money. So what else did the group come up with: A name and tag line for the gala, finding out what could and couldn’t be done by paying guests in order to give us a detailed itinerary, and deciding the duration of the event, and when it was to be held. The result was the Talyllyn “Have-A-Go Gala”, ‘Live your Childhood Dreams’, spread over four days from 18th -21st July 2003.

Then comes the question of why. After the success of Jubilee Festival Week in July 2001, we all felt that it was time for another gala. Also because this year we have revamped our ‘Driver Experience’ packages, we considered that a gala of this sort would help kick-start them. We wanted to advertise the event in the Railway Press, we were given money to cover advert costs. After receiving quotes from the Railway Press, we decided to take 3 consecutive months adverts in 2 of the main magazines. We also received good editorial coverage from the magazines, and on March 23rd, we hosted Brian Sharpe from ‘Heritage Railway’. The gala team operated a ‘Driver Experience’ train and subsequently he wrote a two page article promoting our event.

With the possibility of people never being on a steam engine before taking part, due to Health and Safety implications it was decided that the only way people could Have A Go at driving would be either on light engine duties or on a goods train. As a direct result the ‘Pendre Shunt’ and ‘Heavy Freight’ were conceived. The shunt was felt could be targeted as a cheap and cheerful 60 minute challenge, whilst the goods could be could be sold as a half day (2 trips to Brynglas) or a full day (4 trips to Brynglas).

Others were to Have A Go at firing, where the ‘Guest’ were advised what to do by the fully qualified fireman. To give the guest a fighting chance it was decided that the ‘Guest’ would be on the engine for the full day where they would observe the first trip and fire the second.

Now the question was raised about WHOM were the people to give the master-class. Phil Higginson and Martin Fuller agreed to help out and were assigned to No.7 and the ‘Quarryman’ experience, and ‘Firing the Falcon’ experience respectively. Other firing experiences on offer were the ‘Old Lady Vintage’ with camera friendly Bill Heynes and Dave Jones, and the ‘Ladies Special’ with Karen Willans and Liz Green on No. 7.

Having the locomotive duties covered, we recognised that volunteers come and do other duties, so why shouldn’t we offer these to the masses? After much deliberation we decided on ‘Vintage Guard’ (ageing process not included) with Peter Austin, and shadowing Chris Price the Duty Shedman. If signalling was more your thing they you could have become a blockman at a blockpost of your choice, whilst Martin Turner was posted to Abergynolwyn to be the man for instructing our ‘Diesel Driver for a Fiver’ Guests.

No event can go without some sort of Photographic Special, so we pushed the boat put and had three! We decided upon two early morning Talyllyn Vintage Specials, Saturday and Sunday, and a Corris Special on Saturday night, to replicate what had occurred at the Corris Railway during the previous month.

To fit all the goods workings and extras, the green timetable (five trains a day) could be extended to the Friday and Monday and decided to run trains all Saturday night and have entertainment in the form of ‘West Coast Blue’ as well as a licensed bar supplied by the Whitehall Hotel. With all this in mind a draft timetable was submitted to Timetable’s Officer for approval. After a few months it was set in concrete and appeared in two extensive booklets, one for timetables and one with operating instructions!

During the Gala weekend itself. A stand was established on Wharf platform to sell what experiences we had left. Bill Heynes had produced the ‘Gala Rover’ tickets, whilst Dale Coton did the ‘Nightrover’ tickets. Friday came along with a few minor glitches, someone had booked a birthday trip on the railway and part of his treat was a footplate trip on No. 7. As it stood at one point Phil Higginson would have had 3 ‘Guests’ on the footplate at once! Now that’s popular!

Friday was, as expected compared to the rest of the weekend, relatively quiet, seeing as the schools hadn’t broken up for summer until later that day. As a result this made it easier to see the amount of enthusiasts the event had attracted and that was just from the confines of the sales stand at Wharf! On the more personal side, it did allow Alex Eyres and myself a lot more time to talk to the guests and gauge reaction. All comments received were very positive, the Guests all enjoyed themselves thoroughly and mostly said that if it happens again, they either would like to be a guest again, or knew a friend who would. Emails praising the working group, the Railway and everyone concerned have been received from some very pleased participants.

Saturday, well, the first photo charter started the day off. All the Pendre shunts were sold, Phil Higginson and Martin Fuller were on day two of their mammoth tasks. Later that morning, reports started filtering down the line that Martin Turner was getting to know every fishplate, bolt and spike very well indeed as there was seemingly a constant queue for the Diesel Driver turns at Abergynolwyn, the only problem being that they had to fit round service trains! Jane Garvey must have walked miles as she was Blockman at Nant Gwernol. Early evening we ran the Corris photo special, with Loco 3, coach 17 and van 6. Thanks to Sue Whitehouse et al for finishing off the lining on the Corris coach in time. For some of us it was then up to Abergynolwyn to arrange the café extension for the all night running (Dale Coton, Joyce Shuttleworth and Sue Whitehouse), thanks to the Catering Manager, and to arrange that everything was up and running for the Jazz Band and make sure they were happy. At that point the weather took a turn for the worse and started to pour down, so that question was quickly rescinded! As previously mentioned, we had overnight steam, running a two set service which we found out the following morning were quite well patronised.

Sunday, and the second Talyllyn Vintage photographic train left early in the morning about half full. Another busy day up on ‘The Extension’, the only problem being we were without a Blockman, which placed more restrictions on when the diesel driving could take place. During the day the Pendre shunt was temporarily disrupted, a phonecall from Brynglas explained that No. 7’s pump had failed, on its way back to Wharf. No. 6 deputised No 7’s passenger duties while the pump was fix, and then No. 7 would take over as the Pendre Shunt engine! Thanks to the engineering staff No 7 was available for service the very next day.

So Monday arrived, the last day, only the No 3 experience had not been sold on this day. The day proceeded according to plan, right up into the afternoon, whilst I was up the line on the 1610, there was a minor drama happening at Pendre involving, where No7 was stealing the limelight. Whist moving back onto the headshunt, the drivers side rear spring snapped completely. It was time for the Pendre Pitstop Team to spring into action and show their skill! Within 40-minutes the spring had been changed, a Wharf token was being requested by the blockman at Pendre for it join No 1 and No 3 which were waiting down at Wharf. I think you would all agree that was a display of an amazing piece of commitment and teamwork, by our staff and volunteers.

A fair amount of people were at Wharf for the arrival of the train at 1820. It was a quick fire clean, coal and water for No 2 and No 6, and then marshalled into the correct order for the 1900 train, which from the front was 3, 7, 6, 2 and 1. A crescendo of whistles and a mass of steam saw the train through the bridge at Wharf. Before we knew it (well with 5 loco’s on the front acceleration is pretty quick!) we were at Pendre. After that it was quite an anti climax, No 1 and No2 doubleheaded the train up to Nant Gwernol leaving the rest in the loop at Pendre. The last train movement on the Gala was done by No 1. As the train came back down to Pendre, No 2 came off the train and into the locoshed, leaving No. 1 to take the train down to Wharf, and the finally to put the stock away.

In summary, income from this Gala far outweighed our expenditure on advertising, our largest single item. We can therefore safely say that the event was a resounding success. Now on to the gratitude bit! We as a group would like to thank ‘stars’ Phil Higginson, Martin Fuller, Martin Turner, Chris Price, David Jones, Bill Heynes, Peter Austin, Liz Green and Karen Willans. Thanks to Ed Lund, David Leech, Dave Scotson, John Smallwood, Roger Whitehouse, especially with all the technical bits! Special thanks should go to the engineering staff, who ensured that we had all 5 engines operating throughout the Gala. Also of course thanks to all the volunteers (names not mentioned), and Guests, who made this event possible and successful.