scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

A 'Knight' Dons Its Armour.

There's drama all along the line as the 5.19 becomes a living train, breathlessly waiting for its signal. John MacLennan reporting from the footplate.

Driver Robert Wylie noses The White Knight firmly but delicately into the head of the 5.19 for the first five miles of the journey along the suburban byways of the railway are to be made 'tender first'. Only after the vans have been reshuffled at Niddrie will the train take on its final shape - and then The White Knight will be in its rightful stance, with proud steaming head straining towards the open road and the night's task. The 5.19 is no longer an embryo. It is a living train. In a few moments the daily miracle will be complete. The train will vanish for ever round the bend beyond the signal-box. Other trains will follow. And tomorrow there will be a new 5.19.

"New adventure"

There is something exciting and moving about this consummation of all those long, anxious hours of planning and activity in the goods station. To the casual passer-by it means little - just another goods train going out. To you and me who have watched it all from its beginnings, this is at once the climax of a heroic effort and the prelude to a new adventure.

And now Guard Robert Murray (33 years on the railway) has accepted the train on behalf of the operating branch from the yard inspector George Mackenzie as the representative of those who fashioned it. It is time to go then. I shake hands with Mr. Whytock and with Mr. Mackenzie. High on the cliff-like flanks of The White Knight Driver Robert Wylie and Fireman Malcolm Robertson are waiting for me. I haul myself up the gleaming green precipice and enter the throbbing cab. For the first time in my life I experience a footplate welcome!

There is an almost domestic quality about the relationship between a driver and a fireman. Perhaps it is the spell of the great leaping furnace, with the bottles of amber tea keeping warm on the ledge above. Any way there is something homely and heart warming in being here with these top men at the nerve-centre of this mighty panting monster.

Locomotive Inspector James Cunningham is here too, and there is just time for a rapid introduction all round ad then we'll be off. Blue-eyed Robert Wylie, who joined the old North British Railway in 1914, tells me the crew will take this engine to Tweedmouth and hand it over to a team from Heaton for the next stage of the run to south. "Then we'll work a slow goods back to Edinburgh," says Bob.

Mr. Cunningham himself a footplate veteran, is making one of his routine trips to check timings, signalling arrangements and other details of train working from the loco-man's point of view. He tells me he'll come back to Edinburgh on the engine of The Heart of Midlothian. That's the crack express that leaves King's Cross at 2 p.m. But railwaymen know it as the "Late Diner."

Burly Malcolm Robertson motions me into his high stool on the left-hand side of the footplate. Bob Wylie's position is on the other side - for The White Knight is a right hand drive engine. Again and again as we speed south I am to beg Malcolm to take back his seat. But he won't hear of it. Such is footplate hospitality.

"Blast on the siren"

A blast of The White Knight's siren - shrill but masculine - and the 5.19 pulls out. The goods station belongs to the vast "behind the lines" organisation of the railway. Now we are in the world of the forward troops, moving purposefully through the communication trenches towards the front line. We are moving through the web of minor railways that is spread like a nervous system all over the city. A damp fog adds to my confusion. Over the roar of The White Knight as it climbs out of the city, Mr. Cunningham tries to give me my bearings. Here, at last, is the main line, Portobello Station; now we're leaving it again, we'll come back to it again after we've reshuffled the train at Niddrie, Suburban trains roll past, slow goods trains are overtaken, tank engines park in the sidings, their drivers wave as we pass, they all know this train.

Here is Niddrie, a vast city of vans and shunting engines on sidings that spread away into the mist, flanked by gleaming tracks which curve away to join the great trunk routes - the main line into Edinburgh, the main line to the south, the Waverley route to Carlisle. There are just 20 minutes in which to break up the 5.19, detach the portion for the south, assemble it into another train, with portions from all over Scotland and send it off as the 6.05 for Marylebone. That is our train.

"Fear of delay"

Delay could disorganise the whole night's programme on the east coast route. The Aberdeen Fish is always hard on the heels of the 6.05. The Dunbar local is just ahead. Our train must be ready to be sandwiched between and must leave Niddrie on the minute. Malcolm Robertson detaches The White Knight and immediately a pilot engine hauls the 5.19 away to be dismembered. The White Knight moves casually along the vacated track to take its place at the head of the new train when the time comes. Along at the points the breathless drama is calmly directed by a little group of key men. Yard-master Malcolm Woods is in charge. He corresponds to the stationmaster of a large passenger station. He misses nothing as the pilots send the vans rolling over the points to be made up into the new trains. The minutes fly past. But he shows no anxiety and chats away about the history of our train. "We're just juggling now," he says. "You'll be taking away about a quarter of the vans you brought up from Leith. We're adding other portions from Perth, Glasgow and other points. "The stops tonight will be York, Nottingham, Leicester, Woodford and Marylebone. At each of these points the train will drop one portion and take another on.

"Its names"

"And so it will go on running all night as it has done since the early thirties. Yes, this train has quite a history. Down at Woodford, where I used to work, some called it the 'Whisky Special.' Others knew it as the 'Barrington Ward' - that was the name of the operating superintendent down there at the time. He's now on the Railway Executive. Up here they call the train the G. C. - because it runs through the old Great Central Railway system." A voice calls down the line, "G.C.'s ready sir."

There is no time for more. The White Knight, a gleaming green giant, waits restively at the head of 45 fitted vans. Guard Murray is satisfied. As I climb aloft, Driver Wylie's hand is on the regulator and like a living thing, throbbing with power, The White Knight is gently unleashed. As we gather speed I look back but the little group of key men is already absorbed in the next task.

This article first appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail, Wednesday April 2nd 1952. I am indebted to Pam MacLennan for giving me permission to reproduce the article. John was a freelance journalist in the Dingwall area when I moved to the Black Isle 33 years ago.