Edward Marston

The Railway Detective

In loving memory of my father, who spent his working life as an engine driver, and who instructed me in the mystery of steam locomotion.

With thanks to Janet Cutler for her expert advice on Victorian railway companies.

The landed proprietor often refused admission to the trespasser and his theodolite. At Addington the surveyors were met and defied in such force, that after the brief fight they were secured, carried before a magistrate and fined… The engineers were in truth driven to adopt whatever methods might occur to them. While people were at church; while the villager took his rustic meal; with dark lanthorns during the dark hours; by force, by fraud, by any and every mode they could devise, they carried the object which they felt to be necessary but knew to be wrong.


A History of the English Railroads (1851)


London, 1851

Euston Station was one of the architectural marvels of the day. Even the most regular passengers on the London and North Western Railway could still be impressed by the massive portico with its four Doric columns built of adamantine Bramley Fall sandstone, flanked by two pairs of pavilions, and standing on the north side of a large open space. The addition of two hotels, one either side of the portico, introduced a functional element that did not lessen the stunning impact of the facade. Those who passed through the imposing entrance found themselves in the Great Hall, a combined concourse and waiting room. It was a magnificent chamber in the Roman-Ionic style with a high, deeply coffered ceiling that made newcomers gape in astonishment.

Caleb Andrews did not even notice it, nor did he spare a glance for the majestic curved double flight of steps at the northern end of the hall that led to a gallery and vestibule. Only one thing in the station interested him and that was the locomotive he and his fireman were about to drive to Birmingham. Andrews was a short, wiry character in his early fifties with a fringe beard that was peppered with grey. There was a jauntiness about him that belied his age and that concealed his deep sense of dedication to his work. Caleb Andrews was a man who thrived on responsibility.

‘It’s a fine day, Frank,’ he observed. ‘We should have a clear run.’

‘God willing,’ said Pike.

‘God doesn’t come into it, man. We are the people in charge. If we do our jobs properly, everything will go well. The important thing is to get there on time. Do that and we’ll earn ourselves another pat on the back.’

‘That would be nice, Caleb.’

‘It would indeed.’

‘Extra money would be even nicer.’

Andrews gave a hollow laugh. ‘From this company?’

Frank Pike nodded resignedly. Now in his thirties, the big, shambling man from the West Country knew that they would only get their stipulated wage. Fireman Pike had a round, flat, moon face that was marked by routine exposure to the elements and, as a rule, darkened by a somnolent expression. His large hands were badly scarred by his trade. He had the deepest respect for his companion and was delighted to work alongside him. Technically, a conductor was in charge of a train but not when Caleb Andrews was there. The driver always asserted his authority and his colleagues knew better than to arouse his combative streak.

The two men were on the footplate, checking that everything was in readiness. Pike had got up a good head of steam and his fire shovel was at hand to add more fuel from the tender when necessary. The engine was throbbing with suppressed power. Andrews studied his instruments with a mixture of pride and affection. A locomotive was much more than an inanimate piece of machinery to him. She was a trusted friend, a living creature with moods, likes and dislikes, a complex lump of metal with her own idiosyncrasies, a sublime being, blessed with awesome might, who had to be treated correctly in order to get the best out of her.

‘Mr Allan knows how to design an engine,’ he said, appreciatively.

‘She’s one of the best,’ agreed Pike.

‘Mind you, there’s still room for improvement. They ought to let me spend a week or two at Crewe. I could point out a number of things that would make her run better yet use less oil.’

‘You always were a man of opinions, Caleb.’

‘They’re not opinions — they’re plain commonsense. The people who can give the best advice about how to build a locomotive are the men who drive her.’

‘I got no complaints.’

‘That’s because you’re too easily satisfied, Frank.’

‘I do what I’m paid to do, that’s all.’

There was an air of fatalism about Pike. Though Andrews was very fond of him, he had long ago accepted that his fireman lacked any real urgency or ambition. Frank Pike was a reliable workhorse, a quiet, efficient, unassuming, conscientious man who never questioned what he was doing or looked beyond it to something better. Andrews, by contrast, had enough aspiration for the two of them. He was bubbling with energy. While most men of his years were anticipating retirement, all that he could think about was promotion.

Like his fireman, Andrews wore a uniform of light-coloured corduroy and cap. Pulling a watch from his pocket to consult it, he clicked his tongue in irritation.

‘What’s keeping them?’ he said.

‘There’s minutes to go yet, Caleb.’

‘I like to leave on time.’

‘We will,’ said Pike, turning round to look back down the train. ‘I think they’re loading the last box now.’

Andrews put his watch away and gazed back down the platform. It was a short train, comprising an empty first class carriage, a bright red mail coach, a luggage van and a guard’s van. The locomotive and tender bore the distinctive livery of the northern division of the company. The engine was painted green, with main frames a paler shade of the same hue. Smoke box and chimney were black. The dome was green, as was the base of the safety valve, though the casing of the latter was polished brass. Hand-rails were covered polished brass and splashers were brass-headed. Wheels were black. The front cylinder caps were made of iron, polished to a sheen. Before she set out, she was positively gleaming.

‘Come on, come on,’ said Andrews, tapping his foot.

Pike gave a tolerant smile. ‘You’re too impatient.’

‘I want to be on my way, Frank.’

‘So do I,’ admitted the other. ‘I always feel a bit nervous when we’ve so much money aboard. It must worry you as well.’

‘Not in the least.’

‘But we must be carrying a small fortune.’

‘I don’t care if we’ve got the Crown Jewels tucked away in the luggage van,’ boasted Andrews, sticking out his chest. ‘Makes no difference at all to me. Besides, we have plenty of guards on board to watch over the mail and the money. No,’ he went on, ‘the only thing that unsettles me is time-keeping. I’ve a reputation to maintain.’ He heard a shrill blast on a whistle. ‘At last!’ he said with relief. ‘Stand by, Frank.’

‘I’m ready.’

‘Then let’s take her to Birmingham.’

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