The Railway Teacher

All Aboard Flying Scotsman

The amazing story of one teacher’s career change

Over the years our readers have seen many stories about the extra-mural interests of teachers and former teachers and now we report the massively enthusiastic responses to the revelation that a former staff member left Moseley School to become a professional engine driver.

Just how far Roger Norfolk’s passion has taken him came to light in a BBC4 documentary in late December 2017, when the cameras followed his dream ambition as he drove Flying Scotsman in its “comeback” tour on the Severn Valley Railway.

This led the Gazette to research more of the former science master’s activities after he switched careers in 1991, putting behind him 24 years in teaching which began at Moseley Modern. It seems his focus for railways dates from his 1950s boyhood in Hertfordshire and by 1968, his family having moved to the Midlands, he was devoting spare hours outside of teaching as a volunteer, helping develop the SVR heritage line, including rebuilding scrapped steam locomotives.

Soon he was on the footplate as fireman and by 1984 was a week-end driver before returning to the physics labs on Monday mornings. Moseleians Association webmaster and past chairman Roger Green is among former pupils whom Roger Norfolk took to SVR several times, to lend a hand in the restoration work but few expected he would give up the classroom in favour of trains.

By January 1991 Roger started a paid job with BR at Saltley depot in Birmingham, moving to Littlehampton, where he drove EMUs between Brighton, Portsmouth and London. He became driver manager, also covering Eastleigh and Southampton before retiring from main line duties.

Even while working in the south he kept his commitment to SVR, by 2003 becoming traction inspector and subsequently locomotive crew manager, keeping him in the right place for the day Flying Scotsman made its memorable debut between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth.

One time teaching colleague Gaye Key actually travelled on Flying Scotsman when at SVR, disappointed that Roger was evidently off shift. The programme prompted David Jones (’47-’53) to ensure the Gazette does not refer to THE Flying Scotsman. The definite article, he says, applies only to the train it sometimes hauled, not to the locomotive. The same is true of Mallard, Tornado, City of Truro, etc. Mike Westley got in touch to observe that Roger was not immediately recognisable without his teaching beard and went on to vividly recall how he and other ‘70s pupils were with Roger, peering over the bridge at Tyseley to watch steam trains pass beneath.
The programme brought back memories of a whole raft of impressive teachers for Suet-Lin Teo (’78-’85), who said as the “least scientific minded pupil” she found Roger extremely patient.

Several pupils broadened their recollections beyond steam. “We both sang bass together” said Alan Lamb, “and shared many productions at the Alexandra Theatre, including Oklahoma, Orpheus in the Underworld, La Vie Parisienne, Kiss me Kate etc.”

For Sarah Lee, Roger was “one of my favourites”. She confesses to having knocked him out on the hockey pitch when, as school team goal keeper versus the teachers, she ran out of goal to tackle him and sent him flying.

To sum it all up, we heard from former Moseley deputy head Pete Anstey. Roger, he recalls became a leading figure in amateur dramatics and a backstage figure with Moseley Operatic Society, which started life at College Road school before it became Moseley Modern. His hockey prowess led him to play for Birmingham Municipal Hockey Club.

Right to Reply

Roger Norfolk - The Railway Teacher

So, my exploits with Flying Scotsman were spotted and became the front-page feature on the 2017 Spring edition of The Moseleian Gazette, with a write-up inside. And congratulations to the un-named writer of this for the accurate outline of my activities at Moseley and afterwards; top marks for some excellent homework here!

Yes, perhaps I can now come out into the open - as a youngster, I was a trainspotter. At that time, in the late 1950s, our family lived in North Hertfordshire and, in my frequent visits to the local East Coast lineside, I saw Flying Scotsman and her sisters daily plying their trade to and from London Kings Cross. I kept up my interest in railways, trains and especially steam locomotion right through to steam's final demise on the main lines of British Rail in August 1968. By then, my family had moved to the West Midlands, then on to the Southampton area, whilst I had come to Birmingham to train as a teacher and was in my first post as a science teacher at Tinkers Farm Boys' School in Northfield. Here, as well as teaching general science, I introduced Chemistry as a CSE option into the exam choices. To continue my railway interest, I joined the emerging Severn Valley Railway Society that autumn and started to volunteer at Bridgnorth, initially in the track maintenance department.

I moved to Moseley Mixed in September 1969 into the Science department under its head, John Maddison. I soon found that he was very Chemistry-averse but I eventually managed to persuade him that we could do a CSE course for 6th formers, which was so successful that we followed up with GCE O level the next year. The mysteries of Chemistry were then on the curriculum! When the two schools amalgamated in 1974, I think that Bill Bacon assumed I would join his department but my first love was always Physics. However, Norman Hingley seemed concerned by my apparent change of discipline and summoned me one lunchtime to an interview in the Optics Room, during which I had to demonstrate my prowess by connecting up an electron gun - I passed. But he was still very nervous of my abilities so I was to be kept teaching the CSE courses and not allowed to take any O level classes; I could take one of the top streams in the lower school, however. All this changed, though, with Norman's retirement and Shannon Moore's arrival - I think I'd served my apprenticeship.

My railway interests did come into school on occasion. I always had an actual fishplate rail joint made up from scrap pieces of track equipment at the back of my Physics lab, if only to show that the oval holes for rail expansion, that all text books quoted, was complete nonsense - who would go to the trouble of producing an oval hole when simply drilling an over-sized round one is easier? I remember one Activities Day taking a party by train to York Railway Museum and showing some how to calculate the train's speed from timing passing mileposts - 120mph between Doncaster and York if I remember. Then there were some days out to the SVR, a couple I can remember, when we hired a whole steam train and took a year group over there. For the second, with John Clarke's First Year, Ken Lloyd made us a "Moseley School" headboard, complete with school badge, for the locomotive to carry. This turned out to be a wet and cold day (in July 1982), as may be discerned form the photograph.

By the late 1980s I was becoming rather disillusioned with teaching, especially with all the new initiatives and ways of working coming along each year. I had been working as Acting Head of Physics for approaching two years but the permanent position was then given to an outside applicant. I decided to look elsewhere and, in some respect via friends on the Severn Valley, I applied to British Rail and in January 1991 joined their train crew depot at Saltley, Birmingham. I'd started working with locomotives on the Severn Valley during the early 1970s and became a qualified steam driver in 1984, subsequently also diesel, so this was not a completely blind step. Always a risky business making one's hobby into one's employment, though, but I concluded that if I didn't do this then I'd never know what I could have achieved. My BR job title was "Trainman D" and duties after six weeks of training were as a guard on, principally, local freight trains (although we did get occasional jobs with passenger trains on the Cross City line) and also as Second Man to the driver. The "D" in the job title referred to my future aspiration for progression into driver. This was shift work, with booking-on times at all hours of the clock; colleagues around the mess room could also be booking on, just about to book off or at any other time within their rostered "day" (or on "overtime"), which all took a bit of getting used to.

I'd liked to have stayed in Birmingham when promoted to driver but, at that time, there was some contraction in the numbers of driving jobs available in the city depots. Still being a nationalised concern, BR had a nation-wide vacancy list and I was able to secure a position at Littlehampton depot in Sussex at the end of 1992, an area of the south coast not unfamiliar to me through family connections. This was a passenger depot, working 3rd-rail electric trains between Brighton and Portsmouth and also up the main lines through Gatwick Airport to London Victoria and London Bridge stations. So, once qualified, I settled down to driving the services on these routes;  commuter trains to and from London, young people to and from their schools and colleges (and from the children's behaviours some ideas about their schools!), families' leisure trips, and so on. A little later, a vacancy occurred at the railway training centre in Croydon and my traction inspector, knowing of my teaching past, asked if I was prepared to be seconded up there for a time. My first assignment was to present an already-prepared safety training day to all the drivers, who were being rostered for the day's training a few at a time. Later, I went up again to train three classes of trainmen D, a dozen at a time, their rules knowledge for promotion into driver. At the conclusion of this programme, I decided that I liked wearing "the suit" and working "normal days" so applied for a local management position in preference to going back into uniform with shift working.

So, I was appointed to a Driver Standards Manager's position covering my local depot, which by now had moved to Barnham, Sussex, along with crews from Bognor Regis and other depots, working there with two other established DSMs. At first there was also a training element to this job and I spent three more weeks at Croydon taking a traction knowledge course for trainee drivers. Right in my element  electricity / magnetism theory, air supplies and pressures, electric systems and circuits, fault tracing, etc. However, our primary work was to ensure the on-going competence of  the drivers within our charge and I soon found several transferable skills from my teaching days. Firstly, this was a job dealing with people, and there were many different abilities and backgrounds to have to deal with. Then there was the assessment element. All school subjects possess this in exams and tests but Physics has also a practical element. As DSMs, (later shortened to just DM) we would take each driver on a day's refresher and assessment each year as well as the practical element of jumping in the cab with them periodically for an assessed ride. Later, when we had the more modern trains, we also had a programme of downloading the train data recorders to unobtrusively assess the drivers from the charts produced. Finally, there was incident analysis, where a driver had had a safety incident, say a "SPAD" (Signal Passed at Danger without the signalman's authorisation). Here we needed to interview the driver, collate information from a number of sources to establish the full facts, write a report to include conclusions and recommendations to prevent repetition and often attend follow-up meetings with Network Rail managers. Thoroughly interesting work, with knowledge and experience I've been able to take to the SVR to improve their professionalism - my wife says I now do for free what I used to be paid for! I retired from my main line company in October 2007.

I've always kept my allegiances to the SVR even after moving to Sussex, and also now in retirement that we've moved along the coast to the south east corner of Hampshire. I took on the Head of Department role of Locomotive Crew Manager for some years before stepping down in 2015 but still travel up for a weekend once a month for inspectorial duties and anything else the current LCM asks me to do, as well as occasional driving turns. My senior position has enabled me to take part in some high-profile events so I was the locomotive inspector when we carried the Olympic Torch from Bewdley to Kidderminster in 2012. The stats quote the official number of people who handled the Torch during its countrywide travels but I always say, "Plus one" as I had to handle it when on the locomotive. I was also the footplate inspector when we hosted a visit by HRH The Princess Royal in 2015 so met her and accompanied her during the trip on the locomotive. And then the 'Scotsman!

The locomotive was with us for six days in September 2016 and six crews were chosen from the senior drivers, each paired with an excellent fireman. Because each day for the locomotive was over 12 hours, we all had two half day turns on the footplate. We knew from fairly early on that a film company wanted to film in the cab and the plans were to film the same service, 12.34 Bridgnorth to Kidderminster, on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday and with three different crews. Other days were also spent filming the lineside and airborne shots. In the end, the film company decided to feature my run, which was the Saturday one, and I also worked the same service on the Sunday  Later, my fireman and I had to separately go to Leeds to record our voice-over commentaries. That was not particularly easy as they required every explanation into layman's terms - the hint of a technical term would provoke the question, "Can you explain that? - and also everything put into the present tense. That's not easy when you are viewing what you did over four weeks previously! The film has been very well received by the BBC and the public and has been voted "Winner" in the Royal Television Society Yorkshire Programme Awards 2017 for "Professional Excellence in Factual Post Production". There's also now a dvd two-disc box set available featuring their two TV programmes, one with our extra voice-overs and one without, with two more hours of footage from within the cab and from the front of the locomotive.

Everyone asks the same question, "What's it like driving Flying Scotsman?" I'm afraid I can be quite unromantic about this - I'm sure they expect some gushing enthusiasm - as a driver's job is to work the train safely and reach the destination without incident, whatever the type of traction. She's a large express locomotive and one built for speed so a maximum of 25mph on the Severn Valley is not going to show her off to her fullest extent. And she's been with us before, a couple of times at least, but this was the first time I'd worked her and the hype surrounding this visit was considerably increased from previously, as evidenced by the crowds lining the fields and station platforms. Yes, this certainly gave matters the sense of occasion and it was a privilege to be at the controls in the driver's seat. Definitely something I never even vaguely considered, either in the late 50s by the East Coast lineside or on the day I first volunteered at Bridgnorth in 1968, knowing nothing about practical railway operations.