Cambrian Dispatcher


1. Of Railfans and Railwaymen
2. A Machynlleth Sunday
3. Cuppa with John Gwynne
4. A Railwayman's Railwayman


Four: A Railwayman's Railwayman


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Class 156 DMU
pulls up by the
1891 enginehouse,
now a car
maintenance shop.
As John was finishing his explanation of the dispatching system, the radio speaker mounted above the computer consoles squawked to life.  A train crew in the coach yards outside needed to move a rake of DMUs out of the yard, and spot them on the main in preparation for a run later in the day.  In the time it took to walk four paces, John switched from manipulating 1990s computers to bending 1890s iron.  Planting himself firmly in front of the armstrong plant, he heaved over the levers which lined a route from the yard tracks out to the down main.   As the levers clunked home in the tower, I could see the semaphore arms droop in response out on the line-- a sight straight out of the steam railway days from before I was born.  The DMU crew pulled out of the yard, John reset the plant, and the crew then reversed direction and crawled back to stop next to the coachhouse.


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Detail of the 156
against the Welsh
After accommodating the switching move, John settled back in his chair to finish our visit.  A railwayman's railwayman, John was deeply concerned with for the growth and survival of his lines.  Far from resenting Britain's rail privatization experiment, he viewed it as an opportunity "to begin doing things right for a change, to grow things around here instead of cutting them back."  When I met him, John had just attended a meeting with officials from the English, Welsh and Scottish Railway, the new private company backed by American Ed Burkhardt and the Wisconsin Central Railway which was in the process of reorganizing British freight railway service on a for-profit basis.  Two weeks later John was still afire from his meeting with the EW&S people.  "They want to grow the traffic-- they're talking about expansion, about winning customers back to the rails.   We haven't talked like that in years."  Inspired by EW&S, John had plans of contacting two former shippers on the Cambrian lines himself, and exploring whether it might be possible to woo them back to the rails and restore freight service to the Cambrian for the first time since 1988. 


In the middle of our animated conversation, John glanced at the wall clock and said suddenly, "Well, you'd best be getting on then, your train'll be boarding soon."  With a start, I realized I'd completely lost track of the time.  As a parting gift, John pressed into my hands three copies of British railway enthusiast magazines (by now nothing surprised me-- I'd long since realized that John was a fan and a kindred spirit as well as a professional railroader) and encouraged me to buy a copy of R.W. Kidder's authoritative history of the Cambrian Railways as soon as ever I could-- his copy adorned his working desk in the tower.   He then imparted one last word of advice: when I got to the Rheidol I was to ride the very first coach, "so you can really hear that little engine working as you climb the hills."


I did indeed catch my train, and had a lovely day riding the Vale of Rheidol Light Railway.   And I followed John's advice, and sat right up front in the first car.  Yet though the Rheidol was wonderful, it was John who made the day.  His was the warmth and kindness, his love for his work and his eagerness to explain it, made an indelible impression. For John our meeting was an interlude in an ordinary working Sunday. For me, it made a memory which will last for years to come.



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All materials, images, text and presentation copyright 1998 Erik Gray Ledbetter.  See Terms of Use.