A Volunteer’s Story

Life as a Tramway Maintenance Volunteer

Some two years ago my wife and I were out walking. Our return route took us past the bottom station of the Shipley Glen Tramway. It being a long uphill slog up the pathway onto Shipley Glen and then home we decided to ride up in style.

During the conversations about tickets and other such gems as “by gum, I haven’t been on this since the kids were small” she asked if they still needed volunteers. Upon an affirmative answer being received I was given a volunteer form to fill in – this was a fairly simple form with the usual contact details and other minor questions such as “Are you fit and healthy”,  “Are you a member of any well-known or unknown terrorist group” and “are you a certified lunatic” ( not really – those last two MIGHT have been stretching it a bit).

I decided, based on my past experience as an Engineer and Technical Author to volunteer for the maintenance side of things as opposed to being a general volunteer. Maintenance days were every Tuesday.

I duly rolled up at the top station the very next Tuesday at about 9:30 am to meet the existing crew. This happy band of brothers consisted of approximately half a dozen old guys much like myself, led by John ‘Corleone’ Pitcher, the Head Honcho of the Maintenance Tribe. Some say he is the person that Mr Bridger in The Italian Job was based on.

The Maintenance Tribe, as they are known, are little known group of old codgers who arrive at the Tramway quietly every Tuesday to worship the god of coffee at great length and who occasionally are given to such bursts of enthusiasm that at times tasks are actually performed that result in the fragile fabric of the Tramway not falling apart as fast as it would do otherwise.

Having been inducted at length into the requirements and processes (the coffee is in there, the toilet is round there, but mind the flap hiding the water tap, and this is the workshop) I was drawn into the general ebb and flow of the day’s jobs, helping out with quite a few varied tasks for the rest of the day.

Eventually, the working day drew to a close at around 2:30 or so.

The subsequent Tuesdays there followed much the same pattern, the ending time being determined by how knackered we were and what jobs could be done that day.

The ‘working’ day consists of opening up, turning on the old boiler (the one in the Tramway kitchen, not the one at home) and working until 10:30 or so then having a tea break where we sit either in the sun or undercover if it’s raining.

If work on the track or bottom station is required then a ‘track walk’ must be done first – this highly skilled task is usually undertaken by the slowest maintenance person and therefore the one still there when John needs someone to do it. Everyone else is usually hidden or ‘busy’ by this time.

The track walk is done by taking a radio and slowly walking down the track to the bottom station looking for obstructions on the track or anything else likely to cause damage to a tram. When the track walk is complete the top station, ie the driver is notified and either other people or material can be sent down.

This is followed by more tasks until the lunch break at about 12:30. Lunch break is like tea break but without as much banter (remember the ‘knackered’ bit).

After lunch most of the tasks are finished or left in a suitable state to finish off on the next maintenance day, followed by cleaning up and rubbish disposal.

It is not unknown for us to act as an information centre or informal guides most Tuesdays because of passers-by asking the perennial “are you open” or “can I just have a quick photo”. Most requests are readily granted unless danger would be involved.

A list of jobs needing work is kept by John Pitcher who ticks off the ones done. These jobs could be divided into different categories depending on whether they were time-sensitive engineering jobs, such as a carriage overspeed check, control switch check or rope condition check and greasing (sob!), or whether they were general engineering checks such as sleeper replacement or fishplate checks.

Other jobs tended to be either building repair or generally keeping nature under control around the tramway. The latter category being both of the ‘never-ending job’ variety due to the generally damp wooded nature of the site.

Being a site that had moving vehicles and machinery there is a requirement to wear either a fluorescent vest or coat and steel toe capped boots for track safety. If moving around on the track a radio is carried to ensure that everybody knows when movement is being carried out.

Most Tuesdays the tasks are, carried out regardless of weather unless it’s really snowing or raining. If such is the case we try to stay in the dry if possible. If not, it’s on with the protective coats and out we go. Fortunately, most days aren’t too bad and most of the track is sheltered by trees, but there are always many things to do.

The Tramway was affected by COVID, had to close for a time, and at the time of writing  (July 2021) has a restricted Sunday only service. The maintenance side of things also closed but for a shorter period as there were only a few of us and we could stay comparatively distanced from each other. This period, fortunately, coincided with a very snowy period of weather.

In some respects, Covid helped with the maintenance of the tramway in that we were able to carry out work that would have been difficult with customers around.

One example was the replacement of the wooden floor at the top station. This was a large area of sleeper sized boards that were generally rotten. These boards were also not well supported.

When the old timber was removed, the access under the floor to the winding gear etc was made bigger and deeper then the whole lot was concreted.

Block pillars were constructed to give maximum support and a wiring tray was added for future use.

Cross support beams were added to the top of the pillars and then the new sleeper timber was laid on top and secured.

The wooden access to the control room and the cable access was also replaced. This also involved the corner of the top building being lifted slightly and new supports added.

The whole lot was then liberally doused in timber treatment.

This project was spread over a few weeks during which the floor was completely open for most of this time so no access unless you walked across a single plank!

Other projects during this period included a new staff toilet and work on the bottom station roof and fascia.

Currently, the shop and bottom station are having work done. Unfortunately, these buildings are somewhat dilapidated with very few things being square and level!

So that is the life of a Shipley Glen Tramway maintenance volunteer in 2021, it can be hard work but the days pass well with lots of good chat, bad jokes and coffee, but it is very satisfying to keep this gem going into the next decade or two even though most of the people see very little of the background work.

Bob Hardy