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By Matthew Kenington on

If you want to drive a steam engine, make one!

Regular visitor Matthew has made good use of Search Engine to fuel his enthusiasm for engines.

No, really—lots of people do. You’ve always dreamed of driving Flying Scotsman, Rocket or even just a humble quarry tank engine, but know that—short of buying a ‘steam experience day’—your dream will remain just that, a dream. It doesn’t have to be that way, though—and the National Railway Museum has much that can help you on your way.

So, how can you achieve this dream? Build a model locomotive and learn to drive it. Ah, now we’re back in dreamland, you say. Well, I’m a 13-year-old boy and I’ve done it (well, sort of), so if I can, then you can, too. Let me outline how, and how the musum can help.

With one of the largest collections of locomotives in the world freely on display (not stuck behind Plexiglas screens like exhibits in many other museums), it is easy to choose what locomotive you want to build. Okay, maybe not easy, as with such numbers you may be spoilt for choice: Flying Scotsman or Mallard or old Coppernob… The list goes on and on, but what a wonderful list: think of it as a massive car showroom with locomotives to drool over and no pushy sales assistants.

After deciding on your locomotive of choice, you could have a look around the Collections Store (in North Shed) for similar model locomotives and get an idea of what scale you want to build to (5” gauge, 7 ¼” gauge etc) and the paint scheme (BR, LNER…). You could also have a look at how the model differs from the prototype and, if there is a bit you get stuck with, you could see how someone else has done it.

Matthew's mill engine
The mill engine, which I built from scratch

If there is not a model of your locomotive of choice in the Collections Store, simply walk across the hall to Search Engine (my favourite bit) and ask to see the original drawings (yes I did say ORIGINALS) for the full-size prototype locomotive, on linen or microfiche. After seeing them you can ask for a copy (for a small fee) and, armed with this copy, you can then scale the locomotive to the size you want. It is very easy as all you need is a pen and a calculator (or very good mental arithmetic—I’m of the calculator generation, sadly). If this sounds too much like hard work, then you can buy drawings already to the correct scale from a model engineering supplier (these will cost about £100 or so).

If you’re starting to like this, but are not an engineer/don’t have a workshop/failed maths when you were at school, this is no excuse! Find a local model engineering club (there are hundreds around the country)—they probably have a track in your local park. These clubs are very friendly and many have workshop facilities (oh dear, another objection gone), plus a wealth of expertise to help you. Some also run training courses.

So, have I built a loco? Well, not quite (I’ll remind you, I’m only 13, with limited pocket-money), but I have built a mill engine from scratch and get to borrow other locos, including my dad’s (which I can drive better than he can—don’t worry he won’t read this, hopefully…).

Matthew sat on a loco
Driving a friend’s 4-4-0 3521 class broad gauge convertable (minus its tender, before I get letters)

I’ve also got a little 3.5” gauge loco to restore, but want to build my own when I can afford it. You could even win a prize for your efforts, at a model exhibition (I’ve won one or two over the last year or so).

Finally, the museum has a track where you can see similar locomotives in operation and take your siblings/grandparents/grandchildren (delete as appropriate) for a ride.

So, what’s stopping you? The drawings are available (for free, if you’re prepared to put in a little work), experts are available locally to help, facilities are located around the country and there are plenty of railway tracks and willing passengers to complete the picture (not to mention the regular appearance of tea and cake). Being female is also no excuse—there are plenty of excellent lady model engineers, including many young ones; my mum hasn’t got as far as making anything yet, but is a regular as Station Master at Hereford on our public running days. I look forward to seeing your locomotive at a track or exhibition soon.


You can find out more about Search Engine on our museum website.

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