Steam trains of Kent: Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway Location: Hythe to Dungeness via New Romney (13½ miles) Gauge: fifteen inches Website:http://www.rhdr.org.uk
At the end of the season, when the year's chuffing is almost done, the steam train fraternity at the RHDR let their hair down. A one-day parade takes place, with all of the railway's functional locomotives in play, as a bit of fun before all the playthings go back in the shed. And very special playthings they are too, specially built for this particularly-narrow gauge railway back in the 1920s, with names like Southern Maid, Hercules and The Bug. Normally they whistle down this lengthy line from almost-Folkestone to Dungeness in compliance with a fairly normal timetable, but on Parade day that's ripped up and some extraordinary rides take place. A triple-header double run, for example.
Steaming up at New Romney begins well before the scheduled departure time. Out come the engines, driven by volunteers in caps and overalls, watched by any paid-up customers who've slipped in earlier than is truly necessary. There are water tanks to fill and chunks of coal to be shovelled - the latter requiring a short trip up a brief siding into the car park. Individual locos are shuffled around the station network utilising tracks alongside empty platforms and occasionally the turntable, manoeuvred into position according to some carefully constructed plan. The first run needs to kick off with Winston Churchill behind Typhoon behind Green Goddess on one train, and Doctor Syn at the head of the other, else the day's schedule might collapse completely within hours.
In the buffet the ham and cheese sandwiches are being buttered, and placed into plastic casing ready to be stacked for lunch. A brood of spiders and cardboard skeletons hangs from the walls, leftovers from the previous day's Hallowe'en special, while the glistening webs hanging from the nameplate on the platform look like they've been spun by the real thing since. Slowly the station fills with visitors, that's those physically capable of getting to the extreme Kent Coast before half past nine on a Sunday morning. Some are enthusiasts with massive lenses, others families with a particularly needy younger member, one even looks suspiciously like the chairman of a major railway company. But most are fairly ordinary folk who know a fun day out when they see one, and that a triple-header double run is not to be missed.
Usually the RHDR stick one locomotive on the front of a train, but for a triple header they stick three. In part this means more oomph for your journey, which is important when there are umpteen small carriages to tow, but also means there can be greater distance between stops for filling up. But that's not the brilliantly bonkers part, which is the double run. Start one triple header on one track and another in parallel alongside and they can chase each other up the line. Even better each can speed up and slow down at irregular intervals, allowing the other to overtake and then undertake all the way to the final destination. This only works if there are no other trains on the network, of course, hence why this is the very first journey of the day. But by allowing two trains to run side by side non-stop from New Romney to Hythe, that's nine full miles of wow for drivers and passengers alike.
Train 1 heads off faster than train 2, then slows to allow train 1 to speed up and overtake, then speeds up again... and repeat. You want to be on the side of the carriage closest to the other train. Fortunately RHDR carriages are very narrow, two seats wide at best, so it's not hard to get a decent view as the other train slips by. Each passing manoeuvre is announced with a whistle or a belch of steam in triplicate, or simply by a stealthy approach at speed. The varied landscape along the line means the switch might take place alongside a marsh grazed by sheep, or might take place round the back of a string of bungalows lined by gnomes. And you can only imagine the surprised looks on the faces of drivers held at level crossings as not one but two trains surge past in the same direction. "Another train is coming if lights continue to flash."
With both halves of the convoy travelling at approximately twenty miles an hour, it can take some time to completely pass the adjacent formation. This means you might occasionally find yourself sitting immediately alongside one of the three drivers in the other train as he shovels or whistles - an up-close view of steam-engineering in motion. But more often it'll be the other carriages passing by, which means meeting and re-meeting the passenger complement of the other train. The bespectacled adolescents with iPhones poised, the retired couple with a bag of sweets, the small boy with the Rail Rovers rucksack, the man crouching on the floor to film the entire event at chassis level, the bored father flicking dispassionately through a copy of The Economist, all will be familiar faces by the eighteenth consecutive pass.
And as the housing estates of Hythe encroach, and the forty minute extravaganza draws to a close, it's time to inhale a few final lungfuls of funnelled steam. Indeed you might even be quite blasé by this point, as if a triple-header double run were the most normal thing in the world. But its full rarity can be established by the width of the smiles on the faces of the drivers at the station, their end of season treat now complete. There'll be much shuffling of locomotives and twiddling of turntables once the uncoupling phase begins and various subsequent services are sent on their way. One such train is even destined for a 21 mile non-stop service, including a spin round the shingleat Dungeness and back, and that's going to be a pretty spectacular ride. But there's always the worry that once you've ridden a steam-powered mini-sized triple-header double run, nothing else will ever quite compare.