Last Scottish railman from the steam age retires

Virgin Trains driver Joe Porter, thought to be the last in Scotland to have worked in the steam age. Picture: Wattie Cheung
Virgin Trains driver Joe Porter, thought to be the last in Scotland to have worked in the steam age. Picture: Wattie Cheung
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THE last train driver in Scotland to have started his career in the steam age has stepped down from his cab for the final time – after 46 years and hundreds of thousands of miles.

Joe Porter only joined the railways because he could not find another job. He planned to stick it for six months, but stayed a lifetime.

Joining as a locomotive cleaner in 1967, he worked as a fireman on steam engines before driving diesel and electric trains, from the Glasgow-London Royal Scot to Royal Mail trains immortalised by the 1936 film Night Mail.

Mr Porter drove his last train on Wednesday when he arrived at Glasgow Central station one minute early with the 8:30am from London Euston, which he had driven from Preston.

The Virgin Trains driver, from Castlemilk in Glasgow, who turns 65 next month, has been based at the Polmadie depot on the city’s southside since he joined the then British Railways.

But he had no interest in trains as a boy and describes trainspotters as “sad”. He said: “I was 18 and couldn’t get a job, so I thought, ‘This will do me for six months’. I had wanted to be a plumber like my big brother.

“It was a stop-gap – and 46 years later I was still here. I liked the job and I liked the people. Railwaymen are clannish.”

Mr Porter’s first role involved the hard graft of cleaning the outside of steam locomotives using paraffin-soaked rags, including scraping clean their dirt-encrusted wheels.

He then clocked up experience as a fireman on Glasgow-Gourock trains, shovelling coal on the footplate, but the last steam engines left the depot four months after he arrived.

“I was glad to see the back of them,” Mr Porter recalls. “Diesel engines don’t need cleaning – they go through the washer.”

He started driving trains in 1975, including passenger and freight services across Scotland.

Mr Porter has worked for Virgin since privatisation in 1997, latterly driving its 125mph tilting Pendolino and Super Voyager trains. This has involved shifts starting as early as 3:30am to drive the first train south from Glasgow an hour later.

Mr Porter also briefly took the controls of one of the current trains’ ill-fated predecessors, the 155mph Advanced Passenger Train, in the 1980s, bringing it into Glasgow Central station from a depot, albeit at 15mph.

The veteran driver has not been involved in any crashes but has endured three people jumping to their deaths in front of his trains. Mr Porter said he could have stayed on beyond 65, but wanted to give others a chance. He said: “I don’t think I should do people out of a job.”

Virgin Trains chief operating officer Chris Gibb, who was Mr Porter’s supervisor at Polmadie in the 1980s, said: “In a career spanning nearly 47 years, Joe really has seen it all: from steam through diesel and electric, from Beeching-inspired decline to our current position of optimism, investment and ambition. I wish him a long, happy and healthy retirement.”