It’s the type of job many youngsters can only dream about.
And now the Watercress Line is searching for three new apprentices – who will learn the skills to keep restored steam locomotives thundering through the Hampshire countryside.
The chosen candidates will learn basic engineering, carpentry, sheet metal work and boiler repairs at the Mid Hants Railway based in Alresford.
Today the heritage steam railway is run by around 45 paid staff and over 500 volunteers, many of whom are in their 60s and 70s.
The railway’s apprentice supervisor Derek Simmonds said: “There are skills which are held by people of an older generation and once they have gone there is nobody trained to carry on and protect those skills.”
“We have a boiler shop foreman who is probably the youngest of only about a dozen with his level of skills in the country and he is 50.”
The apprenticeship scheme pairs youngsters with skilled volunteers who pass on their knowledge. The first four apprentices were all kept on as employees and now the railway is looking to build upon this success.
Former apprentice Matt Oakley, 20, worked for two years in the boiler shop learning skills, such as riveting and welding, as part of the “Mind The Gap” scheme paid for by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Skills For The Future. His previous job was stacking shop shelves after leaving school at 16 with poor GCSE results.
But Matt discovered a talent for traditional engineering crafts, earned a distinction and finished in the top four of his entire year at Farnborough College of Technology where apprentices spend one day a week.
Matt said: “It is heavy work but I enjoy hands-on learning. It is not something you can learn from a book. Some of the skills are transferrable like welding, gas-cutting and forklift driver licence.”
“But I am happy here. It is so different. There is nothing like it, restoring engines to go on the line and maintaining them. I can see myself working here for years to come.”
Andy Netherwood, boiler workshop foreman, added “The apprenticeship scheme is so important to pass on everything I have learned over the past 35 years.”
Former apprentice Alex Luckham, 21, from Portsmouth, trained in sheet metal work and fabrication. The former South Downs College pupil said: “I have always had an interest in steam trains. It should be a hobby really.”
Even on his days off, Alex volunteers as a fireman, riding on the footplate of a steam train with the driver, adding coal and firing the engine.
The new apprentices start work full-time in September and will study for a two-year BTEC qualification in engineering.
The railway runs a fleet of steam and heritage diesel locomotives on a restored 10-mile line between Alresford and Alton. The deadline for applications is July 4.
For details see www.watercressline.co.uk